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Gentle Giant of the Keyboards: The Piano Blues of Big Maceo, Hr 2
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April 17, 2014 07:52 AM PDT
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A (very) quick plea for help!!!

Do we have any listeners in the Salisbury, MD area? WSDL 90.7 FM (Delmarva Public Radio) is considering adopting Blues Unlimited to their weekly line up! Any input from our loyal fans would help! If you live in the area and regularly tune into 90.7 FM, please consider firing off a brief, one or two line email to them. Thanks!!! Their website address is: http://publicradiodelmarva.net

Join us for a tribute to keyboard legend Big Maceo Merriweather. Although his recorded legacy is not all that large, he left an indelible mark in the city of Chicago, leading the way for others, such as Johnny Jones and Otis Spann, to follow in his wake. A tribute to the gentle giant of the piano, Big Maceo, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: Big Maceo, unknown date.

Gentle Giant of the Keyboards: The Piano Blues of Big Maceo, Hr 1
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April 17, 2014 07:23 AM PDT
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With just 20 different 78s to his credit, recorded over the course of a decade, some might say that Big Maceo didn’t leave much behind in the way of a legacy. But what he did leave helped shape the future course of the blues in Chicago, and made an indelible impact on the world of piano.

It wasn’t until he was 36 — in the summer of 1941 — that he made his first recordings, having been born in Georgia, in 1905. One of 11 children, he was born in the town of Newnan, just to the south and west of Atlanta. At first the family farmed, but when he was a teenager, they moved closer to the city, where legend has it he first developed an interest in the piano. Not long afterwards, he moved to Detroit, following the trail of other family members who’d since moved there, looking for better work and a higher standard of living. If Maceo belonged to any piano tradition in Atlanta, it’s been forever lost to the misty fog of history, as it was a city known for guitar players, not piano technicians. Only 19 when he arrived in the Motor City, he would go on to “cut his teeth” at nightclubs, house parties, and barrelhouses in Detroit. By the time he arrived in Chicago, in 1941, he was a seasoned veteran.

Tampa Red, who acted as a talent scout and liaison for Lester Melrose — the de facto studio boss in Chicago during the 1930s and ‘40s — would help Maceo secure his first recording date. “Worried Life Blues,” based upon an old Sleepy John Estes composition, was the first tune committed to wax right out of the starting gate. Although it could rightly be regarded as one of the true universal classics of the blues, in a rather curious move, Bluebird held back on releasing it, saving it for his third 78 — if only to prove, once again, that record company executives don’t always “get it.”

Unfortunately, one of the songs Big Maceo recorded, “Tuff Luck Blues,” might very well be viewed as prophetic. With his recording career just getting underway, the pause button came down in a big way on August 1st, 1942, when the Petrillo Recording Ban started (allegedly over concerns about royalty payments to union musicians ). Fortunately, Maceo had cut a few sides just days before, but the overall effect was deleterious. He wouldn’t be back in a recording studio until February 1945, taking work as a railroad porter to make ends meet in the intervening years.

1945 saw Maceo blooming, however. Instead of just recording with Tampa Red, as he had in 1941 and 1942, he cut sessions with Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and Jazz Gillum. His records, usually thoughtful and somewhat introspective, had more of rhythmic drive to them, bolstered by his left-hand bass work on the piano — something that came easily to Maceo, who was a natural southpaw.

In October 1945, he cut his “magnum opus,” an instrumental of such drive, passion, and keyboard wizardry, that almost all words to describe it seem inadequate. “Chicago Breakdown” was his shining moment of glory, the sum total of his powers; and with its storming right hand and intricately pounding bass runs — said to be a piece that only someone who was naturally left-handed could accomplish.

Unfortunately, Maceo would never again duplicate the magic that he achieved on “Chicago Breakdown.” Sometime during the summer of 1946, he suffered a stroke, which paralyzed him on his right side. Never again would he play with the authority he once did, in spite of several heartbreaking attempts.

