Key to the Highway
Big Bill Broonzy 1930 & 1956
Art Blakey Quintet 1954
J.B. Hutto 1965 & 1972
It has been a while since I’ve been on the air; so happy to be back. First thing I wish to do is to thank Sneaker Cat for covering almost all of my assigned shows. I saw the name Sneaker Cat on the DJ list for the 2018 Blues Marathon and wondered who the heck that was. Turns out it was my friend Paul who I first met in the late 60s and rekindled a friendship when he appeared here at KKUP. Eventually, Paul even took over this time slot alternating weeks with me until he got burned out on the grind. Paul puts on a fine show, somewhat different from mine but very complementary. I hope he will apply for another show soon.
I should also let you guys know why I wasn’t here. I’ve had a chronic diabetic foot ulcer since 2006 and in mid-April I needed another surgery and, in order for it to heal quickly and properly, I had to stay off my foot absolutely as much as possible, including not driving for the first few months. It is almost completely healed and it has never been a pain producer so I am truly fortunate. So, today’s show . . . .
We open with what I believe to be the original recording of the show’s title song, Key to the Highway, by Big Bill Broonzy. Actually, Bill is usually credited with authorship but Jazz Gillum also claimed to have written it so I presume it is Gillum providing harmonica on this version.
I used to open up each show with a different artist’s version for the first year and a half, more than thirty different versions, but I never had Broonzy’s version until recently when I found it on a reasonably priced various artists box set. Only a guess but 1940 probably wouldn’t be far off for the release date judging from the sound quality.
I’m sure I’ll get into a full biography for Big Bill in the future, but just a few pertinent facts here. Bill had a long career beginning in the late-1920s and I believe the rest of the songs in our opening set come from 1930. He came to be one of Chicago’s favorite Bluesmen playing with people like Tampa Red and Washboard Sam in ensemble recordings.
When the Blues Revival of the 50s paid a lot of attention to what I like to think of as the front porch singers, meaning just a vocalist and his guitar, Bill was okay with fitting into that style to increase his chances of sharing his music. Our second Broonzy set is a good example: a live solo set I believe recorded in 1956 and maybe in Britain. The last tune of the set is another track from a various artists album so there is no data, but it’s been a favorite of mine since I first heard it.
It’s been so long since I’ve done a blog or a radio show so I should remind you that I have added a dimension recently to my shows, that the third artist in my normally structured show would be something complementary to my instinctively guitar-based Blues. Quite often it might be a piano player, but more times it will be a horn-based segment. Sometimes it’s a Blues shouter like Roy Brown or Wynonie Harris, or Soul of the Otis Redding, Sam and Dave or James Brown vintage, but since I am adding new zip to my own CD collection with so many low priced Jazz box sets that Bebop is probably the most often used category. Jazz, as many aspects of my show, is meant to be as much a learning process for me as I wish it to be for you.
The only exposure I had previously with Art Blakey was his participation with sax man David “Fathead” Newman (best known to me for his work with Ray Charles) and pianist / guitarist Dr. John on the first Bluesiana Triangle LP. Before they did their followup, Blakey had passed away.
So I picked up the Art Blakey Complete Blue Note Collection Part One 1954-1957, eight full albums on four discs for an attractive price. Generally, and especially with Jazz, if I like a particular player I feel assured that he will pick similarly competent and like-minded musicians to work with, so I had no qualms when I discovered one of my favorite alto sax players, Lou Donaldson, is on the three albums we use for today’s show. They are all from a gig in 1954, hence the title A Night at Birdland Volumes 1-3.
Drummer Blakey and pianist Horace Silver put together a hard bop ensemble with varying players under the name Jazz Messengers. Silver would depart soon after this period, but Blakey kept the name going throughout his career. In addition to Blakey, Silver and Donaldson on these albums are trumpeter Clifford Brown and bassist Curly Russell, at this time still going under the name the Art Blakey Quintet.
The first Messengers’ set is from the first volume from Birdland and I play them in the order they are on the album because it works, but also better because it is one of those that let the track run the intro for the next number before the cutoff. I certainly don’t want to hear, “for our next number …” and then start a totally different tune. By adding Mayreh to the end of Blakey’s second set, we complete the first LP of the trilogy. We precede that with a pair from each of the other two volumes.
I’m still kinds waiting to get feedback from my listeners about the addition of Jazz to what became for almost thirty years more of a Blues show than I ever intended but replies have been few in coming. Not that it would necessarily make much difference because I can only make a show thinking that if I like it you will, too, and I look for the same tenets I impose on my Blues as well: that it is usually full band, urban music with an active rhythm section and as many instrumentals as I can get.
