Tag Archives: Chess Records

Eddie Sings The Blues

(originally published in the December 2020 installment of the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s JazzGram)

Chicago saxophonist Eddie Harris is perhaps best remembered as an unabashed experimentalist, famously playing the Varitone electronic saxophone on albums like Plug Me In (1968). He also utilized an early tape looping mechanism (now so en vogue) on 1969’s Silver Cycles. So, Eddie Harris Sings The Blues (1972) stands less as an outlier than as a further testament to his legacy of sonic risk tasking.

Sings The Blues opens with the track “Please Let Me Go”. AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams employs an RMI Electra-piano, all flickers of chunky, reverb-drenched notes. This unusual fanfare sets the scene for Eddie Harris to serenade us, very literally singing to us though the mouthpiece of his electric horn, which he further muddled through a wah wah pedal. Naysayers and purists might be tempted to stop reading here, but the truth of the matter is that Eddie achieved an absolutely spellbinding effect on this album with indefinite vocalizations that defy casual listening. After Eddie sings a few plaintive bars on “Please Let Me Go”, a gorgeous swell of strings blooms on the otherwise sparse track (rounded out by Rufus Reid’s upright bass), enveloping his vocalizations flawlessly. The strings come courtesy of E. Zlatoff Mirsky, Sol Bobrov and the rest of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strings that played on countless Chicago Soul music recordings in the 1960s and 70s (from Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me” to Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and beyond), so you know they can swing.

This album may not be an outlier in Eddie Harris’ catalogue in terms of sheer novelty, but it reflects the cross-pollination found on the Chicago music scene circa 1972. For further proof, the horn section on “Walk With Me” included Willie Henderson & Burgess Gardner, record producers and players responsible for hits by artists like Tyrone Davis (“Turn Back The Hands Of Time”) and Barbara Acklin (“Am I The Same Girl”) at Brunswick Records.

Eddie Harris Sings The Blues (1972) stands less as an outlier than as a further testament to his legacy of sonic risk tasking.”

Andre Fischer (of the rock band The American Breed [“Bend Me, Shape Me”], and later of the funk band Rufus featuring Chaka Khan) played drums on that track, as well. Marshall Thompson (a member of The Chi-Lites) even contributed percussion accompaniment on a handful of tracks. And the strings, horns and vocals on the album were arranged by Richard Evans (of Chess/ Cadet Records fame) who had proven at that label to be as deft at working in soulful modes as he was with jazz and blues.

The title of this album is reminiscent of the Billie Holiday standard titled “Lady Sings The Blues”, and Eddie’s hazy, blurred out voice on “Please Let Me Go” and “Eddie Sings The Blues” bears more than a passing resemblance to Ms. Holiday’s (particularly in regards to his phrasing). And on “Please Let Me Go” in particular, arranger Richard Evans dials up an arrangement befitting a gardenia-adorned torch singer. However, this album was not recorded as a cash-in response after the release of the popular Diana Ross film Lady Sings The Blues (a fictionalized account of the life and death of Billie Holiday). Eddie Sings The Blues was recorded months before the film’s release, and contains no material that was previously recorded by Holiday. But Eddie definitely had a sense of humor (even releasing an infamous album of comedy monologues in 1976), so it very well may have been recorded anticipating the film’s ultimate success. Besides, any level of confusion related to the album’s title would likely have pleased him.

But, ultimately, the album’s ambiguous connections to a Billie Holiday biopic are not what makes this album notable. Eddie Harris Sings the Blues is a fairly lean album (weighing in at 6 tracks, soaking wet) that somehow delivers the sort of blues that begs for a Formica bar stool and a stiff gimlet on “Eddies Sings The Blues”, moody, big band jazz on “Please Let Me Go”, the sort of soulful jazz you might find on a Young-Holt Unlimited album on “Walk With Me”, and even a playful, positively angular, Latin-tinged romp through “Giant Steps”. In short, it’s a deeply soulful album flecked with avant touches and a flair for the dramatic that never teeters into schmaltziness.


Blind Man: Little Milton’s hooked and he can’t let her go.

little-milton

One of my very favorite Chess Records from the 1960s is “Blind Man” by Little Milton, released on Chess’ Checker subsidiary. Below is a rare televised performance from January of 1966 on a show called “The !!!! Beat”. “The !!!! Beat” was a program that was hosted by Nashville disc jockey Bill “Hoss” Allen.

The song itself was originally released by Bobby “Blue” Bland, who does a jazzier rendition. But Little Milton’s version is all heart and glowing grit. Chess Records session blind-manmen on the Little Milton version put in a characteristically stellar performance, as well. It’s beautifully brassy Chicago blues-soul of the highest order.

Notably, neither version of “Blind Man” was a hit. But the song was covered later in the 1960s by British rock-jazz group Traffic. A live recording of their version was released in 1969, after the original lineup of Traffic broke up.

But this is Little Milton. He’s hooked and he can’t let her go. Of this, I am wholly convinced. Jive on.


Reclaimed Soul: A Thin Line Between Chicago Soul and Gospel.

