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Words: Lewis Leo Durham

When asked by music journalists, “What is your favourite record” or, “Who is your favourite artist”, I find myself left quite speechless.

This is partly because I know that they are looking for one name to write down. And also because I have no favourite artist or record. Of the millions of discs manufactured worldwide, there is no one favourite record. Sometimes, I get home and am in the mood for a Norman Granz Jazz At The Philharmonic Concert. Another time I am not in that frame of mind, and will put on a jug band record.

So, in order to write this, I have gone to my record collection and at random, blindfolded, picked out five records. My records are not in any particular order any more, mainly as a result of my coming home after a few too many and pulling them out and forgetting where they came from and not putting them back. This method will also give a good varied selection of what is in my collection. As I am currently writing this travelling in a transit van on tour, I have no access to my books, papers, label discographies, etc.…so, I will try to provide as much as I can remember about each record. Please forgive any mistakes!


(BLUEBIRD 6445, 1936)

I’ve spoken with quite a few harmonica players in my short time and they will often mention such players as Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson (usually referring the second one, Rice Miller), Walter Horton, Shaky Jake, James Cotton, Junior Wells and so on. All of the mentioned are great players but I have never heard of William M. Gillum being brought up in any conversation with harmonica players in this regard. Chicago Blues is often thought of as electric guitars, harmonicas distorting through small amplifiers, and the conception of Chicago blues is usually that of the 1950s era.

The Chicago blues of the 1920s, 30s and early 40s was, in my opinion, quite different. First off, harmonicas (and guitars) recorded in Chicago starting around the late 40s and early 50s seem to have mostly been amplified, turning it into a different instrument all together. This is not a bad thing, it’s just another way to use the instrument and of course the wider availability of amplifiers made it possible. Un-amplified blues recorded in Chicago doesn’t usually get thought of as being Chicago blues. I think that this is because you don’t usually hear 30s or 20s Chicago blues being played in clubs whereas hearing a Muddy Waters or Little Walter record is far more common.

Gillum moved from Mississippi in the South to Chicago in the early 1920s. In Chicago, he started playing with guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, who he would later start making recordings with. Another harp player who had moved up from the south around the same time was John “Sonny Boy” Williamson, who was the biggest influence on blues harp in later years to come. They were both playing clubs and both had good success in Chicago and must have had some sort of competition between them. Sadly, they would both meet similar deaths. Sonny Boy was walking home after a gig one night in 1945 when he was mugged then murdered. Jazz Gillum made his last recordings around the late 1940s. He was shot in the head on the street in the 1960s during an argument.

‘Sarah Jane’ was recorded and released in 1936 on the Bluebird label (a budget dime-store label started by RCA) with Big Bill Broonzy playing rhythm guitar.  I can’t remember the bass player. This particular disc is, I think one of Gillum’s best records. A real gem, the lovely legendary Broonzy swing, thumping bass and Gillum’s harp wizardry and vocals over the top. In my opinion, it’s early Chicago blues at its best.

(VOCALION 03156, 1935)

The Hokum Boys being a recent acquisition to my collection and not knowing about the Hokum Boys much apart from hearing that Tampa Red and Georgia Tom had made numerous records under the pseudonym of Hokum Boys. However, it’s hard to tell who’s on the record. The label reads “-Willie Broonzy-“, which is obviously Big Bill Broonzy. And the playing on the disc is very Broonzy sounding, so it’s probably him.

Broonzy was kind of a male counterpart of Bessie Smith if you will, though the years of his greatest impact came almost a decade later. Broonzy’s gracefully phrased blues works, many of them his own compositions, were dominant in the race record market through the 1930s. He appeared in the 1938 and 39’ From Spirituals To Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall. In the mid 50s, he began to tour Europe and earned the esteem of many critics and released quite a few records, most appearing on French and English Vogue Records.

This is the only Hokum Boys record I have heard, not because they are particularly rare or expensive, but just because I have never come across any others before. This record is great and does swing very hard. The lyrics are kind of comical which was a whole part of the Hokum thing. At the start of the record you get the strong sense of western swing, but its quickly apparent that it’s a low down blues swing with dirty lyrics. The other side is exceptional as well.

The Vocalion Record Co. originally started around 1915 in New York, is responsible for releasing many great jazz and blues records. However, by the time this record was made in 1935, Vocalion had been bought by Brunswick records and then again by Warner Bros. Vocalion has a great discography and was the first label to record many of the greats, such as Leroy Carr and Robert Johnson.

