One of America’s most distinctive record labels has relocated and resurfaced with a vengeance. After a one-year hiatus, Rooster Blues, a company dedicated to chronicling vintage Mississippi and Delta region sounds, is back in business. It’s also currently celebrating its 20th anniversary.
”We’re very aware of the tradition and history of the label, and are happy that Rooster’s alive again,“ says company publicist Andria Lisle. ”Rooster has very ambitious plans over the next few months, and we’re going to be putting out both classic reissues and great new material.“
Though it began in Chicago, Rooster was best known for being situated in Clarksdale, Miss., through much of its existence. The company suspended operation in 1998; it was purchased last year by Bottled Majic Music, a corporation dedicated to preserving and chronicling various types of vintage American sounds. It now has two offices, one in New York, the other in Memphis. Midwest businessman Robert Johnson (no relation to the legendary Delta blues musician) is the principal owner.
The first four releases in the current campaign are already available. These include an anthology titled Year of the Rooster, with performances ranging from familiar names like Eddy Clearwater and Big Jack Johnson to traditional blues sensation James Louis Johnson (a.k.a. Super Chikan), plus lesser-known but important figures like Eddie C. Campbell, Roosevelt ”Pooba“ Barnes, and Larry Davis. This disc profiles the company from its Chicago beginnings up through some of its 1997 releases.
Among the other current Rooster discs are a reissue of Magic Slim & the Teardrops’ 1983 gem Grand Slam, plus Midnight Delight featuring Lonnie Shields and Super Chikan’s critically praised 1997 debut, Blues Come Home to Roost. The Chikan date compiles 14 original compositions recorded in Clarksdale. Unfortunately, the CD didn’t get widespread distribution upon initial release, and thus many fans missed it despite almost unanimous critical raves. Chikan, who recently appeared locally at the French Quarter Cafe, is not only a rousing writer and player, he also rivals Bobby Rush as a ribald narrator. His ”strut“ alone is often worth the price of admission.
Shields, a slashing guitarist from Helena, Ark., with roots in both gospel and funk, previously earned his stripes working with Sam Carr, Big Jack Johnson, and Frank Frost. He’s part of the new breed among traditional blues types; though knowledgeable and reverent of the music’s history, he isn’t content simply to cover and recycle classics. His ’92 CD Portrait won the Living Blues Critics Award, and his songs simmer and churn, hooking listeners with their urgency and immediacy.
Magic Slim won a 1983 Handy Award for Grand Slam, the album that signaled his ascension from the ranks of promising stylist into a stellar soloist and entertainer able to hold his own alongside anyone. The reissued version of Grand Slam also includes three additional cuts from a 1975 session that were previously unavailable on CD.
Jim O’Neal, the cofounder of both Rooster Records and Living Blues magazine, will continue working with the label cutting sessions. ”We definitely wanted to keep Jim working in the field,“ Lisle says. ”He feels there’s plenty of talent in the region that hasn’t been recorded or noticed, and he’s excited about Rooster’s future.“
Lisle says the label plans to issue 15 discs this year, both new sessions and reissues. Rooster releases are now distributed by Redeye Distribution. Fans can contact the label directly at http://www.bottledmajic.com, or at P.O. Box 40997, Memphis, TN 38174-0997.
The reigning queen
She’s been Queen of the Blues throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but Koko Taylor has concentrated on live performance for so long that there have been whispers she’s afraid or unwilling to go back into the studio. There has also been some critical grumbling that Taylor’s day may have passed, and that she’s been holding onto her crown because of past glories that include 19 Handy Awards and her induction last year into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
Taylor has just answered the skeptics with a vengeance: Her new release, Royal Blue (Alligator), is not only her first CD in seven years, it’s arguably her best since the head-turning, signature effort I Got What It Takes, cut more than 25 years ago. It includes four Taylor originals and raw, powerful remakes of such classics as ”But on the Other Hand“ and ”The Man Next Door.“ Taylor incorporates contributions from guest stars including B.B. King, Keb Mo’, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and rollicking pianist Johnnie Johnson, who blisters his way behind Taylor throughout ”But on the Other Hand.“
The CD’s high points come on ”Save Your Breath“ and ”Keep Your Mouth Shut and Your Eyes Wide Open.“ Taylor’s stark, humorous, and occasionally defiant narratives offer the wisdom of someone who’s seen it all and has never been defeated. Her tone and patter are every bit as direct and to the point as those of many female rappersbut minus the X-rated dialogue and posturing. She’s just singing the blues, and doing it with passion and spunk. Koko Taylor remains Queen of the Blues, until and unless someone comes along who can make a better record than Royal Blue.
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