Reclaimed Soul Host Ayana Contreras explores the thin line between the Gospel and Soul scenes in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s, and plays cuts that dip into each genre. Featuring music by The Salem Travelers, Gospel Clouds, Brother Samuel Cheatam, The Independents, and much more.187256-001

Just to illustrate the ties that bind Chicago Soul and Gospel, Samuel Cheatam rose through the ranks of both the Tabernacle Church of Prayer Choir and the Mount Pleasant Choir before self-releasing his first solo work, a working of the classic “Troubles of the World” on the Cora label in 1969. His single was produced by none other than Chuck Bernard. Chuck Bernard was a Chicagoan by way of St. Louis. He was a hip, gritty soul singer, playing in clubs and recording in the late 60s on St, Laurence, Satellite, and Zodiac. Cheatam’s Bernard-produced 45 sold well enough, leading to a reissue by West Side Chicago-based label One Way Records. A subsequent 1977 album was called “Stranger In The City”. This give-and-take was very common in Chicago, despite the historical chasm between the secular world and the sacred.

For fresh episodes of Reclaimed Soul, listen in Thursdays at 8pm CST on vocalo.org, or tune in to 89.5fm (NW Indy) and 90.7fm (CHI)


The Jazz-Soul of Chess Records

chess checker

Chicago’s Chess Records may be best known for its blues artists such as Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter. But in the 1960s, they also had a wealth of hip Jazz and Soul artists, many of whom recorded for Chess’ Cadet subsidiary. On this installment of Reclaimed Soul, host Ayana Contreras featured the Jazz-Soul side of Chess, with music from artists including Clea Bradford, The Dells, McKinley Mitchell, Dorothy Ashby, Ahmad Jamal, The Soulful Strings, and much more.

Catch fresh installments of Reclaimed Soul Thursdays at 8pm (CST) on vocalo.org or over the air in Chicagoland on 89.5fm (NWI) and 90.7fm (CHI)


A bit about Black Rock Bands out of Detroit.

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This weekend at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I caught a documentary about Death, a 1970s all-black proto-punk band out of Detroit. The documentary, titled “A Band Called Death” chronicled the group’s forming, brush with success, and descent into obscurity. The master tapes of their sole album, recorded under Don Davis’ Groovesville productions languished in an attic for over thirty years. That is until a perfect storm of record collectors resurrected the work, resulting in a New York Times article, a reissue, and a tour.

It was interesting that one refrain in particular was repeated throughout the documentary:

black people in Detroit just weren’t doing rock.

Sure, it wasn’t the norm; but I think that the idea that black people weren’t doing rock is an over-generalization. I would argue that early Funkadelic (especially the album “Maggot Brain“) is as much Rock as it is Funk. The wailing guitars melded seamlessly with gospel-tinged organs and sizzling drums into something quite some distance from Motown. Oh yes, and Eddie Hazel is a totally under-appreciated face-melting guitarist.

Besides, it’s worth noting that most classic “rock” idioms come from some sort of “black” music (from the earliest Rock and Roll to the Blues).

The other refrain heard in the documentary “A Band Called Death” was that the name “Death” was a huge stumbling block in the way of their success.

Interestingly, an all-black rock group called  Black Merda came out of Detroit and recorded an album here in Chicago for Chess Records in 1970. They worked with another Detroit-based rock artist called Fugi (who also released some singles on Chess). It was by no accident that these folks found their way to Chess.

By 1969, Chess had released some unbelievable psychedelic Blues records featuring the label’s biggest stars, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. The backing bands were, for the most part, black (featuring Chicago session artists Morris Jennings, Pete Cosey, and more).

Below is a picture of Anthony Hawkins of Black Merda (with “Mary”) circa 1969. They are proudly holding copies of the two psychedelic blues records by Muddy Waters: After the Rain (1969) and Electric Mud (1968). More on those albums can be found here.

Mary, Anthony 1968 Photos from Black Merda

Black Merda’s album was released; but didn’t sell many copies. But, I’d credit their obscurity to the subsequent sale and implosion of Chess Records, rather than their death-related name.

Jive on.


Fontella Bass: In Memorium.

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Fontella Bass was an amazing lady who passed away on December 26th, 2012. In memorium, Darkjive revisits a post from 2011 that touches on her legacy on the Chicago Soul scene.

Not only [was] the trajectory of her career fascinating, but she’s arguably the archetype for what Aretha Franklin was to become: a sassy, soulful siren in the first degree.

Ms. Bass comes from the St. Louis, and is a part of a group of St. Louis native vocalists that made their way in Chicago (this includes Chuck Bernard, Little Milton, and Bobby McClure). Her voice can be described as a salt-sweet Alto that is absolutely gorgeous, in my opinion.

She is best known for the HUGE hit “Rescue Me”, which is a Chicago-written, recorded,and produced slice of 60s Soul. Her greatest hit (which she also co-wrote), “Rescue Me” has been featured in movies, commercials, and TV shows galore; but it is also too often mistakenly attributed to Aretha Franklin. Ironically, at the time of its release, Aretha Franklin was singing jazzy pop standards, a’la young Dinah Washington. 

