Howlin’ Wolf – “No Place to Go (You” (1959)
There’s no denying Howlin’ Wolf’s absolutely singular, absolutely thrilling voice is key to his appeal. But his early records stand out in the realm of mid-century electric blues for their rhythmic qualities, too. Here the not-what-you’d-expect emphasis on the three, and a subtly swinging jazz-like emphasis to all the instrumentation is spooky and captivating, and feels somehow exceptionally modern. It certainly adds a menacing quality to the desperation of the “old and gray” protagonist’s story. I don’t know if it appeals to electric blues purists, but it certainly goes a long way toward dispelling the “it all sounds the same” prejudices of the non-initiated and the casual listener.
Link Wray – “Rumble Mambo” (1958)
You have to love that just-behind-the-beat swagger of Wray’s guitar, complimented in this version of “Rumble” with a martial dance beat that feels a little punk, and some sultry-sweet sax. This is the very essence of “cool” taking shape.
Shape Note Singers – “Travelling On” (1959)
Beautifully recorded in stereo by Alan Lomax in 1959, this Shape Note Choir exemplifies the slightly odd, but undeniably stirring sound of shape note hymns. Expressively rhythmic for white European-derived music, the four sides of the choir create a roller-coaster ride of canon-like melodies and harmonies.
Billie Holiday with Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan – “Fine & Mellow” (1957)
Despite being visibly emaciated and quite possibly stoned in this very late performance (from CBS’ ambitious ‘The Sound of Jazz‘) all the musical strength and grace is there. The one good thing that came of Ken Burns’ horribly skewed ‘Jazz’ documentary for me was seeing the context to this performance, and realising just how emotional a moment it must have been for Holiday and Young, estranged for so long, performing together one last time. It’s all there in the music, and in her eyes.