Category Archives: Blues

A Peter Green Playlist

Photo by Nick Contador. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the time Peter Green passed away, my drafts folder contained three reviews on albums featuring Peter Green: John Mayall’s A Hard Road, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Then Play On. I had finished the intros (always the hardest part for me), but in each case, I developed writer’s block and found myself unable to move forward.

I finally had to admit to myself that the problem was that I really didn’t give a shit about “the other stuff” on those albums. All I cared about were the Peter Green tracks.

I consider myself a John Mayall fan but I don’t think his work on A Hard Road reflects Mayall at his best; his vocals sound unusually strained and he was still working out the finer points when it came to integrating horns into the mix. As for the two Fleetwood Mac albums, I place the blame solely with Peter Green for insisting on a second guitarist so he wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of playing frontman. I’d rather listen to a full orchestra of fingernails on chalkboards than listen to Jeremy Spencer with his silly vocalizations and pedestrian slide playing, and though the Danny Kirwan of Then Play On shows promise, some of his contributions reek of early flower child music. On all three albums, Peter Green’s work is several cuts above the contributions of his colleagues.

When I heard the sad news, I realized that in the context of a completed life, commenting on a few flawed albums filled with irrelevant material would represent a great disservice to the memory of this unusually gifted artist, so I started thinking that a playlist of selected tracks might be a better approach. The challenge I faced was pithily expressed by one of my top commentators (Dean) who noted in response to a thread that arose from my review of Future Games, “The Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac (through 1970) discography is a mess.”

I found motivation enough to overcome those obstacles in what seems to be the norm in Peter Green bios, obits and retrospectives: briefly acknowledge his status as a great guitarist then capitalize on the human fascination with tragedy. When I revisited the documentary Man of the World, I found myself frequently shouting at the screen, frustrated with the comparatively little attention devoted to the music and the inordinate amount of time devoted to tabloid-quality amateur psychologizing (Noel Gallager is the next-to-last person I’d hire as a psychoanalyst, right after his brother). I resented the emphasis placed on “Oh, what could have been if he hadn’t fucked it all up by taking too much acid” rather than what the man actually accomplished—which was more than most musicians can only dream of achieving.

We’re talking about artistic achievement here, not commercial success. The most insightful comment Peter Green ever made about his approach to guitar was this: “I like to play slowly and feel every note. It comes from every part of my body.” I’ve always felt that the greatest musical artists are imbued with a reverence for musical sound, likely ignited in early in the learning curve when they plucked a note a certain way, stumbled across an unusual chord, or happened upon a pleasing combination of notes and tempo. The true musical artist is engaged in a constant search for those fleeting epiphanies in sound, beautiful timeless moments of pure wonder—and Peter Green was a true artist.

Some of the choices I made are obvious; others less so; and I’m sure some will complain about certain omissions. Let me clarify things: this is not a “best of” list but a selection of tracks revealing different facets of Peter Green’s artistry.

“The Stumble,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: This high-speed shuffle may seem a contradiction to the “play slowly and feel every note” mantra, but it demonstrates a few important aspects of Peter Green’s style and personality. Remember, Peter Green had the apparent misfortune of succeeding Eric Clapton in the role of Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarist at a time when juvenile delinquents were spraypainting “Clapton Is God” on Arvon Road. I’m not sure who was responsible for selecting this Freddie King number to demonstrate Green’s licks, but since Clapton had already demonstrated his mastery of the fretboard on Freddy’s “Hideaway,” this was a pretty ballsy decision.

If Green felt any pressure about going up against a god he sure doesn’t show it here. For the first couple of go-rounds he sticks pretty close to the patterns in Freddie’s original, but as the song progresses you begin to notice Peter filling his phrases with a few more notes than Freddie. The difference becomes quite noticeable when he travels to the upper reaches of the fretboard (where Freddie only made a few brief appearances). What strikes me most is his tonal clarity at high speed; instead of the usual unintelligible flurry used by turbo-charged guitar heroes to impress the masses, every single note is clean and distinct.

Some guitarists thunder, some rain, but with Peter Green, it’s like listening to a spring shower where you can hear sweet music in each and every drop.

“The Supernatural,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: Having proven he could match Clapton or anyone else in a high-speed competition, Green confirms his “each note” artistic manifesto in “The Supernatural.” It’s important to note that this isn’t simply a set-piece featuring guitar and a modest supporting cast but a layered composition melding multiple octaves within the limits of four-track recording capability, completely designed by Peter Green. Mostly famous for its masterfully controlled feedback followed by thrilling slides down the fretboard, “The Supernatural” was described as “haunting” by Mayall; I would add the word “mesmerizing” to complete the picture.

Though it may not be apparent at first, “The Supernatural” is a blues in D minor—a scale Green would continue to explore over the coming years in what I interpret as a quest for perfection . . . but more about that later.

