Another in our series of Vivascene blues playlists, this one replete with outstanding performances on harp and blues guitar.
JAMES COTTON ~ from the album COTTON MOUTH MAN
WASN’T MY TIME TO GO
“James Cotton was one of the most important and influential of the Chicago blues harmonica players. He was a mentor, and I consider him one of my teachers. He was a great musician, a great entertainer and a great bandleader. He played really hard.” ~ Billy Branch
And hard is the adjective I’ll apply also. James Cotton plays really hard on this album. He has long been my very favorite blues harp maestro, and this release reaffirmed that.
“I feel so happy about the music in this album Cotton Mouth Man and I’d like everyone who listens to it to know how it came about and to thank everyone involved with it. The blues is all about feeling: if I don’t feel it, I can’t play it. My hope is that everyone who listens feels it. I know I sure did!” ~ James Cotton
Released on Alligator Records in 2013, and produced by Tom Hambridge, Cotton Mouth Man helped earn Mr. Cotton a 2014 Grammy Nominee for Best Blues Album and a Blues Music Award (BMA) in the Best Traditional Blues Male Artist category. Very deserving of these honors, with every song a treasure, it presents the post-war Electric Chicago Blues with power and precision by musicians skilled in the idiom.
“Wasn’t My Time To Go” was a co-write by Tom Hambridge, Gary Nicholson and James Cotton.
The entire group excels on this one with very SPECIAL appearances by Keb’ Mo’, Chuck Leavell and Glenn Worf. The lyrics come from a songwriters session where Mr. Cotton refers to living a “funky life.” And I simply love the extended instrumental groove that closes the song.
Wasn’t My Time To Go – Personnel
James Cotton – Blues Harp
Keb Mo – Vocals, Guitar
Tom Hambridge – Drums
Chuck Leavell – Wurlitzer Piano
Rob McNelley – Guitar
Glenn Worf – Upright Bass
OMAR KENT DYKES ~ from the album BLUES BAG
WINE HEADED WOMAN
Omar Dykes wrote this fine song and provides his trademark growlin’ vocal and guitar. He is joined by Greg “Fingers” Taylor of the Coral Reefer Band on blues harp, Bruce Jones on bass guitar, and Gene Brandon on the drum kit.
Blues Bag was originally released in 1991, conceived as a solo acoustic session of tracks spotlighting Omar Dykes on vocals and acoustic guitar and his good friend, Greg “Fingers” Taylor (Jimmy Buffet) on blues harp. Several of the tracks are just Omar and Fingers playing classic blues. Omar decided to bring in the Howlers on the final six (6) tracks to provide some additional depth. Gene Brandon, an original Howler drummer, has since passed away. One track, “Big Chief Pontiac,” features Mr. Dykes on harp. The songs were compiled from some of Omar’s favorite tracks from his entire career, making it extra special. Omar is one of my all time favorite artists, and a super kind gentleman. Sadly, both Mr. Dykes and Mr. Taylor have had health issues and have retired from recording.
KING SOLOMON HICKS ~ from the album CARRYING ON THE TORCH OF THE BLUES
“I’m a blues musician with a jazz mind. I like to create music that moves your soul in a simple way.” ~ Solomon Hicks.
Back in 2015, Hicks called on one of his favorite all time front men, Southside Johnny Lyon, to play blues harp for him. The song was the classic “Homework,” from the immortal Otis Rush. In a display of the confidence that Hicks has of his superlative abilities, he handled the vocal without leaning on the veteran Lyon. His vocals have greatly improved since then, but you can feel the passion he already held. Of course, this song was covered on the debut album for The J.Geils Band, cementing the song’s legacy.
In addition to being a Mascot Label group recording artist, Solomon has taught music to the children at the Children’s Aid Society, is a member of the Harlem Arts Alliance, a supporter of the NYC Jazzmobile, and a member of The Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee.
