Although many legendary Delta blues figures have long since departed, a few survivors are still carrying on the tradition. They don’t get the fanfare or the prestige gigs given their contemporary R&B comrades, but such venerable players as Robert Lockwood Jr., David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Big Jack Johnson, and harmonica ace/vocalist Sam Myers remain active and viable. All these artists have recently issued new recordings, proving there’s some juice left in the old-timers.
Robert Lockwood Jr. is the stepson of the Delta blues’ most storied performer, Robert Johnson, who taught the younger musician how to play guitar in the ’30s. But these days, Lockwood has tired of answering queries about his legendary stepfather, or about the past in general. At 83, he prefers to look ahead.
That’s fair, but it’s impossible to overlook Lockwood’s own distinguished career, which includes stints with harmonica genius Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II), pianists Sunnyland Slim and Otis Spann, and guitarist Johnny Shines. Lockwood backed Miller on the King Biscuit Time radio show in Helena, Ark., during the early ’40s, and did his earliest recordings for Bluebird in 1941. Since then, he’s cut sessions for Bea & Baby, J.O.B., Decca, Delmark, Trix, Advent, and Rounder. He’s also among the few blues guitarists to embrace jazz music, incorporating it into his solos.
He’s lived in Cleveland since 1961, though in recent years he has abandoned the recording studio. That is, until this year, when he released I Got to Find Me a Woman (Verve), which superbly updates the vintage Delta blues sound. The title cut may be the blues song of the year, featuring a spry, defiant Lockwood backed by tight, fluid licks from guest star B.B. King and jubilant, funky bass support from Richard Smith. On “Take a Little Walk With Me” and “Bob and B,” Lockwood displays a strong, assertive guitar style, dueling with King and another guest, Joe Louis Walker, without giving any quarter.
Lockwood also revisits such chestnuts as “Feel Like Blowing My Horn,” “Walking Blues,” and “How Long” without offering stock cover readings. Instead, he barks lines, spews notes, and illustrates just how convincing and enticing Delta blues can be when performed by a master. Hopefully, he’ll keep issuing records well into the next millennium; he still has plenty to say.
The same holds true for another 83-year-old vocalist and guitarist, David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Edwards learned his guitar technique from listening to fellow Mississippians Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway. He was such a quick study that by the age of 14 he was backing Big Joe Williams in juke joints and taverns. Later, he worked with Williams, Robert Johnson, and Yank Rachell before cutting a series of acclaimed dates for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in 1942.
Though Edwards continued working and recording through the ’50s and into the ’60s, he essentially depended on gigs at blues festivals and small clubs to make a living during the next few decades. Then, in 1992, he resurfaced on the Chicago blues label Earwig.
While his voice sometimes falters, neither his guitar nor his spirit flags on The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing (Earwig), which is also the title of his new autobiography. This is raw, undiluted Delta blues, sung in hoarse, often shattering fashion, offering a worldview in which men are to be distrusted, women to be feared, and life to be endured. Backed by Carey Bell’s crisp, evocative harmonica, David “Honeyboy” Edwards harks back to a time when the blues was vital, important music threatening to the uninitiated, but alluring and powerful to those willing to listen.
Big Jack Johnson, who plays Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar this Tuesday, Aug. 11, offers 20th-century Delta blues with an attitude. Unlike many other bluesmen, who migrated to Chicago and other Northern cities, Johnson has spent his lifetime in the South. He’s been playing in Mississippi clubs and chitlin’-circuit venues since he debuted with his father’s group as a 13-year-old. In the ’60s, he cemented his reputation working with harmonica player/vocalist Frank Frost and drummer Sam Carr in a wonderful band, Frank Frost and the Nighthawks. The group’s LPs were a down-home alternative to the electric fare then dominant in blues circles.
Johnson has proved just as exciting a performer on his own. He’s been recording for Earwig since 1978, winning acclaim from critics and fans alike for his willingness to tackle contemporary subjects and for his refusal to churn out remakes and covers. Johnson’s latest, I’m Your Oil Man (Earwig), includes one issue-oriented number, “Crack Headed Woman,” that doesn’t mince words about the destructiveness of drug addiction. The album also offers some joyous material with “I Can’t Get No Lovin’,” “I Wanna Know,” and “Miss Magalee Hall,” while “Lonely Man” and “All Messed Up” strike a more somber note.
Even on his more low-key numbers, there’s nothing understated about Big Jack Johnson: He bellows, moans, and shouts, exclaiming his lyrics and playing his guitar with a vengeance. He gets the right backing from his ensemble, a driving group anchored by rhythm guitarist Chris Dean, bassist Maury Sastaff, and drummer Cliff Woodward. Johnson doesn’t let the energy level dip at all on I’m Your Oil Man, even managing to make the insipid “Shake Your Bootie” tolerable, if undistinguished. If you’ve never been inside a Mississippi juke joint on a Saturday night, Big Jack Johnson’s music is the next best thing.
Despite a résumé that includes backing Elmore James on several hits, harmonica soloist and vocalist Sam Myers had arrived at a standstill by the mid-’80s. He was struggling to find dates with pickup bands until he met guitarist Anson Funderburgh, a contemporary stylist with a love for classic Delta material. Funderburgh recruited Myers to join his band, the Rockets, and they’ve been among the top blues ensembles ever since, winning Handy awards and packing clubs across the nation.
The pair’s latest collaboration, That’s What They Want (Black Top), is billed as simply Myers and Funderburgh plus guests, but they don’t really depart from the customary menu. That’s not at all a bad thing: Funderburgh’s tough, taut backing and Texas-cum-Mississippi guitar lines are accented by Myers’ gruff, sometimes rousing leads on “The Last Time Around,” “That’s What They Want,” and “I Don’t Play.” Sometimes things get a little edgier, as on “Don’t Quit the One You Love for Me,” while at other times the proceedings verge on slapstick (“Monkey Around,” “I Don’t Want You Cutting Off Your Hair”).
By this point, Myers and Funderburgh have worked together for so long that they’re kindred spirits. They also get capable assistance from drummer Wes Starr, bassist Jeff Sarti, and keyboardists Kevin McKendree and Riley Osborne. Still, this group’s fortunes pivot on Sam Myers’ singing, and he’s mostly on top of his game throughout That’s What They Want.
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