......................... I GOT A RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES
....................................................PART III: MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME
.............................................................Text and photos by Larry Benicewicz
The early 70s for Louisiana Red was as rough a period as could be imagined. He was, for all practical purposes, a migrant worker, picking fruit alongside Jamaican nationals in the southeast U.S. at the whim of contractor, Jonas Henderson. Not only was he out of music (except for a brief fling with his own group, the Bluesettes, in the Atlanta area) but also his long-anticipated Atco album was a commercial flop. But to top it all, his beloved wife, Ealase, had died of cancer in Augusta, GA, leaving him with two young boys and a stepdaughter to raise. After she was gone, it seemed like the whole family turned against me, as if it were my fault. So, I packed my bags and headed back to New York City, said Red, commenting on probably the worst of times in his life.
At first he worked for his brother-in-law, a contractor, whom he accompanied north, but soon, now living in East Orange, NJ, he was back this time as a yard truck driver with Bayonne Barrel & Drum, a firm for which he toiled in the early 60s. In fact, his boss, Frank Langella, a generous man, bought Red a Fender Stratocaster to play for a soiree for his actor son (Humbert Humbert in the remake of Lolita, The Mens Club, Dracula, and Diary Of A Mad Housewife) by the same name. Also after his return (and to his delight), he found that the old 37 Club on Avenue L was still hopping and he quickly took up where he left off, entertaining the meat packers, especially on Friday nights, when they were quick to dispose of their paychecks.
It wasnt long before old friend, Bill Dicey, looked him up and suggested he meet Kent Cooper and Heiner Stadler, who were at the time inaugurating their new blues labels, respectively, Blue Labor and Labor, located at 106 Haven Ave in New York City.
Ill never forget it. One afternoon we went over to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn just off Flatbush Ave at 74 Midwood St, the home of Queen Tiny Robinson, a niece of the Huddie Ledbetter [Leadbelly]. Later, he [Kent] told me to come over to his office in lower Manhattan at 1515 Rivington St. Thats where he signed me up, said Red.
According to Red, Kent, who is now a novelist/playwright in Durham, NC, had a song that he was anxious to record, Sweet Blood Call, but he needed an artist who could finally do justice to it. As the title track, it was included in Reds first album on the fledgling label, The Blues Purity of Louisiana Red, Volume I: Sweet Blood Call, which included two of Reds own compositions, the typically autobiographical Death of Ealase and Im Going Down to Atlanta.And being handy with both the harp and acoustic and electric guitars, Kent often called upon Red to back up other Blue Labor artists in his studio (in White Plains, NY), such as Brownie McGhee (with Harlem-born harmonica player, James Sugar Blue Whiting, pianist Sammy Price, and bassist Leonard Gaskin) on his Blues Is Truth LP and also on Goin Train Blues by another harmonica player extraordinaire, Peg-Leg Sam (Arthur Jackson, 1911-1977), who spent nearly his entire life traveling in circuses and carnivals as part of a tent troupe before being discovered as part of the Chief Thunder Cloud Medicine Show in 1972. Red also puts in a cameo on two other Blue Labor undertakings - Too Wet To Plow - by Johnny Shines and Music Is My Business by barrelhouse pianist, Roosevelt Sykes.
Neither of Reds two efforts, the first released in 1975 and the later 1976 Volume II: Dead Stray Dog, could be described as blockbusters, despite a media blitz in Living Blues, but they put him back in the public spotlight after a long hiatus. And during the time of blues bleakest period during the disco age, it was a noteworthy accomplishment; so much so, that Kent did not have any difficulty with promoters in arranging that Red appear on the slate of the 1975 Montreux (SW Switzerland) Jazz Festival, then one of the premier venues in the world. This was indeed a quantum leap for Red, who had just arrived on the scene only a few years before and heretofore had only the Buffalo Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwenksville, PA, in his resume. Now he was on the stage and rubbing elbows with some of blues greatest legends, like Lowell Fulson, Champion Jack Dupree, Etta James, Clifton Chenier, Juke Boy Bonner, and Albert King, for all the assembled multitude to see.
Just last year, Heiner Stadler released an album of his performance there with Albert King, Live In Montreux, on the Labor label, the royalties of which Red will probably never see.
All this time he had this material in the can and I didnt even know that he was secretly taping me, said Red recently. But he had to reluctantly admit that, aside from this unpleasant note, it was Montreux that opened the most doors for him both abroad and stateside.