Reports about his life are at once murky and somewhat contradictory, but through them, a picture emerges of a man who loved his drink, was plagued with ill health, and seemingly burned his candle at both ends when the opportunity presented itself. As his older brother Roy recounted to blues historian Mike Rowe (who named his definitive history of Chicago blues after the Big Maceo instrumental):

“They call him from New Orleans, ‘Be here tomorrow night...’ I don’t care what time of night it was, he’d get out of the bed and they pick him up in a car and take him down to New Orleans. They let him play all day and night too and then again. Let him lay down and rest awhile. Right back to Dayton or Detroit again and that’s how he had his stroke, on account of he didn’t rest enough.”

In the end, it seems, the fast-paced life of a musician simply overtook him. A final session for RCA Victor was held in 1947, with Eddie Boyd on piano. In spite of the fact that his smoky, understated vocals were as strong as ever, it just wasn’t the same, and he was dropped from the label. Another studio date came about in 1949 thanks to Art Rupe of Specialty, but again, we have Johnny Jones — perhaps his star pupil — on the keyboards instead. A year later more recordings were held, with husband and wife team John and Grace Brim, for the Fortune label. Although the effort was commendable, with James Watkins taking over the right hand piano work and Maceo handling the left, it made for a rather sad epitaph. One final session for Mercury, in early 1952 — still unissued all these years later — would be his last time in a recording studio. A little over a year later, this gentle giant of the keyboards would be forever silenced — just a month shy of his 48th birthday.

While his legacy might not be all that extensive, perhaps leaving us with an unfulfilled wish for there to be just a little bit more for us to enjoy, in the end, it was enough. Enough to bridge the gap from the work of earlier keyboard icons such as Leroy Carr and Walter Davis, and to pave the way for others, such as Johnny Jones and Otis Spann, who followed in his wake.

Special thanks to Mike Rowe, whose research proved crucial in piecing together Big Maceo's story.

Pictured: The King of Chicago Blues Piano, Big Maceo. Photo courtesy of Blues Unlimited magazine #106, Feb/March 1974.

Live and On Stage: Blues Classics from the 1960s, Hr 2
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April 09, 2014 10:34 AM PDT
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Join us as we explore some of the very best live blues performances of all time — B.B. King at the Regal, Muddy Waters at Newport, Robert Nighthawk on Maxwell Street, Magic Sam at Ann Arbor, and more. The blues, quite simply, doesn't get much better than this.

Pictured: A still shot of Robert Nighthawk, taken from Mike Shea's legendary 'slice of life' documentary, "And This Is Free."

Live and On Stage: Blues Classics from the 1960s, Hr 1
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April 09, 2014 10:03 AM PDT
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A Special Word of Thanks to all of our listeners!!!

Our fund raiser, by any measure, was a huge and overwhelming success! We realize how tired everyone must've gotten from all the intrusions and hearing about the periodic updates.... but.... just wanted to say one last time how thrilled we are about the huge outpouring of love for this radio show. We're honored, humbled and touched by it all.... thank you, thank you, thank you.... a million thank you's!!! By any measure, it's been a huge overwhelming success.... And we're also pleased to say.... stay tuned for a great year ahead of more great blues. Keep listenin'.... and as always, we thank you!

From Chicago's opulent Regal Theatre, to an intimate coffee house in New York City, to the back alley ways of the legendary Maxwell Street market, and onto live festival stages at Newport and Ann Arbor, the blues — captured live in performance, anyway — doesn't get much better than this. Here, then, are a few recordings from the 1960s that frequently get picked by fans and critics alike as "the best live blues recordings of all time," and just for fun, we've thrown in a few personal favorites as well. Classics from B.B. King ("Live at the Regal"); Robert Nighthawk ("And This Is Maxwell Street"); John Lee Hooker ("Live at the Cafe Au Go-Go"); Magic Sam (Live at Ann Arbor); Muddy Waters ("At Newport"), and more.

