Category Archives: Blues

I’LL STAY OUTSIDE AND WAIT FOR YOU

Hubert Sumlin photographed at the Union Chapel, London in 2003. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Hubert Sumlin (November 16, 1931 – December 4, 2011)

Today I bring you two Howlin’ Wolf tracks featuring the dynamic guitar work of the recently deceased Hubert Sumlin. Born near Greenwood, Mississippi on November 16, 1931, Sumlin grew up in Hughes, Arkansas. Besides having one of the most pleasant faces I’ve ever seen on a man, he was one of the most sensitive guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Sumlin should be celebrated as a true American artist. As The Wolf would moan like a man gone insane with lust and too much whiskey, Sumlin’s guitar could pierce through the trance with a sudden and ascending ribbon of sweet, angular notes, suspend it on the edge, before it all plunged down to a percussive, hip-shaking scratch rhythm with the precision of a metronome. The contact point between flesh and steel strings, being a finger-picking guitarist, created much of his distinct sound. He had used a pick until Howlin’ Wolf fired him one day, telling him to go home and practice without one. Returning to work (he always returned) he decided to settle in with the new tone this direct contact afforded him (Redley, 2011).

Hubert Sumlin & Howlin' Wolf at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, England (1964)

Alongside Howlin’ Wolf and his fellow musicians, Sumlin was inventing the future while simultaneously granting the listener a glimpse into something ancient and strange. With a flick of the wrist he could raise horror to joy, or intimate just what a man would drag himself through for a taste of a woman; and Howlin’ Wolf’s music was all about that lascivious hunt. Although technically his boss (and Wolf was certainly a “boss,” taking money out of each man’s pay for social security) their relationship was more complex than your typical paradigm of employer/employee: “It was ‘The Wolf’ who knocked my front teeth out when I told him I was going to tour with Muddy Waters” (Redley, 2011). “We were like Father and son, although we had some tremendous fights. He knocked my teeth out, and I knocked his out. None of it mattered; we always got right back together” (Friskics-Warren, 2011). Despite (or perhaps because of) all this, Sumlin played guitar for Howlin’ Wolf’s band from 1954 to 1976, when Wolf’s died from complications of kidney disease at the age of 65.

As for Chester Arthur “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett himself, not enough could be said about the man, so for the sake of brevity I’ll quote Sam Phillips (the first to record him, and who later went on to “discover” Elvis Presley) who said in regards to Howlin’ Wolf’s music: “This is where the soul of man never dies” (Gates, 2004).

Hubert Sumlin performs with Howlin' Wolf in 1971. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

First up is perhaps one of Sumlin’s finest recorded performances: The Willie Dixon penned “Hidden Charms.” Recorded August 14, 1963 in Chicago, the track features Howlin’ Wolf on vocals; J.T. Brown on tenor sax; Donald Hankins on bass; Lafayette Leake on piano; Hubert Sumlin on guitar; Jerome Arnold or Buddy Guy on bass; and Sam Lay on drums.

Like it? Buy it.

On another note, after I graduate my wife would like to move upstate to pursue a more rural life; this song pretty sums up all my sentiments on that matter:

Like it? Buy it.

Another Willie Dixon number (although, and not to take anything away from the man, I believe Dixon was considered more of a lyricist, and perhaps Wolf deserves more of a composition credit) this riot of affection is titled “Little Baby” and was recorded May, 1961 in Chicago, featuring Howlin’ Wolf on vocals; Johnny Jones on piano; Jimmy Rogers & Hubert Sumlin on guitars; Willie Dixon on bass; and Sam Lay on drums.

And lastly, to truly begin understanding where this music is supposed to tickle you, watch the whole sweaty, money waving show below from 1966, featuring Howlin’ Wolf on harmonica &vocals; Hubert Sumlin on guitar; Andrew McMahon on bass; Sam Jones on sax, S.P. Leary on drums; and an inebriated Son House “conducting.”

