Out Of Bad Luck


Out Of Bad Luck – Flyright FLY 590


It was once believed that a postwar blues artist would be signed up by the owner of an independent record company, taken into the studio to ‘do his own thing' whilst the boss took no part in the proceedings other than deciding what, when and how the material was released. This rather romantic view of the postwar independents as patrons of the bluesman's art has long been dispelled by some systematic research into the role of the label owners. For the most part it would seem, they knew exactly what they wanted from their artists and, by acting as producers-cum-A&R men, steered the artist in the direction they determined, with commercial considerations being the paramount motivating force. As the years passed, so the changing commercial demands made upon the blues independents caused the label owners to start feeling their way toward the ever growing ‘teenbeat' market. This market made itself really felt during the sixties, with the result that scores of blues recordings came out bearing more than just a hint of the R &B/Soul sound.

One such label boss was Mel London, who made various attempts, via a variety of labels to find a crossover formula which would keep blues artists selling in their traditionally accepted markets while simultaneously breaking new ground in the commercial world of R&B. London, who first came onto the blues scene with his Chief label in 1957, began by recording Elmore James performing fairly straight Chicago blues, but as the sixties progressed Mel London took to signing headliners like Jr. Wells, Earl Hooker and Magic Sam and, to one degree or another, giving them the ‘commercial' treatment. The artist who,from a blues fan's point of view, didn't fare at all well was MagicSam. He had had a short yet successful career with Cobra (see FLY 561 and FLY 562) and joined Chief in 1961 when he left the army. Of his eight released sides, three were blatant attempts to ride on the back of the then popular white instrumental group, The Ventures, with guitar renditions of current dance crazes, a further three songs had a girl group repeating the vocal refrain after each verse, and the final two were the closest Magic Sam got to recording blues for Mel London. Even then London obviously thought it best to stick with time-tested standards like Fats Domino's favourite of 1950 ‘Everynight About This Time' and a bravely attempted reworking of Louis Jordan's ‘Blue Light Boogie'. In interviews Sam always praised Mel London for the endeavours he made at widening his popularity but, interestingly, when he returned to the studios later in the sixties to record for the likes of Bill Lindemann and Al Benson, it was back to the Cobra sound, regaining some of his former reputation with a newly composed ‘Out Of Bad Luck' a late 1966 version of which is included in this compilation.

However, if Mel London failed to find the commercial formula with Magic Sam, he did enjoy minor hits with Jr. Wells (see FLY 588) and Earl Hooker but sadly London was unable to sustain this success since he ran into taxation problems in 1961 which sent the label to the wall. Mel followed Chief with a very short lived Profile label after which came another enterprise, Age Records. It was Age which proved to be London's most successful attempt at producing soul blues crossover hits. The cornerstone of this success was a Nashville born, 27 year-old called Ricky Allen. Allen joined Age in 1962 and by the mid-sixties had managed to rack up one R&B Top Twenty hit with ‘Cut You A-Loose' and consistent sales with the ‘Ouch'/'l Don't Got It' (sic) coupling. The Allen approach was a combination of not very inspired ‘pop' vocal with a steady R&B beat and, on occasions, echoes of his Nashville country cousins coming through quite noticeably. ‘Ouch', whilst probably not totally to many present day white blues fans' liking, is fairly representative of the sort of music that managed to appeal both to the tastes of the Chicago club patrons and to the pockets of R&B record buyers nationally during the sixties.

While on this upward spiral, Mel London, for reasons best known to himself, formed an alliance with Paul Glass and his All States Distributing Company, out of which came the USA label. London's precise position in this new blues empire has never been fully understood but it has generally been assumed that he took over as production supremo. This amalgamation brought him back to producing more mainstream blues for well established artists. A notable departure, however, were the recordings of relative newcomer, Jesse Fortune. Fortune possessed all the exaggerated vocal mannerisms of Buddy Guy and, at times, sounded more like Guy than Guy, but played no instrument. Somebody at USA, either London or Willie Dixon, came up with the logical idea of getting Guy to back his sound-a-like and, with some superb harmonica accompaniment from Walter Horton, cut two 45s that might easily have passed as the Buddy Guy of five years earlier. Leaving the vocal chores to his doppelganger seems to have allowed Guy to channel even more creativity than usual into his licks.