“The Supernatural” also launched what seems to be an eternal question in the guitar community: “How can I create the Peter Green tone?” Well . . . you could start by picking up a ’59 Les Paul and setting the pickup switch to the middle (dual-pickup) position . . . but I’m afraid you still won’t get there, no matter how many pedals you try and amp settings you tinker with. For one, Peter Green’s ’59 wasn’t just any old Les Paul, but the result of a boo-boo at the Gibson factory.

Jol Dantzig wrote a piece on Premier Guitar describing how he had the opportunity to play Green’s ’59 back in 1984 courtesy of Gary Moore, who bought the guitar from Green—for exactly what Peter had paid for it back in the ’60s (Metallica’s Kirk Hammet bought it a few years back for $2M). Plugging into a ’68 Marshall Plexi, they each played some of Green’s works and managed to reproduce the tone. “Up to this point in time, I’d been the owner of a few original Sunbursts, and our shop had bought and sold plenty more. But none had the eerie tone that Green’s guitar demonstrated in the middle selector position with both pickups on.” Being the curious sort, Dantzig suggested to Moore that they disassemble the guitar to see if Green had messed with the innards. Their initial investigation revealed nothing but factory standard, but Dantzig was one determined investigator:

A pickup creates current through the use of a magnetic field coupled with coils of wire. Both the wiring and the orientation of the magnetic poles determine polarity. If you alter either of these, you change the phase of the pickup relative to another pickup. So, with the wiring intact, I decided to test the magnetic polarity with a compass. Bingo! The magnet was reversed on one pickup. Because the pickup internals looked undisturbed, I concluded that it must have been a mistake at the factory. With Gibson having made over ten thousand electric guitars that year, the odds of the mistake showing up in Green’s guitar seems incredible.

All well and good, but even if you could pry the original from Kirk’s grubby mitts, the truth is Peter Green used multiple pickup settings within the same song and used a Strat as often as a Paul. So, you might be able to get Peter Green’s tone on this song but unable to reproduce it on that song.

The harder truth is stating the obvious: you’re not Peter Green.

“Greeny,” A Hard Road, 2003 Expanded Edition, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: In the intro I expressed some disappointment with A Hard Road, but a lot of that disappointment vanishes when I listen to the expanded edition. Not only does the grander version give us more Peter Green, but Mayall sounds like he’s having more fun.

In addition to tone, Peter Green is also renowned for his vibrato, an effect most often created by bending the strings. Nearly every lead guitarist on the planet uses some vibrato, most obviously in those moments when they bend strings in an attempt to replicate the cry of pain and anguish in a blues or blues-influenced number. What’s remarkable about his work on “Greeny” is how Green applies vibrato in tiny bursts—like on the second note on the simple four-note core motif, turning a rather pedestrian theme into something that gives me the chills every time I hear it. Though Peter Green could do the guitar hero schtick as well as the best of them, his best work is found in the slower stuff or in songs with a nice, easy tempo like this one.

“I Loved Another Woman (all takes),” Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, 1999 re-release: This expanded edition is quite educational because of its inclusion of multiple takes, giving insight into the nature of Peter Green’s quest for perfection.

  • Take 1: Peter’s guitar sounds fabulous, but his voice could have used a bit more of a warm-up. He stops the take a minute into the song, claiming “Sorry, I forgot the words,” but his subsequent feedback to Mick Fleetwood (“you came in a faction late”) tells us that Fleetwood’s tardiness in syncopation is probably what threw him off. This happens a lot in recording—you hear something that sounds a teeny bit off but you’re not entirely sure, so you shoulder on for a while, but that damned little fuck-up is still on your mind and will eventually destroy your concentration.
  • Take 2: Peter’s voice is still a bit strained but not enough to spoil the mix; a sharp critic would likely write it off to a stylistic choice—the exhaustion of losing his best gal. McVie and Fleetwood seem to play with a bit more conviction, and Peter’s hard-picked solo is gorgeous and damned sexy. If I had been in the booth, I might have given it a thumbs-up, but the engineer’s “Come and have a listen to it,” communicates some doubt. Try again.
  • Take 3: Peter stops after the first phrase and indicates someone (Fleetwood?) “didn’t come in straight away.” Another fractional error.
  • Take 4: The engineer cuts it off midway; we have no idea why. He just shouts out “No” and that’s that.
  • Take 5: A very promising start with another beautiful solo collapses into ghoulish laughter near the end of Peter’s wordless, falsetto recitation of the melody. Right before the cut I hear a noise like paper shuffling or shoes scuffing, so that may have been a distraction. What’s nice is that Peter ends it with laughter, helping to relieve any pressure in the studio.
  • Take 6: Peter says, “Hang on to my tit,” which could mean that whatever caused the distraction in Take 5 might have been attached (no, his voice doesn’t convey the pain of nipple clamps) or in a shirt pocket. Before he begins this take he asks for more fractional improvement from the band; in response to a request from a band member (sounds like Fleetwood), he agrees to play the intro a bit slower. On this take, Peter has more command of his voice; his voice-cracking sounds more intentional as opposed to a problem with the pipes. For reasons unknown, he cuts things off mid-take.
  • Final Version: The clarity of instrumental separation clearly shows the effect of mastering; McVie’s bass is more prominent and Peter’s tone is . . . well, it’s frigging beautiful, with just the right amount of reverb to thicken his vibrato. He absolutely nails the vocal, burnishing his credentials as one of the most underrated blues singers of all-time. I also like the way the song fades on his wordless vocalizations (ooh-ooh’s), giving the listener the feeling that the pain of losing his baby is going to stay with him for a long time.