Ref:

Dixon, W. Little Baby [recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, 5/61]. On Howlin’ Wolf  (“The Rockin’ Chair album”) [CD] Chess. (1962/1990)

Dixon, W. Hidden Charms [recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, 8/14/63]. On Howlin’ Wolf: The Real Folk Blues [CD] Chess. (1965/2002)

Friskics-Warren, B. (2011). Hubert Sumlin, Master of Blues Guitar, Dies at 80. The New York Times. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/06/arts/music/hubert-sumlin- master-of-blues-guitar-dies-at-80.html?_r=1

Gates, D. (2004). Delta Force. The New York Times. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/13/books/delta-force.html

Redley, S. (2011). Hubert Sumlin R.I.P November 16, 1931. Blues & Soul. 1049 Retrieved Dec. 22, 2011 from http://www.bluesandsoul.com/news_item/586/hubert_sumlin_rip_november_16_1931__december_4_2011/

Yumgui (Poster) (2009, Dec.23). Howlin’ Wolf – 1966 – How Many More Years – The Newport Folk Festival [Video] Retrieved Dec. 22, 2011 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2Iw5aEI3JE

JUST DON’T FEEL WELCOME HERE NO MORE

August 7, 1970 rehearsal

Elvis was a hero to most

But he never meant shit to me you see

Straight up racist that sucker was

Simple and plain

Mother fuck him and John Wayne

(“Fight The Power” by Public Enemy, on 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet).

Not only are the above lyric revisionist malarkey (albeit malarkey within an incredibly well-constructed song—with The Bomb Squad’s dense, intricate layers of loops upon loops, and Chuck D’s relentless delivery) but also they stem from the resentment that lies in a false belief that Elvis Presley owes something to somebody.

Perhaps it is difficult, looking back from here on our modern perch, to realize that Elvis did not emerge from the factory floor, fully equipped with “Karate Chop! Power Action” and packaged with a set of poor colored-folks songs that were market-tested to go over like hot cakes with the sterile white youth.

Elvis was some strange, new strain of American; he was something that America had been searching for. He was a creature of self-invention as well, who had the imagination to view himself as something other than white trash on welfare, and had the ambition to see his delusions come true. That is what I feel is the essential element to Elvis Presley’s best work: the Fantastic.

Without imagination mankind would be a hollow thing—robbed of its aspirations and the confidence with which to pursue them. There must always remain a tinge of the fantastic in our minds in order for mankind to rise above its self-perceived dull life. Without this fundamental component where would Herman Melville be, other than just another sailor looking for work?

Besides all the metaphysics and philosophy: Elvis could sing these songs better than anyone else—wet with wisdom and amusement from the guts—and to the ears’ of America’s children it felt just like sex.

So in retort to Chuck D—in reality, how many peoples’ heroes have appeared on stamps? Furthermore, how many people even have heroes to be commemorated anymore? But Chuck D does tend to make a good argument, and at the very least makes a man think. As he once said, “Words are your artillery” (Edwards, 2010). Public Enemy is certainly a phenomenal group that should be required listening in public schools, particularly in an age where the content of most hip hop has more corporate endorsements than a racecar’s hood. Anyway, more on Public Enemy come January 16th.

Now, to return to the miasma of race, authenticity, the fantastic, and Elvis (and at this point in my life I have grown so bored by race discussions that I wouldn’t even bother unless I thought there was a good story in it) I’d like to post something written by Greil Marcus. Marcus (1975) writes in Mystery Train (probably the last time I’ll be quoting from this book for awhile as I had to return it to the library):

“—but for Elvis, the blues was a style of freedom, something he couldn’t get in his own home, full of roles to play and rules to break. In the beginning the blues was more than anything else a fantasy, an epic of struggle and pleasure, that he lived out as he sang. Not a fantasy that went beneath the surface of his life, but one that soared right over it.

