This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
Cream Of The Crate Reviews 1 to 50 were vinyl album reviews. The following fifty reviews (51 - 100) were originally marked as CD Reviews 1 - 50 and this numbering has been kept to keep consistency with the published CD reviews.
This is number forty three in the series of retro-reviews of Cd albums in my collection.
The series is called, “Cream of The Crate (CD’s)”, and they represent CD albums that I believe are of significant musical value, either because of their rarity, because they represent the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.
The name of the album is Women Of Blue Chicago and is CD featuring eleven tracks and six genuine female blues singers.
It was released on the Delmark label in 1996 and its code is DD690.
Now in case you start to moan, and cry, WTF! only 11 tracks from six artists? – just be aware that the total length of these tracks is approximately 55 minutes and 20 seconds.
That’s value in any terms.
I love this album because not only are they renditions of some great blues standards and of a high quality but, there are so few albums of just female blues singers that this has pride of place in the blues section of my collection.
Now Blue Chicago is in fact a blues club in . . . yup! – Chicago!
It’s located at 536 N Clark St, Chicago. According to their web site, “World-renowned BLUE CHICAGO has been presenting the best in authentic Chicago Blues in a warm and friendly atmosphere since 1985. Located in the heart of the River North entertainment district near popular hotels and restaurants, Chicagoans and Blues fans from all over the world pack the house nightly.
Chicago Blues is an electric style of Blues music that was primarily developed from the migration of African Americans from the South to the Midwest. Throughout the years BLUE CHICAGO has showcased such Blues legends as Koko Taylor, Bonnie Lee, Karen Carroll, the late Willie Kent, Johnny B Moore, Magic Slim, Eddie Clearwater, Eddie Shaw, the late Buddy Scott, and the late Eddie Lusk, just to name a few.
The high-energy performances presented at BLUE CHICAGO the talented artists that grace our stage is an experience never to be forgotten. This great music is an important part of our history and to experience this is to celebrate life itself and the musical tradition they carry on.”
An introduction to Blue Chicago
So to celebrate the great female talent that has been presented at the club, the Cd Women of Blue Chicago was produced.
It seemed appropriate to present one track from each of the women on the album and in doing so, provide a little info on each. However in the case of Shirley Johnson and Lynne Jordan, I chose a track they sing together as it is one of my favorite tracks.
In fact originally sung by Ruth Brown, herself an absolute legend, there is much to say about Brown and the track. However, I am getting ahead of myself.
1. Bonnie Lee – Baby, What You Want Me To Do [4:23]
2. Karen Carroll – Vicksburg Blues [6:24]
3. Shirley Johnson – As The Years Go Passing [5:50]
4. Lynne Jordan – I’m Shakin’ [3:26]
5. Big Time Sarah – The Thrill Is Gone [4:42]
6. Bonnie Lee – Walking Blues [3:50]
7. Karen Carroll – Goin’ Down Slow [7:39]
8. Shirley Johnson – It Hurts Me Too [4:17]
9. Shirley Johnson & Lynne Jordan – If I Can’t Sell It [5:45]
10. Katherine Davis – Wild About That Thing [4:05]
11. Big Time Sarah – Why My Man Won’t Treat Me Right [5:50]
Born in Louisiana in 1931, Bonnie Lee was known as “Sweetheart of the Blues”.
She sang in church and in traveling minstrel shows then moved to Beaumont, Texas, as a young woman. She was a waitress and at night she sat in with bands in clubs around Beaumont.
According to fellow Chicago blues diva Zora Young, she got to know blues legends, including fellow Texan, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and “Big Mama” Thornton, and knowing she needed to express her inner blues soul, she set her sights on moving to Chicago.
In 1967, pianist Sunnyland Slim took her on the road with his band for a few years.
She was having health problems late in the 1970s, when bass player Willie Kent put her in front of his group, however, she regained full health and their professional relationship lasted until Kent died in March.
Over the years, she toured Japan and was part of “Blues with the Girls” tour of Europe in the early ’80s with Zora Young and “Big Time” Sarah Streeter.
A quiet woman offstage, Ms. Lee in 1995 cut an album on the Delmark label titled “Sweetheart of the Blues,” a title that became her calling card.
Her career did not put her into the “diva” division, but for those who heard her sing, she had an undeniable “blues soul” and, it was one she so much wanted to share.
She died on Friday, Sept. 8 2006.
“She was one of the last of her genre, the big-voiced woman blues singer fronting a Chicago band,” said David Whiteis, who interviewed Bonnie Lee for his book, “Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories.”
The track Baby, What You Want Me To Do is indeed a blues classic.
Written the great Jimmy Reed in the late 1950’s, it has been covered everyone from the Everly Brothers, Etta James, Little Richard, Elvis through to John Cale and Neil Young.