In fact, “Rescue Me” predates Aretha Franklin’s soulful breakthrough release “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” by a couple of years.

“Rescue Me” was released on Chess Records’ Checker imprint, after which Fontella continued to release soulful gems for the label (my favorites being “I Can’t Rest” and “Lucky in Love”) until 1968 or so.

By 1970, in a plot twist worthy of an arthouse movie, Fontella Bass was married to musician Lester Bowie and had joined him as an expatriate in France in The Art Ensemble of Chicago. There, she served as the vocalist in the group: a seminal, Chicago-based free-jazz combo… I suspect that’s her in the white face paint in the far right corner of the album pictured below.

In 1990, she heard her own voice singing “Rescue Me” on an American Express commercial and was inspired to look into her rights. She wound up suing American Express and its ad agency. She won over $50,000 plus damages in a settlement. Awesome.

for more Fontella Bass music click here and scroll to the bottom of the post.


More and More: Little Milton’s plea for more as the cost of living was skyrocketing.

Whew. That was a long blogpost title, huh? I know. But, let me explain:

In late 1967, Chess Records’ Checker subsidiary released this record entitled “More and More” by Little Milton, where the chorus sings and growls:

“More and More… all the time!”

Ironically, the flip is a meandering soulful blues cut called “The Cost of Living”. So, maybe the editorial statement of the release was:

“The Cost of Living” is “More and More”!

Or, maybe, on a more hopeful note:

With “The Cost of Living” growing “More and More”… find More with Less!

Either way, it’s a beautifully grooving little record by Little Milton in the vein of all his grooving blues-soul hybrids cut here in Chicago in the late 1960s (my favorites being “Drifting Drifter”, “Blind Man”, “Don’t Leave Her”, “Poor Man”, and more). It also just happens to make me pretty happy.

James (“Little”) Milton Campbell, Jr. recorded most of his best known material here in Chicago, but he hailed from St. Louis. In addition to growling soulful vocals, he also played blues guitar. Oh yes, and he wasn’t particularly little.


Fontella Bass: sassy soulful siren in the first degree.

Fontella Bass is an amazing lady. Not only is the trajectory of her career fascinating, but she’s arguably the archetype for what Aretha Franklin was to become: a sassy, soulful siren in the first degree.

Ms. Bass comes from the St. Louis, and is a part of a group of St. Louis native vocalists that made their way in Chicago (this includes Chuck Bernard, Little Milton, and Bobby McClure). Her voice can be described as a salt-sweet contralto that is absolutely gorgeous, in my opinion.

She is best known for the HUGE hit “Rescue Me”, which is a Chicago-written, recorded,and produced slice of 60s Soul. Her greatest hit (which she also co-wrote), “Rescue Me” has been featured in movies, commercials, and TV shows galore; but it is also too often mistakenly attributed to Aretha Franklin. Ironically, at the time of its release, Aretha Franklin was singing jazzy pop standards, a’la young Dinah Washington. 

In fact, “Rescue Me” predates Aretha Franklin’s soulful breakthrough release “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” by a couple of years.

“Rescue Me” was released on Chess Records’ Checker imprint, after which Fontella continued to release soulful gems for the label (my favorites being “I Can’t Rest” and “Lucky in Love”) until 1968 or so.

By 1970, in a plot twist worthy of an arthouse movie, Fontella Bass was married to musician Lester Bowie and had joined him as an expatriate in France in The Art Ensemble of Chicago. There, she served as the vocalist in the group: a seminal, Chicago-based free-jazz combo… I suspect that’s her in the white face paint in the far right corner of the album pictured below.

In 1990, she heard her own voice singing “Rescue Me” on an American Express commercial and was inspired to look into her rights, and wound up suing American Express and its ad agency. She won over $50,000 plus damages in a settlement. Awesome.

Enjoy Fontella Bass singing “Rescue Me” (while looking quite Chicago Mod in a houndstooth cap and jacket) on Shindig! in 1965.

…and, below, listen for some of her vocals on a righteous jazz workout from The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Jive on!


Howlin’ Wolf: getting in the mood with a psychedelic “Spoonful”

An absolutely beastly rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” by… Howlin’ Wolf. I feel like playing this cut tomorrow night.

Part of a push at Chess Records in the late 1960s (spearheaded by Gene Barge and Marshall Chess) to rerecord both Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters in the then contemporary Psychedelic Blues style featuring awe-inspiring session work by Morris Jennings, Phil Upchurch, and more. Read more about this groovy situation here.


Monk Higgins: The Look of Love


An early Charles Stepney arrangement (who later worked with The Dells, Rotary Connection, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, among others), this record rumbles and slinks along with soul.

I love how the chunky electric keys interplay with the swirling strings, and Monk’s swinging saxophone.

Monk Higgins was born Milton Bland in Arkansas. He was already a staple on the Chicago Scene when he released this cut on Chess in 1968 (just before he went to LA, bringing fellow Chicago Scenesters Freddie Robinson and Mamie Galore for the ride).

UPDATE: For more Lovely versions of this classic composition (and a touch of drama), check the comments of this post.