Back on the homefront, Red, with Bill Dicey on harmonica, was a regular guest in clubs such as Newarks Little Joes Bar and Manhattans Old Reliable Bar, Folk City, and the Bottom Line. And Kent Cooper was eager to have him return to the studio, but for some reason the project never came into fruition until 1982 as Midnight Rambler, which Cooper leased to Tomato Records. Critics like Bill Dahl remarked upon its highly charged emotional content which was at times harrowing but one of Reds more intense efforts.
The title of this LP (subsequently reissued on Rhino and still in print) had a colorful anecdote. After Montreux, we went over to Geneva to this club where they served this drink called Midnight Rambler and Kent had ordered a few. It was guaranteed to knock you on your ass and he found out the hard way about its power. So, he dedicated a song to it, said Red with a hearty laugh.
In the audience at Montreux was German impresario, Horst Lippman. Blues fans might remember that it was he who offered the legendary Howlin Wolf guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, the then princely sum of 10,000 German marks to make a clandestine LP (on the Amiga label) in East Berlin in 1964, when such decadent music was verboten on the airwaves and it was he also who was personally responsible for jump starting the career of the late Washington, D.C.-based Piedmont guitar wizard, Archie Edwards, who was first recorded in his barber shop by Lippmans advance scout, Axel Kustner. Later, Lippman created his own label, L&R (Lippman and Rau), and recorded many of the artists whom he invited to the annual American Folk Blues Festival in Frankfurt. In 1982, for example, Lippman recorded the whole crew at this latter jamboree, including Edwards, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, James Son Thomas, and Carey Bell. As a result of these concerts, Lippman was able to also record blues giants, Willie Dixon and Earl Hooker.
About 1978, still recalling the impact of Reds scintillating set at Montreux, the determined Lippman finally found an opportunity to record him, but this time in New York, at Penthouse studios where New York Blues was taped. On another occasion, Lippman collared Red while he was on a tour of Canada, which included such far flung outposts as Edmonton. It was a junket which culminated with the Montreal Jazz Festival, featuring Willie Mae Big Mama Thornton of Hound Dog fame, pianist Nina I Loves You Porgy Simone, and Texas blues exemplar, Lightnin Hopkins (during which the promoter of the outdoor concert, DuDu Boicel, recorded Red and his group at the Rising Sun Club and ultimately released the Rising Sun Collections, a compilation of artists who attended the festival and executed local gigs). I remember this particular project really well because Lippman later flew me into Chicago to record with Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Odie Payne on drums, Sunnyland Slim on piano, and Carey Bell on harp because his first choice - Big Walter Horton - was too drunk to play right, said Red. Completed at Ed Codys Studio on Michigan Ave, it became Reality Blues. And its cover(which Red has always despised), depicting a Black man using the American flag as a hood, immediately brought controversy. And there was still yet another L& R production, Anti-Nuclear Blues, but this LP was recorded in Kassel, Germany about an hour from Hanover. This album definitely had a message and I remember that I was on the cover in front of the White House with a Stella guitar in my hand. It was kind of a hurry-up type of operation. The Green Party wanted it right away, added Red, commenting upon the 1980ish political endeavor.
Red, too, was to perform a couple of times for Lippmans American Folk Blues Festival, in 1980 and 1983. And just this past August, Red traveled to Frankfurt along with Hubert Sumlin and Carey Bell for both a reunion of the festival artists and a tribute to its late creator.
In fact, by the late70s, Red, like so many other American bluesmen, despaired of finding regular work in American and was all too eager to take advantage of Europes love affair with American roots music. Close on the heels of his Montreux triumph came another in Oslo, Norway. Then Red, Dr. Ross, and Tommy Tucker were dispatched to London, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, billed as the American Blues Stars. Also there was a memorable tour of Japan (with Odetta, John Sebastian, and Lonnie Mack) in 1977. Unlike back in the U.S., where he was scuffling for blues venues, the concerts abroad were not only plentiful but were smashing successes, a revelation which ultimately prompted Red to finally settle down in Hanover, Germany in 1983, a city where he still resides to this day. In fact, it was real easy.
It was my old buddy, Champion Jack Dupree, who was already living there. He found me an apartment in his own building in fifteen minutes, said Red, who still resides there.