(BLUE NOTE 1625, 1953)

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In the Modern jazz period (of which some critics and experts would deny that jazz even still existed and argue that it ended before the 1940s – I don’t get involved it that debate as I find it endless and rather pointless) since Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell there was a fast stream of jazz piano talent but few of them showed signs of becoming influential enough to start a school of imitators just like Earl “Fatha” Hines did in the 1920s and Teddy Wilson in the 1930s. If any individual can claim to have been to the 1940s jazz influence comparable with Teddy Wilson of the 1930s, the claimant could be none other than Earl “Bud” Powell. And of course there’s Art Tatum, whose first recordings date from 1933.

I don’t think Tatum was a standard by which jazz could be judged, nor was he an objective toward which others would aim. The cliché “in a class by himself” applied so clearly in his case that other pianists, after sitting for hours in awestruck silence, would go home determined not to try and imitate Tatum but to give up the piano forever!

Horace Silver, a Powell devotee, can claim to have produced a composing and improvising style that earned him many listeners. Quiet mannered and a leader of his own quintet by around 1957, he reflected in his single-note lines the more orderly nature of his mind while displaying an incisive touch which was instantly recognisable to his disciples.

I picked up this disc when I was staying with a friend in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It features the solid sounds of Art Blakey and bassist Percy Heath both of whom were regulars at Blue Note sessions. There is a passage at the end with a drum and bass section which is one of the highlights for me. You can also tell from the sonic quality of the first few bars by the sonic quality that it’s none other than a Rudy Van Gelder recording, who engineered many legendary sessions for Blue Note and Prestige Records.

(BRUNSWICK 80087, early 1940s)

Calypso is often associated with Jamaica, but it originates from Trinidad and Tobago. Jamaica’s folk music is Mento; Calypso and Mento are often confused and thought of as the same music form but really they’re entirely separate.

Calypso and Mento are rarely spoken about as influences on jazz and more worryingly they are not often talked about as influences of Ska, a music form that emerged from Jamaica in the late 1950s. In fact it’s not just Calypso and Mento that are influential on these forms, but all the music from the Caribbean and the Virgin Islands.

Wilmoth Houdini, sometimes known and seen on records as King Houdini, is not someone I know much about. He started his first recording sometime in the 1920s and continued recording up to the 1940s. I’ve been listening to his records for a few years now and there does not seem to be much demand at all for Calypso and Mento music in general. However, there are some hardcore collectors from whom I’ve learnt a lot about West Indian music in general – one being Natty Bo, a very passionate and knowledgeable disc jockey and artist who can often be heard at Gaz’s Rocking Blues Club, Wardour St, London WC1.

When I first saw C. W. Stoneking (who has since become a friend of mine and the family) and his orchestra perform, I was quickly reminded of W. Houdini. Houdini used to use minor passages and then jump into major passages which can have quite an emotional effect upon the listener; Houdini used this on many of his records. I noticed Stoneking doing this (and he actually later performed a Houdini song called ‘Brave Son Of America’), and in these times of absolutely dire music which in some case does not even deserve the title “music”, it was very refreshing to hear melodies, rhythm and harmony in he and his orchestras music. I recorded Stoneking in our home studio some months ago. The disks will be issued soon by the Evangelist Record Co.

Houdini’s records are great. His melodies never grow tired and the rhythm section is always hot. On this particular disc, he’s playing with Gerald Clark’s Night Owls, who never fail to impress – the bass player particularly excites me, but I have yet to discover his name.

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(DOT 1103, 1952)

This record is cracked. If it wasn’t cracked, I would never have got to hear the record. If it wasn’t cracked, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. When I first started buying records around the age of 13, I didn’t have the money to buy the records I wanted, which were blues records. So I would by the great records in bad condition, or sometimes they were given to me. I would then try my hardest to clean them and play them back with different methods to get the best out of them (I’m not talking about microgroove records such as LPs and 45s ,as the music I wanted wasn’t issued on those formats. All the records in this article are 78rpm discs). I would even sometimes take people’s broken records that they thought were useless and superglue them back together and they usually played fine. My L. C. Green record plays fine, the crack is not audible. By the time the music starts, your mind is in a different place anyhow.

L. C. Green made three records for Dot Records in the early 50s. This particular disk dating from 1952. That is all I was told when I bought it. I actually know nothing about L. C. Green apart form the fact that he is a great blues singer and either harp or guitar player. A great early 50s blues. I am afraid I cannot give much or any info about this record or L. C. Green, as I know absolutely nothing about him at this point in time. I will have to ask my friend Mike Rowe who has great knowledge of the blues, he would definitely have something to say about Mr. Green.

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