This is the second in a series of three Peter Green D minor blues numbers; the third is the much more famous “Black Magic Woman.” I chose not to include the Fleetwood Mac version largely because I think Santana’s version realizes the song’s full potential by expanding on the song’s innate Latin feel. I’ll explain more when I review Abraxas later this year; for the present, give Peter Green due credit for writing one of the greatest minor blues songs in music history. Mission accomplished.

“Albatross,” English Rose, Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac’s first #1 hit in the UK provides further proof that though they share a common language (well, sort of), British and American cultural tastes do not sync as often as PBS viewers would have you believe. The song didn’t even chart in the U. S. unless you count #4 on The Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 as “charting.”

The most obvious choice for the source is Santo and Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk” from that marvelous era when instrumentals were as likely to chart as vocal performances, with Chuck Berry’s “Deep Feeling” a close second. According to the songwriter, neither answer (if stated in the form of a question) would earn you a cent on Jeopardy. “I heard John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ cover of Jimmy Rodgers’ The Last Meal –  that’s the blues singer, not the country and western one. I thought I would take it and develop it. I called it that because of that reference to the back of a giant albatross mentioned in the Traffic record ‘Hole in My Shoe.’”

What sounds like a steel pedal guitar is actually Green playing his Strat on his lap. Recent addition Danny Kirwan helped Green complete the composition and supplied the harmonic guitar support that Jeremy Spencer was never able to pull off. You can tell that Green is savoring each note in this exceptionally slow (67 bpm), meditative number, and kudos to Fleetwood for using timpani mallets to create the shimmer.

“Stop Messin’ Around,” Mr. Wonderful, Fleetwood Mac: Mr. Wonderful was one of those experiments that didn’t quite pan out. In an attempt to duplicate their live sound, the album was recorded through a P. A. system. Even producer Mike Vernon, who embraced the idea, had to admit its limitations: ” . . . we never actually really captured the live performance in a studio – with the exception of “Stop Messin’ Around” from the Mr. Wonderful album.”

With support from Christine Perfect (later McVie) on the 88’s and the saxophone duo of Steve Gregory and Johnny Almond, Green finds his guitar and vocal grooves right from the get-go. Like Sinatra and Billie Holiday in many of their vocals, Peter’s guitar phrasing defies the fixed rhythm, falling slightly behind on occasion and anticipating the beat on others. Though he only devotes two verses to vocals, he sounds positively joyful as he calls out his baby’s bullshit. And I love his high-end bends on that last go-round—as sexy as sexy gets.

“Last Night,” Blues Jam at Chess, Fleetwood Mac, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Shakey Horton, J. T. Brown, Buddy Guy, Honey Boy Edwards, S. P. Leary: Peter Green was very hard on himself when he didn’t measure up to his own lofty expectations, and in the documentary Man of the World, he waves off his contributions on Blues Jam at Chess (or Fleetwood Mac in Chicago, whatever) as feeling out of his element in the presence of some great black blues musicians. White guilt aside, his discomfort is actually clearer in the rougher vocals than his guitar work. I picked this piece because his vocal is in sync with the song’s essential feeling and his guitar is generally limited to economical support in the form of brief fills and light support for Shakey Horton’s harmonica solo. His solo comes in at around the 3:20 mark, an equally economical performance featuring his scintillating vibrato with just the right amount of notes and not one note more. I imagine a report card somewhere that reads, “Peter plays well with others.”

“Man of the World,” The Best of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac: Part of the motivation in bringing Danny Kirwan into the fold was to give Green a true guitar partner; the other part involved Peter Green’s desire to expand the band’s playing field beyond blues-based rock without losing the essence of the blues. “To my mind,” Green told journalist Ian Middleton, “a blues doesn’t have to be a 12-bar progression. It can cover any musical chord sequence. To me, the blues is an emotional thing. If a song has the right emotion then I accept it as a blues.” Music is largely an emotional experience, and Peter Green was a master at expressing and evoking emotion.

