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The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol 1

Introducing our major series on the Modern Records downhome blues sessions, these vibrant and historic juke joint recordings were made by Joe Bihari and Ike Turner in deep South locations between late 1951 and early 1952.

by John Broven

The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol 1

If the Coen brothers are looking for a follow-up to their phenomenally successful film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? then they need look no further than the story behind Modern Downhome blues field sessions of the early 1950s. The location would still be the Deep South, and so would the allusion to Homer's epic, 'The Odyssey'.

A vivid opening snapshot to our new series is given by notewriter Jim O'Neal, the founding editor of Living Blues magazine: "The tale of their exploits in the land of cotton has all the elements of a Dixie docu-drama, complete with an indignant Southern heroine , a double-dealing native talent scout , small town sheriffs and police, subterfuge, disguise, raiders, traitors, spies, and clandestine operations. But no shots were fired in these skirmishes, and the only casualties were in lost record sales revenue, broken contracts, violated trusts, and one unfortunate blues artist's shattered career. The Biharis' battle wagon was a flashy new Cadillac, their artillery a four-channel Magnecord tape recorder, and their ammunition reels of magnetic tape and rolls of cash."

Ace Records is packaging these historic - and musically great - recordings into The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions. For this first volume "Arkansas and Mississippi, 1951-1952" we are concentrating on the recordings that Joe Bihari and his young talent scout accomplice Ike Turner made between November 1951 and January 1952 in North Little Rock, Arkansas-.-and in Greenville and Canton, Mississippi. The featured artists are enough to make any self-respecting blues collector salivate with anticipation: Elmore James, Boyd Gilmore, Drifting Slim, Junior Brooks, Sunny Blair, Houston Boines, Charley Booker and Ernest Lane. Otis "Red" Boyd is the odd man out, with a rare example of Mississippi big band music - it's almost downhome jazz.

Sunny Blair

Modern Records' partner Joe Bihari had made his first field trip to the South around September 1951 following the terminal breakdown in relations with Sam Phillips. This was after Rocket "88" by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner ended up on Chess instead of Modern, and became a #1 R&B smash hit. Until then Phillips had been recording Modern's Memphis-area artists including B.B. King, Joe Hill Louis and Rosco Gordon. Following the split with Phillips, the first recording location was the "colored" YMCA in Memphis. It was here that Joe Bihari hit paydirt with B.B. King's 3 O'Clock Blues, thus encouraging Modern patriarch Jules Bihari to authorise further excursions into the South. The excitement level was high enough for the Biharis to launch a new - albeit short-lived - label for these field recordings, Blues & Rhythm, in February 1952.

The first major reissue of this material was in 1969 and 1970, when Frank Scott and Bruce Bromberg conceived the "Anthology Of The Blues" 12-volume LP series on Kent. Since then P-Vine of Japan has delved into the Modern archives with CD revamps of these LPs with bonus tracks. An Ace CD taster came with The Travelling Record Man in August 2001 (CDCHD 813).

With the opening volumes of this new series, Dave Sax and myself have tried to follow the actual field trip journeys, rather than compile on a strictly regional basis (ie not just Mississippi Blues, not just Arkansas Blues etc) as with previous reissues. The real beauty of these sessions is that the musicians are caught in a genuine time warp. The only nod to musical homogenisation was crude instrument amplification, otherwise this was literally the Delta Blues from the pre-World War II era.

The series is dedicated to the late Mike Leadbitter, the co-founder of Blues Unlimited, for his extraordinary and visionary research work on the Delta Blues an incredible 30 years ago. It is intended to roll out further volumes at regular intervals, also encompassing Modern's downhome blues output beyond the South.

In addition to Jim O'Neal's brilliantly researched notes here, Modern's Joe Bihari kindly agreed to pen an introduction. Joe was an incredibly brave man to be wandering the Deep South in the early 1950s with his tape recorder, looking for juke joint bluesmen. But as he says, "I was a gutsy kid who wasn't afraid of anything, travelling during a period where there was immense segregation and discrimination against African Americans. Indeed, I am proud of myself for doing what I could to resist this horrific prejudice. Looking back, I think I made major contributions to this rich music that we have all over America-.-and all my hard work paid off as this blues music is now recognised worldwide."