Singing in the fifties, before blacks began to guard their culture with the jealousy it deserved, Elvis had no guilty dues to pay. Arthur Crudup complained his songs made a white man famous, and he had a right to complain, but mostly because he never got his royalties. Elvis sang “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” (one of his first sides for RCA, and the only one in the Sun rockabilly style) with more power, verve, and skill than Crudup did; his early records were more than popular with blacks; but still the implication, always there when Crudup or Willie Mae Thornton (who made the first version of “Hound Dog”) looked out at the white world that gave them only obscurity in exchange for their music and penned them off from getting anything for themselves, is that Elvis would have been nothing without them, that he climbed to fame on their backs. It is probably time to say that this is nonsense; the mysteries of black and white in American music are just not that simple. Consider the tale of “Hound Dog.”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were Jewish boys from the East Coast who fell in love with black music. Hustling in Los Angeles in the early fifties, they wrote “Hound Dog,” and promoted the song to Johnny Otis, a ruling R&B bandleader who was actually a dark-skinned white man from Berkeley who many thought was black. Otis gave the song to Thornton, who made it a number one R&B hit in 1953; Otis also took part of the compser’s credit, which Leiber and Stoller had to fight to get back. Elvis heard the record, changed the song completely, from the tempo to the words, and cut Thornton’s version to shreds.

Whites wrote it; a white made it a hit. And yet there is no denying that “Hound Dog” is a “black” song, unthinkable outside of the impulses of black music, and probably a rewrite of an old piece of juke joint fury that dated far beyond the birth of any of these people. Can you pull justice out of that maze? What does Huck owe Jim, especially when Jim is really Huck in blackface and everyone smells loot? All you can say is this was Elvis’s music because he made it his own” (p. 154-55).

Stranger In My Own Home Town – Elvis Presley (Demo July 24, ’70)   — — — Click to Listen

The track I bring you today is Elvis Presley’s run-through of Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger In My Own Home Town.” Percy Mayfield was the remarkably gifted songwriter behind “Hit the Road Jack,” which Ray Charles made a hit in October of 1961.

Here is Elvis at RCA Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, on July 24, 1970, rehearsing for his upcoming Las Vegas concerts at the International Hotel. Elvis really drags his vocal through the mud of America on this one. Contained in the same breath there’s a languid playfulness and straightforward emotional anguish, each in equal measure. This is what it sounds like when the Lord of Mischief resigns himself to being a truck driver. You can see how the sentiments for this song might’ve been particularly relevant for him, as he truly could never return home again without being seen as some Freak Show King. This demo features Ronnie Tutt keeping rhythm and some great guitar licks & freak-outs from James Burton that border on Phil Upchurch’s psychedelic-funk style in certain places.

Despite what one can say about his descending into B-movie parody in the mid-sixties, or ending as a swollen song-and-dance-man swaddled in rhinestones and Lycra, this hillbilly from a two-room shotgun house loved music. To some extent, you must see that the goose that lays the golden eggs must be maintained complacent with prescription pills and antibiotics if you want to continue to sell product; and that is in a sense what I believe happened to the man in the end.

Here’s how Elvis put this song down on tape more than a year prior on February 17, 1969 at American Sound Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, while recording the album From Elvis in Memphis. This up-tempo, orchestrated stage version features some sick electric sitar by Reggie Young.

Ref:

D, C., Sadler, E., Shocklee, H., & Shocklee K., (1989) Fight the Power [recorded by Public Enemy]. On Fear of a Black Planet [CD] Def Jam/Columbia. (1990)

Edwards, P. (2010). Chuck D: How To Rap. HipHopDX. Retrieved Dec. 20th, 2011 from http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/interviews/id.1557/title.chuck-d-how-to-rap

Marcus, G. (1975). Mystery train (4TH ed.). New York: Penguin.

Mayfield, P. Stranger In My Own Home Town [recorded by Elvis Presley 7/24/70]. On Cut Me & I Bleed [CD] RCA Victor. (1999)

That Bad Man, Cruel Staggolee

An All-American Myth—and he’s a mean one.

