The other day, in my previous post, I wrote about the very excellent Netflix movie, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
In mentioning how much I liked the film and its music, scored by Branford Marsalis, I said that if there was a soundtrack album, it would be worth a listen.
Well, there is, and it is.
It’s called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It’s available as a CD, mp3 version, or streaming on multiple platforms. It’s on the Milan Records label. Marsalis’ work is simply terrific, capturing the pain and pleasure of Rainey’s music.
If only I had done a little more research, I could have told you then. But I was too excited to tell you how great the film is. So now you know, and you have no excuse not to listen. I’m adding it to my cigar and bourbon rotation, a spot all music aspires to, but very few actually make it..
And, if you pay attention to such things, Happy New Year, 2021. And I take back all my Happy New Years for 2020.
On its sharp, glossy surface, the new Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a story about Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” spending an afternoon in 1927 Chicago trying to get recordings of her music made the way that she wants them to be made.
Roiling just below the surface, however, are the darkly powerful themes of the 1984 August Wilson play on which the movie is based — love, honor, duty, race, relationships, hopes, fears, and, rolling majestically beneath it all, the music of the blues.
And it’s the blues that provide the inspiration for Wilson, one of America’s great playwrights. “What I do – the wellspring of art, or what I do,” Wilson told interviewer Bill Moyers in 1988, “l get from the blues.”
He puts some of those feelings into the words of Ma Rainey in this film. “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” Rainey says. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking.”
The film takes place during an afternoon recording session in a sweltering Chicago studio. Rainey’s band tries to rehearse, but spends more time talking about their lives. Chadwick Boseman is explosive as the temperamental, ambitious Levee, the young trumpet player in the band who wants to form his own band, write his own music, and break out of this life. This was Boseman’s last performance; he died in August.
Viola Davis is excellent as Ma Rainey, the brooding, complicated and very talented blues singer, who arrives late for the session and then battles her white manager and the white producer over what will be recorded and how. The knowledge that all they want from her is her music, with no respect for her as a person, simmers in her soul.
Rainey, who was born Gertrude Pridgett, was one of the earliest commercial blues singers, performing in the early 1900s. She began a very successful recording career in 1923, but followed Mamie Smith, who made the first blues recordings in 1920, including her giant hit, “Crazy Blues.” Rainey even claimed at one point that she coined the term “blues” for the music she sang.
Rainey’s vividly recreated musical numbers, one of which opens the film, are alive with her music. Jazz great Branford Marsalis wrote the musical score for the film, and if there’s a soundtrack album, it would be worth a listen.
The vocals in front of the Marsalis arrangements are rich and gritty, but the only song actually sung by Davis is when she croons “These Dogs of Mine” gently to her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). The rest of Rainey’s vocals are by Maxayn Lewis, a fine singer on her own, and who, interestingly enough, got her start in the 1960s under her birth name, Paulette Parker, as a member of the Ikettes in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
The story of Rainey’s interaction with her manager, and her conflicts with Levee, is tautly drawn, and the resulting tensions keep the film simmering along. The young Levee’s friction with the older band members over his desire to strike out on his own complicates matters even more. Ma’s songs are almost a welcome relief, but these powerful blues only seem accentuate their problems.
Another subplot is Rainey’s relationship with one of the young women dancers in her show, and Levee’s attempt to cut in. Ma’s sexuality was never far from the surface, and although she was married early in her career, hints of her relationships with women, including Bessie Smith, were always present. A song she wrote and performed, “Prove It On Me,” did a lot more than hint.
This is just a great movie, powerful and thoughtful. It was one of a series of Wilson plays that took deep and profound looks at black life and culture. It was the second in a series, and the only one not set in Pittsburgh. This adaptation is sharp and tight — it doesn’t seem like there’s a wasted word anywhere.
This is a great period piece, and even though it’s not based on a real incident, it’s incredibly realistic. The costumes and settings make you feel like you’ve just gotten out of a time machine.
But mainly, it’s an excellent film. Try not to miss it.
Here’s a brief recording of August Wilson talking about the blues and his work:
Since this is the first Christmas holiday season I’ve spent in the Blues Roadhouse, I feel like I need to keep alive a musical holiday tradition that I began years ago with the BlueNotes blog.