Three of the Chicago stalwarts who found their way into the USA studio all recorded on the same day: Homesick James, J. B. Lenoir and Koko Taylor. For Memphian Koko Taylor, who had been in Chicago since 1951 and playing the local clubs for some years, it was her first time in a recording studio and probably Mel London saw a great potential ‘southern soul belle' in her. ‘It's Like Heaven To Me' and ‘Honkey Tonk', her only USA recordings, are represented here by several unissued, stereo takes. ‘It's Like Heaven To Me' was what is now termed a deep soul ‘wailer' very much in the idiom of Irma Thomas or Barbara Lynn whilst ‘Honkev Tonk' seems to have the tune of Bill Doggett's instrumental but lyrically is Ray Price's ‘Honky Tonk Song'

Also recording that day was ‘Homesick' James Williamson a distant cousin of Elmore James who, coincidentally, had died two months to the day previously. It may have been another coincidence—or a London-Dixon contrivance —that had Homesick recording ‘Crossroads', a number long associated with Elmore. Ironically, the version that Homesick James cut for USA, although using Elmore's celebrated guitar figures, drew its lyrics from the originator, Robert Johnson.  Even more bizarre was that Homesick copied the song from the Columbia Robert Johnson album given to him by researcher George Mitchell.*  Therefore the version present here is the alternative take not the one as released on 78 by Johnson.  Homesick James's other title, ‘My Baby's Sweet', could have stood the test of time as a loping, slide guitar instrumental had it not been for two verses of definitively puerile ‘pop' lyric—a fair example of one record being aimed at all levels of the market.

A pattern seemed to have been established by USA for the days' recording namely of getting each artist to record two numbers, one new, the other a ‘standard'. So when it came to the turn of veteran J. B. Lenoir the tactic was the same but his ‘new' title represented a startling departure. ‘I Sing Um The Way I Feel' used the bongo player from Koko Taylor's session in a very African role, re-establishing the African supremacy of the rhythm in the blues, as it were. The versions present on this compilation are, like those of Koko Taylor, unreleased stereo takes and, thanks to the two channel separation, we can now hear the remarkable interplay between bongo, drum and guitar on the effectively simple ‘I Sing Um The Way I Feel'. Indeed, the guitar is often used almost as a third tuned drum to complement the bongos. His other number, ‘I Feel So Good' was a reworking of the old Big Bill Broonzy anthem, which he gave a swinging acoustic treatment.

The final item recorded for USA on this compilation is from tenor-playing sessionman, A. C. Reed. The usual format of Reed's USA sides was to emulate the laid back beat and vocal style of namesake, Jimmy. ‘I'd Rather Fight Than Switch' (an advertising slogan of the time) was, however, a complete antithesis being a defiant ‘I've been playing the blues ever since I've been born' attack on those who regarded blues as ‘square'. A. C. Reed's view was, ‘a lot of talk about to go to my head about everybody playing blues is a square, but I don't care cos blues has got me hip, believe me I'd rather fight than switch'. Maybe this simple, yet ironic, philosophy of fighting commercial change rather than switching to it, was a common feeling among blues artists. There were certainly a quantity of' this is the blues' type lyric around toward the late sixties which would suggest so.

Whatever the feelings of  blues artists toward the seemingly commercialisation of ‘their music', it probably had some effect on Mel London for, by the late sixties, he had virtually dropped from sight as a record producer and took to driving a truck for Ernie Leaner's United Record Distributors; a job he was still doing at the time of his death in 1975—he was only one month short of his forty-third birthday. London's death went almost unnoticed by the popular music press and music business in general, which is perhaps a sad comment on an industry that Melvin R. London had spent most of his working life trying to impress.                 Alan Balfour/January 1983

* Welding, Pete ‘Homesick James Williamson' (Blues Unlimited, Collector's Classics 7, May 1965, p. 8)

Sources: Information has been derived from various issues of Blues Unlimited and Living Blues. The following books have also been consulted. M. Leadbitter (ed) ‘Nothing But The Blues', Hanover, 1971 (articles by Neil Patterson) and M. Rowe ‘Chicago Breakdown', Eddison, 1973. Thanks are due to Chris Smith, Bruce Bastin and Bez Turner for a variety of ‘pointers'.

PRODUCER'S COMMENT As far as possible it is intended to issue the best Chicago blues from the 1950s and early 1960s made available to us via our lease deal with Jewel Records. Collectors will know that material is also available to the P-Vine label in Japan and issues on both labels have rarely been identical for obvious differences in planning. These last issues on Flyright attempt to tidy up loose ends for collectors in making available now certain titles only previously available on P-Vine. Thus Flyright LP 590 includes three titles by Magic Sam, to supplement those on FLY LPs 561 and 562, as they were on P-Vine 9011. P-Vine 9026 included some of the Koko Taylor, J. B. Lenoir and Jesse Fortune titles included here, the remainder on that LP will be covered by FLY 594 together with the remaining Otis Rush out-takes and other items. However Flyright 590 also adds all issued takes of the Lenoir and Fortune sessions, apart from the dreadful GOD'S GIFT TO MAN. P-Vine 9024 (in a 4-LP box set) included many titles already on FLY 561, 566, 567, 582 but also had some Fortunes, one side of the Homesick plus the Reed and Allen titles. It made sense to include here both sides of the Homesick James. The Reed and Allen sides, lightweight indeed among many here, have been included as much for completeness as any other, although they neatly bear out Alan Balfour's notes. Bruce Bastin