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The Blues That Got Away: The WHAT In Funk?!

Muddy Waters is a man who needs no introduction...but in case you're fairly new to the blues, I'll provide one anyway. Born McKinley Morganfield circa 1915, Muddy Waters is considered by many to be one of the godfathers of the electrified Chicago blues sound that grew out of the acoustic sounds of the Mississippi Delta and later spawned rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll, and many other musical descendants. Muddy wrote and recorded many classic sides for the legendary Chess Record label in the '50s and early '60s, including "Rollin' Stone" (which later lent its name to a British rock band you might have heard of that idolized Muddy Waters), "Mannish Boy", and "I Just Want To Make Love To You". He also enjoyed a late-career comeback in the late '70s with several excellent records produced by Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter (also a huge Muddy Waters fan himself) before Muddy's passing in 1983.

But what happened between Muddy's last chart hits in the late '50s and his comeback in the '70s? Well, he continued to record and tour extensively (even a car accident in 1969 was not enough to completely stop the godfather of Chicago Blues), but his commercial appeal dwindled in the face of rock 'n' roll, the British Invasion, and other trends in popular music (most of which his music, ironically, paved the way for). Meanwhile, Chess Records was sold to General Recorded Tape (GRT) and later All Platinum Records before becoming defunct in 1975. Some say that Muddy's recorded output during this extended commercial lull was a shadow of its former glory and weaker compared to his later Winter-produced recordings. Certainly, his late '60s records Electric Mud and After The Rain, on which he and his band emulated the psychedelic sounds du jour (a la Jimi Hendrix) at the behest of Marshall Chess to gain wider exposure and commercial success, were considered by most blues fans to be an embarrassment and an insult to Muddy's reputation as a blues giant. While a case can certainly be made for the assertion that much of this lesser-known mid-period material lacked the passion and fire of both his earlier and later material, it wasn't for a lack of trying, and indeed there is some excellent Chicago blues material from this era as performed by one of its all-time greatest practitioners. His early '70s records, in particular, showed promise and hinted at his later comeback.

My personal favourite among Muddy's early '70s recordings is Unk In Funk. Released in 1974, it was his penultimate Chess album and featured his touring band, including Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson and "Steady Rollin'" Bob Margolin on guitars, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones on bass, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and harmonica players Carey Bell, George "Mojo" Buford, and Paul Oscher (on different tracks). The overall sound is considerably subdued in texture compared to his classic '50s recordings, especially since it sounds like the majority of the electric instruments were plugged directly into the mixing board via direct input (D.I.), resulting in a cleaner, almost brittle sound, compared to the more common practice of plugging into and mic-ing an amplifier; however, the playing is spirited throughout, and the passion of each of the players and their overall chemistry as a band transcend the quasi-clinical-sounding studio environment.

The album begins with a 9-minute remake of a Muddy Waters classic, "Rollin' and Tumblin'". In fact, it's actually two entire run-throughs of the same song, with Muddy instructing the band to keep playing after the first take ends somewhat chaotically. Interestingly, it's the only song on the album that features Muddy's distinctive slide guitar, but it shows how crucial his guitar playing was to the overall sound and feel of his music. The next song is my favourite track on the album, a remake of "Just To Be With You", which has a slower and slinkier feel compared to the first version that Muddy recorded in the '50s and features Carey Bell's haunting harmonica punctuations throughout (almost sounding like the ghost of a horse whinnying at times!). Other standouts for me include a remake of "Trouble No More" (which has a darker sound, compared to the original '50s recording), "Katie" (written about one of Muddy's then-contemporary girlfriends, and featuring a very crystal-like lead guitar sound from Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson), and "Drive My Blues Away", on which Pinetop Perkins leads the way with his authoritative piano playing and Bob Margolin contributes a solo that seems to channel Robert Johnson but on a '50s Stratocaster. The remainder of the songs are solid, albeit somewhat generic when considered in the context of Muddy Waters' overall outstanding discography. However, the title track is entertaining and amusing, with its boastful lyrics over a slow, grinding Chicago blues track.

Despite some flaws, I still love Unk In Funk and frequently listen to it. That it pales somewhat in comparison to his earlier '50s and later '70s recordings only reflects on the superbly high quality of Muddy's recorded output overall.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Unk In Funk and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues gems as part of the semi-regular segment, "The Blues That Got Away".


New Blues Release Review: Billy Flynn’s Lonesome Highway

Wow! Long time no write. I need to make up for lost time, so let me start by reviewing a fairly new release called Lonesome HIghway by Billy Flynn, released on Delmark Records.