In 1967 I was exposed to a great 3LP set of some of the best of the Chicago Blues players almost unknown at the time except in their hometown, several of whom would become household names in the national Blues community and a couple still headlining right up to this day more than a half century later. Indeed, if anyone is not yet familiar with the name Buddy Guy I can’t imagine why you are reading this blog. Others still active are Charlie Musselwhite and Otis Rush (Otis died since I started writing this entry), while James Cotton just passed away last year and was the subject of our Blues Marathon tee shirt. Junior Wells is likely the best known of the rest, but Otis Spann was pianist on many of Muddy Waters classics and Homesick James played second guitar on the majority of his cousin, Elmore James’ tracks.
The third of these albums, released individually on Vanguard as Chicago/The Blues/Today! Volumes 1-3, was made up of the bands of a couple of veteran guitarists who still had a feel for the country Blues in their urban setting. Harmonica player “Big Walter” or “Shakey” Horton appeared with both Johnny Young and Johnny Shines and was given billing as the third act on the album cover for the one number he did as Big Walter’s Blues Harp Band with Memphis Charlie (Musselwhite). Shines spent a lot of time traveling with Robert Johnson, carrying on his legacy after Johnson’s early demise, and I was fortunate to see him perform in the early 90s at the San Jose State Blues Festival. He also gave a talk at the University before he left town which I could still kick myself for missing.
The second volume had a couple of younger performers who would have long careers. James Cotton was stepping out of the shadow of being harmonica man for Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush, who had successes with Cobra Records under the tutelage of producer Willie Dixon in the 50s, was rekindling his popularity although he just never seemed to get any breaks until maybe a decade later in life. Otis was another player who gave a great performance at San Jose State. Homesick James continued his cousin’s legacy right out of Elmore’s band but never really made a dent like so many of the other slide guitar disciples.
But my favorite of the three albums, and in my opinion one of the few “must haves” for any Blues collection, has always been the first volume with Guy as the guitar-slinging sideman on harmonica man \ vocalist Wells’ opening five numbers, five tunes by Spann, and especially the five closing tracks by the bottleneck six-stringer J.B. Hutto whom, if you are not already, you should be familiar with by the end of this show.
Born Joseph Benjamin Hutto on April 26th 1926 in Blackville, South Carolina, the fifth of seven children (three brothers, three sisters) of Calvin, a preacher, and Susie Hutto, the family relocated to Augusta, Georgia when he was three. There, the seven siblings put together their own group, The Golden Crown Gospel Singers with J.B. singing either first or second lead, but it was not until 1949 following his father’s passing, bringing about a family move to Chicago, that Hutto became truly intent on making music. “I listened to the majority of the Blues records out then, but I wasn’t playing that. I guess I was too young, anyway. I listened to them and liked them, but I wasn’t really attracted to no kind of music until I hit Chicago.”
The move to Chicago occurred at the behest of the eldest brother, already settled in and working for the Milwaukee Railroad. The Huttos had been a farming family, but once in the city J.B. mostly worked as a plumber or painter. He was drafted for action in the Korean War and wound up driving trucks in combat zones.
As J.B. explained his early experiences to Bruce Cook, author of the 1973 book Listen to the Blues, “I was just a kid, but I’d sneak into those places like Sylvio’s, and I remember one night I had a long talk with old Memphis Slim, and that got me decided that playing the Blues was what I wanted to do.”
Hutto’s first instrument was drums, which he played with Johnny Ferguson and his Twisters. “I played drums, but I was singing too. Johnny was the leader, and he had a guitar. But when he’d lay it down I had it.” J.B. also toyed with piano before settling down to the guitar.
Early in the 50s, J.B. met the man who would inspire him to take up the bottleneck style of playing. Again, to Cook: “One night I heard Elmore James someplace around in Chicago. He was just getting started, and he was real heavy, you know. He played it different from anybody. Old bottleneck guitar had died out by then, nobody played it anymore. And Elmore was the first I ever heard go at an electric guitar with a bar. Well, I never heard anything like that before! So I got me a guitar and a piece of pipe, and I went to work with the two of them.” And to Forte: “He was the cat who made me see what I wanted to do. He raised me. He could pick some, but he didn’t do too much picking. I think he was like me – he liked that slide. If I could make this thing slide and cry like I want to, maybe I wouldn’t do so much picking.”
J.B. would do his busking in the outdoor flea market on Maxwell Street as had many Bluesmen, before and since. This was where he met the one man band Eddie “Porkchop” Hines. “I didn’t know about people playing in clubs and things of that nature – so I was still looking for house parties, fish fries, and things like that. But there wasn’t nothing happening. I began to make a few friends and began to talk, and they showed me around, and I started going to the clubs, seeing bands.”
