The Jimmy Rogers All-Stars: Blues Blues Blues
by George Graham
(Atlantic 83158 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/27/99)
The influence on rock and roll by the blues cannot be overstated. Many of the pioneers of rock in this country came from a blues background. Meanwhile in England, during the 1960s British Invasion, young Britons re-exported back to the US music by which they were profoundly influenced, especially the electric Chicago style blues on the 1950s, popularized by Chess Records. And one of the most influential guitar players on that scene was Jimmy Rogers, who was held in particular reverence by the Sixties rock guitar stars, including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Rogers passed away at the end of 1997, but shortly before his death, he recorded an album with an all-star tribute band, including some of the best known names in blues-rock. That album has just been released under the title Blues Blues Blues.
Blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers, not to confused with the famous folk and country songwriter of the same name, was born James A. Lane in Ruleville, Mississippi in 1924. Taking his stepfather's surname as his professional moniker, Rogers followed the archetypical path of a bluesman, growing up in the South and playing rural blues, though he also spent time in Memphis and St. Louis. His first instrument was the harmonica, and he counted as his influences Robert Jr. Lockwood and Big Bill Broonzy. And like many other blues pioneers, Rogers moved to Chicago in the 1940s, starting his professional career there around 1946 with Sonny Boy Williamson and Sunnyland Slim among others.
Rogers was playing harp in a group led by Blue Smitty, when a young guitarist and singer named McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters joined. Blue Smitty left, and Little Walter Jacobs joined to play harmonica, so Rogers switched to rhythm guitar, and the famous Muddy Waters Band was under way. The group was recorded extensively by Chess Records, and came to define the hard-driving electric Chicago blues sound. Indeed, Rogers was probably more responsible than anyone for making electric guitar an integral part of the blues. Rogers left Muddy Waters' band in 1955, but continued to record extensively on his own and playing on sessions with Howlin Wolf and many others.
As rock and soul replaced blues in popularity, Rogers' career diminished during the early 1960s and he turned his attention to a clothing business for several years, a store, which ironically was burned down in the rioting that followed Martin Luther King's assassination. In the early 1970s, Rogers began recording again, and with the blues revival of the past few years, saw increasing interest in his music.
This new album was put together by producer John Koenig, a fan and friend who sought to combine Rogers with some of the people he influenced. They jumped at the chance, and joining in on the sessions were Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and Stephen Stills. They obviously had a terrific time, performing remarkable versions of some blues standards, including several that Rogers himself wrote. The result is one of the best all-star blues albums in years in a field with a rich history of such musical summits.
In addition to the well-known guests, the rhythm section on this CD is a particularly outstanding one, featuring Rogers' regular working group with bassist Freddie Crawford and drummer Ted Harvey. Really shining throughout the session is the great rock and blues pianist Johnnie Johnson who played on all the famous early Chuck Berry records, and Jimmy Rogers' son Jimmy D. Lane on additional guitar. Kim Wilson is also incendiary, putting in some of his best harmonica work, while Chicago harp great Carey Bell plays on other tracks. Rogers himself, as he had throughout his career, plays solid, mostly rhythm guitar that is always just right. The material and style are classic Chicago electric blues, with most tunes featuring a hard driving shuffle or boogie beat. There's hardly a slow blues to be heard. The material, in addition to Rogers classics like Sweet Home Chicago and Ludella also includes songs by Muddy Waters, on which Rogers played in the original recordings, Sonny Boy Williamson and John Lee Hooker.
Not surprisingly, the atmosphere elevates the well-known guest stars to some of their best playing. Clapton, especially, is in fine form, and this album provides reminder of how great a blues player he is after his unforgivably commercial release of last year, The Pilgrim. It's also interesting to hear Stephen Stills in a blues setting. In 1968, Stills was part of a famous blues-rock album called Super Session that also featured Al Kooper and the late Mike Bloomfield. Jagger and Richards also rise to the occasion on this album, with tasteful no-nonsense blues.