Here is an icon—an archetype— that men have both celebrated and reviled in song, and have attempted to emulate ever since that bad night in 1895. On Christmas Eve in North St. Louis, “Stag” Lee Shelton shot down Billy Lyons in The Bill Curtis Saloon—or was it the night of the 27th in The Bucket Of Blood, or in The White Elephant

— It was only 1 of 5 similar murders that day in St. Louis—

“The song spreads like a game of Chinese Whispers across the South as musicians hear it and play it back from memory with their own embellishments. The Stag Lee of the song is hung for the murder, sent off with an elaborate funeral, kicks the Devil from his throne and takes over Hell. Reality slipped away and the myth was created.” (Redhead Production, n.d.).

“At least one version of the song was sung as early as 1895 and written or recorded versions began showing up by 1910” (Dodson, 2003).

As cultural critic and historian Greil Marcus (1975) writes:

Somewhere, sometime, a murder took place: a man called Stack-a-lee—or Stacker Lee, Stagolee, or Staggerlee—shot a man called Billy Lyons—or Billy the Lion, or Billy the Liar. It is a story that       black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out, like whites with their Westerns. Locked in the images of a thousand versions of the tale is an archetype that speaks to the fantasies of casual violence and violent sex, lust and hatred, ease and mastery, a fantasy of style and steppin’ high. At a deeper level it is a fantasy of no-limits for a people who live within a labyrinth of limits every day of their lives, and who can transgress them only among themselves. It is both a portrait of that tough and vital character that everyone would like to be, and just another pointless, tawdry dance of death. (1975, p.66)

That there pretty much sums up the seed behind every braggadocio hip hop & gangsta rap album I’ve ever heard.

The version below of this classic tale comes from Los Angeles band Pacific Gas & Electric, off their 3rd album, 1970’s Are You Ready.

I really dig the shuffle and swagger on this one, and the hints of dust in vocalist Charlie Allen’s voice. (I’m not even going to discuss the cover art).

————————–(CLICK TO LISTEN)

Like it? Buy it.

“what does the song say exactly? it says no man gains immortality thru public acclaim. truth is shadowy. in the pre-postindustrial age, victims of violence were allowed (in fact it was their duty) to be judges over their offenders—parents were punished for their children’s crimes (we’ve come a long way since then) the song says that a man’s hat is his crown. futurologists would insist it’s a matter of taste. they say ‘let’s sleep on it’ but theyre already living in the sanitarium. No Rights Without Duty is the name of the game & fame is a trick. playing for time is only horsing around. Stack’s in a cell, no wall phone. he is not some egotistical degraded existentialist dionysian idiot, neither does he represent any alternative lifestyle scam (give me a thousand acres of tractable land & all the gang members that exist & you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one) Billy didn’t have an insurance plan, didn’t get airsick yet his ghost is more real & genuine than all the dead souls on the boob tube — a monumental epic of blunder & misunderstanding. a romance tale without the cupidity” (Dylan, 1993).

Ref:

Dodson, A. P. (2003). A Song With a Story of Its Own: Scholar Cecil Brown’s search for the oft-sung exploits of Stagolee underscores the indelible power of our oral culture. Black Issues Book Review. 5(4), 60-61. Retrieved Dec. 18th, 2011 from Academic Search Complete

Dylan, B. (1993). About the songs. In World Gone Wrong (p. 2-3) [CD liner notes]. Columbia Records

Marcus, G. (1975). Mystery train (4TH ed.). New York: Penguin.

McCulloch, D., & Hendrix, S. (1996). Stagger Lee (Illus.). Image Comics

Redhead Production. (n.d.) History. Stagger Lee. Retrieved Dec. 18th, 2011 from http://www.staggerlee.com/pgs/history3.php

Traditional. (n.d.). Staggolee [recorded by Pacific Gas And Electric]. On Are You Ready [CD] Yellow Label / SPV. (1970)