With its baroque-style chords having more in common with the songs on Odessey and Oracle, “Man of the World” bears little resemblance to the music on the first two Fleetwood Mac albums. And though the structure is a long way from 12-bar blues, the song expresses sentiments associated with the blues through a combination of lyrics and Peter Green’s vocal abilities.

By this time, Peter Green was becoming deeply disillusioned about the life of a rock star and its essential disconnection from reality. Over a soft background of electric guitar and bass, in musical phrases marked by frequent appearances of minor chords and variants thereof, he sings gently and self-deprecatingly about his “dream life” in the music business . . . then suddenly raises his voice in anguish to deliver a thoroughly shocking sentiment:

Shall I tell you about my life
They say I’m a man of the world
I’ve flown across every tide
And I’ve seen lots of pretty girls

I guess I’ve got everything I need
I wouldn’t ask for more
And there’s no one I’d rather be
But I just wish that I’d never been born

While some tend to interpret that line (and much of the “The Green Manalishi”) through the lens of Green’s future bout with mental illness, I would remind people that such sentiments are part of the stock in trade when it comes to the blues. What’s shocking is hearing them in what sounds like a perfectly lovely ballad. Green softens the blow by attaching his anguish to the absence of true love, but you can’t help but notice the not-so-hidden message that his desperation is aggravated by a feeling that the life he’s living is something of a fraud:

I could tell you about my life
And keep you amused I’m sure
About all the times I’ve cried
And how I don’t want to be sad anymore
And how I wish I was in love

“Man of the World” may or may not sound the alarm in terms of Peter Green’s mental state, but it is certainly a signal that Peter was searching for a way out of a dilemma. It’s also a terribly beautiful piece of music.

“Oh Well, Pts 1 and 2,” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: I will be forever astonished that Peter Green considered Part 1 “just the packaging” to get to Part 2. He felt that Part 1 an irrelevant piece based on a “throwaway riff” and should have been surgically removed from future compilation albums. To my ears, both parts are essential, forming a holistic composition concerning the modern manifestation of yin and yang: the aggressive, competitive, extraverted world of the daily grind where image has more value than substance versus the introverted, reflective world where we recover from the general toxicity to ponder our thoughts and emotions.

To my ears, Part 1 is three minutes and twenty-four seconds of some of the fiercest rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded. The joint guitar crescendo is tremendously exciting, forming a sort of musical question that is answered with a stunning moment of near silence broken only by Mick Fleetwood on cowbell before Peter enters with his stop-time, no-more-bullshit, proto-rap lyrics:

I can’t help about the shape I’m in
I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin
But don’t ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to

The self-deprecation is typical Green; the refusal to continue to play Mr. Nice Guy is the emerging Green, sick and tired of playing the game. In the segment covering “Oh Well” in Man of the World, Peter identifies the guitar as a “Michigan” he bought from some fellow in the North Country (most likely a branded Harmony guitar) and used only on this one song to get a different sound—the rawer, less-embellished sound we’d eventually associate with garage rock. Part 1 ends with a bass pushing the recording limits of the era (Green indicated he played a six-string bass on the piece) fading into the strum of a Spanish guitar that marks the beginning of Part 2.

Mick Fleetwood commented in Man of the World that at this time Peter was beginning to play more of a Brian Wilson role in the band, imagining and creating sound collages combining traditional rock instruments with other sounds and textures. In Part 2 he uses the contrasting timbres of Spanish and electric guitar to build a minor key soundscape contrasting hope and despair, light and dark; later he uses the deep melancholy of a cello (played by himself) in contrast to the wistful yet earthy sound of a wood recorder played by one Sandra Elsdon (a much better textural choice than a metal flute). Employing Jeremy Spencer on piano, he mixes the various elements to form an intermediary crescendo, following the peak with an extended cello-Spanish guitar duet that I’d say was the loveliest musical passage he ever recorded. After another brief moment of silence, the piece turns into sort of a dirge with Fleetwood providing the boom for a few measures before we return to blessed quiet, the recorder now a faint, fading sound in deep background over Peter’s gentle strumming. In a brilliant move, he ends this largely sorrowful segment on a major chord, closing with a bit of hope for our tension-filled world. Of the thousands of what-ifs that haunt the story of Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, “Oh Well” is the one that brings up my deepest feelings of regret: the combination of power and compositional promise of Fleetwood Mac at that moment of time was beyond exceptional.

“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: Even more so than “Man of the World,” people classify “The Green Manalishi” as a descent into darkness that clearly reveals the onset of mental disease.

That’s one way to look at it. Peter described it as a song about a bad dream he had. Hey, wait a minute! I’ve had bad dreams! I need meds! Gimme my meds! Lots of meds!