But towards the end of the decade of the 70s, there was still yet another overseas producer who was taking a great deal of interest in this up-and-coming blues giant - the then 24-year-old John Stedman of England. About to celebrate his silver jubilee in recording, he has issued over that span nearly 200 new albums and 100 reissues, many in handsome boxed sets, of traditional and vintage jazz like Jelly Roll Morton and Django Reinhardt. Early on his philosophy was to book an American blues legend and back him with a sympathetic British supporting cast. It was really a hands-on labor of love at first. I would be the agent, promoter, manager, and roadie, following these artists to clubs and cultural centers all over England. But after I began recording them, it got to be too much. I couldnt be at the gig in Manchester one night and be back in London the following morning to man the phones of my business, said John. Over the years, John has recorded a veritable blues pantheon of all-star performers, including Buddy Guy (three times), Larry Garner, Guitar Shorty (David Kearney), Roy Gaines, Jimmy Witherspoon, Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, Fernest Arceneaux and the Thunders, Carey Bell, Professor Longhair (Roeland Byrd), and even Washington-based harp genius, Charlie Sayles. But in the beginning, when he was merely booking, many renowned figures, for one reason or another, slipped through his fingers, as far as the studio was concerned - Billy Boy Arnold, Eddie Boyd, Roy Brown, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Rosco Gordon, J.B. Hutto, and Johnny Shines.
But John Stedman wasnt about to make the same mistake twice in Louisiana Reds case. On his second tour, John imported Sugar Blue (who was since 1976 living as an expatriate in Paris and had just helped the Rolling Stones with megahit Miss You) to back Red, then performing at Londons 100 club. This live recording (1001), Red, Funk, and Blue debuted what would be Johns JSP label, which he at the time bestowed the name of Black Panther.
Yes, it was the first, but I wasnt very pleased with it. It was sort of rough around the edges, said John, who throughout the years had personally handled a dozen junkets for this bluesman, especially after Red had conveniently moved to Hanover.
But John is justifiably proud of Reds next two LPs for JSP. In 1983 John at Soto studio in Evanston, IL (north of Chicago) recorded Blues For Ida B, a solo effort from Red, which he thought was a masterpiece of stream of consciousness. And the reviewers must have concurred, rewarding Red with a Handy in the category of the best Traditional Male Artist of the Year. And he also thought that the 1994 issue of Always Played The Blues, with Jon Cleary on piano every bit as worthy as the former for such recognition (in fact, it earned four diamonds from the AMG All Music Guide to Blues). But it never came. We won a few of them [Handys] back then when the competition was fair. I suppose we wont be awarded any more, now that we dont sponsor them, said John emphatically, who also released more of the remaining Soto outtakes as Blues From The Heart in 1984 (now out of print).
In 1998, John decided to issue one more Louisiana Red CD, the Blues Spectrum of Louisiana Red, which is a compilation and retrospective of the best of previously recorded material. In this mid-priced sampler is also included some BBC radio transcriptions as well and the album is aptly named, demonstrating Reds proficiency in different musical settings. Distributed by Navarre in the States, this CD and others can be found in large retail outlets like Tower and Virgin and, if not, can be obtained through his website: JSP.com.
As the 80s dawned, Reds motto was, indeed, have blues will travel. And despite invitations to such major happenings stateside, such as the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival Blues Picnic in Stanhope, NJ, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and even the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he couldnt find enough local work to sustain him, so he tried his luck in Chicago. There he would meet longtime friend and producer Bob Corritore.
I first saw Red at Jazzfest and was later able to hook up with him in Chicago and actually played a little harp behind him at the Delta Fish Market. When things didnt pan out for him there, he decided to follow me to Phoenix where I had moved. It was kind of opportune for him in that a recent love interest of his had relocated there as well. In fact, we took him in after he split from this woman and he stayed with us for a year or so, said Bob.
Bob had begun his own blues label, Blues Over Blues, having recorded in Chicago in 1979 Big Walter Horton harp protégé, Little Willie Anderson (backed by Robert Jr. Lockwood, Sammy Lawhorn, Jimmie Lee Robinson, and Fred Below) and Big Leon Brooks ( both reissued on Earwig), and since he had Louisiana Red so close at hand, he sought to record him. I wanted to do something out of the ordinary with him, to go back and recreate the atmosphere and sound of the Detroit clubs like when he was playing with John Lee Hooker, not this modern overproduced, slick blues. For these three sessions, I got him to play a Gibson hollow-bodied ES 25 with f-holes and no cutaway and with a soap box pick-up. Then, I added a small Harmony amp to achieve that real down home effect. And Red was really up to the task and even cried during the numbers, having just broken up with this woman, said Bob.