With Porkchop and guitarist Joe Custom, J.B. graduated from Maxwell Street to gigging at The 1015 Club, adding “Earring ”George Mayweather before the club closed down and the band shifted over to the Globetrotter Lounge. It was there that they were heard by an agent of Chance Records, receiving a two year contract.
As Mike Rowe put it in his book, Chicago Breakdown, “J.B. blew upon the Chicago scene with one of the noisiest and toughest bands ever. Hutto’s singing is superb and his lyrics were carefully put together. Singing in the fierce, declamatory style of his idol, Elmore James, and backed by the heavily amplified guitar of Joe Custom, the crude harp of George Mayweather, and the elemental percussion of Maxwell Street’s Porkchop, they sounded ready to devour anything in sight.”
This was the first ensemble that Hutto would call the Hawks, a name that would survive personnel changes through most of J.B.’s career. “The Hawk’s the wind in Chicago, and when it blows, it’s cool! You say to somebody, ‘You coming out?’ and they say, ‘No man, the Hawk’s biting tonight.’” As J.B. and His Hawks in 1954, the foursome recorded nine tunes for Chance, six of them issued with the last pairing augmented by pianist Johnny Jones, best known from his accompanying of Elmore. All six releases can be found on Boulevard Vintage’s CD Down Home Blues Classics: Chicago 1946-54.
As he told Cook, “There was really a lot of young talent around. Everywhere you went there was a club with some kind of band … I don’t know what happened then, but things got pretty tight … People would hear you start playing the Blues and they’d walk out. Right there on the South Side, too, where the Blues was home!”:
Despite the minor success of the three Chance singles, J.B. decided the music scene just wasn’t worth the trouble. Rowe again: “J.B. lost his guitar when a woman broke it over her husband’s head, and he quit music for the quieter life of an undertaker.” Not really an undertaker, Hutto did hold down a job as a janitor in a mortuary for over a decade until the 1963 death of Elmore got him reconsidering his music career. More than a year later, in December of 1965, he went back into the studio to record the aforementioned Vanguard session backed by bassist Herman Hassell and drummer Frank Kirkland, who had been his Hawks while the house band at Turner’s Blues Lounge.
Pete Welding wrote, in the liner notes for J.B.’s Testamrnt LP, that, “J.B. reappeared in 1965, performing most often at Turner’s, a small tavern at 39th and Indiana on Chicago’s South Side … Word got around about those weekend sessions at Turner’s and they quickly became established as among the most exciting Blues events in the city within recent years.”
Turner’s was close to Walter Horton’s home so he often sat in as the weekend gigs became a favorite for many of the city’s musicians to stop by and join in. This was likely what drew together the performers for J.B.’s first full LP, the June 1966 Testament album, Master of Modern Blues, featuring Horton, guitarist Johnny Young, bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Fred Below. I had this on vinyl and the bass always sounded off to me but I purchased the CD anyway and don’t hear the problem. I purchased the two disc set with Robert Nighthawk (who actually adapted the country slide style to electric guitar before Elmore) and Houston Stackhouse on the first disc because it was even cheaper than the single Hutto disc.
Often touted as the best of J.B.’s albums was his next release, Hawk Squat for Delmark Records, recorded the end of 1966 and his second album in only about a year after the Vanguard session. Piano legend Sunnyland Slim is added to J.B.’s working band, sometimes playing the organ. It is hard for me to make an evaluation because my lack of a functioning turntable means I haven’t heard it for a couple of decades and I have much enjoyed each of my recent Hutto purchases, but it’s probably only a matter of time before I update from vinyl.
It took four years for Delmark to follow up that success with two more albums, the live Stompin’ at Mother Blues and the studio LP Slidewinder, both from 1972. Delmark’s head honcho then as now, Bob Koester, told Living Blues in the mid-70s, “J.B.’s music has always been so strong . . . almost violently strong . . . that just about everything he has done is worth listening to.”
Many of the Hutto quotes are extracted from an interview by Dan Forte in the March 1979 issue of Guitar Player Magazine and collected in Rollin’ and Tumblin’, edited by Jas Obrecht, which also contains info on J.B.’s choices of guitars and amps, but a little more interesting to us is this one: “Elmore played with a flatpick, but he could use anything – flatpick or finger and thumb. But I think playing slide is good for playing with the thumb – Hound Dog Taylor used to play with the thumb. You can always catch the strings better. If I play very long without a pick, a knot will swell up on that finger. One night overseas our stuff was late, and we had to play a college gig with new instruments – no picks, no nothing. The next day I had to stick my finger in alcohol to cool it off.”