Suddenly, the scenario comes alive. The soundtrack could do for downhome blues what the O Brother, Where Art Thou? million-selling CD did for bluesgrass music. And, yes, George Clooney could play the part of Joe Bihari, the hip record man from Hollywood. Dreams, maybe, but at last the Modern Downhome Blues series is a reality.

The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol 2

We continue to explore the southern field trips made by Joe Bihari and Ike Turner for Modern Records, this time focussing upon the March 1952 sessions. The stellar blues names here include Elmore James, Boyd Gilmore, Houston Boines and Drifting Slim.

by Chris Bentley

Released just before this wonderful summer, "The Modern Downhome Blues Sessions Vol 1" (CDCHD 876) attracted impressive reviews. Writing in Juke Blues #53, Mark Harris described the CD as a "heavyweight collection… exuberant, ebullient and energising… an indispensable issue". In Blues & Rhythm #180, it was rated CD of the Month, with reviewer Ray Templeton noting that it is "as promising a start as you could wish for from what is potentially as exciting and as valuable a series of downhome blues on CDs as any ever attempted". Living Blues topped them all by stating "This disc is an absolute must-have".

And yet I hear that the sales of the first volume are 'sluggish'. What a travesty, especially considering that you could buy many, many CDs from the rich Ace catalogue for the price of just ONE of the original 78 rpm releases (if you can find them).

However, the good people at Ace Records are never content to rest on their laurels, so no sooner said than done, here's Volume 2. The message is "same strokes, same folks" with veteran blues researchers John Broven and Dave Sax taking charge of the compilation. To whet your appetite as an aperitivo, there is more of the same incredibly researched and highly evocative liner notes from Living Blues founder/editor, Jim O'Neal-.-more of the same top-quality digital remastering from what are - in some cases - the only known tapes and acetates-.-and certainly more of those hitherto unissued sides and takes so beloved of the true blues collector.

In Volume 2, Ace has included a whopping seven sides emerging from the penumbra of the vaults for the first time ever after 50-plus years gathering dust. More too from the same artists featured in the first volume, although there is one debutant in drummer Jesse "Cleanhead" Love, who has a hitherto unattributed Why Don't My Baby Write To Me credited to his name. Much of this new release revolves around three different musical aggregations, all previously represented on Volume 1 but here unbottled from the fine wine section of the cellar in order to define the breadth of their repertoires. One of Houston Boines' only two issued (and extremely rare) 78s appeared on the first volume. Not only does Volume 2 feature his other 78 (RPM 364), but it also sweeps up another four cuts from the same March 1952 session in Clarksdale, Mississippi - from which also emanates the one remaining Charley Booker title not included on Volume 1.

Also given more stretching space, is material from the session of 21 March 1952 (read the sleeve notes to discover how the date has been narrowed down in true Sherlock Holmes' fashion!) held at Martin Scroggin's Music Center of North Little Rock, Arkansas. Featured are young harmonica virtuoso Sunny Blair and the sublime Edgar "Baby Face" Turner, a guitarist whose versatility encompassed a range from the slide of Muddy Waters to the Piedmont style of Brownie McGhee. Baby Face's Blue Serenade (issued as Modern 882) is just one of the top-notch performances on this stellar collection. Last but not least on this downhome premier cru list is Drifting Slim, whose given name was Elmon Mickle. Slim's second 78 (RPM 370) for Modern's Bihari brothers is included here, along with his 1951 audition demos with which the aforementioned Martin Scroggin persuaded Joe Bihari to contract Mickle. This session is a wonderful example of Southern juke-joint blues from the early post-World War II years.

Sunny Blair
Sunny Blairmp3 available
Sunny Blair

As an expensive digestivo in conclusion, let's note two sides each from the King of the Slide Guitar, Elmore James, and from his reputedly close friend, the Elmore soundalike, Boyd Gilmore. Actually, you could count Elmo's contribution on this CD to closer to two-and-a-half sides, as it is his bottleneck guitar that is spliced in to the intro and break of Gilmore's All In My Dreams. The two tracks by Boyd presented here are drawn from his second and final single, issued by the Biharis as Modern 872.

This Volume 2 is enlivened not just by the vibrant music but also by the splendid stories (many never before recounted) in the booklet notes from artists such as Little Milton Campbell and Bobby Rush. So why not take a little walk with Ace and savour the many downhome blues delights herein? And, if you missed them, those of Volume 1 as well.

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