So that means I get to share my favorite Christmas song, the YouTube version, which features special animation just for this occasion.
And I also get to offer some holiday libation advice.
I always recommend leaving a little something out for Santa. I find that milk and cookies do little to lift the holiday spirits, so I heartily recommend some bourbon and brownies. And I also recommend not leaving much of them for Santa, if he ever does show up. I’m still waiting.
But maybe you’re a beer person. In that case, I recommend one of the many beers produced specifically with the Christmas season in mind. And since I’m kind of a beer snob, that means a Belgian ale, where they take some of the world’s best beers and offer special holiday versions.
Since one of my favorite Belgians is the darkly delicious St. Bernardus Abt 12, this year I made the brewery’s Christmas Ale my holiday choice. It’s slightly more sprightly than the Abt 12, but still with enough warmth and cheer to accompany some fine Christmas blues.
None of this, of course, means that you are somehow obligated to celebrate the actual Christmas. Enjoy whatever holiday, or day, that you like — enjoy being the key word.
So, a very merry, happy, peaceful version of whatever you want to celebrate.
A short while back, I wrote about three new albums from the blues vaults of the very talented Phoenix harp wizard Bob Corritore. All excellent traditional blues albums. If you haven’t noticed them, please scroll farther down (but not until you’ve finished this part!).
I found out the details recently whilst scanning the interwebs, and came across a story about Corritore and his club in the Arizona Republic (yes, Karen, newspapers still exist, and they are still reliable sources of reliable information).
Corritore is not exactly alone in his plight — musicians and their venues are suffering these hard times mightily during the shutdown era. But when you look at the scope of his activities in Phoenix, he seems like a one-man blues promotion and preservation society. In fact, among other things, he hosts the radio show “Those Lowdown Blues” is the founder of Southwest Musical Arts Foundation, is the editor and main writer of the Bob Corritore Blues Newsletter, a Keeping The Blues Alive award winner, and a Grammy-nominated harmonica player and producer. His album “Bob Corritore & Friends / Harmonica Blues” won a 2011 Blues Music Award, in 2012 Bob received a Living Blues Award in the Harmonica category and in 2019 won a Blues Blast Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for his release “Don’t Let The Devil Ride” (one of my favorites).
The Arizona Republic article talks about Bob’s GoFundMe effort to help keep his shuttered club alive, and it’s worth a read just to get a feel for how the current pandemic climate is affecting the music we love. And, in a fickle twist of fate, the article was written by an old newspaper colleague from my Pittsburgh days, the Republic’s pop music critic, Ed Masley, who also appears to be the man in charge of the band The Breakup Society. Having known Ed just a little, I’m sure the band is worth a listen.
And if you’ve never seen or heard Corritore’s music, here’s a taste of some of his fine down-home blues, with Bob and John Primer performing “I Feel So Good.” Even if you have heard him, this is still worth the viewing.
I mentioned above that Corritore’s club is not alone in its plight. I know there are a lot of similar worthwhile stories out there. And not just for blues clubs and performers. This is not meant to ignore anyone, but to highlight just one situation.
And by the way, the winter solstice arrived today. Just 89 days until spring.
I love all kinds of blues music, but every once in a while it’s good to sit back and bask in the sounds of one artist, or one type of music, and see where it leads.
That’s how I started a while back — in the mood for some soulful music to accompany a contemplative mood and a smooth libation (softly-aged 15-year-old Matusalem rum) — I settled on Johnny Adams, the wonderful, soul-blessed New Orleans singer fondly known as the “Tan Canary.”
Adams was born in New Orleans in 1932, and started singing with the Soul Revivers and Bessie Griffin’s Consolators, but left the fold for the devil’s music in 1959, when he recorded “I Won’t Cry,” for the Ric Records label. The song was written by his songwriter neighbor, Dorothy LaBostrie, who supposedly talked him into recording after hearing him sing in the bathtub. The record was produced by Dr. John (Mac Rebbanack), who would have been about 18 at the time. Certainly an auspicious beginning.