Homework – personnel
Guitar, Vocals – Solomon Hicks
Harmonica – Southside Johnny Lyon
Wurlitzer Electric Piano – Jeff Levine
Bass – Angelo “Buddy” Savino
Drums – Gary Dates
CHRIS O’LEARY ~ from the album GONNA DIE TRYIN’
19¢ A DAY
Gonna Die Tryin’ is the title of the 2015 blues blast from Chris O’Leary. O’Leary is a dynamic singer with a gritty Wolf-growl voice. He paid his American Roots Music dues singing and playing harmonica for Levon Helm’s Barnburners.
“The group of musicians surrounding O’Leary function with the precision of a well-oiled machine. Chris Vitarello is a prominent participant on every song, continually revealing truly impressive guitar skills with clean and sharp solos. Gonna Die Tryin’ is a sturdy album that merits savoring. It exudes a rootsy feel that runs deep as the Mississippi River and the whole thing is simply beautifully executed. O’Leary’s harmonica work and his dynamic vocals wholly maintain a high-powered soulful smoldering passion for the Blues which proves spellbinding.
“19 ¢ A Day” utilizes a stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach that nearly mirrors the wit of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” O’Leary’s blues harp is scorching hot as the organ play of Bruce Katz harmonizes along coolly with Vitarello’s guitar on this finger-poppin’ track.
BOBBY RUSH ~ from the album DOWN IN LOUISIANA
ROCK THIS HOUSE
Bobby Rush is a Louisiana native who lived for decades in Chicago, earning the title “king of the chitlin circuit” after relocating to Jackson, Mississippi in the early Eighties. Rush’s distinctive “folk funk” style, featured on his recordings for the Jackson-based LaJam label and others, bridged the blues he heard as a youth and modern soul music. His upbeat and, at times, provocative live shows established him as a favorite among southern soul and blues audiences and brought him international acclaim.
2012’s Down in Louisiana was produced, arranged, recorded, engineered and mixed by Brother Paul Brown, who also adds his considerable talents as Rush’s keyboard player. The album was recorded at Ocean Soul Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. The song “Rock This Town” was a co-write collaboration from Bobby Rush, Lou Rodriguez, and Paul Brown.
“I’ve been honored to have picked up four (4) Nominations and two (2) BMA wins in my career for my work on albums with Bobby Rush going back to 2003 and new great adventures together are on the near horizon!” ~ Bro Paul Brown
“This album started in the swamps and the juke joints, where my music started, and it’s also a brand new thing. Fifty years ago, I put Funk together with down-home Blues to create my own style. Now, with Down in Louisiana, I’ve done the same thing with Cajun, Reggae, Pop, Rock and Blues, and it all sounds only like Bobby Rush.
“But, no matter how much I cross over, whether it’s to a larger white audience or to college listeners or fans of Americana, I’ll never cross out who I am and where I’ve come from, my music’s always gonna be funky and honest, and it’s always gonna sound like Bobby Rush.” ~ Bobby Rush
“Rock This House” is essentially an instrumental, the lyrics could have been written by a kindergarten student. But, the groove is something else. Gonna have some fun tonight. Hey everybody, get up, get up!
Rock This House
Vocal, Guitar, Harp – Bobby Rush
Keyboards – Paul Brown
Guitar – Lou Rodriguez
Bass – Terry Richardson
Drums, Percussion – Pete Mendillo
JASON ELMORE & HOODOO WITCH ~ from the album UPSIDE YOUR HEAD
ALL IT DOES IS RAIN
Jason Elmore & Hoodoo Witch are a first-rate group based out of Dallas, Texas. Steeped in the various styles of blues and rock, the band incorporates numerous flavors of American music into their groove. Various elements of hard rock, country, jazz, and vintage soul/r&b are combined, resulting in a powerhouse trio with a sound as big as the Lone Star State itself.