I find this kind of Monday morning psychologizing by non-experts both insulting and unfair to Peter Green’s memory. At this point in his life, he had been moved by the catastrophic famine in Biafra and wanted to do something about it. As his thinking about the situation progressed, he looked at his own life and figured out he was making more money than anyone deserved to make, given the existence of millions of people simply trying to survive another day. Naïve idealist that he was, he tried to get his fellow bandmates to give all their money away and invest it in charitable causes, a proposition that didn’t go over too well with the boys.

Peter Green was always very clear that “The Green Manalishi” was about money and the old adage that money is the root of all evil. Yes, he was taking acid at the time, but given the hundreds of musicians who also partook in the psychedelic experience, his usage was hardly unique and not necessarily problematic in relation to this composition. Yes, the song is on the dark side, but right around this time, Black Sabbath was inventing an entire genre of dark sounds that we now refer to as heavy metal and is considered so socially acceptable that you can win a Grammy for conjuring up such harsh sonic imagery. The opening is somewhat reminiscent of Eric Burdon’s “When I Was Young,” and as far as I know, no one suggested that Eric or any of his bandmates should have been committed to a mental institution. What I hear is a compelling, bitter attack on the power of money and its corrosive power; it sounds more immediate and possibly more ominous because Peter really feels it. The soundscape (enhanced enormously by the line “The night is so black, the darkness cooks”) is appropriately creepy, marked by tightly coordinated guitar duets and sharp cuts, with Peter’s eerie falsetto completing the ghoulish painting of a world gone mad due to unrelenting greed.

“Timeless Time,” The End of the Game, Peter Green: Shortly after Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac, he released his first solo album to universal scorn. The End of the Game isn’t really as bad as the critics make it out to be, biased as they were by their insistence that Peter should stick close to the blues-rock formula that made Fleetwood Mac the darlings of the late ’60s.

There are problems with the record, most involving the method of construction: Peter engaged his band of brothers in a series of jams, then cut and spliced what he thought were the best parts. It’s obvious that his perfectionist streak had dimmed somewhat, particularly in relation to Alex Dmochowski’s bass, which frequently overpowers the mix. Still, there are some good musical ideas on the album, especially those that lean towards modern jazz.

I chose “Timeless Time” for this essay because of something I learned watching Man of the World. Peter’s introduction to the guitar came via his brother Lenny, who had purchased a guitar only to find out he was tone-deaf. He gave it to his ten-year-old kid brother Peter and showed him three chords: E, A and B7, the classic blues combination. According to Lenny, “after about six to eight months, Peter was doing really well.”

When I listen to “Timeless Time,” where Peter’s guitar is extraordinarily quiet and limited to a single channel, it calls up images of a kid in a room with the door closed, cradling his guitar, playing wherever his fingers lead him, repeating a few riffs that charmed him, experiencing the wonder of musical expression by playing slowly and feeling every note.

 

Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Sessions – Classic Music Review

I am temporarily suspending my boycott of American music for one day, for two very good reasons:

  • I wanted to acknowledge the ray of hope ignited by Nancy Pelosi. My former congresswoman finally got off her bony little ass and kick-started the painfully long-overdue impeachment process of he-who-shall-not-be-named.
  • But just like he-who-shall-not-be-named . . . I was BAITED BY A TWEET!

My response was succinct and immediate (accounting for the time difference):

Though I clearly and unashamedly state on the blog’s front page that my top priorities in life are sex and music (with baseball now a distant third), the wording gives the impression that I view sex and music as separate and distinct experiences. It’s more accurate to describe the relationship as partially symbiotic: I can enjoy music that doesn’t ignite my libido, but I can’t imagine fucking without music. While the origins of this inter-dependency probably lie in not wanting my parents to hear the grunts, groans and cries of delight emanating from my bedroom when I was fucking boys and girls in my teens (not that they would have given a shit), I eventually learned that certain kinds of music can add tension, drama and color to the sexual experience. This is particularly true in BDSM, where lengthy scenes integrating foreplay and various forms of orgasmic stimulation are the norm. I love to make my entrance to music, to pose suggestively to music and get my rocks off while the music is throbbing in the background, mirroring the throbbing of the bodies engaged in the act.

Most of the music I use in a scene is kick-ass rock, jazz, samba, R&B, soul and Chicago blues—music that makes your hips grind, music with attitude. And no single artist appears more often on my fuck playlists than Elmore James, a man who had attitude down pat.

It’s stunning that we still lack a full-blown biography of the man who influenced a generation of rock and blues guitarists, but from the bits and pieces in encyclopedia entries, we can conclude Elmore James was an introvert, rather bashful type who only emerged from his shell when he had a guitar in hand and a microphone close to his lips. Introversion is one of those good things/bad things, for while introverts tend to have an exceptional ability to concentrate that allows them to explore a given field in depth, they also tend to keep many thoughts and feelings to themselves, building up a huge amount of pressure in the inner boiler that often manifests itself in physical breakdowns. Elmore James was diagnosed with heart disease in 1957 at the age of thirty-nine; six years later he was dead at the age of forty-five, having ignored the doctor’s advice to cut down on his drinking and chill out.

