A while back, I wrote a couple of posts about two documentary films that looked at the history of blues music in Oakland, Calif., a history that helped shape the origins of West Coast blues.
There were two documentary films involved, “Evolutionary Blues” and “Long Train Running,” and they offered some tantalizing looks at some of the artists from this prolific blues era that saw blues music migrate from places like Texas and Louisiana, add some horns and create a sauciness that older Delta and country blues lacked. Those horn sections were what helped birth R&B and jump blues, two extremely joyous, rhythmic and very danceable blues offspring.
That got me thinking (thank you for not smirking) that I needed to find some of this music and give it an extended listen. Also, there were a few names in those films that had me searching to find some of their music. It had been a while since I had heard anything by guitarist Sonny Rhodes, for example. And I wasn’t very familiar with the soulful pipes of singer Freddie Hughes.
The big names were easier. After all, the West Coast scene resonated with greats like T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Johnny Otis, Floyd Dixon, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Big Joe Turner and Esther Phillips (the artist formerly known as Little Esther), to cherry-pick a few of the biggest names. There’s quite a list of artists who migrated to the Left Coast permanently, or who came for a few years, and then moved on. Check out that list, if you’re in the mood, and give them the digital equivalent of a spin.
And I’d like to recommend a few blues bites of these artists for you to chew on, either to refresh your memory or introduce you to some classic music. I’m sure the Google will help you find a lot more, and your favorite online music store or streaming service will help.
One of the first artists I looked up, because he was featured in “Long Train Running,” was Lowell Fulson. I’d recommend starting with a two volume set, “The Complete Chess Masters.” And I would add another great, Jimmy McCracklin.
Another fine talent from those films is guitarist/singer Sonny Rhodes (“I’m what you call a self-proclaimed Disciple of the Blues!”). He was a masterful lap steel player, a fine songwriter, with tough vocals.
Yet another, somewhat lesser known for mysterious reasons, is Freddie Hughes, with soulful pipes that should have brought him greater acclaim.
And of course you shouldn’t overlook the influential Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, whose exciting guitar talents and vocals helped originate both electric blues and jump blues. His music came out of Texas with him, but he took it to Los Angeles, and then to Chicago, and beyond. He’s credited with pioneering electric blues by becoming the first artist to make the electric guitar a solo instrument.
Check out the list of artists already mentioned, and enjoy.
Meanwhile, here are a few clips of some great West Coast blues.
Here’s Lowell Fulson with the classic “Reconsider Baby”
Here’s an audio clip of Sonny Rhodes, with his lap steel in fine form.
Here’s a clip of Johnny Otis in Monterey in 1970, with Esther Phillips and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Vinson wasn’t exactly a California player, but his sensual sax and gritty vocals should have made him an honorary member.