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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Homesick James - "gone home"

(I only found out about this today - guess I haven't been reading the Blues news enough lately)

Chicago blues legend Homesick James passed away Wednesday, December 13, at
11:15pm. He was in his mid-90s, but his own accounts of his age would vary.
He passed away resting comfortably in his home in Springfield, Missouri.
Funeral arrangements will be made by his family, and the funeral will take
place on Saturday, December 23 in Covington, Tennessee
from: Who's Who Chicago -

"One of the last of the generation that came from
the Delta in the mid-40s and invented electric Chicago blues, John
William Henderson got his nickname from a track he cut for Chicago
label Chance in 1953. The Chicago slide guitarist spent years playing
with blues legend Elmore James (who Homesick has long claimed as a
"cousin" -- Elmore is said to have died on Homesick's couch while the
latter frantically searched for the former's heart pills),
roommate/cousin Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Big Walter, Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim
and Johnny Shines. High-pitched voice and stark slide guitar mark his
southern roots authenticity, and were part of the famous Maxwell Street
sound of a few decades ago.

Born in Somerville, Tennessee, his wailing moans hark back to the field hollers of the Mississippi delta. Self-taught on guitar, Homesick developed a wild slide guitar style which he developed playing at local dances and taverns by the age of 14. In his early years, he played with Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hammie Nixon, Snooky Pryor, Muddy Waters, Honeyboy Edwards, Blind Boy Fuller (Homesick's mentor), Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, and Big Joe Williams.

Homesick led a group called the Dusters during the early '30s, featuring at various times Pryor, Baby Face Leroy Foster, and Albert King on drums. Later that decade, James began his recording career, with sides for RCA and Vocalion. Homesick moved up to Memphis during the 1940s, playing regularly with Big Walter Horton, and in the early '50s, he continued north, settling in Chicago.

There, he began sitting in with Memphis Minnie (Homesick's girlfriend for many years), Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Yank Rachell, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Roosevelt Sykes, Henry Townsend, Junior Wells, Sunnyland Slim, Little Walter Jacobs, and Elmore James. Homesick apparently bought Elmore his first guitar, and taught him how to play slide, and was a longtime member of Elmore's band (from 1955-1963), contributing to such classics as "Dust My Broom," "The Sky is Crying," and "Roll and Tumble."

Since then, he has recorded for Delmark, Prestige/Fantasy, Bluesvile, Appaloosa, Stanhope, Trix, Black and Blue and Earwig Records. Most recently, he released Words and Wisdom on Icehouse Records. Though over 90 years old, he remains active, performing both locally and at international festivals, including headlining gigs at the Chicago Blues Festival, San Francisco Blues Festival, and St. Louis Blues Festival. Homesick fans including Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and members of the Black Crowes have come to Chicago to see their idol perform in the last few years."

Living Blues Magazine calls him "One of the most delightful characters in blues...." and Option says "Hearing this is as riveting as discovering Robert Johnson recordings for the first time... it's like finding the roots of every blues guitarist twisted together in a single source."

Says the Chicago Reader, "... in recent years he's raised irascibility to an art form: throwing together snippets of standards both vintage and recent; pulling and popping his guitar strings with anarchistic fierceness and then breaking into a shimmering slide run; and interspersing his tight-throated vocals with boasts, anecdotes, and aphorisms drawn from some 70 years of hard traveling."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Come Back Baby - where did it start?

I have been singing the old Blues standard "Come Back Baby" for more than 25 years, but I never really bothered to research the origin of the song, just collected a number of verses from here and there along the way...

In a recent conversation with my friend Raviv, he mentioned Dave Van Ronk's recording of "Come Back Baby", and said he always thought it was by Ray Charles, since it was credited to him on his recordings, and also on the cover by Dave Edmund's band Love Sculpture. I told Raviv that I was pretty sure the song was older than that, and that sparked an obsessive effort to try and discover the earliest known version.

I have always admired 2 versions of the song in particular - Dave Van Ronk and Bert Jansch. Each of their versions is powerful, simple, elegant, and moving. Van Ronk took a very delicate and slow approach to the song, with a soft 2 note guitar chord opening.
Jansch has a slightly more "snappy" upbeat guitar accompaniment, and that Scottish accent and high slightly nasal voice also adds charm to his version.

So where did it begin? The latest edition of Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943 tells me that the earliest known recording of a song titled Come Back Baby was recorded by Whistlin' Alex Moore in 1937, but once I found a recording, I found that his song has no connection or relation to the song I'm familiar with. Next in line was Walter Davis, with 2 recordings, one from July 12, 1940, and the other ("New come Back Baby") from 1941. So at the moment, it looks like this could be the earliest and possibly the original version of the song. My experience with folk music history tells me that it's likely that the song is much older - I just haven't found the proof yet...

Well, I searched high and low, and could not find the 1940 version by Walter Davis, nor a listing of the lyrics... until a DJ contact in Denmark (thank you Kjell!) forwarded my request to a collector in Norway (thank you Rolf!) - who sent me an MP3 copy of the song so that I could transcribe the lyrics. I also managed to locate a lovely 2 CD compilation (the Essential Walter Davis) by Document records and ordered it from the UK - it arrived within a week.