Hutto struck Cook as, “A mild, shy man in conversation, he is transformed before an audience into a sort of roaring, howling Mister Hyde, big-mouthing his Blues in memorably earthy style as he plays a slide electric guitar better than anyone else has managed to do since his mentor, the great Elmore James.” Hutto used to dress for show, choosing bright colors for his wardrobe and anything from a fez to a cowboy hat to put on his head as he stretched out his fifty foot guitar cord into the crowd and even climbed up on the tables.
Hutto and his friend Hound Dog Taylor were the dominant slide guitar players to carry on the tradition of Elmore James, and when Taylor passed away in 1975, J.B. took on his House Rockers (drummer Ted Harvey and second guitarist Brewer Phillips), the only time he didn’t call his band the Hawks. They never went into the studio, but live recordings were made during 1976 and 1977 including one gig at Boston’s Tea Party, coming on the market after J.B,’s passing as J.B. Hutto and the House Rockers, Live 1977. One of three albums released by the Austrian Wolf label which included another 1977 release with the House Rockers, Hip Shakin’, and the 1980 issuance of Keeper of the Flame.
By the time of Keeper of the Flame’s recording, J.B. had relocated to Boston (apparently via Seattle) and put together his new Hawks with Steve Coveney playing second guitar and Leroy Pina on drums. They were augmented on that album and their next, the Evidence 1982 Slideslinger (also issued on Black and Blue as Slidin’ the Blues) with various bass players. The three Wolf discs are not highly recommended by my Penguin Guide to Blues so I have not purchased them, at least not yet. (Slideslinger is as highly rated as any of his earlier material.)
Penguin does say, however, that his last session, the 1983 CD Rock with Me Tonight on Bullseye (and Varrick as Slippin’ and Slidin’) “augments the basic four-piece on several numbers with piano and the reedsmen from Roomful of Blues, putting a fat, chewy roll round the hot dog of Hutto’s voice and guitar. His slide playing is his sharpest and fullest on disc, his voice is in fine shape, the music is excellent – altogether a near-perfect album, and one’s glad for his sake as well as ours that he was granted the time and resources to make it.” This album will definitely be part of another show including J.B.
Hutto returned to the state where his career began, then died of cancer on June 12th 1983 in Harvey, Illinois at the age of 67 and was voted into the Blues Hall of Fame two years later. Something that I either didn’t know or had forgotten about was that Ed Williams, of the very popular current Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, was J.B.’s nephew. I’ll have to pay more attention to them and see just how well they have carried on the Hutto teachings. enjoy
Even though I consider Mr. Hutto to be the main focus of today’s edition, He was only given 35 minutes for his two sets while the other two bands each got a full hour. Make any sense?
Okay, I’m getting a little rummy after working on this continuously for the last two days so let’s wrap this puppy up before I get too sarcastic.
It’s not normal that I publish my blog a full day ahead of the show, but under the circumstances I felt you needed a heads up . . . if you haven’t already forgotten me!
I have asked Paul to cover my next show in two weeks but I will be back on the fifth Wednesday airing. Not sure what I’ll be playing, maybe some more J.B., but Johnnie Cozmik (KKUP 1st, 2nd and 5th Thursdays from 3-5PM and for about fifteen years my alternating host, not to mention good friend) has put out a live CD compiled from his international tours, so not with his American band, and I hope he will be sharing that with us then. Johnnie does it right; he does not boast about his own music much so I have happily done the first airings of, perhaps, all of his other issues. Another show you should enjoy.
And now, a word from our sponsor. Okay, I don’t get to say that on KKUP, so here are some things you probably already know. KKUP is accessed in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas at 91.5FM and, elsewhere, on the interweb. Just go to our homepage at KKUP.org and select “listen live” and choose either computer or other device. From the home page, you can also go to “our music” and get to the spinitron playlists to access past airings and often, if not always, for the show you are listening to. And, of course, there is an option labeled “donate”, the closest thing to advertising you will have to put up with here at KKUP. If for some reason you wanted to backtrack and read an old blog, they are all still available at key2highway@blogspot. What more do you need to know to navigate life?
Key to the Highway
House Rent Stomp
Pig Meat Strut
Skoodle Do Do
That’s the Way She Likes It
Somebody’s Been Using That Thing
Eagle Ridin’ Papas
I Can’t Be Satisfied
Long Tall Mama
Big Bill Broonzy 28mins
Once in a While
A Night in Tunisia
The Jazz Messengers 30mins
When I Get Drunk
Stompin’ at Mother Blues
Young Hawks’ Crawl
J.B. Hutto 22mins
Diggin’ My Potatoes
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
I Love My Whiskey
Take This Ole Hammer
See See Rider
When I’ve Been Drinkin’
Ridin’ on Down
Big Bill Broonzy 32mins
If I Had You
The Jazz Messengers 29mins
Married Woman Blues
Too Much Alcohol
That’s the Truth
J.B. Hutto and his Hawks 13mins