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.
Memphis Minnie – “Ain’t No Use Tryin’ to Tell on Me” (1935)
People talk about Betty Davis as a huge influence on Missy Elliott; but Memphis Minnie was an empowered woman who didn’t mince words, a good half-century before either of them. This track conveys personal-politicking that wouldn’t sound unfamiliar to anyone who has felt blackmailed even in 2009. Lizzy Douglas’ lyrics simply told the truth, in direct and precise language. Plus the music is still catchy as hell, 70+ years on.
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.
Bukka White – “Bukka’s Jitterbug Swing” (1940)
Bukka White has, to me, the most unique, identifiable sound I’ve heard in pre-War blues besides Skip James, both vocally and instrumentally. Go buy the most complete collection you can find, and dig in. He can convey anguish, joy, aggravation and friendship not just in the same 3-minute song (ostensibly about doing a particular dance) but seemingly in a single word or chord.