With Bob providing the responsive accompaniment on harmonica, the two were a dynamic and popular duo, gigging all over the Phoenix area during 1981 and 82, until Red was called overseas for a tour(leaving behind his steel National guitar) and found a new address in Hanover. Since that time, Red has returned no less than five times to visit with his collaborator in Phoenix. And as far as the master tapes were concerned, Bob waited fifteen years before eventually selling this whole collection to Chicagos Earwig label, headed by Michael Franks. Named Sittin Here Wonderin, it finally saw the light of day in 1995.
Red meanwhile was riding high in Europe, even starring in a film with Eric Burdon of the Animals, The Comeback, in 1982. In one poignant scene of this cinematic rarity, Red is standing by the Berlin Wall and spies a dog to which he says, Your life is better than mine. And thereafter, he was headlining the Amsterdam Blues Festival in 1984 and 1985 and also the annual Pier Festival in Brussels, Belgium. I guess my one regret was that I never was called for the North Sea Jazz Festival, which, as you know, features quite a few bluesmen, said Red. His booking agent at the time, the English-speaking Rolf Schubert, was also keeping him on the go both on the road and in the studio. Schubert, who is well known in the states particularly for arranging zydeco tours for such notables as Fernest Arceneaux and the Thunders, The Creole Zydeco Farmers, and most recently Thomas Big Hat Fields, is not nearly as renowned as a producer, since his albums can rarely be found here. Nonetheless, during nearly the decade in which he was associated with Louisiana Red, he recorded no these than five separate LPs and CDs, most of which the sessions took place in his native Cologne (Köln). The first and considered the gem of the lot was Ripp Off Blues with Champion Jack Dupree which transpired during a junket to Copenhagen, Denmark in 1984. The others were Back To The Roots
in 1986, Ashland Avenue Blues in 1992, Brothers In The Blues with Carey Bell in 1993, and Sugar Hips in 1995. All of the Schubert material has been issued on the CMA label of Christian Muller, who resides in Aschaffenburg, near Frankfurt, and is not a logo near and dear to the heart of Red. That man[Muller] has never paid me for anything, but hes had a lot of personal problems, like an alcoholic father. So, I decided to just let things be, said Red.
The decade of the 90s in general was witness to Louisiana Reds reemergence as a force to be reckoned with and as time wore on more and more recognition was accorded him. Not only were new undertakings in progress, like the aforementioned Rolf Schubert and John Stedman sessions, but also retrospectives of all sorts were being offered to the public, like The Best Of Louisiana Red on Evidence in 1995, a recapitulation of his Herb Abramson Atco material; the Lowdown Back Porch Blues on Collectables (a noted oldies reissue label), a reprise of the album by the same name for Roulette, and Kent Coopers Walked All Night Long on Blues Alliance which contains more than a few vintage tracks by Red from his Blue Labor days.
But the crowning achievement, as far as recording went were his two CDs on the aforementioned Earwig label, Millenium Blues and Driftin, recorded in respectively 1999 and 2000 in Chicago by producer Michael Franks. In fact the former, Millenium Blues, was nominated for four separate Handys. Supported by an all-star cast of characters, including former Albert King drummer Dave Jefferson, erstwhile Albert Collins keyboard player, Allan Batts, bassist Willie Kent (and his Gents), and longtime Muddy Waters drummer, this time on harp--Willie Big Eyes Smith--Louisiana Red acquitted himself with much self-possession and assurance, returning quite handily to his Chicago style of blues. These much acclaimed albums and others of the Earwig catalogue can be obtained by accessing the website: earwigmusic.com.
A key figure of these Earwig sessions was Brian Bisesi, who went back quite a way with Red. In fact, he played with Red during his Folk City days in Manhattan in the mid-70s and like Red frequented the blues clubhouse of Victoria Spivey on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. Over the years, they had a personal friend in common, drummer/vocalist Ola Dixon. When Bisesi produced Dixons album on Severn, Red became very intrigued, especially with the full horn sections, a treatment which his slew of albums had heretofore never properly received. And when Brian approached David Earl about recording Red on Severn, the latter was delighted to have such a blues legend join his roster.