And it didn’t hurt that Adams could sing. He could range over a variety of styles, from soul to jazz to R&B and blues. But no matter what he sang, it was how he sang. His voice could be silky and sultry, his vocals a work of musical art, and his falsetto can still raise the hair on your neck.
I have a couple of Adams albums in my collection — “There Is Always One More Time” and “Man of My Word” — but I wanted to hear more. So I checked my streaming service (Amazon Prime, if you really wanna know, with Alexa as my obedient DJ) and picked a couple of compilations: “The Great Johnny Adams R&B Album” and “The Great Johnny Adams Blues Album.” And because I love the songbook of the great Doc Pomus so much, I threw in “Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me.”
It turned out that it’s all great music, from this fantastic voice. I didn’t really solve any of the world’s problems while I listened, but I sure felt better about myself. (Or maybe it was just the rum!) Songs like “Room With A View of the Blues,” “Release Me,” “Reconsider Me” — all overflowing with the sublime essence of soul music, and the rich sweetness of Adams’ magical voice.
But listening to any music usually sets my mind to wandering off on its own. This was no different. It reminded me that were other soulful crooners named Johnny who had stirred some of my younger teen genes.
The first was a powerful crooner, sort of Johnny Mathis meets doo-wop, or something like that. He was a short-lived but influential — and also very soulful — singer from the early 1950s — Johnny Ace.
Ace, born John Marshall Alexander Jr. in 1929, cut his first record, “My Song,” in 1952. Over the next two years, his music took off, and he had eight hits in a row, including “Cross My Heart”, “Please Forgive Me”, “The Clock”, “Yes, Baby”, “Saving My Love for You” and “Never Let Me Go.”
But his biggest hit, “Pledging My Love,” was released shortly after his untimely and unfortunate death backstage between Christmas day shows in 1954 in Houston, Texas, when he accidentally shot himself in the head while playing with a loaded revolver. Members of Ace’s band said he did this often, sometimes shooting at roadside signs from their car. There were some claims at the time that Ace had been playing Russian roulette, but according to Big Mama Thornton, also part of that holiday concert, he had been playing with the gun but not playing Russian roulette. So that tragedy left us just a little more than two years of his engaging vocals.
I first heard Johnny Ace somewhere in that timeframe, because Pittsburgh’s legendary disc jockey Porky Chedwick (the Daddio of the Raddio) played his records, and if my memory isn’t too faulty, I heard “Pledging My Love” many, many times. It was a very fine tune for very, very slow, almost motionless, dancing. It was probably Ace’s most successful song, and it was later recorded by everyone from Teresa Brewer to Billy Thunderkloud & the Chieftones. My favorite version, after the original, is by Solomon Burke, on his excellent (highly recommended by me), album “Soul of the Blues.”
And yes, I promised a third soulful singer. It’s Johnny Ray, who also rose to popularity in the 1950s for his dramatic onstage shows, featuring his dramatic vocals. Tony Bennett once called him the “father of rock and roll,” but blues fans know better than that!
He hung around much longer that Johnny Ace, but his fame in the U.S. declined in the late ’50s. although he remained popular in the United Kingdom and Australia, and eventually made somewhat of a comeback in the States.
Ray’s big early hits came on the Okeh label in 1952 with songs on both side of his single — “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried,” and his vocal histrionics immediately gave him teen idol status. I’m pretty sure I first heard him on the Porky Chedwick radio show, but I could be wrong, since Ray also made TV appearances during those years.
His career was long and checkered, with high points like working with Judy Garland in Europe, and nightclub work, along with many other recordings.
But I include him here because I was so impressed by his vocal style while I was still a young and impressionable person. Plus his emergence with other early ’50s music that broke the mold, especially for white audiences. I wouldn’t necessarily call it soul music as we think of it now, but it seemed to pour out of Ray with that same kind of passion and intensity.
And maybe that’s all you need to satisfy your soul.
Here are samples of the work of these three great entertainers:
If you’ve made it this far in this long-winded post, congratulations. And consider yourself lucky I didn’t decide to include Johnny Rawls, Johnny Cash, Johnny Rivers, Johnny Mathis or John(ny) Németh.
