Even Major Labels Get the Blues

"The blues is alright" goes the refrain of the anthem of the same name, a regional Southern hit back in the mid-Eighties for its writer, vocalist/guitarist Little Milton Campbell, a 40-year veteran of the blues club circuit. The song has become Milton's signature track and is already something of a standard -- a warhorse that's trotted out every night come encore time by cover bands and material-impaired headliners, a sure-fire way to work a crowd into a call-and-response frenzy. Nevertheless, as anthems go, "The Blues Is Alright" is pretty weak; it neither captures nor defines the emotional depth, range, or power of the genre it's meant to salute. Milton's gruff, booming vocal is fine, but the song's cheeseball synthesizers undercut the power of his performance, as do Milton's B.B. King-derived single-string leads and a drum machine that thumps out the beat with cold, robotic precision.

More important, "The Blues Is Alright" merely states the obvious. Of course the blues is all right -- if it weren't, it wouldn't still be around more than 80 years after the first blues recordings were made in makeshift studios and plantation fields across the South. It wouldn't be the precious commodity of a global blues industry that encompasses membership-driven clubs and organizations, music festivals, record labels, and music venues ranging from faux funky chains such as the House of Blues to the real-deal joints that dot the Mississippi Delta. The blues has never been much of a force on the radio, and it's never come close to matching the high-dollar profits of its country-and-western cousin. The music has always been around, though, resting at the heart of countless pop, rock, and soul hits, and providing the soundtracks to numerous films and TV commercials. (Seen John Lee Hooker selling Pepsi lately? Sad.) And it will always be around, whether it's in watery cocktails poured by well-meaning acolytes such as Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Bonnie Raitt, or served straight and chaser-free by rural Mississippi masters such as Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Big Jack Johnson.

At least two major record labels believe enough in the music's vitality and staying power to have introduced imprints devoted to new artists and old legends. BMG is distributing the House of Blues Music Company, an offshoot of the House of Blues nightclub chain owned in part by Memphis entrepreneur and Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett. Atlantic, meanwhile, has started up Code Blue, which purports to be "the Home of the Blues."

This isn't the first time the majors have put their chips on the blues. Virgin's Pointblank affiliate has drawn good press and good sales with its contemporary releases by John Lee Hooker and Pops Staples, as well as its reissues of work by Elmore James, B.B. King, and others. The BMG-distributed Silvertone label, meanwhile, has had even greater success through its association with Buddy Guy, who has earned three Grammy Awards since signing with Silvertone in 1990. Code Blue and House of Blues, however, represent the most aggressive contemporary blues campaign ever initiated by the majors, who have traditionally come sniffing around the music only when it's been injected with a pop-rock sensibility (Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt) or -- better yet -- played with bombast and flash-guitar gusto by white-boy rock and rollers (Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan).

Who knows how Code Blue and the House of Blues will do. Judging by their first batch of releases, they certainly haven't found any newcomers likely to repeat the crossover success of Cray, Raitt, et al. It's hard to imagine anyone at Code Blue thinking they'll sell truckloads of The Real Deal, the debut disc by former Magic Slim guitarist John Primer; it's a hard-swinging set of raw Chicago blues mostly cut live in the studio. A rough-and-tumble showcase for Primer's throaty wail and biting guitar work, The Real Deal offers a wonderful definition of Windy City blues in the mid-Nineties, but it stands very little chance of finding an audience outside of ChiTown clubgoers and assorted other blues fanatics.

Maybe the label's banking on Bo Diddley's star-studded new release to cover the costs of Primer's certain flop. Not a smart move. A Man Amongst Men, Diddley's first major-label release in close to twenty years, adheres to the all-star, scattershot standard set by John Lee Hooker on the desultory 1989 album The Healer. The guest list for Diddley's disc is both impressive (Keith Richards, Ron Wood, the late Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and Billy Boy Arnold are all here) and baffling (out-of-place rapper Philosopher G makes sense, if only because he's Bo's grandson, but Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora?). Really, though, it doesn't matter, because the songs he has written for -- Man Amongst Men are beyond saving, no matter who's on the rescue team. It's impossible to pick the worst cut here -- the streetwise essay "Kids Don't Do It," maybe, or "Bo Diddley Is Crazy," which he must be if he thinks this album adds anything to his deep and rich legacy.

It may be called the House of Blues, but there must be new wings added somewhere around back, because the debut efforts by Jimmy Rip, the Gales Bros., and John Mooney stray far at times from the foundation of the blues A a good thing, usually, depending, of course, on where things wind up. Both Rip and the Gales Bros. take the music into bludgeoning, stun-guitar rock territory; the former A a hotshot session guitarist A even brings along his buddy and former employer Mick Jagger, who makes a pair of vocal-and-harmonica cameos on Way Past Blue, Rip's debut. An impressive guitarist who nonetheless knows very little about economy or the value of open spaces in the music, Rip wants to be ZZ Top ("Close to You"), the Rolling Stones ("Snake Eyes"), and Led Zeppelin ("Walk"). Ultimately he's just another damn white guy playing the bejesus out of his guitar and knocking off twelve-bar couplets so dumb Bo Diddley will probably be covering them next year ("Darkness it goes on for miles and miles/It's black night times two," goes one hackneyed tale).

The brothers Gales -- Manuel, Eugene, and Eric -- are left-handed guitar-playing siblings from Memphis who have each flirted with underground blues/rock success: Manuel, under his pseudonym Little Jimmy King, released two albums a few years back on Bullseye; Eugene and Eric were in the short-lived trio that put out two early-Nineties duds on Elektra. Playing on Left Hand Brand as a trio for the first time, the Galeses wander aimlessly from Sly Stone funk ("Fight the Power," not the Public Enemy scorcher) to Jimi Hendrix crunch ("Somethin's Got a Hold on Me") to synthy soul (a cover of the Romantics' "Talking in Your Sleep" that, while better than the original, is nevertheless unfathomably horrid).

Better to pick up John Mooney's debut Against the Wall, a masterfully navigated musical odyssey through the swampiest parts of south Louisiana, with Mooney's leather-throated vocals and whiplash guitar as guides. If there's one album among these five that seems likely to find an audience, it's this one, a striking debut that fits somewhere between the early work of Los Lobos and the recent bayou boogie of fret man Sonny Landreth.

With few opportunities for widespread radio play, House of Blues and Code Blue will be lucky to sell 50,000 copies of any of these five discs. That's a mere penny in the jar of corporate-label investment, but a more than respectable number by the standards of independent blues-based labels such as Delmark, Alligator, Black Top, and Rounder. Which, in all likelihood, is where Mooney, Primer, Rip, the Gales Bros., and the Mighty Bo will wind up within two years.

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John Floyd