I looked at Red and realized that he not only had paid his dues, but was long overdue. But I wanted to do something radically different with him. Michael Franks should be commended for recreating that Chicago-genre sound. Instead, I wanted to go in another direction, even an old timey effect. Thats why I included the mandolin. It was necessary, though, to break Red out of his normal, totally self-absorbed, trance-like state when he played and in the process reach a wider audience. I wanted to make Red more listener-friendly, hence the title of the CD, A Different Shade Of Red, said Brian, trying to explain his rationale for attempting this challenge.
When word got out of the impending venture, it wasnt difficult to recruit volunteers as sidemen. Firstly, there was Jimmy Vivino, guitarist for Max Weinbergs (one of Bruce Springsteens fabled E Streeters) house band of the Conan OBrien show, who was a friend since childhood and who happened to live in Woodstock, NY, and was practically a neighbor of ex-Band drummer, Levon Helm. Helm, as mentioned before, recorded for Roulette during the same time frame as Red as member of Ronnie Hawkinss outfit and he not only offered his services to the undertaking but the use of his barn which could double as a studio. Next, probably the best blues pianist on the East Coast, Dave Maxwell, was added to the mix. Maxwell had played on local blues belter Jesse Yawns great Tino Gonzales-produced Forevermore CD on Horseplay records. And there were cameos galore, including Ola Dixon on one track, Benjie Porecki of Severn records on organ, and another ex-Band stalwart, Garth Hudson, on organ and saxophone. One could not possibly dream of a better line-up, unless John Sebastian[of the Lovin Spoonful] who happened to be indisposed, could have lent a hand, said Brian, who also contributed mightily on guitar, as well as by jointly producing the session with Vivino.
A Different Shade Of Red (Severn CD 0016), subtitled The Woodstock Sessions, Reds most recent effort, is indeed appropriately named and a worthy inclusion in the Severn inventory, which of late has added both Roy Gaines and Lou Pride to its burgeoning stable of stars. And it is different in at least three major ways. First, it familiarizes the listener with all the facets of blues that Red has in his long history mastered, including funk, Take Your Time, the autobiographical Blues 2001, Alabama Train, and Lightning Bug; Delta blues(with killer slide) similar to the Elmore James-like Blue Evening and Wheres My Friends? and the early Aristocrat sound of Muddy Waters in Laundromat Blues; jump blues a la Louis Jordan in numbers like Lou Jean and I Had A Dream; and roots blues with a 30s feel that would make the late mandolin player, Johnny Young, proud - Phillipa. In fact, all of Reds musical influences are on display in all their variety. Secondly, the CD is different in that it presents Red performing in all sorts of band configurations, be they electric or acoustic, and, frankly, hes so loose and laid back and in such a comfort zone with each that one has to wonder which is his strong suit. And thirdly, it is different from the rest in that Brian accomplishes his goal of making Red eminently listenable with the sensitive insertion of expert background musicians like Maxwell and Hudson, filling out the sound, and with the adroit addition of punchy, infectious, attention-grabbing horns - again, in Reds case, quite a new departure and it works. The project, as a whole, is a fitting tribute to his wide-ranging musicianship, a real feather in his cap, and something to which he can look back with pride. Red has at long last arrived in the studio.
And one need only to look inside the cover of the CD wherein Red, surrounded by his family and musical associates, is presented with the keys to the city of Woodstock. So much, like a national treasure, is he appreciated by the blues community.
In spite of such accolades, Red knows the reality of the situation and that, at the moment, blues are on the downturn, and huge concert venues aside, wherein he rides into town like the Lone Ranger (note his recent excursions to the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival, and the Poconos) and fulfills his commitment, he will not be able to support himself stateside. So, he crosses the pond and is out of the U.S. publics eye for months at a time. This is hardly the way to become a blues superstar, to offer only appetizingly little glimpses of himself, after such long absences.
But on the world stage, particularly Europe, its quite a different story. Try to catch this blues hero at home. Gotta go, Larry. Duty calls, says Red. This past August, it was the Lippman tribute and a blues workshop at Exeter College in Devonshire, England. Next month will be the dreaded trip to Istanbul, Turkey, where the currency is 1,000,000 lira to the dollar. For Red, for now, hustle is still the name of the game. Such is the life of a true American original.