Harp impresario Bob Corritore has created an oasis for the Chicago blues in the Arizona desert. Well, in the city of Phoenix, which is on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. Close enough.
Bob was born in Chicago, where he first soaked up the blues, but took his talents and interests to Phoenix in 1981, where he now has his own club, The Rhythm Room. And where he has brought dozens of great blues players to perform and record, and where he seems to have an almost unlimited supply of great unreleased music stored away from all those sessions.
And, not incidentally, it’s an oasis that allows the Chicago blues spirit to not only live on, but to thrive. Bob’s specialty seems to be tough, down-home Chicago blues, and they come across with grit and grease in his music.
If you’re familiar with his work, you already know what I mean. If not, you owe it to yourself to check out his music. Bob is a master of the traditional blues harp, and constantly surrounds himself with other great bluesmen. They’ve always got music that’s worth a listen. Check out his catalogue.
Now you can get a chance to hear some of what he’s been doing over the years. Corritore has just released three albums take a look back of some of those fine recorded moments. It’s his “From the Vault Series,” produced by his Southwest Musical Arts Foundation, and found on the VizzTone label.
Dave Riley & Bob Corritore – “Travelin’ the Dirt Road.”
This was an album Corritore released with Mississippi bluesman Dave Riley in 2007, plus two unreleased tracks in this new edition. The two artists complement each other beautifully, and their tough blues on the title track is a great example.
It’s a tough choice, but this is my favorite of the three albums, mainly because I enjoy the soul-churning piano of Henry Gray so much. Gray, who died just last February at the age of 95, had been an annual feature at Corritore’s club since 1996, performing and recording during his visits. These 14 cuts include turns by some greats, including John Brim, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Bob Margolin, Eddie Taylor, Jr. and Tail Dragger.
These are all thoroughly enjoyable albums, filled with some great old-school blues that seems to be getting harder to find these days. And, like Gray, they are filled with some musicians who have left some masterful musical memories. The phrase “real deal” is overused a lot, but it’s a good choice here. This music is the real deal.
Here’s a sample of the kind of music you’ll hear on these sessions: Henry Gray & Bob Corritore “Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest” live @ 2016 Blues Blast Awards.
As much as I enjoy listening to the blues music that I love, I also enjoy reading about it. There’s a rich history of music and musicians available if you’re so inclined. For me, at least, knowing something about the life and times of the musicians make the listening all the more enjoyable.
To that end, I’d like to recommend a book I’m reading, “Looking to Get Lost – Adventures in Music & Writing,” by Peter Guralnick.
Guralnick is one of the great music writers, with biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips to his credit. Check his web site for a list of his books still in print. I read his two-volume set on Presley, and it’s magnificent in its scope and detail.
In his new book, Guralnick revisits the artist profiles he has written over the years, rewriting some, but insisting in the introduction that “this is a book about creativity.”
“All of these people,” he writes, “are to be celebrated for their wit and wisdom, their humanity, and, yes, their genius. And I would like to present them all to you, without ascribing any more to it than I do in the pages of my books, in some cases as friends, in all cases as people I admire, people from whom I have learned, people whose work has deeply moved and influenced me.”
He tackles musicians from Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash to Chuck Berry to Howlin’ Wolf to Ray Charles and beyond. His interviews go far beyond typical one-shot sitdowns. In many cases, Guralnick has spent years getting to know his subjects. We benefit from this thorough, lifelong approach to his work.
And what he does best is bring his subjects to life, make them human, and show us the person behind the music. And that, of course, makes their music even more compelling.
Guralnick doesn’t limit himself to blues and blues musicians, but that was the music that spoke to him:
“When I was around fifteen, too, I fell in love with the blues: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell. I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized it—don’t ask me why.”
The writing is full of stories that are lovingly crafted, interestingly told, and placed in a framework that reflects a great deal of thought about how people think, feel, and make music. The profiles are not music criticism, or reviews of particular recordings or performances.
They are instead insightful portraits, inspired by the artist’s personal life and visions, and skillfully drawn by Guralnick.
They’re also a lot of fun to read. This is a great book for music fans, especially blues fans.
Here’s an interview Guralnick, after he wrote “Sam Phillips – The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,” in 2016.