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This Week on Blues Unlimited - George Barnes & the Early Electric Guitar Heroes (Hour 2)
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April 25, 2016 08:21 AM PDT
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One of the first people to use an electric guitar on a blues record was a 16 year-old kid from the suburbs of Chicago. The incredible true story of George Barnes, and the early heroes of electric guitar, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: George Barnes, in his early days.

This episode is also available in a high quality digital download from Bandcamp at: http://tinyurl.com/zzdja4b

This Week on Blues Unlimited - George Barnes & the Early Electric Guitar Heroes (Hour 1)
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April 25, 2016 08:13 AM PDT
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It's almost like something from a rejected plot line for another sequel to “Back To The Future,” or some other time-traveling Hollywood flop: a 16 year old kid from the suburbs of Chicago, admiring Django Rheinhardt, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmy Noone, grows up in a musical family, makes his recording debut at the age of 15, and then returns to the studio 18 months later, in March 1938, to lay down some of the first electric guitar licks on wax — behind a group of seasoned Blues veterans — who, by the end of the day, can be heard exhorting him to "Pick it, Mister Man!" during almost every one of his solos.

Incredibly, this isn't from a Hollywood script or a cheesy "movie of the week" TV special. It's the unlikely true story of George Barnes, a musical prodigy born in the suburbs of Chicago in July 1921, who claimed he was playing an electric guitar at the age of 10, had joined the musicians union when he was 12, and had formed his own quartet at the ripe old age of 14. Although his main influence was clarinet blower Jimmy Noone, who had, interestingly enough, started on guitar as a kid, it was blues legend Lonnie Johnson who apparently took him under his wing and showed him a few pointers. But even early on, young George had some ideas of his own, stating that he didn't want to sit in the back of the bandstand and play rhythm, he wanted to play lead. And an opportunity to make records with some blues legends, in the spring and summer of 1938, was the perfect vehicle for proving he could do just that.

His first recordings with an electric guitar — at least as far as we know, anyway — came behind Big Bill Broonzy on March 1, 1938. Accompanying him that day was someone with whom he would become fast friends, Chicago keyboard man Blind John Davis (it very well could have been Davis who lined him up for the gig — at this point, we really don't know). In a recent turn of events, the Chicago musicians union had just opened their doors a little wider, making room for Blues and Jazz musicians to join. Big Bill, in typical fashion, apparently saw no reason to rush over and enlist, and as a result, had to put his guitar aside on this session date, becoming just a vocalist for the occasion (oddly enough, singers were not required to be a member of the union; only musicians were).

Just about two weeks later, on March 14th, 1938, George had a big day in the studio, first playing behind Washboard Sam, then Jazz Gillum, and lastly, singer Lorraine Walton. It's fascinating to hear things progress, as George, at first, limits himself to some rather tasteful solos behind Washboard Sam, only to warm up tremendously by the time Gillum and Walton stepped up to the microphone. It must have made for an unlikely sight in the studio that day — Gillum, who at times could rifle off some truly bone-chilling lyrics, and by all accounts had the demeanor of a crusty, seasoned blues veteran, and George Barnes — a kid from the suburbs, still four months shy of his 17th birthday. Nonetheless, they shared a few inspired moments together, with George playing some meandering runs throughout, as well as taking multiple solos, all encouraged by an enthusiastic Gillum, who throws some top notch harmonica blowing into the mix. By the time Lorraine Walton took her turn, probably a nightclub singer who was spotted by Chicago music boss Lester Melrose or one of his talent scouts, Blind John Davis and his younger guitar-playing buddy were in fine form, with excited responses from Walton encouraging them on.

It's not too surprising then, that Barnes got called back for further Blues sessions in 1938. By the time 1939 rolled around, however, he had mostly moved on. Signing with NBC radio in Chicago, he became the youngest music conductor and arranger they'd ever had. Not only was the pay decent enough, but the environment — compared to the smoky bars he was used to playing in — much better for a 17 year old kid.

After being drafted for service in World War II, Barnes returned home and resumed his prolific musical career. By his own estimation, he recorded scores of albums, and participated in hundreds, if not thousands, of recording sessions. While we can’t be too sure about the reliability of those numbers, all we can say, is that before his death at the age of 56 in 1977, he secured for himself a unique place in blues history — as one of the first people to record with an electric guitar. Not too bad for a teenage kid from the suburbs of Chicago.

P.S.: As for some of the other musicians who were noted for being early adopters of the electric guitar on their blues records, be sure to look for a special segment towards the end of the first hour.

Special thanks to Scott Dirks, and also especially to Dave Penny for help and invaluable assistance with this episode.

Pictured: George Barnes, in his early days.