So here are Walter Davis's verses:

"Come Back Baby"
Walter Davis (rec. July 12, 1940)

Oh, come back baby, please don't go
'bout the way I love you you'll never know
Come back baby, cain't we talk it over one more time

My heart is full of sorrow, my eyes is full of tears
Lord We've been together for so many years
Come back baby, cain't we talk it over one more time

You know this world, wasn't made in one day.
Can't we talk it over, just before you go away.
Come back baby, cain't we talk it over one more time

Come back baby don't break up my home
You know I'm gonna miss you after you've gone
Come back baby, cain't we talk it over one more time

I begged you all night , all the night before
Please don't ever leave me, don't ever leave me no more
Come back baby, cain't we talk it over one more time

Now you know babe, you the only one I love,
Lord I just as soon to be dead, gone to the lord above
Come back baby, cain't we talk it over, one more time

I'll get into other versions in the next blog entry...

Friday, December 08, 2006

"Hootie" is gone at 90

I just heard that Jay "Hootie" McShann has passed on,
and although he reached the ripe age of 90 years, I still feel a sense of great loss.
I feel fortunate to have been able to see and hear McShann a couple of times in the 1970's in Toronto, when he would do a week or two each year at the Chick N' Deli restaurant on Mt. Pleasant Ave.
McShann always amazed me in the power of his singing and the elegance of his piano playing, this was especially admirable when he was in his 70's or 80's. He also had a baby face and a charming smile, maybe that is why it is so hard to believe he is gone.
Rest in peace "Hootie".

James Columbus McShann: January 12, 1916 - December 7, 2006

Kansas City pianist, bandleader and songwriter Jay 'Hootie' McShann has died in hospital today (Dec. 7) after a brief illness. He was 90 years old. He was the last of the great Kansas City players, and the creator of a style that combined swing and blues and changed the course of popular music. A piano player with a unique and subtle touch, he was a bluesman at heart. His best known composition 'Confessin' The Blues' has been recorded by artists like The Rolling Stones, BB King, Little Walter, Esther Phillips, and Jimmy 'Spoon' Witherspoon among many many others. McShann was born in Muskogee, Oklahama in 1916.

James Columbus McShann was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, January 12/ 1916. He taught himself piano as a child, despite his parents' disapproval of his interest in music. His real education came from Earl Hines’ late-night broadcasts from Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom. “When Fatha went off the air, I went to bed” he would later state. Jay McShann began his professional career in 1931, playing with Don Byas. He studied at the Tuskegee Institute, and performed around Arkansas and Oklahoma from 1935 to 1936. In late 1939, Jay had assembled a progressive band, which included Gus Johnson, Gene Ramey and Charlie Parker.

By 1940, Jay McShann had his own big band which included a young alto sax player called Charlie Parker. The Jay McShann Orchestra toured extensively and recorded for the Decca label in 1941. The band's most popular recording was a Blues titled 'Confessin' the Blues', but the band performed and recorded many modern compositions which bridged traditional Kansas City Jazz and Bebop. There were hits like 'Hootie Blues', and the Blues classic 'Ain’t Nobody’s Business', debuting a young Blues singer named Jimmy Witherspoon. During this period, he recorded mostly for Aladdin and Mercury Records. Jay returned to Kansas City, where he raised his family, and played locally. During the 1950's, he attended music school at the University of Missouri, KC where he continued his music studies in arrangement and composition. Jay McShann was in obscurity for the next 2 decades, making few records and playing in Kansas City.

In 1969, Jay resumed touring, and has been performing and recording internationally every since. March 3, 1979 was declared 'Jay McShann Day' by the governor of Missouri, and he has received many other awards and honors. He was the subject of the documentary film Hootie Blues (1978), and was showcased in the film, Last of the Blues Devils. He tours internationally constantly and records frequently. He has recorded through the years for Onyx, Decca, Capitol, Aladdin, Mercury, Black Lion, EmArcy, Vee Jay, Black & Blue, Master Jazz, Sackville, Sonet, Storyville, Atlantic, Swingtime, Music Masters and and most recently for Stony Plain Records. Affectionately know as "Hootie" he remains a vital pianist and an Blues vocalist who keeps a classic style alive. Jay McShann was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1987 and received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Pioneer Award in 1996. Jay McShann is a Blues force of nature that keeps rolling on.

Toronto was frequently on his tour schedules; jazz musician and Downtown Jazz Festival artistic director Jim Galloway brought him to the now-vanished Bourbon Street club in 1972 and he recorded close to a dozen albums in the city for the Sackville label. His last four albums, including the Grammy-nominated 2003 release "Going to Kansas City", were recorded for the Edmonton-based Stony Plain label; three of them were co-produced by guitarist Duke Robillard. Stony Plain's owner, Holger Petersen, acting as tour manager, frequently accompanied McShann to international jazz festivals in Montreal, Toronto, Monterey, and the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. Said Petersen: "Jay had a great uplifting smile and kind words for everyone. He was always a delight to travel with, and had a very laidback, inquisitive and cheerful attitude. I'll miss his smile, and hearing him and saying 'Everything's cool'."And Jim Galloway summed it up: "His passing marks the end of a line. He will be missed." Jay McShann leaves his companion of more than 30 years, Thelma Adams (known as Marianne McShann), and three daughters - Linda McShann Gerber, Jayme McShann Lewis, and Pam McShann.

Funeral services will be announced shortly; plans are pending for a musical celebration of his life to be held in Kansas City early next year. For further information please contact:
Richard Flohil at 416 351-1323 Holger Petersen at Stony Plain Records 780 468-6423