The album gets under way with a Muddy Waters song, Blow Wind Blow with one of the younger guitar stars, Jeff Healy, as the guest. The tune is classic rock-solid Chicago-style blues at its best, with great contributions by harmonica man Wilson and pianist Johnson. <<>>
Eric Clapton makes the first of his three appearances on a Jimmy Rogers original Blues All Day Long, one of the slower tracks. It's a good example of how the environment brings out the best in Clapton, both vocally and on his guitar. Carey Bell is the featured harmonica player. <<>>
The two principal Rolling Stones are featured on three tracks, the first of which is Muddy Waters' Trouble No More, on which Rogers also played on the original recording. The gathered luminaries give the piece a fast but lowdown treatment. <<>>
Two Chicago blues legends get together when Lowell Fulson joins in on the Memphis Slim classic Every Day I Have the Blues. Rogers and Fulson trade vocals, and give the song a great reading. <<>> Interestingly, the best solo on the track comes from pianist Johnnie Johnson. <<>>
Taj Mahal appears on a pair of tracks and also is in fine form. The better of two is Ludella, in which his ebullience shines through on both vocal and harmonica. The tune is a Rogers original and as elsewhere on the album, Rogers and the featured guest trade vocal verses. <<>>
Stephen Stills also appears on two pieces. One is Rogers' best-known composition Sweet Home Chicago. Though he fits in vocally, Stills' guitar solo sounds a little out of place on the session. <<>>
Jagger and Richards are also featured on the Sonny Boy Williamson chestnut Don't Start Me to Talkin.' Rogers unearthed a verse that was cut from the original version, having been considered too risque in the 1950s. Jagger seems the perfect choice to do the now rather tame lyrics. <<>>
Clapton's best performance comes on an original by Rogers called That's All Right, not to be confused with the Carl Perkins rock classic of the same name. The whole band gets into a great groove, with Carey Bell doing some fine harmonica accompaniment in the Little Walter tradition. <<>>
The album ends with a John Lee Hooker tune featuring Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Reading between the lines in the record company's press release, one infers that Rogers was not around for the completion of this version of Gonna Shoot You Right Down (Boom Boom). The track started out as a jam with Clapton guesting on guitar. Plant and Page were added in the Detroit area where they were appearing, while the rest of the album was recorded in Los Angeles. Plant was never much of a blues singer, and his reputation remains intact after this track. Fortunately, Rogers' vocals are heard on alternating verses. <<>>
Jimmy Rogers passed away in December of 1997 at the age of 73 from complications arising from exploratory surgery, not long after most of the sessions for Blues Blues Blues were completed. The influential guitarist leaves in his wake many seminal recordings that defined the Chicago blues style in the 1940s and 1950s, and were a huge influence to a generation of young musicians in the 1960s who would become some of rock's most enduring figures. It's truly fortunate that this album came together when it did. Rogers was in fine form, and the gathered guest stars approached the project with great enthusiasm, putting in some of their best work in years. The result is an album that will likely stand as one of the most significant recordings of the current blues revival.
Sonically, the album has the big driving electric sound of classic Chicago blues, but the audio quality is also a great improvement over the originals. Producer and mix engineer John Koenig wisely resisted the temptation to capture the authenticity down to the often-distortion-tinged sound of the old Chess recordings. Koenig, and his co-producer Elaine Koenig by the way, did a superb job in getting the project together, and assembling a great backing band, including pianist Johnnie Johnson -- who is brilliant throughout -- and creating the kind of atmosphere in the studio where the music could thrive. The only lapse is on the track with Plant and Page. Plant clearly sounds as if he was not recorded at the same time as the rest of the musicians.
Whether you've been a blues fan for 40 years, someone who discovered the blues back in the 1960s though the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, or whether the current blues revival has provided your introduction to this great American music form, The Jimmy Rogers All Stars' Blues Blues Blues is an album that is not to be missed, and provides a fitting capstone to the legacy of one of the most influential players on the scene.
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