The Pride of Houston: Lightnin' Hopkins & Bill Quinn's Legendary Gold Star Records, Hr 2
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April 01, 2014 07:55 AM PDT
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WE'RE DOWN TO THE LAST FEW HOURS OF OUR FUND RAISER!!! If you haven't done so already, please consider a donation to help us make it over the top! As always, a BIG, HUGE THANKS to all of those who have already been so generous! And we thank you!!! http://fundrazr.com/campaigns/ahUC2/ab/61tVL2

Join us as we aim the spotlight on Bill Quinn’s legendary Gold Star record label. Founded in Houston in the late 1940s, he recorded some of the cream of the crop of Texas postwar country blues, including Thunder Smith, L.C. Williams, Lil' Son Jackson, and — our man of the hour — Lightnin' Hopkins.

Pictured: Bill Quinn at Gold Star Studios, 1960. Photo by Chris Strachwitz.

The Pride of Houston: Lightnin' Hopkins & Bill Quinn's Legendary Gold Star Records, Hr 1
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April 01, 2014 07:27 AM PDT
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WE'RE IN THE FINAL DAYS OF OUR FUND RAISER!!! If you haven't done so already, it's time for all of our great, loyal, and dedicated fans to step up to the plate and knock this one out of the ballpark! As always, a BIG, HUGE THANKS to all of those who have already done just that!!! http://fundrazr.com/campaigns/ahUC2/ab/61tVL2

Shortly before the start of World War II, a man from Massachusetts and his small family, on their way to Florida for the winter, detoured over to Houston for a visit with his wife’s sister. When they rolled into town, the axle on their car broke, and — as fate would have it for blues history — decided just to stay where they were.

The man turned out to be Bill Quinn, born 1903, with a background in electronics and experience working as a sound man for a carnival show. In Houston, he started repairing radios, and as another twist of fate would have it, everything changed one day when a customer brought in a disc-recording machine that needed repair. Quinn became fascinated with the concept, and purchased one for himself. Short afterwards, The Quinn Recording Company was born, late in 1941. At first, he did custom recordings and commercial jingles for radio stations, but soon ventured into the record business, with the short-lived Gulf label. Once again, everything changed a couple years later, in 1946, when he released a 78 entitled “Jole Blon” by a gifted Cajun fiddler, Harry Choates. It struck a nerve with the record-buying public and became a huge hit on the Billboard charts.

At the time Quinn entered the record business, however, the manufacture of phonograph records was a closely guarded secret by the major companies. It was something he had to largely figure out for himself, which took a lot of trial and error. Cutting directly to fragile acetate discs, the master would be placed into a tank for processing, where it was subjected to electrolysis and undergo metal plating. Once accomplished, the acetate could be peeled away and discarded, with the metal “master” leaving an exact reverse copy of the original. Using the master, a “mother” disc could now be made, and from the mother disc, finally, we get the stampers — which are used to press the actual record. It’s an elaborate, intensive process with a lot of steps that can go wrong. Quinn admits that many of the fragile acetate masters never materialized out of his homemade processing tank — and with no backup of any kind (audio tape was not in widespread use at the time) — the recording was simply lost forever.

The year after Gold Star hit big with Harry Choates, in 1947, Quinn started in recording blues, with Lightnin’ Hopkins quickly becoming his other biggest seller. During the years between 1946 and 1950, Lightnin’ was laying down the framework for what would become one of the most celebrated careers in the blues, recording for both Aladdin and Gold Star. At first, he was spotted by a talent scout and shipped off to Los Angeles for his 1946 studio debut, but was soon back in Houston, apparently cutting a 78 for Bill Quinn anytime he needed an extra $75.

Overall, Lightnin’ made up almost a third of the total blues-related output on Gold Star — which numbered to some 60 or 61 different 78s depending upon who’s counting. But by 1952, Bill Quinn had simply had enough. With Lightnin’ recording for anyone who had the cash, the government breathing down his neck seeking to collect excise taxes on his record pressings, plus the untimely deaths of his big star, Harry Choates, and his first wife, Lona, to cancer — he folded up Gold Star and called it a day. “Jackstropper Blues” by Lightnin’ Hopkins would become the last 78 to be issued using the distinctive yellow and red label design of Gold Star records, complete with its now legendary description emblazoned across the middle: “King of the Hillbillies.”