I think you would be hard pressed once you got passed the original version, to find better than Bonnie Lee’s interpretation.
You’ve got me runnin’
You’ve got me hidin’
You’ve got me run, hide, hide, run
Anyway you wanna let it roll
Yeah, yeah, yeah
You’ve got me doin’ what you want me
A-baby why you wanna let go
I’m goin’ up
I’m goin’ down
I’m goin’ up, down, down, up
Anyway ya wanna let it roll
Yeah, yeah, yeah
You’ve got me doin’ what you want me
A-baby why’d you wanna let go
You’ve got me peepin’
You’ve got me hidin’
You’ve got me peep, hide, hide, peep
Anyway you wanna let it roll
Yeah, yeah, yeah
You’ve got me doin’ what you want me
So baby why ya wanna let go. (Jimmy Reed)
Baby What You Want Me To Do
Karen Carroll was born January 30, 1958 in Chicago, and, if being born in Chicago wasn’t a good start to a blues career, then having jazz guitarist George Freeman, and blues singer Bonnie Lee as her godparents, certainly didn’t hurt.
Like many other blues singers, Karen started singing in churches at quite a young age and at 14 she appeared with her mother’s band.
Her mother was Jeanne Carroll – a noted jazz singer.
Then later, in 1983, working with Carey Bell, Karen recorded her first song.
During the late 1980’s she toured extensively throughout Canada and played the biggest clubs in Chicago.
In 1995 she cut the two tracks for this album and since then, she gained her own contract with Delmark Records and has continued to tour and work with Chicago artists such as Melvin Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Alvin Lee, Angela Brown and many others.
Little Brother Montgomery originally recorded this track – Vicksburg Blues, back in 1930. Now while I was familiar Montgomery’s track, I was unaware that there were any other versions until I purchased this Cd and heard Karen’s version.
Not unexpectedly it is quite dissimilar to Montgomery’s, but in being different she has certainly put her own stamp on the track and done it with style.
Moving on down the Cd we come to Shirley Johnson.
Yet again Shirley is another example of cutting your musical teeth starting out singing in a church.
Although born in Franklin Virginia in 1949, she is in fact a long time resident of Chicago. Coming from a religious family she started singing gospel and that shows in her vocal style, mind you, that is not meant to indicate any limitations as her style is rich and varied.
Despite facing considerable opposition from her parents as she grew up, she managed to listen to more and more secular black music with a particular liking for James Brown, B.B King and Bob Bland.
When Johnson reached adulthood in the late ’70s, she was free to pursue a career in secular music.
She made her presence felt in Norfolk’s blues and R&B circles and went on to become an opening act for Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler, Z.Z. Hill and a variety of other well-known artists who were passing through town.
Come the early 1980’s she made a couple of singles for a regional label which caught the ears of an up and coming record producer however, she discovered to her dismay, that he didn’t have the money to actually pay for a recording session.
Yet, determined to be a success she hung on and hung out and begun singing in various Chicago blues clubs.
Her amazing voice and stage presence bought her a healthy following.
In the ’90s, Johnson made some recordings for the Appaloosa label, including her 1996 album Looking for Love.
Then, in the early 2000s, she signed with the Chicago-based Delmark, which released Killer Diller in May 2002, following it up with Blues Attack in 2009.
What I have not done is to have chosen a solo track Johnson, but to have used the track she made with the next woman on this Cd – Lynne Jordan
Born on the 18th July 1961, unlike those singers on this album that have proceeded her, she did not commence singing in a church.
In fact Lynne’s first performance was in the title role in a high school production of “Hello, Dolly.
While enjoying the experience she decided to forgo a career singing to take up journalism. She is quoted as saying, “I figured, I don’t want to be poor, I want a real career. I’m going to forget about the singing thing.”
As time went on she worked from time to time as a backup singer, recording with such performers as Tom Waits and Urge Overkill. However despite working regularly she had no desire for a solo career.
It took until 1993 for her to at last accept the inevitable.
Being a denizen of Chicago, she dropped into a local club where a friend, musician Pete Special, was performing. She sat in with his band, The Shivers, for one song and wowed the crowd and as a result was invited back to sing along at a range of dates.
Pete Special then offered to put together material and musicians tailored to Jordan’s stage persona.
However, eventually her friend left the Shivers and Lynne took up the lead singer role and hasn’t looked back.
She has wowed everyone that has sat and listened, and her web site says that on seeing her singing with Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton declared her as being, ”great”!
Her voice is certainly remarkable!
It is highly expressive and as smooth as a well aged wine. But that doesn’t mean she has an “old” voice. Oh no!
This gal can seduce you as easily as belt it out and sit you back on your heels and, she is the youngest performer on this Cd.
I have overlooked her solo track – I’m Shakin’ and chosen for If I Can’t Sell It, which she shares with Shirley Johnson in a duet.