The debut CD, Upside Your Head, was released in 2010 on the Underworld label and received airplay nationwide. The CD was co-produced by Jim Suhler (of Dallas’ Monkey Beat and George Thorogood & The Destroyers), who also plays slide guitar on a couple of tracks, and sings backup on a couple others.
Jason Elmore expertly handles the vocals and guitar throughout, accompanied by a rhythm section of bass player Chris Waw and drummer Beau Chadwell. A long time favorite of mine from that first release was written by Jim Suhler and titled, “All It Does Is Rain.” On that song the trio are joined by Tommy Young on Hammond B-3 organ. It’s a slow blues treat with Elmore supplying a brawny vocal and weeping guitar.
BIG HARP GEORGE ~ from the album UPTOWN COOL
“Uptown Cool is the fullest realization of my musical vision to date. Each song bears the mark of great musicians who contributed their creativity unstintingly to this project.” ~ Big Harp George
In 2018, Big Harp George rounded up some of the talented West Coast friends from his previous two albums for his ultra-cool release Uptown Cool on the Blue Mountain Records label. It was recorded at Greaseland Studios in San Jose.
“Nobody’s Listening” is a gentle jog into laid back late night jazz-blues territory. Big Harp’s harmonica playing is most impressing; both for his control and the limpid tone his instrument achieves. This tone reminds me of Texan Mickey Raphael when he, at times, strays further into jazzy terrain. Charlie Baty’s guitar and Chris Burn’s piano effectively complement Big Harp’s warm vocal and add to the ambiance.
Nobody’s Listening – personnel
Harmonica, Vocals – George Bisharat
Guitar – Little Charlie Baty
Bass – Kid Andersen
Drums – Alexander Pettersen
Keyboards – Chris Burns
Saxophone – Michael Peloquin
Trombone – Mike Rinta
CHRISTONE ‘KINGFISH’ INGRAM ~ 662 from the album of the same name
“Coming home to write this album offered a remarkable history for me to draw upon. 662 is an album that sits upon the legacy and influence my blues music elders have instilled in me; but is also my unique, personal story.” ~ Christone Ingram
“I come from Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the real stuff was born. I have that blues foundation. As I get older, my ear’s going to expand — and I like all types of music, so I feel like I’m going to experiment more. You ain’t going to please everybody.” ~ Christone Ingram
Christone Ingram’s sophomore release, 662, on Alligator Records did seem to almost please everybody. It was celebrated universally by both blues lovers and music aficionados. Major awards included winning the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, scoring the Blues Music Award (BMA) for Best Blues Album, and topping both the DownBeat Critics’ Poll and the Living Blues Critics’ Poll.
The memorable title track, “662,” was co-written by Christone Ingram and the release’s producer Tom Hambridge. 662, is the Mississippi area code that covers Clarksdale, which came into existence the year Christone was born. The song offers Ingram a splendid opportunity to tell some of his life story.
It begins by roughly saying he came from a small river town (Sunflower River) with little in the way of entertainment opportunity. The mosquitos are always thick near water sources, as is the sticky humidity. The lyrics proudly state twice that the Mississippi Delta is birthplace of the blues: a fact that I surely won’t dispute.
“662” features some searing, blistering guitar licks propelled by a hard charging rhythm section and passionate vocals. The last verse pieces together facts about his parents, and his brother moving away following their divorce. This song, when heard alongside the rest of the album, is an impressive and personal statement that deeply resonates. This significant album firmly secures Ingram’s place as a modern torchbearer of contemporary blues.
662 – personnel
Guitar, Vocals – Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram
Guitar – Kenny Greenberg
Bass – Glenn Worf
Drums, Backing Vocals – Tom Hambridge
KIM WILSON ~ from the album TIGERMAN
DON’T TOUCH ME
“Kim Wilson’s Tigerman, coming in 1993, was the first solo release from The Fabulous Thunderbirds front man. Released on Antone’s Records, it featured Wilson and some of his friends on a rotating basis.
