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Big Maceo: The Bluebird Recordings, 1941-42

As they’ve long known in Europe, CC is the way to go with important music. So BMG’s Bluebird is again to be congratulated for Complete Chronologicals. These two are valuable in their relation to the blues piano traditions, one largely overwhelmed by the wail of the electrical guitar. Yet a roster of distinguished names called off the top of the head suggests a field in need of more study: Leroy Carr, Little Brother Altheimer, Meade Lux Lewis, Sammy Price, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Jay McShann, Eddie Boyd, Charles Brown, Otis Spann, Pinetops Smith and Perkins, and these two, Big Maceo and Memphis Slim. Add your own choices!

Big Bill Broonzy and Big Maceo both befriended Memphis Slim after Joshua Altheimer died in 1940, but his original influence had been Roosevelt Sykes. As Broonzy told in his book, Memphis Slim subsequently developed his own strong, energetic style in Chicago. A line of descent can be traced here, already some distance from that formed on beaten-up pianos in Southern juke joints.

Big Maceo was one of the greatest blues pianists, his powerful left hand even serving him well after he lost the use of his right from a stroke. What Don Palmer calls his “yearning forlorn vocals” in helpfully researched notes, are also very affecting in a whiskey-voiced manner. For his ability as a piano soloist, rather than as a solid accompanist, we must wait for Volume II and his “Chicago Breakdown,” “Texas Stomp” and “Detroit Jump.” He is well backed on these sixteen tracks by Tampa Red “The Guitar Wizard”, whom he in turn backed on several other Bluebird sessions.

Like Big Maceo’s “Worried Life Blues,” Memphis Slim’s first Bluebird recording, “Beer Drinking Woman,” was a hit. There is little that is yearning or forlorn about his singing. He was a big, good-humored, good-looking man, “six feet six inches tall” according to Broonzy, and he was exuding confidence even in 1940. The Petrillo ban interrupted his recording career, but it took off afterwards at a startling pace. Paul Gonsalves insisted that I hear him one night in Boston, where he was working with Willie Dixon. “This is authentic,” Paul said. Big Bill Broonzy had died a year or so before, and we strongly urged Memphis Slim to go take his place in Europe. He did so and shortly afterwards with such success that he made his home in Paris.

Originally Published