By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
Although the "big" acts at the Chicago Blues Fest may continue to ring in your ears long after the fact, it's often the sidewalk musicians or the back-alley bar bands that leave the most lasting impressions. Sure, Albert Collins grinded his ax with his teeth, but that dude with the portable amp set up under the trees played Elmore James tunes as if they had just been written. Such is the case with the roster of talent accumulated by Evidence, a two-and-a-half-year-old label headquartered in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, home of the blues. Well, not exactly, but the small town just west of Philly can lay claim to a blues machine that has rescued some great music from relative obscurity.
Less than household words but more than unknown quantities, artists such as Johnnie Johnson, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Eddie Kirkland, Mighty Joe Young, Larry Davis, and Carrie Smith have found a showcase to display some little-heard releases. For that, they can thank Jerry Gordon and Howard Rosen, two long-time record retailers who combine business savvy with blues fanaticism. Gordon and Rosen bought up the catalogue of the short-lived Pulsar imprint and licensed several releases from the French Black and Blue label. Some of the featured artists, notably Johnson, Davis, and Smith, went on to bigger things after these sides were recorded, signing with major labels, winning awards, appearing on Broadway. The tracks here fill in the gaps, representing some significant work during lean years.
"We used to sell Pulsar at the store," says Gordon, who peddled music from his hip, funky little Third Street Jazz and Rock shop in downtown Philadelphia for seventeen years. "We also used to do investigative work, find out who owned what, what happened to them. So we tracked them [former owners of Pulsar] down," he explains, describing how he and Rosen, who once owned the sprawling We Three record chain (with 19 locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey), purchased their current collection.
The two men, who went to the same Lower Marion high school but "admired each other from afar" in the ensuing years, met again at a party and compared notes. Gordon's experience told him customers were clamoring for out-of-print material; Rosen found there was an extensive market for mid-price and budget records among his mall clientele. And so Evidence was born.
But don't misinterpret these actions, Gordon warns. He and Rosen were not on a mission to save the blues so much as to make some long green. It doesn't hurt that the object of their speculation was something both men know and love. "When we put out CDs, we try to accomplish two things," Gordon explains. "Great music and people with followings. And all of these artists do have followings. Johnson had a big album [1991's Johnnie B. Bad], but we were negotiating on [the Evidence release] before that album even existed."
Although the discs reviewed here are all blues, 50 percent of the Evidence output is jazz, including a highly touted collection of avant pianist and space traveler Sun Ra. "For seventeen years," Gordon says, "people would say 'jazz is picking up.' But it never went away, never got any bigger, never got any smaller. The blues is different. It has gotten stronger. American roots music, with the exception of rap, will never outsell more common strains and derivatives. But the cost of a disc is the same, whether it's Eric Clapton or Mighty Joe Young."
The resulting collection, released earlier this year, is pure grit, with nary a Bonnie Raitt or Carlos Santana to help sell the bill of goods. Evidence is not for the "Hey Otis" visitors to the blue side of the tracks, but for those who prefer to reside there full time.
Blue Hand Johnnie
If you've ever had the overwhelming urge to play dashboard piano while listening to Chuck Berry (there oughta be a law that you must be in a car to listen to Chuck Berry A might just be on the books in St. Louis), thank Johnnie Johnson. As much a part of Berry's signature sound as his chunky guitar rhythms, Johnson's rippling pianistics added elegant Kansas City stride to Berry's tough East St. Louis duck walk.
His trademark captain's hat perched atop his head, his trademark fingers flying quicksilver over the 88s, Johnson has been touring the festival and club circuit with a band tighter than the clasp on Jack Benny's coinpurse. Before Johnnie B. Bad, his 1991 solo breakthrough album recorded with admirers such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, the piano man laid down the tracks for Blue Hand Johnnie with a less glittering cast, but with no less verve or prowess. In fact, Blue Hand is more representative of Johnson's talents, bringing center stage his riffology on originals such as "Johnnie's Boogie" and "Son's Dream," and of course reprising his great moments with you-know-who on "Johnnie B. Goode" and "Back in the U.S.A."
Johnson sets a high standard for honky-tonk piano A combining the dexterity of Art Tatum with the barrelhouse rhythms of Otis Spann A that has inspired many and been equaled by few. Short of delving back into the old Berry singles (as rewarding as that may be), Blue Hand is as good a showcase of Johnson's talents as is available.