This episode is also available in a high quality digital download from Bandcamp at: http://tinyurl.com/zyau7ah

Friday’s Rare Vinyl - “Santa Fe”
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April 22, 2016 09:47 AM PDT
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Baby Boy Warren, vo/g - Boogie Woogie Red, p - Calvin Frazier, g - Washboard Willie, wbd - Recorded early 1954, probably Chicago, IL. Originally released as Blue Lake single 106. Courtesy of the collection of Bill Greensmith.

Baby Boy Warren was without a doubt one of the great songwriters to come out of Detroit. With a small, but fascinating catalog — it all neatly fits onto the space of just one compact disc — he tends to be overlooked by the much more prolific John Lee Hooker. Then again, you could probably say that just about every other blues musician in Detroit falls under that category as well.

Unlike some of his fellow Motor City colleagues, who came up from Mississippi, Warren hailed from the river town of Lake Providence, Louisiana, just a rock’s throw from the southern end of the Mississippi Delta, where he was born in 1919. By the time he was 30, he was living in Detroit, and making his first recordings.

Unfortunately, Warren’s record-making activities only lasted for about 5 years, recording sporadically for a number of tiny, local labels. Although the Excello label, a major independent at the time, reissued one of his singles — featuring the great Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica — there was not enough momentum to keep his career going. Instead, he followed a path that so many other fine blues musicians have been forced to go down — working a day job (in this case, at General Motors), to pay the bills.

Fortunately, however, Warren was not forgotten. Flash forward almost 20 years, and the early ’70s would find him touring Europe, and also playing at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Fest — a most welcome postscript to an otherwise all-too-short career.

Today’s entry comes from one of his last vintage recording sessions. Blue Lake was a label owned and operated by Chicago impresario Al Benson, a sister imprint of Parrot, which released some fine down home blues. Whether or not “Santa Fe” was recorded in Chicago or Detroit remains the subject of some degree of speculation. While the Motor City seems like an obvious locale, the experts at the Red Saunders Research Foundation lean towards the Windy City. No matter the case, it’s still a top-notch offering from one of the finest musicians and songwriters to work in Detroit.

For more great blues just like this, be sure to catch Blues Unlimited #170 - Motor City Blues Masters of the 1940s & '50s, now available as a high-quality digital download from bandcamp at http://tinyurl.com/zph46tq

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Legends of Bluesville, Part 2: Texas & the Gulf Coast (Hour 2)
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April 18, 2016 10:02 AM PDT
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Join us for part two of the "Legends of Bluesville." This time around, we’ll aim the spotlight on Texas and the Gulf Coast, with music from Snooks Eaglin, Robert Pete Williams, Smoky Babe, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. It's the legends of Bluesville Records, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: The grand old man of Texas Country Blues, Lightnin' Hopkins. His LPs for Bluesville made up almost a tenth of the label's output.

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Legends of Bluesville, Part 2: Texas & the Gulf Coast (Hour 1)
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April 18, 2016 09:55 AM PDT
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Join us for part two of the "Legends of Bluesville." This time around, we’ll aim the spotlight on Texas and the Gulf Coast, with music from Snooks Eaglin, Robert Pete Williams, Smoky Babe, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. It's the legends of Bluesville Records, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: Another standout from the Bluesville catalog, "Free Again" by Robert Pete Williams.

Friday’s Rare Vinyl - “21 Below Zero”
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April 15, 2016 08:37 AM PDT
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Arthur "Big Boy" Spires, vo/g - Johnny Young, g - Recorded October 9th, 1965 - Chicago, IL. Originally recorded by Pete Welding, and released on the LP, “Blues Scene USA, Vol. 4 - Mississippi Blues.”

We were digging through our library the other day when we stumbled upon this little gem, quite overlooked, and for some reason, as yet unplayed. When we heard it, we knew it had to be featured for this week’s installment of “Friday’s Rare Vinyl.”

Arthur “Big Boy” Spires was another great — and unheralded — Chicago blues guitarist who cut a couple of vintage 78s during the postwar heyday. A compelling vocalist with a knack for brooding and dramatic lyrics, his recorded legacy basically boils down to just two 78s — one he cut for Checker in 1952 (one of the first issues on the label, a subsidiary imprint of Chess), and another he cut for Chance Records, some ten months later, in January 1953.

On the same day he recorded for Chance, he backed up Uncle Johnny Williams, but nothing came of it (Williams was another legendary figure in the annals of Chicago blues, who became a preacher at some point after his session for Chance, and lived to the ripe old age of 99). A final session, sometime in the mid 1950s, for a financially troubled United Records also yielded nothing.

Flash forward ten years later, and we find one more session, this time held by Pete Welding, for his newly formed Testament Records. Backed up by guitarist Johnny Young, the recordings were never issued on Testament — with this one lone track winding up on an anthology from the Storyville label. According to one rumor we’ve heard, the other titles recorded that day have since gone missing.

