Lost Classics! The Greatest Blues Album in the World
In 2003, acclaimed movie director Martin Scorcese produced a series of seven films, each created by another acclaimed director, and they called the whole thing “Martin Scorcese Presents The Blues.” The series aired on PBS and my favorite episode was “Godfathers and Sons,” directed by Marc Levin (not the idiot right-wing talk radio guy).
Levin paired Public Enemy rapper Chuck D with Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess and heir to the Chess Records legacy, in Chicago and the film followed them as they produced an album combining contemporary hip-hop musicians with veteran blues and jazz players. But along the way the film explored the rich history of Chicago blues as recorded by Chess Records, and there was great footage of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, along with original performances by Koko Taylor, Otis Rush, Magic Slim, Ike Turner and Sam Lay.
As good as the film was, the soundtrack CD is even better: it could be the greatest blues album ever released. Among the 22 tracks are a couple of hip-hoppers and white boys, but when I’m playing the blues I always seem to gravitate back to this album. There’s a couple of genuflections each to the two gods of Chicago blues – Muddy Waters is represented by “Mannish Boy” and “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,” while Howlin’ Wolf checks in with “Spoonful” and “Little Red Rooster,” classics all. And the killer lineup includes Koko Taylor with “Wang Dang Doodle,” Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed performing their best-known songs. And what would a Chess anthology be without the late, great Bo Diddley – he could fill an album all by himself but here he’s represented by “Diddley Daddy.”
Contemporary Chicago blues shows up in the music of Lonnie Brooks (from Port Arthur, Texas – my man!), Magic Slim and the brilliant Etta James. The rock-blues connection is essayed by two songs from the Paul Butterfield Band, one a cover of Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker” and the original “Born In Chicago.” And the other white boy is this weird kid from Minnesota whose music was greatly influenced by the blues, Bob Dylan doing “Maggie’s Farm.” The Butterfield and Dylan tracks all feature the blistering blues guitar work of the also late-great Michael Bloomfield. And you got yer rap, courtesy of Public Enemy and another hip-hopper, Common.
The only weird thing about the film, and the soundtrack, is its fixation on a truly minor Muddy Waters album from the late 1960s, Electric Mud. During that era the Chess artists were not selling so Marshall Chess had the idea to re-record some of the classic songs with the original artists, but with contemporary backing bands and arrangements. Electric Mud had some psychedelicized versions of “Mannish Boy,” “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” Chess also put out a similar album with Howlin’ Wolf (This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album … He Doesn’t Like It). So anyway, for the film they got some of the original backing musicians to recreate some of the “magic” with Chuck D and Common. The one song from this session that appears on the soundtrack is “Mannish Boy,” and it’s pretty good.
Marshall Chess comes off as more than a little impressed with himself in the film, and I think the hip-hop/blues collision storyline might have been simply a concession the filmmakers made in order to get the keys to the Chess vault. Whatever, the new “Mannish Boy” and a new “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James is a great way to wrap up this album, the greatest blues album you can own.