Review of "Chess Blues Piano Greats" (MCA CHD2-9385).
Wed Jul 23 17:54:27 EDT 1997
This 2-CD set is among the most important of the compilations celebrating the
50th anniversary of Chess Records. Most of the 45 tracks cover the work of
Eddie Boyd and Willie Mabon, Chess stars during the 1950s. A few tracks
feature Otis Spann and Lafayette Leake as lead performers. These works, as a
whole, are not currently available on MCA artist compilations, though
European labels have exported them back to the United States.
Boyd and Mabon had recorded with other labels before coming to Chess in
1951-1952, and Boyd had already scored a hit with "Five Long Years." Both had
their greatest success in the early 1950s despite friction-filled
relationships with Chess Records. Ironically, both, after watching their
domestic careers slump, moved to Europe where they found more support.
Mabon's work showcases his pleasant, slightly nasal voice; his sophisticated,
jazzy piano playing; and his honking-sax-oriented combos. Highlights: Mabon's
reworking of "I Don't Know," its follow-up "I'm Mad;" "Got to Have It," in
which Mabon and saxman Fred Clark play off each other so well; a slow, smoky
cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Late Again;" Paul King's great trumpet solo on
"Willie's Blues;" and a swinging version of Mel London's "Poison Ivy."
Boyd's importance is as a composer, not a singer. His voice is not as
pleasing as Mabon's. On some songs, he sounds dry, if not off-key. The 20
tracks include his two huge Chess hits, "24 Hours" and "Third Degree," as
well as a 1959 remake of his J.O.B. hit, "Five Long Years." "24 Hours" has a
mournful, clockwork beat. 'Little Sax' Crowder plays in the background as
Boyd sings of a day away from his love. "Third Degree," co-written by Boyd
and Willie Dixon, is dark and slow. Crowder's sax is mournful, and Lee
Cooper's guitar fills are stark. Other highlights: Boyd playing over an
uncredited sax player's wailing fills on "I Got the Blues;" the dirge-like
boogie, "I Began to Sing the Blues;" the rocking "Just a Fool;" "Nothing but
Trouble" (Boyd's version of "Look on Yonder Wall"); and the sorrowful "Life
Gets to be a Burden."
Chess Records experimented with using studio ace Otis Spann as a lead
performer in the middle 1950s. Amazingly, they recorded only four tracks,
releasing two as a Checker 45. "It Must Have Been the Devil" is technically
not a great piece, but features George 'Harmonica' Smith on harp. The B side,
"Five Spot," is a rocking instrumental. "I'm Leaving You" and "I'm in Love
with you Baby" are backed by Big Walter Horton and Robert Lockwood. Spann's
voice is soft and drawling.
The remaining three cuts, all great instrumentals, are of Lafayette Leake's
playing. "Slow Leake" is from 1957 and is an easygoing boogie. "Wrinkles" and
"Swiss Boogie" are from a performance with Willie Dixon and Fred Below at the
1972 Montreux Jazz fest. "Wrinkles," weighing in at 9 minutes, is a jazzy
tour de force. "Swiss Boogie" is a rocking boogie, in which Dixon has fun
with a bass solo.
"Chess Blues Piano Greats" is a great album for R&B piano fans and vital to
anyone interested in Boyd's and Mabon's work. The nearly 150 minutes of great
music testifies to the importance of piano blues in the Chess Records' early
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