You might say, “Gee, if only Elmore had taken care of himself, he could have lived to a ripe old age.” To which I respond, “Yeah, but he wouldn’t have been Elmore James.” The introverted intensity that defined his life and manifested itself with crystal clarity through his music may have killed him, but had he become a frightened middle-aged musician trying to hang on for dear life, we’d remember Elmore James as someone who lived way past his prime rather than a guy who left it all on the playing field.

The thought process that led Elmore James to attach a pickup to a Kay dreadnought guitar with high action and then opt to fingerpick in order to achieve the fat, raunchy sound he wanted is not available to us, but it clearly marks him as a man who refused to be stopped in the pursuit of the sound he wanted to achieve. Slide players back in Elmore’s day couldn’t go to Sweetwater.com, read the online guide “How to Choose the Right Guitar Slide for You” and then select from a wide range of state-of-the-art slides in glass, brass and porcelain. Well, when you ain’t got nothin’ you look around the house for something that will do (like those plastic bread clips you can use as an emergency guitar pick). According to Hal Leonard’s tabs-and-techniques manual, Elmore James – Master of the Electric Slide Guitar, “Elmore’s slide was the metal slip that fits over a tube in old radios and record players. These tube covers were made of light metal, often aluminum, and if one was too small for his finger, Elmore sawed it open with a hacksaw.” This sounds like a setup that most people today would associate with a desperate busker trying to earn a few pennies from the charitably-minded, but in the hands of Elmore James, it sounds like the guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius. The Kay wasn’t his only ax, but it’s the one he probably used for “most of his slide playing, both performing and recording,” and is now part of the treasure trove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James learned at the feet of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II during his youth on the Mississippi Delta, and though you can certainly hear their influence in his music (especially in the early 50’s recordings), his expression of the blues at this later stage of his career is all his own. This is particularly noticeable in his vocals, which are marked by an unusual intensity and unbridled confidence. In many of his vocals, there is an undeniable urgency in his timbre, perhaps a manifestation of all that internal pressure, or perhaps fueled by the knowledge that he was living on borrowed time. Whatever the cause, listening to Elmore James sing gives you the impression that this is a man who needs to impart a message that is essential to his very existence. As he wrote most of his material—material that strictly adheres to blues norms—the result was a fresh take on the art that demonstrated the enduring vitality of the blues.

The Best of the Fire Sessions features most of his signature songs, some in the form of remakes of earlier releases. As these are from multiple recording sessions, the album features a variety of backing musicians depending on who happened to be in town on the recording date. No matter—Elmore James was an accomplished bandleader who worked with some of the best blues musicians of the time, and when you work for a leader with a clear artistic vision, it’s a lot easier to figure out where you fit in and what you can add to the mix.

So without further ado . . .

“Shake Your Moneymaker”: The collection is bookended by two classics, but though one could argue that “Dust My Broom” should have come first due to its status as Elmore’s first hit, the album version is a remake, so the timeline hardly matters. My review of “Shake Your Moneymaker” in the Dad’s 45’s series wasn’t as much a review as an emotional-sexual reaction to both the orgasmic experience of finding the record in his collection and the orgasmic experience of the song itself. “I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review,” I wrote, and my commentary on the song suffered from trying to write in bitch-in-heat mode.

What is unique about Elmore’s vocal approach to this song is his restraint, eschewing the gravelly belt-out approach featured in many of his classics. He sounds cool and collected, like a man sitting in a tall, upholstered leather chair with cognac and cigar, savoring the merchandise. Although some women may find it offensive to refer to a woman’s nether regions as a “moneymaker,” the lyrics clearly indicate that Elmore was unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire to plunge his member into the honeypots and back ends of two different women. This tells me he was attempting to maintain his self-esteem by writing the whole thing off to the cynical motivation of unliberated women to trade pussy for a payoff. So while Elmore may pride himself on having the biggest dick in town, he knows he can’t compete in the financial arena, so he’s shit out of luck and headed for the (cold) showers.

The music is subtly inviting, and before long you’ll be shaking your moneymaker with abandon. Elmore uses his go-to tuning (open D); his 12th fret call-and-response bending slides are sweet and expressive. Johnny “Big Moose” Walker defies his nickname and gives us a smooth, rolling boogie on the piano, syncing perfectly with King Mose on the skins. While Jeremy Spencer’s tribute performance on Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac rocks harder, it doesn’t come close to capturing the sheer sexuality of the original.