A song on that release that I’ve always enjoyed was “Don’t Touch Me,” written by Johnny “Guitar Watson, Joe Josea (Joseph Bihari) and Jules Taub (Julius Jeremiah Bihari). It’s first release was in 1954, followed by a rendition on Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s album, ‘The Gangster Is Back’ in 1976, with Shuggie Otis accompanying Watson on guitar. Robert Cray also recorded a cover version on his ‘Bad Influence’ LP.
On Kim Wilson’s Tigerman rendition, he provides a truly fine heartfelt vocal and the rich horn arrangement supplied by the recently deceased Ronnie Cuber is satin smooth. The superb guitar interplay of O’Brien and Robillard is the key ingredient on this slow dance number, all guided by the insistent piano from the late great Gene Taylor.
Vocals – Kim Wilson
Piano – Gene Taylor
Guitar – Derek O’Brien
Guitar – Duke Robillard
Bass – Preston Hubbard
Drums – George Rains
Horns – The Antone’s Horns
WALTER TROUT ~ from the album WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
AIN’T GOIN’ BACK
Walter Trout’s great 2017 release, We’re All In This Together, contained a slew of guest guitarists including Robben Ford, John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Sonny Landreth, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Warren Haynes and Mike Zito. Every song on the album is an awesome aural treat.
Slide guitar master Sonny Landreth is the special guest that appears on the Walter Trout penned song, “Ain’t Goin’ Back.” A prominent Southern Rock vibe rules as Trout’s backing band with the fabulous rhythm section of bassist Johnny Griparic and drummer Michael Leasure kick like agitated mules, while Sammy Avila rocks the Hammond organ keeping step.
The two guitar greats share the vocals on this foot-stomper, and the pairing of the guitars are devinely executed with Landreth’s slide shining like the mid-day sun in the spotlight. Great song!
Ain’t Goin’ Back
Electric Guitar, Vocals – Walter Trout
Vocals, Slide Guitar – Sonny Landreth
Hammond Organ – Sammy Avila
Bass – Johnny Griparic
Drums – Michael Leasure
OMAR KENT DYKES & JIMMIE VAUGHAN ~ from the album ON THE JIMMY REED HIGHWAY
CARESS ME BABY
“A couple contemporary bluesmen, Omar Kent Dykes and Jimmie Vaughan, teamed up and paid loving tribute to the great Jimmy Reed in 2007 with their Ruf Records release titled On The Jimmie Reed Highway. If you’re not aware, Jimmy Reed was the best-selling blues artist of the Fifties and Sixties. Reed was the first of the Chicago electric bluesmen to break through to the pop/rock market; having fourteen hits for Vee Jay on the R&B charts between 1955 and 1966. His hits appealed to both blacks and whites, and many of his blues songs were adopted by white R&B groups during the early 60’s.
“Both Dykes and Vaughan had a long history with Reed: one that defines not only the trajectory of their music, but also their outlook on life.
“Being a kid and hearing Jimmy Reed was just the blueprint for my life, you know? I was thinking I could play guitar and get that thump going and sing some Jimmy Reed songs.” ~ Omar Dykes
“Jimmy Reed was big in Dallas; he was on the radio. They were playing him on KLIF, which was Top 40.” ~ Jimmie Vaughan
“Jimmie Vaughan and singer Miss Lou Ann Barton got to see Jimmy Reed in one of his last concerts. In 1976, they went to Antone’s Nightclub in Austin, Texas, and were floored by Reed’s performance.
“Everybody almost fell over on the first note. It was just fabulous.” ~ Jimmie Vaughan
“Well, I’m hear to tell you that On The Jimmie Reed Highway was an extra-special record, that contained some “extra-special” guest artists. Plus, all the regular studio musicians are Samson-strong. One of those extra-special guests was blues harp maestro James Cotton. Another was the fabulous vocalist Miss Lou Ann Barton. Those two are prominently featured on the song “Caress Me Baby.”