Now this track is a real favourite of mine and I have the version Ruth Brown – and this track really was Brown’s signature tune.
Ruth Brown recorded a very expressive and popular version and it would take a confident person to put up a version that would iinevitably be compared to Browns.
The track can variously be called a “Call To Arms” for Feminists, or simply “Another “Blue” Song. To paraphrase a famous quote – “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”
It is a ripper of a track, and the version both Johnson and Jordan, is a more slightly modernised arrangement of Browns version – but it looses nothing from the original and I am so pleased it’s on this album.
Here are a couple of verses.
If I can’t sell it, I’m gonna sit down on it.
Why should I give it away?
Now darling if you want it,
you got to buy it.
And I mean just what I say.
Now how would you like to find this
waitin at home for you every night.
Only been used once or twice
and it’s still nice and TIGHT!
If I Can’t Sell It
The next woman to pay homage to is Big Time Sarah.
Her real name is Sarah Streeter and she was born in 1953 in Mississippi but raised in Chicago from an early age.
Her first singing experience was as a gospel singer in local churches. However, her childhood was anything but easy as both her parents were alcoholics.
Although under age, her aunt snuck her into South Side blues clubs where she was exposed to a fantastic array of blues styles.
Her first gig was at the tender age of 14 with the famed Aces, who were one of the most influential blues groups in Chicago in the 1950’s, at Morgan’s Liquors on 61st Street.
According to the Chicago Tribune, “Streeter credits several people with helping out early in her career, including guitarist Jimmy Johnson and bassist Johnny Bernard. But the musician who really jump-started her career was legendary pianist Sunnyland Slim, whom her aunt took her to see at the Wise Fools Pub on the North Side in 1976.
After hearing her sing, Slim, then 69, offered to record the 25-year-old Streeter and take her on a six-week tour of California. Later they toured Europe. “Sunnyland was the one person who took a chance on me, stuck to his word and helped me,” she said.””
She has variously been called “raunchy”, “tough” and “uninhibited”.
It’s not unusual during her act to press men’s faces to her ample chest.
Certainly there is a strong element of these descriptions of Big Time Sarah in her delivery of track #11, Why My Man Won’t Treat Me Right.
Why My Man Won’t Treat Me Right
Katherine Davis features on track #10.
She is the final singer featured on this album. Born in 1953 in Chicago, she was destined to sing. She was born with a mother who herself was born into a family of jazz performers and opera singers.
Like her mother she loved to sing and wanted to be a professional vocalist. Her grandfather, Earl Campbell, also provided some music genes, as he performed with Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.
Like many blues singers before her she sang in the church, although she could get down and dirty with the best of them.
At age of 13, she was chastised her church choir director for sounding too “bluesy” and asked to lower her voice.
A big change came when her family moved to the South Side of Chicago in 1967 as it provided ready access to the jazz and blues clubs.
Yet, she ended up studying opera at the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago, but knew in her heart that a classical path was not for her and she began singing gospel with the Reuben Lightfoot Gospel Choral in 1981.
She got her first opportunity to sing jazz and blues in small clubs in and around Chicago in 1982.
However the defining moment that settled her on a jazz career was her appearance in the Kuumba’s Theater’s production of In the House of the Blues during 1984-85.
In this show she portrayed both her childhood heroines, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
Davis toured Europe and came back to Chicago singing in clubs.
Although she has appeared on several albums as a side person, she didn’t record as a solo singer until 2000 when she recorded Dream Shoes.
Currently she performs as a vocalist mainly in Chicago, notably at the following jazz clubs: Andy’s, Joe’s Be-Bop Cafe and the Green Dolphin Street. She is also artist-in-residence in the Chicago Public School System teaching children about the blues.
The choice of the track Wild About That Thing is a perfect choice. It was originally recorded Bessie Smith in 1929 and while the original is strictly a blues based tune, Davis has opted for a blues/jazz feel with her voice is perfectly suited for the track and she belts it out beautifully.
Wild About That Thing
So if you have listened to the tracks provided in this review then I can’t imagine that you can come to any conclusion other than, it is indeed a fine contemporary album, with some very fine female blues singers.
What really makes the album stand out is that although many of these women were singing the blues back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, on this CD we have (relatively) recent recordings as the the tracks were all recorded in the 1990’s.
In my mind, as far as blues singing goes, that’s pretty damn contemporary.
The album is very well produced and the selection of music through the composers gives us an ability, at times, to be able to reflect upon versions sung from as far back as 1929.
The album is not cheap and is being advertised on Ebay for around $28.00.
This album makes a fantastic addition to any blues collection.
There were a good number of video clips of these women singing, available on Youtube, so here are a selection.
Big Time Sarah
Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:
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Click to open the following CD reviews:
#21. 2nu – Ponderous