For our second post, let’s stay about as close to J.B. Hutto’ s style of music as we can get. Hound Dog Taylor played Elmore James influenced electric slide guitar roughly contemporary with Hutto (Taylor was born ten years or more earlier, in Natchez, Mississippi, and died in 1975), playing in the same Chicago clubs that Hutto was in. Both did almost solely 12 bar blues, and both covered Elmore extensively. Both recorded with similar instrumentation and backing, and after Taylor died, Hutto hired his long time backing band. Whereas Hutto recorded lots of sides in the 50s and 60s and achieved some regional popularity as a recording artist, Taylor recorded very little (none of it released at the time) before being signed to the brand new label, Alligator, by Bruce Iglauer, in the early 70s. Hound Dog’s band was the House Rockers, and Alligator’s motto was “Genuine Houserockin’ Music.” Alligator would go on to record some marginal talent whose blues pedigree was suspect (and some very fine stuff, let me be clear), but Hound Dog, their first artist, was the real thing. Still, like Hutto, Hound Dog was known best for his wild, loud live shows, and achieved quite a following in Chicago.
Choosing an artist so very similar to Hutto allows us to illustrate a fundamental point about the blues. Blues, unlike, say, jazz, is essentially about finding your own personal voice within a fairly rigid harmonic (typically 12 bar) structure. Jazz allows for playing with the harmonic structure, and the other elements of the music, much more than does the blues. So a blues artist has to find his own “voice” on his instrument (there are, alas, only a handful of blues women who are known for playing an instrument) within that structure. (I do not mean to imply that jazz is devoid of this, only that jazz is typically more expansive in many structural ways.) Taylor and Hutto start from the same major influence (Elmore), choose from the same blues palette, and end up sounding very different. You could no more confuse the two, after some close listening, than you could confuse Picasso and Matisse.
Listen to Hound Dog’s take on Elmore’s Dust My Broom; same song, but very different from Hutto’ s cover. It’s full of raw power, lacking the piercing high-pitched, swooping single note lines of Hutto. His singing is laid back where Hutto’ s is effusive; completely different styles, but each completely original in execution. Each defines a unique and compelling voice within the rigid 12 bar structure.
Throughout these posts, I’m going to be making some critical remarks about most (not all) contemporary blues. One sometimes criticizes people with my perspective as being overly “purist,” but I don’t mind at all someone finding an interesting new direction for the blues that isn’t pure. Two examples are Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Black Keys. Love them both. I have two basic points to make in response. First, there are some pretty good contemporary guitar players, but no one has anything like the vocal quality of these (for the most part) black men from the South. Too many times, contemporary blues singers sound shrill, or weak, or else just try to affect an unnatural growl, like Howlin’ Wolf’s. As if. We all hear different things in the music, and there is room for reasonable dispute here, but I think it’s important to understand why many blues aficionados find most contemporary blues so uninteresting. (I hereby reserve the right to develop this theme in this series.)
Secondly, over this series of posts, I am going to play for you a vast range of approaches to the blues guitar style (we’ll look at harmonica and piano, too). For the most part, all these styles are dead. Gone, extinct. As Monte Python said of the infamous parrot, these styles are no more, they’ve passed on, they’ve gone to meet their maker. With very few exceptions, no one plays anything like the lines that Hutto did, or that Taylor did, and those are just two examples. Blues guitar in the hands of…I will refrain from naming them, but I could list about 5 off the top of my head here…has become just one generic sound. Just like there used to be a diversity of food crops, thousands of unique varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, corn, etc., and now there are at most two varieties that fill supermarkets across the country, there used to be hundreds of “heirloom” guitar styles; now there are very few. I’m not saying I want someone to sound like Luther Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, or Lonnie Johnson, but couldn’t they at least sound like they’ve ever heard them? Influences! The blues guitar players I will play for you took from a rich variety of their predecessors, combining them to create a unique personal vision. I just don’t hear that in contemporary music that is often categorized as blues. It’s so homogeneous.
Another song closely associated with Elmore James is It Hurts Me Too. Again, Taylor’s playing isn’t characterized by the big swooping, diving, screaming note patterns that Hutto uses. It’s much more direct, straight ahead, and I was going to say powerful, but Hutto is powerful in his own way, too. Let’s just say Taylor derives his power from a seemingly different source altogether. In this song, you can experience the power of two of the great accompanists in the history of the blues, guitarist/bass player Brewer Phillips and drummer Ted Harvey. It was Phillips and Harvey who backed Hutto after Hound Dog died. (I was lucky enough to see Phillips and Harvey backing Junior Wells in the mid-90s.)
What do you say about See Me in the Evening? Just raw power. The Phillips/Harvey rhythm section is like a freight train, albeit one that can stop and start on a dime. This is a much simpler, rawer slide style than Hutto’s, but so compelling.
Finally, I leave you with one of my all-time favorite performances in the blues. From the same live album as Dust My Broom, Beware of the Dog, Freddie’s Blues is an example of what I call “2 am music.” This is not going to rock you. This is going to get inside your soul and eat at you from the inside. If at all possible, listen to this on the best sound system you can, as loud as you can, and in the dark. At the beginning, Hound Dog yells out, “I got it!” someone in the audience says, “What you got?” “The blues, man.” This song is about as sparse as it gets—the most that’s going on here is Phillips’s incessant impromptu comments on the lyrics in the background (“My momma told me about it! My momma told me about it!” Hound Dog sings, “Sometimes I get mad, and she just walks up and holds my hand. Sometimes I be, I be burnt up, and she just walks up and holds my hand, and she says, do you know, darlin’, you’re my loving man.” Of all the evil, mean, two-timing women in the blues, and all the mean, cheatin’, no good men sung about in the blues, this is a pure and elegant expression of loving compassion.
Wow. I got ‘em, too, now, Hound Dog. Oh, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Hound Dog had 6 fingers on his fretting hand. I have it on good authority that the sixth digit, a kind of extra pinky, wasn’t functional. See for yourself!
After listening to these two great Chicago-style electric slide guitar players, I hope you can hear just how much fun they were having leading bands in front of dedicated fans in their adopted home town. These are consummate musicians and band leaders—not virtuosos on their instruments by far, but accomplished, dedicated to achieving a sound they heard in their heads, and they are having a ball. (The idea of being a virtuoso is a European concept/ideal in music, and it isn’t much found in the African based conception. More on this later.)
I wanted to begin the series with something I think most of you will find very contemporary, familiar, easy to listen to. I mean there would be no George Thorogood, or Foghat, without these guys. In the next several posts, I want to take you back to the 1920s and 30s, to the root of it all, Mississippi. This will be more of a challenge to listen to. I think I can guarantee that it will be worth it if you give it a chance.