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Monday, January 31, 2011

Amos Milburn: Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie Woogie


CD I: 1) After Midnite; 2) My Baby's Boogying; 3) Down The Road Apiece; 4) Amos' Blues; 5) Amos' Boogie; 6) Operation Blues; 7) Cinch Blues; 8) Everything I Do Is Wrong; 9) Blues At Sundown; 10) Money Hustlin' Woman; 11) Sad And Blue; 12) Mean Woman; 13) Aladdin Boogie; 14) Nickel Plated Baby; 15) Real Gone; 16) Rainy Wea­ther Blues; 17) Train Whistle Blues; 18) Train Time Blues; 19) Bye Bye Boogie; 20) Pot Luck Boogie; 21) It's A Mar­ried Woman; 22) My Tortured Mind; CD II: 1) Hold Me Baby; 2) Chicken Shack Boogie; 3) Hard Driving Blues; 4) I'm Gonna Leave You; 5) Pool-Playing Blues; 6) Rocky Road Blues (take 1); 7) Rocky Road Blues (take 2); 8) Lonesome For The Blues; 9) Slow Down Blues; 10) Anybody's Blues; 11) It Took A Long, Long Time; 12) Wolf On The River; 13) Frank's Blues; 14) Empty Arms Blues; 15) A&M Blues; 16) Won't You Kinda Think It Over; 17) Jitterbug Fashion Parade; 18) My Luck Is Bound To Change; 19) Roomin' House Boogie; 20) Walkin' Blues; 21) Blue And Lonesome; 22) Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby; CD III: 1) Drifting Blues; 2) Untitled Boogie; 3) Melting Blues; 4) Boogie Woogie; 5) Atomic Baby; 6) Sax Shack Boogie; 7) Birmingham Bounce; 8) Let's Rock A While; 9) Hard Luck Blues; 10) Two Years Of Torture; 11) Bad Bad Whiskey; 12) Tears, Tears, Tears; 13) Put Something In My Hand; 14) Trouble In Mind; 15) Flying Home; 16) Let Me Go Home, Whiskey; 17) Please Mr. Johnson; 18) Let's Have A Party; 19) One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer; 20) Good, Good Whiskey; 21) After Awhile; 22) I Guess I'll Go.

Jump blues is an all but completely forgotten genre these days, having miserably fallen through the cracks — too primitive and formulaic for jazz fans, too wimpy for rock'n'rollers; the fact that the best of the «jumpers» managed to create a unique vibe of sorts, partially borrowed, but also partially wiped out by rock'n'roll, is not enough to make people remember names like Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris — only the fact that Elvis covered both the former ('Shake, Rattle & Roll') and the latter ('Good Rockin' Tonight') is.

Unfortunately, Elvis did not cover Amos Milburn (Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker did, but their reputation, even pooled, is still no match for the King), and his current popularity amounts to little more than a footnote. Injustice a-plenty: unlike Big Joe and Wynonie, great powerhouse belters whose talents, nevertheless, can be fully assessed by sampling three or four of their best recordings, Milburn was one of the very few jump blues performers whose main talent lay in the playing — simply put, he was one of the most accomplished pianists of his epoch. Naturally, it makes no sense to compare him to the likes of demi-gods like Art Tatum, as he was way more li­mited in scope and technique by the very nature of the popular entertainment genre. But as far as that genre went, Milburn can honestly be said to have explored every nook and cranny.

For those totally unfamiliar with the man, let's just say that his sound was a direct influence on Fats Domino, as well as Chuck Berry's Johnnie Johnson — some of the piano runs on 'Down The Road Apiece' made it directly on to Chuck's version, and from there, became distributed between Keith Richards and Ian Stewart on the Stones' version — and on Jerry Lee Lewis. The latter, cer­tainly, banged on his keys with way more reckless abandon than Amos could ever allow himself, but lagged far behind in terms of technique and inventiveness. In all, Milburn probably was to the piano, during the late 1940s, much the same as T-Bone Walker was to the electric guitar: the in­ventor of a new language, one that would take firm hold a decade later, and then go on living without a good memory of its own forefather.