Fortunately, Bill Quinn kept his studio open for business, and went on to record artists like George Jones, The Big Bopper, Freddy Fender, and Doug Sahm, among others. Today — after a number of different permutations and name changes over the years — it remains the oldest continually operating recording studio in the Southeastern United States.

The legacy of Bill Quinn, however, won’t be forgotten anytime soon. The down home material he recorded for Gold Star will forever remain a high-water mark of postwar Texas Country Blues.

Rockin' on Down in Harlem - Bobby Robinson's Happy House of Hits, Hr 2
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March 24, 2014 08:22 AM PDT
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THANK YOU TO ALL WHO HAVE DONATED SO FAR! We would like to get our fund raiser wrapped up in the next couple of weeks, but still have a ways to go! Please consider a modest donation today so that we can go back to doing what we do best.... making more great episodes of Blues Unlimited. And we thank you!!! http://fundrazr.com/campaigns/ahUC2/ab/61tVL2

Join us as we aim the spotlight on independent record producer, Bobby Robinson. Not only could he lay claim to a legendary series of labels — such as Fire, Fury, Enjoy and Red Robin — but had an equally impressive string of number one hits. A tribute to late, great Bobby Robinson, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: Bobby Robinson, "back in the day."

Rockin' on Down in Harlem - Bobby Robinson's Happy House of Hits, Hr 1
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March 24, 2014 08:01 AM PDT
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THANK YOU TO ALL WHO HAVE DONATED SO FAR! We would like to get our fund raiser wrapped up in the next couple of weeks, but still have a ways to go! Please consider a modest donation today so that we can go back to doing what we do best.... making more great episodes of Blues Unlimited. And we thank you!!! http://fundrazr.com/campaigns/ahUC2/ab/61tVL2

Join us as we aim the spotlight on Harlem's legendary independent record producer, Bobby Robinson. Not only could he lay claim to a prized series of labels — such as Fire, Fury, Enjoy and Red Robin — but could also boast of an equally impressive string of number one hits from such musicians as Wilbert Harrison, King Curtis, Buster Brown, Lee Dorsey, and more. In addition, recordings by such icons as Lightnin' Hopkins, Elmore James and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup also became high water marks of their later careers. Originally, he got his start in the music business back in 1946, with his now-famous record shop, conveniently located just a few steps away from the hallowed ground of the Apollo Theater for over 60 years. A tribute to late, great Bobby Robinson, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Lowdown Backwoods Harmonica Jam, Hr 2
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March 16, 2014 08:11 AM PDT
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THANK YOU TO ALL WHO HAVE DONATED SO FAR! Unfortunately, our fund raiser has gotten stuck in 2nd gear. Please consider a modest donation today so that we can "get 'er done" and get this wrapped up, and back to doing what we do best.... making more great episodes of Blues Unlimited. And we thank you!!! http://fundrazr.com/campaigns/ahUC2/ab/61tVL2

We've taken a whole great gob of our favorite down home country blues harmonica blowers, and lined them up for one incredible episode we're calling a "Lowdown Backwoods Harmonica Jam." Music from Papa Lightfoot, Sam Myers, Buster Brown, Johnny Woods, Whispering Smith, and more.

Pictured: Country Blues Harmonica Legend, Papa Lightfoot.

Lowdown Backwoods Harmonica Jam, Hr 1
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March 16, 2014 07:43 AM PDT
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THANK YOU TO ALL WHO HAVE DONATED SO FAR! Unfortunately, our fund raiser has gotten stuck in 2nd gear. Please consider a modest donation today so that we can "get 'er done" and get this wrapped up, and back to doing what we do best.... making more great episodes of Blues Unlimited. And we thank you!!! http://fundrazr.com/campaigns/ahUC2/ab/61tVL2

We've taken a whole great gob of our favorite down home country blues harmonica blowers, and lined them up for one incredible episode we're calling a "Lowdown Backwoods Harmonica Jam." Music from Papa Lightfoot, Sam Myers, Buster Brown, Johnny Woods, Whispering Smith, and more.

Photo of Johnny Woods courtesy of the Center for Southern Folklore Archives. Photographer unknown.

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