July/August 2000

Label Watch: Rooster Blues

Jim O’Neal was a long way from his hometown in Mississippi when he experienced his blues epiphany back in 1968. While studying journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.—just up the road a piece from the Windy City—he was initiated into the cult of Chicago blues, first via classic Chess and Vanguard recordings and eventually through numerous trips to South Side nightclubs in search of living exponents of that raw and real sound, including Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Hound Dog Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf.

As he recalls: “1968 was the year I understood what the blues was and where the music I had been listening to—the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and all that—had really come from.”

In 1970, O’Neal decided to combine his passion for the music with his interest in journalism by starting up Living Blues magazine. Ten years later he formed Rooster Blues, a record label dedicated to documenting some of the more obscure artists operating within that purist tradition.

“I was trying to make sure that some of these guys got recorded before they would pass on or give it up entirely,” he says.

O’Neal’s first album for Rooster Blues was Eddy Clearwater’s The Chief, which was reissued a few years ago. Now celebrating its 20th year, Rooster Blues has been purchased by Bottled Majic Music, the roots music corporation operating out of New York and Memphis and owned by Rob Johnson. O’Neal is still involved as the exclusive producer for Rooster Blues and has presided over recent sessions by D.C. Bellamy, Eddie Raspberry and Lonnie Shields. His decision to sell Rooster Blues came after years of operating the purist blues label strictly as a labor of love while bearing the sole financial burden. “My wife and I were running the company and we decided we had to sell it because we couldn’t really support it like it should be done. And so it was good to be able to find a deal where we not only were able to sell it but to keep working on it and get paid for it and get the sessions paid for and hopefully get better promotion for the artists, too.”

After its initial three years in Chicago, O’Neal moved the Rooster Blues operation down to his hometown of Oxford, Miss., and then to nearby Clarksdale. Even though he relocated to Kansas City two years ago, O’Neal still frequents the juke joints in small Mississippi towns like Prairie Point, Shelby, Greenville and Antonia in search of the next Super Chikan, Robert Bilbo Walker or Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes. And his standards for who he signs remain as steadfast as they were when he formed the label 20 years ago. “It seems to me there’s so many blues bands around that are just playing the same basic style—shuffles and slow blues and doing the same basic repertoire. So I’m looking for somebody who’s really original or really fresh and different in the way they approach the material that’s already out there. An artist like Robert Bilbo Walker, he doesn’t write anything really, but the way he does a song is really a rockin’ juke joint style like nobody else is doing. And Super Chikan, on the other hand, is so original as a songwriter that it was just really important to record him to show that something new was being done.”

O’Neal acknowledges a few other blues labels operating in that purist tradition, notably EarWig and Fat Possum. But he’s quick to add, “We’re definitely in the minority of record labels today. We try to record the real stuff; the kind of blues that other labels don’t seem in-terested in. If some of it happens to be commercial and sells, that’s good. But that’s not the intent.”

All of which explains why Rooster Blues has steadfastly ignored the blues-rock mode that has proven so marketable for other labels in recent years. “My interests began there,” says O’Neal, “but they went straight to the pure blues form. I guess I just lost interest in blues rock because it was so big and everybody else knows about it, you know? I don’t need to record Eric Clapton, I need to record Monroe Jones and Big Moody & The Mississippi Farm Boys.”

To commemorate this “Year of the Rooster,” the label is releasing a 20th anniversary sampler documenting its modest beginnings in Chicago through the years spent in Mississippi and to its recent move to Kansas City, Mo. Rooster anticipates the release of 15 titles during the year 2000.

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