“Look on Yonder Wall”: James modified the lyrics to this Memphis Jimmy tale of a wounded veteran returning home from WWII who shacks up with another veteran’s squeeze only to learn that hubby is on his way back to the States to reclaim his property. Not to worry: Elmore’s already made other arrangements and will gladly step aside for a fellow vet:

Your husband went to the war, and you know it was tough
I don’t know how many men he killed but I know he killed enough
Look on yonder wall and hand me down my walking came
I got me another woman, now baby, yon come your man

War does tend to throw all the usual norms out the window for a while. I hope there wasn’t a sequel featuring the hubby hunting down Elmore to “thank” him for services rendered to the missus in his absence.

James’ version is slightly more upbeat than the original, and the comparatively rare appearance of an accompanying harmonica (courtesy of Sammy Myers) gives this piece a front porch feel. I absolutely love the nimble display of Elmore’s fretboard skills in the introduction.

“The Sky Is Crying”: This is a James classic that was played at Duane Allman’s funeral, and has been covered by other luminaries such as The Yardbirds, Albert King, Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Etta James. The debate about Elmore’s slide setup rages on, with Homesick James claiming studio accident, others claiming a different amp and Ry Cooder insisting that Elmore had abandoned the Kay setup for this recording. I think all three views have validity: it certainly isn’t his Kay guitar; James certainly could have plugged into a different amp; and the omnipresence of reverb could indicate an acoustic interaction with open space, intensifying any reverb coming through the amp. Whatever it is, it sounds fucking great—a distant, terribly lonely expression of loss. James’ lyrical imagery—“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street”—was inspired by one of those tremendous downpours that often accompany thunderstorms in Chicago and the greater Midwest, a powerful symbol of the destructive power of loss and the consequent helplessness. Elmore’s vocal balances command and heartfelt emotion, his phrasing emphatic without crossing the line into histrionics. Here he is backed by his usual guys, The Broomdusters, and the synergy inherent in a trusting relationship shines throughout the song. The boys knew their man and his tendencies, and provide just enough backing for you to know that if they weren’t there they would be sorely missed . . . and no more. That support gives Elmore plenty of room to rip, and “The Sky Is Crying” is full of fills that absolutely knock me out. Kudos to The Broomdusters: J. T. Brown on saxophone, Johnny Jones on piano, Odie Payne on drums, and Homesick James on bass.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin'”: A blues classic recorded by a slew of artists, the Muddy Watters and Cream versions are probably the most familiar to the listening audience. James’ version is certainly more intense than Muddy’s but not over-the-top like Cream’s. The Johnny Winter version is . . . well, meh . . . and the latest rendition featuring Jeff Beck on guitar and Imogen Heap on vocals is like . . . what the fuck? Personally, I’ll take the 1925 original “Roll and Tumble Blues” by Hambone Willie Newbern for its authenticity and continue to wonder why this particular song has generated so many cover versions. Not my favorite Elmore James contribution.

“Held My Baby Last Night”: Goddamn—this is one seriously sexy breakup song. Elmore is in fine voice as he belts out this lament for a relationship on the skids, and once again The Broomdusters provide a suitable background for the emotional dynamic expressed through his vocal pleas for freedom and the heartfelt riffs delivered between lines. The drone of J. T. Brown’s saxophone establishes a mournful mood of a love gone wrong while Odie Payne’s more active drumming reinforces the stutter-stop communication that invariably accompanies separation. I like to put this one at the end of fuck playlists when my lover and I are finishing off the booze and enjoying our post-fuck cigarettes while stroking each other with messages of reassurance.

“I’m Worried”: This track from the posthumous release The Sky Is Crying is a tightly played number featuring Elmore laying out some classic blues figures and a few clever variations from the norm toward the end of the song. I think the song could have been a stronger track with The Broomdusters; alas and alack, Homesick James is pretty much on his own, surrounded by unknown studio musicians who do their bit, pick up their checks and move on. This so-so support places Elmore in the position of having to save the song, which he does with aplomb because he’s Elmore Fucking James, people!

“Done Somebody Wrong”: Powerful stuff here. A black man trying to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the cruelty-laden apartheid of Jim Crow faces a task equivalent to Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill for all eternity. The downside of having a sense of moral responsibility is that the morally responsible person develops a tendency to feel responsible for every misfortune that comes their way, particularly when frightened. Here Elmore is blaming himself for the loss of his baby, but the story is easily translatable to the African-American experience. “Man, what did I do wrong?” is a sadly pathetic question for which there is no answer because no, you didn’t do anything wrong. The syncopated two-beat-rest pattern certainly draws the listener’s interest, but Elmore’s vocal is the main attraction—a pleading, anxiety-ridden expression of the search for meaning and forgiveness.

