The rewards of musical archaeology can be heard on three current albums by formerly unknown artist unearthed from the blues and R&B traditions.
Discovered by an Atlanta deejay, Daddy Zenas Sears, and crowned "King of the Stroll" by Dick Clark, Chuck Willis (the most mournful R&B singer of the '50s) never achieved the success he rightly deserved. After years of writing his own gospel-tinged blues, he finally broke through the charts with an ancient folk-blues standard, "C.C. Rider" (previously adapted by Ma Rainey in 1924 and a hit for Mitch Ryder in the '60s).
Seemingly on a lucky streak, Willis then began dancing the Stroll and sporting turbans (a classy gimmick suggested to him by friend Screamin' Jay Hawkins). Unfortunately, in a sad irony, Willis' next double-sided hit -- "What Am I Living For" and "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes " -- became his epitaph. He died in Atlanta, his home town, on April 10, 1958, two months after his 30th birthday and one week before his last record entered the charts.
"My Story" (Columbia JC 36389) collects 14 of the sides recorded by Willis for Okeh (Columbia's "race" subsidiary) from 1951 until 1956 before he switched to Atlantic. Tormented by love and possessed by an unrelieved despair, Willis was nevertheless much luckier during this period, shaping the R&B ballad into a pleading style that soon would be defined by Ray Charles as soul music.
The dynamics of Willis' voice are exemplified on "I Feel So Bad," a loose mambo covered by Elvis Presley in a rather formal matter. Whispering like a feather against silk, then moaning like inevitable doom, he tearfully sings, "Feel like a ball game on a rainly day."
The anthonlogy seem programmed as a movement through Willis' soul -- begging his lover not to go, crying over the loss, and finally asking forgiveness on his knees. Whether on the jubilantly sexist declaration. "I Rule My House" ("When I say 'frog,' I want you to hop"), or the oddly uptempo suicidal note "Going to the River" ("If you see my mother, tell her 'so long' for me"), Willis remains afflicted, brokenhearted, wounded, tragically forgotten.
No less obscure are Robert Jr. Lockwood and Johnny Shines, both spiritual heirs to Robert Johnson's Delta blues and musicians directly associated with Johnson. (Johnson was Lockwood's stepfather, and Shines traveled and performed with the genius of country blues during the late '30s). Friends since 1927, Lockwood and Shines have consistently struggled to maintain Johnson's traditional form, (Rounder 2023), brings them together for the first time.
Lockwood establishes the album's relaxed atmosphere with fatherly intonations of solidarity, while Shines, in a voice that would wring silver from the moon, provided the mellow humor of a middle-aged philanthropist. The balancing act between the two artist -- every note seems equally split -- carries the tradtional forward instead of losing it in selfish displays of showmanship.
They romp with sexual courage ("Full Grown Woman") and chase the hellhounds on their trail ("I Gotta Find My Baby," "Lonesome Whistle") with an adventurousness that would make Robert Johnson beam.
An even more neglected artist is Robert Nighthawk, a former protege of Muddy Waters and among the first Mississippi bluesmen to venture to Chicago. His status as a forgotten legend rests upon two quirks: his sporadic recording career and his refusal to abandon an itinerant life style in the '50s, when the blues raged in Chicago's Chess studios.
Nighthawk wanted to remain shrouded in mystery -- he never recorded under his real name, Robert Lee McCollum. His elusive nature can be heard in his deep, reflective croon and in the fluidity of his guitar playing, which brought slide work to the level of poetry.
Recorded in 1964 at the crumbling open-air market on Chicago's West Side (where bluesmen and hawkers have rubbed elbows on Sundays for over 50 years), "Live on Maxwell Street" (Rounder 2022) captures "the man with the magic fingers" in a lyrical and ragged performance. Nighthawk's guitar speaks its own guttural language, and the street noises do not intrude -- they simply augment to tough wisdom of the music. On "Yakity Yak," Nighthawk takes Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" down home and "lets it roll like a big wheel in a Georgia cotton field." "Take It Easy Baby" documents Nighthawk's band, the Flames of Rhythm, losing their rhythm in a headlong leap into hysteria.
But the moment that melts the pavement is "Maxwell Street Medley," a pairing of Nighthawk's initial doublesided hit for Chess ("Sweet Black Angel" with "Annie Lee"). As he tears into the song, the crowd shouts encouragement, daring him to make his guitar sweat. Eloquent and proud, Nighthawk just leans forward and pours it on.