Although the scant recorded legacy of artists like Big Boy Spires can be a frustrating thing at times — leaving us to wish for there to be a little bit more — he left his indelible mark on the history of Chicago Blues nonetheless.

Spires died in Chicago at the age of 78, in 1990. Incidentally, his son, Bud Spires, remained in Mississippi, playing harmonica with the great Jack Owens. He recently recorded with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, for the Broke & Hungry label.

To hear some classic down home blues from Arthur Sprires, be sure to check out Blues Unlimited #185 - Chance Records Down Home Blues at http://tinyurl.com/jqfmmsp

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Blues from Ann Arbor, '72 (and '69) (Hour 2)
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April 11, 2016 08:18 AM PDT
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The Festival at Ann Arbor originally started in 1969 at the University of Michigan, and was held just two weeks before another legendary outdoor concert got its start in upstate New York -- a little gathering of some 500,000 people you might’ve heard about called Woodstock. And while Woodstock has since gone into the history books as one of the greatest rock festivals of all time, in strictly blues terms, the 1969 Ann Arbor festival saw a gathering of talent that has been virtually unmatched to this very day.

Making a small profit and hailed as an artistic success, another festival was scheduled for 1970, but it lost money, due to a competing festival nearby. After going dark in 1971, the festival was revived -- with an expanded line up that included jazz icons like Miles Davis -- and was fortunately recorded by Atlantic Records, with a double LP set being issued the following year. And while a handful of cuts off of that LP were reissued on CD over the years, some of them (such as Otis Rush's blazing performance on "Gambler's Blues") remain maddeningly hard to find.

As for legendary, it's pretty hard to top Magic Sam, live at Ann Arbor, 1969. Most blues fans would probably agree that his set at Ann Arbor is one of the top live blues performances of all time. As for a young blues fan named Amy O'Neal who was in the crowd to witness it all happen (she's known as Amy van Singel these days), Magic Sam live at Ann Arbor was one of the best she's ever heard, before or since.

While the music at the 1972 festival was professionally recorded, in 1969, due to a technical snafu, recordings were made with a handheld cassette tape recorder out in the field. Years later, the tapes of Magic Sam were placed in the hands of Delmark Records, who subsequently released them on the critically acclaimed "Magic Sam Live." Needless to say, it's considered essential blues listening.

So catch the spirit of the times with these heady performances from Ann Arbor, 1972, and Magic Sam's blistering performance from Ann Arbor, 1969 -- that is, just in case you weren't there to catch it the first time around.

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Blues from Ann Arbor, '72 (and '69) (Hour 1)
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April 11, 2016 08:07 AM PDT
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If you were one of the folks who attended Ann Arbor during the festival's heyday years between 1969 and 1974, then you should thank your lucky stars. If not, then you can join us for rare, great, and classic selections from the '72 fest, and also a few highlights from Magic Sam's legendary set from 1969. Blues from Ann Arbor, on this episode of Blues Unlimited.

Pictured: The late, great Magic Sam.

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Go Down Ol' Hannah: Blues, Gospel & Worksongs from the Texas State Prison Farms (Hour 2)
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April 04, 2016 10:02 AM PDT
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On this moving and unforgettable episode of Blues Unlimited, we’re going on a journey back in time — to hear the haunting, timeless worksongs of men who endured a hellish existence while laboring under the brutal Texas sun. We'll hear field recordings from 1951, collected by Pete Seeger and company; some of the very last recordings made in Texas, by Bruce Jackson in the mid 1960s; and some of the very first prison recordings, made by John and Alan Lomax, in the 1930s.

This episode is also available for purchase in a high quality digital download from Bandcamp: http://tinyurl.com/jeujq4d

Photo by Bruce Jackson, Ramsey Prison Farm in Texas, 1964.

To see the half-hour film, "Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison” - http://www.folkstreams.net/film,122

To see more photos by Bruce Jackson - http://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/05/01/prison-plantations#.pkptDm06E

Previously on Blues Unlimited - Go Down Ol' Hannah: Blues, Gospel & Worksongs from the Texas State Prison Farms (Hour 1)
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April 04, 2016 09:40 AM PDT
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On this moving and unforgettable episode of Blues Unlimited, we’re going on a journey back in time — to hear the haunting, timeless worksongs of men who endured a hellish existence while laboring under the brutal Texas sun. We'll hear field recordings from 1951, collected by Pete Seeger and company; some of the very last recordings made in Texas, by Bruce Jackson in the mid 1960s; and some of the very first prison recordings, made by John and Alan Lomax, in the 1930s.

This episode is also available for purchase in a high quality digital download from Bandcamp: http://tinyurl.com/jqsv8fu

Photo by Bruce Jackson, Ramsey Prison Farm in Texas, 1964.

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