The completest way to get acknowledged with Milburn's legacy is through the five- or six-vo­lume Chronological Classics series that attempts to collect all of his recordings for the Aladdin label from 1946 to 1957, although I believe the label only got as far as 1953 before going bank­rupt, and some of these volumes are already notoriously hard to get at a normal price. There was also a limited-time-issue boxset of 7 CDs, The Complete Aladdin Recordings, which, last time I checked it out, went for $425 on Amazon, and sky's the limit. But, of course, these buys are for the nutty ones; regular guys like us can find perfect satisfaction in smaller collections, since, like every respectable performer from that time period, Amos was never above recording the exact same tune over and over and over again.

Blues, Barrelhouse & Boogie-Woogie is a currently out-of-print, but still findable, 3-CD compi­lation of what somebody thought to be the best and most representative tracks of Milburn's top recording years. It does not have all the big hits — like the dusky ballad 'Bewildered', for ins­tance, which can be found on additional smaller compilations — but it does have around 95% of them, along with lots of lesser B-sides and, so I gather, a bunch of stuff from the vaults as well. The tracks are more or less arranged in chronological order of recording, and the sound quality is as fine as one could demand from the era; no need to turn on the «Forced Ignorance of Cracks and Hisses» switch in the back of your mind.

Listening to these recordings on a track-by-track basis clearly establishes that Milburn's best stuff was recorded around 1946-48, when the major attraction was Amos himself: his unexceptional, but nice singing voice, and his exceptional, if formula-limited, piano playing. As time went by, he started relying more on his backing bands: a lot of electric guitar and brass soloing eventually pu­shes the piano out of focus, which is too bad, since the electric guitar is not T-Bone Walker level and the brass ain't no Tympany Five. Also, the rate of boogie-woogie to slow blues gradually de­creases throughout the years, especially after Milburn fell upon the winning formula of the «drin­king shuf­fle» with 'Bad, Bad Whiskey' in 1950 — a formula that subdued and charmed black drinkers all across the States, but did not obligatorily surmise fast rhythms or flashy playing.

In those early years, though, Milburn was magic, as evidenced already on 'After Midnite' that opens the album. Generic slow-moving 12-bar blues? Sure. For that matter, Chuck Berry's 'In The Wee Wee Ho­urs' is the exact same song. But Johnnie Johnson was just a supporting player on that tune, his ivories buried deep in the background; Milburn, who came earlier, pushes them up front, and accompanies each of the generic sung bars with a different improvised run. He is a good master of «sonic painting» — listen to how the line "the blues is falling, just like drops of rain" is immediately followed by piano-generated drops of rain ('Rainy Weather Blues') — and an even better mathematician-as-musician: the long instrumental workout on 'Down The Road Api­ece' is a prime example of melodic calculation, with amazingly elegant, symmetric constructions materializing from under his fingers in an endless sequence (as I already hinted at, this «engine­ering» approach was well understood and respected by both Berry and Richards on their respec­tive versions — actually, listening to all three versions in a row makes it clear that Keith must have been inspired by the original as well).

Stuff like 'Amos' Boogie' is «rock'n'roll in all but name», as they say, and a lot more ass-kicking than much of the stuff that bears that name just because it happened to come out later. Even if Milburn was not the only accomplished boogie player around town at the time, there are still few, if any, other places where you can hear such a distilled sound. Meade Lux Lewis, perhaps, or Pete Johnson, but the former did not record all that much, and the latter always got overshadowed by whoever he was accompanying. This here is pristine stuff.

The material on the two later-period discs is not as consistently exciting, yet there are still clas­sic R'n'B hits out there that are well worth getting to know: the humorous 'Chicken Shack Boogie', its equally humorous remake as 'Sax Shack Boogie', and, of course, out of all the innumerable drin­king songs — 'One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer', which most people know as that John Lee Hooker classic, but the song was just as relevant to Milburn.

Still, it is worth repeating that it is possible to play the sixty-six tracks on here in a row without going mad, which is much more than could be said about most of Milburn's competition during those years. Like everybody else, he was churning these recordings out like newspapers, without giving any serious thought to «individuality» or «innovation» — it's just the old 45s going out of print and the new ones replacing them. But, being stuck in the role of a commercial entertainer, he could still have the mindset of a freedom-riding improviser, and as similar as all these tunes are, only a very select few repeat each other note-for-note. (Granted, this may not hold for his en­tire output — we probably owe a big thank you to those responsible for the selection). If that is not enough to freeze the man in whatever Hall of Fame is willing to contain him, I don't know what is. Thumbs up, of course.

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