“Jimmy Reed wrote and recorded his single “Caress Me Baby” in 1958, and released it in ’59. On the Dykes/Vaughan record the song is covered as a duet; with the brawny Omar and the Texas-twangy Barton jelling like peanut butter and jelly on this song that rocks nice and easy, like a comfortable rocking chair.
“It opens as James Cotton plays a gentle beautiful harp intro accompanied by tasteful acoustic guitars before Omar firmly takes the vocal reins. He’s shortly followed by the dreamy Barton taking a smoky verse. Cotton, supported by O’Brien and Vaughn then eases in to caress his instrument and blow away your blues. Omar returns displaying the vocal timbre that has always thrilled me, and then his brief harmony turn with Barton on the refrain, “caress me baby,” is glorious.
“Since both Dykes and Vaughan discovered Jimmy Reed’s music at an early age, his music lies deep in their bone marrow. They don’t try to mimic the Reed arrangements; but, they manage to capture his spirit. To say this may be sacrilege to some: but, to my ears, this fine rendition, while obviously paying homage, improves on Reed’s song.” ~ RP / Vivascene
Caress Me Baby – personnel
Omar Kent Dykes — vocal
Lou Ann Barton — vocal
James Cotton —blues harp
Jimmie Vaughan — guitar
Derek O’Brien — guitar
Ronnie James —bass
George Rains — drums
SUE FOLEY ~ from the album PINKY’S BLUES
Blues guitarist/singer Sue Foley hails from Canada, but has been Austin, Texas based for years. She has released 15 albums and in May of 2020, won a BMA in the ‘Koko Taylor Award’ category.
Pinky’s Blues on Stony Plain Records earned her three nominations from the Blues Foundation for the 43rd Blues Music Awards: “Album of the Year,” “Traditional Blues Album,” and “Traditional Blues Female Artist.”
“What an incredible honor to be acknowledged in Memphis (3 BMA’s). Speaking for everyone who helped create Pinky’s Blues, we’re proud to have made a real blues album and are thrilled that folks are loving it.” ~ Sue Foley
Pinky’s Blues is named after her signature pink paisley Fender Telecaster, “Pinky,” and in addition to Sue Foley on guitar and vocals, boasts the talents of drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton, bassist Jon Penner, and Mike Flanigin on Hammond B3 organ. Flanigin also produced the album. Jimmie Vaughan is a featured special guest, playing rhythm guitar on the track, “Hurricane Girl.”
“The story of Pinky is, I’ve had this guitar for 30 plus years now. Guitars, yeah you kinda need to work them in. I’ve used her on every gig, every recording session from then on up to this album. I played her yesterday on a gig. If I’m doing hometown gigs I play her, I don’t bring her on the road anymore. It’s just kinda like I’ve got this bond with this instrument. She still sounds great: in fact, I think she sounds better than ever which is amazing.” ~ Sue Foley
ALVIN LEE ~ from the album SAGUITAR
Alvin Lee was always one of my favorite guitarists, and all of his solo work is loaded with his tasty heartfelt bluesy vocals and dazzling guitar work. His 2007 studio release, Saguitar, was named in honor of Alvin’s star sign Sagittarius and also his musical personality.
“A Sagittarian is supposed to be outgoing. He’s symbolized by a man’s head and torso on a horse holding a bow and arrow. Just like me!” ~ Alvin Lee
One of the brightest highlights of Saguitar is his atmospheric slow blues tune “Motel Blues.” The lyrics tell the story of the musician’s life on the never ending road: living your life in countless motel and hotel rooms separated from family and friends. It deftly sums up his experience of spending decades on the road with Ten Years After and the Alvin Lee Band. On this great song he is joined by keyboard player Tim Hinkley and drummer Trevor Morais.
“The album reflects what I’ve been doing for the past two years, enjoying myself and making music.” ~ Alvin Lee