the root cellar: yazoo blues

The original Yazoo releases became known not only for their fine samplings of old recordings but also for their great artwork (some done by Perls’ friend R. Crumb) and their thorough liner notes by such blues music scholars as Steve Calt and Stephen Grossman…”

 

by john pinamonti

 

This month I’d like to bring to your attention a groovy little label called Yazoo Records (now owned and distributed by Shanachie Records). It was started by one Nick Perls (1942-1987) with the intent to present classic recordings culled from some private collections of rare 78s. Nick was a New Yorker who loved blues, jazz and country from the 20’s and 30’s and so he decided to collect and compile the best of it for prosperity and the listening public. The original Yazoo releases became known not only for their fine samplings of old recordings but also for their great artwork (some done by Perls’ friend R. Crumb) and their thorough liner notes by such blues music scholars as Steve Calt and Stephen Grossman. The CD versions retain the liner notes and musical content, though some of the artwork has changed over the years. (For those of you who desire a peek at Crumb’s work with this subject matter, look for his collection of baseball-like trading cards of blues, jazz and country greats). You can tell that each record was a labor of love for those involved, and that their only concern was to provide the best possible versions of and information about the songs featured. Perls came from a fairly well-to-do family, so his concern wasn’t to make money off of deceased artists. In some cases, the artists were still alive – not gone but almost forgotten – and Perls managed to get them royalty checks for the first time in their lives. Perls wanted to bring their music to the attention of an appreciative audience, and he did so successfully. I can tell you that I for one would be a lot worse off if I didn’t have my fair share of these albums – it was about the only way to hear this immortal music, and the albums were and are very well distributed and easy to get.

So what should you look for when browsing through the Yazoo catalogue? Well, there really are no sub-par releases on this label, but I’ve decided to tell you about 3 of the best. They are:

Lonesome Road Blues: 15 Years in the Delta (YAZ 1038)
The Roots of Robert Johnson (YAZ 1073)
Country Blues Bottleneck Guitar Classics (YAZ 1026)

Of these, Lonesome Road is my favorite. It features perhaps the earliest recorded version of Catfish Blues (by Robert Petway – a classic covered later by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and even Jimi Hendrix), My Road is Rough and Rocky (by Sam Collins – a truly transcendental vocalist), and Take a Little Walk with Me (by Robert Jr. Lockwood – his jaunty swinging version of Sweet Home Chicago – you can hear how the blues moved from the Delta to Chicago all in this one track), plus tracks by the likes of Big Joe Williams and Skip James.

The Roots of Robert Johnson is a great compilation for those of you who are familiar with that great Delta bluesman – it presents songs and performers who influenced him, and features legends like Charley Patton, Son House and Skip James, as well as some smokin’ tracks like Hambone Willie Newbern’s Roll and Tumble Blues (which would become Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ and Tumblin’) and Koko Arnold’s Milk Cow Blues (Johnson did his own version – see below – , and it was also done by that badass white boy Elvis!).

Lastly, for those slide guitar fans out there, Country Blues Bottleneck Guitar Classics will satisfy your yen for some tasty playing. Featured are songs like Atlanta Moan by Barbeque Bob, the cool St. Louis Blues by Jim and Bob the Genial Hawaiians (Crazy name, right? An even crazier but beautiful track!), Milkcow Calf Blues by Robert Johnson and my fav, Whoopie Blues by the mysterious King Solomon Hill. Throw in some other tracks by guys and gals like Bukka White, Irene Scruggs, Bo Weavil Jackson, Memphis Minnie and Black Ace and you have a winning collection. You’ll be hankerin’ to hear more, and there’s plenty more out there on Yazoo waitin’ for you!

A few final notes –

There is a nice short Nick Perls tribute at :http://www.wirz.de/music/bg_npfrm.htm

And don’t forget that no serious blues collection – hell, no music collection – is complete without Founder of the Delta Blues by Charley Patton (YAZ 2010) and The Roots of Rock (YAZ 1063), which features songs like Statesboro Blues, When the Levee Breaks, Shake ‘Em on Down – you know, all those great “rock” songs you thought bands like Led Zepplin and the Allman Brothers wrote!

If you want to order Yazoo stuff online, you gotta start here now: http://shanachie.com/genres/yazoo/

Next month: Interview with Doug Pomeroy • Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads

 

Originally published:
Issue Six
February 2001

 


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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