Billy Flynn is a Chicago blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter. He got his start at the young age of 14, after he was seen playing the guitar by Chicago blues legend Jimmy Dawkins. Dawkins befriended and mentored the young Flynn, and the latter joined Dawkin's band in the second half of the ‘70s. Since then, Flynn has gone on to become a guitarist’s guitarist, performing with countless blues artists over the years including Billy Boy Arnold, Big Bill Morganfield, Mad Dog Lester Davenport, and more. In fact, Flynn played guitar on Beyoncé Knowles’ cover of the Etta James classic, “At Last”, which not only won a Grammy award but also was performed at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in 2009. Harp legend Kim Wilson probably says it best in the CD’s liner notes: “Billy Flynn is one of the greatest blues guitarists alive and one of the greatest to ever live.”

To say that I was eagerly anticipating this release since it was announced by Delmark Records is an understatement. I have been a huge fan of Flynn’s session work with other artists, both in the studio and live. In fact, I first became aware of Flynn’s impressive work when I saw him perform with Billy Boy Arnold at the Chicago Blues Festival some years back. He provides both solid rhythm guitar and subtle yet effective lead guitar work in such settings. That being said, I wondered how Flynn would fare in a solo recording. Often, session musicians who are as versatile as Flynn might struggle to establish a unique identity of their own on their solo recordings. If you could play virtually any style of music, which one would you focus on with on your own album?  Or would you include a little bit of everything, at the risk of seeming like a jack of all trades but a master of none? Though Flynn has previously released independent solo recordings, the small bits that I had heard of them over the years were solid yet not particularly distinctive. Also, noticing the length of the album, I wondered if there would be any filler included among the album’s 17 tracks. 

Luckily, my concerns were all for naught. Flynn takes full command and shines on every single track on the CD, whether he is driving the song with his rhythm guitar work, moanin’ and groanin’ with the best of ‘em on slide guitar, or delivering stinging, slashing lead guitar lines. Though I would not categorize him as a flashy, “shred-tastic” guitarist, he can blow the house down with his understated yet deliciously satisfying guitar work. His vocals are not particularly distinctive, mind you, but he still can convey a lot of emotion with his singing. The album’s stock-in-trade is traditional Chicago blues, but true to his versatile abilities, Flynn also incorporates elements of old school rock ’n’ roll (a la the late great Chuck Berry) on the opener “Good Navigator”, funk/R&B on “The Lucky Kind” and “I Feel ‘Um”, and even ‘60s surf/instrumental music on the album’s lone cover, “The ‘In’ Crowd”. Similarly, his guitar playing evokes Albert King on “Sufferin’ With The Blues”, B.B. King on “Christmas Blues”, Earl Hooker on "Jackson Street", and Otis Rush on “The Lucky Kind”, among others, but always with his own unique twist or stamp. Although the album indeed has 17 tracks, after listening to it once through, I wanted more and started wondering when Flynn is going to make another great record like this one. Thankfully, he has given us quite a lot of great blues on this disc to tide us over until he (hopefully) makes another!

Highlights on this record for me include “The Lucky Kind”, which is an quasi-Latin-influenced, cowbell-driven blues reminiscent of Otis Rush’s classic ‘50s recordings for Cobra Records; “You Are My Lover”, which marries an uptempo classic Chicago blues sound with double-tracked vocals that are interestingly evocative of the Beach Boys; “I Feel ‘Um”, a moody minor-key funk-infused ballad that I am sure Isaac Hayes and Grover Washington Jr. would have been proud of; “Blues Express”, an instrumental that was the theme song for one of Flynn’s bands of the same name and has a horn section that captures the spirit of '60s cop show theme music; and “Sufferin’ With The Blues”, a slow blues that features Flynn channeling the spirit of the aforementioned Albert King. Really, all of the songs can be considered gems in their own ways — I honestly cannot think of any track on this CD that I did not enjoy!

In addition to his own guitar and voice, Flynn also provided some harmonica and percussion work throughout the CD. He is joined by vocalist and friend Deitra Farr on “Good Navigator” and “Hold On”. The rest of the band provides supple accompaniment, including Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards, E.G. McDaniel on bass, Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums, Doug Corcoran on trumpet, Christopher Neal on tenor sax, and Dave Katzman, who provides rhythm guitar on “The Lucky Kind”. 

Though it is still a bit early to tell, Flynn’s Lonesome Highway is definitely a contender for the honour of Señor Blues Album of the Year for 2017. I recommend it highly and wholeheartedly. Thank you, Mr. Flynn, for the wonderful music!