“Fine Little Mama”: The flip side to “Done Somebody Wrong” features a nice easy mid-tempo beat, outstanding guitar work and two renditions of Elmore’s delightful groans of satisfaction: “Hmmmm-hmm.” I love to hear that sound from any man I fuck, as it’s a foreplay cue that tells me I’ve found his sweet spot with either hand or mouth. Apparently his Fine Little Mama knows exactly what to do, as confirmed in the closing verse when Elmore admits, “Well, when she start the lovin’/My love come tumblin’ down.”

Uh oh. Sounds like premature ejaculation or a guy that can’t hold back long enough to give me some deep thrust pleasure. THAT IS NOT MY IMAGE OF ELMORE JAMES. Well, she is a “red hot mama,” and hot women do have a tendency to overwhelm even the best of men, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shit, this is turning into a porn review, but goddamnit, that’s how I respond to Elmore James.

“Anna Lee”: The b-side of the final single Elmore released in his lifetime features erotic, groaning baritone sax from Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams and smoky jazz-tinged trumpet from Danny Moore, who would go on to play with Yusef Lateef, Les McCann and Wes Montgomery. Elmore more than holds his own in the presence of these jazz musicians and the timbre of his strong and confident vocal tells us that he loved working with a larger combo and was thrilled to the expand the blues with greater sonic variation. I can’t leave the song without extending appreciation to drummer Johnny Williams, who kills the finish with an emphatic run that truly seals the deal. I have no doubt that had Elmore James lived a bit longer he would have steered his core blues arrangements towards jazz sensibilities.

“Stranger Blues”: Tampa Red had to find a way into this collection, and this modified version of one of his lesser-known songs pays suitable tribute to one of the earliest (single-string) slide players (and one of the first to use the National steel guitar). Red did a lot of what were called “hokum” songs—bawdy tunes filled with double entendres like “Tight Like That” by Ma Rainey. This song takes on a darker cast as it deals with the mass migration of African-Americans to the northern states in search of jobs during the WWII manufacturing boom. Elmore’s version opens with a riff that sounds very close to the main riff of “What’d I Say?” and soon settles into an aggressive samba-like beat enhanced by the jazz trumpet offerings of Danny Moore. The baseline story is that the narrator feels like an outcast in northern climes and decides to return to the Deep South “if I wear out 99 pairs of shoes.” You may wonder any African-American would want to return to the land of Jim Crow and the KKK, but though they didn’t have to worry too much about white terrorism up north, they experienced the more subtle and insidious forms of racism, particularly when it came to choosing a neighborhood. And for many people, there is an inexorable pull towards home, no matter how shitty a place it might have been. That paradox would give anyone the blues, and choosing to record this song at the dawn of the activist phase of the Civil Rights Movement formed a coded but clear message that Elmore James felt the sting of second-class citizenship and wanted to say something about that intolerable condition.

“Something Inside of Me”: I don’t mean to engage in a weird form of schadenfreude, but this “my baby left me” slow blues is one sexy bitch of a song. Elmore gives it everything he’s got and then some—a full-throated passionate vocal married to a cascading variety of riffs from nearly every spot on the fretboard. Some of the riffs sound like a man trying to hold it together; others go deep down the bottom strings to capture the darker thoughts of bitterness and despair; still others try to rise to the heavens but are held back by hints of dissonance. At brief moments Elmore gives the rhythm a push, indicating he is totally immersed in the overall flow of the song. An absolutely hypnotic grinder that makes you want to get oh so close to your baby.

Cigarette!

“Early One Morning”: A nice little pick-me-up (assuming you and your baby have exhausted every drop of passion) in the form of mid-tempo blues . . . until you get tired of the saxophone repeating the same fucking figure ad infinitum. Still, Elmore gives a powerful vocal performance, making the short trip more than worthwhile.

“Sunnyland”: Robert Johnson’s influence is obvious in this straight-up, don’t mess with me rollicking blues number. This was another posthumous release featuring King Mose and Big Moose Walker, a remake of a 1954 b-side (originally titled “Sunny Land”). Sunnyland, by the way, was the name of the train that Elmore’s baby used to hightail it out of town. The delightful twist in the story comes when baby writes to Elmore to say she’s coming home . . . under one condition: “Cool down papa, you better change your ways.” Like the aforementioned Mr. Johnson (who admitted he wanted to beat his woman till he got satisfied), Elmore took the first step towards toxic male recovery by admitting he’d been a fucking asshole.

“Standing at the Crossroads”: This (remake) was the A-side of the “Sunny Land” single back in its 1954 form, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was the first concept single. Both songs deal with the uniquely masculine choice: do I beat the crap out of my unsatisfactory baby or do I move on to a hotter, more compliant babe? Elmore’s tale omits the Johnsonian pleas for assistance from a higher being, preferring to work things out for himself. I love how he leaves us hanging right there on the crossroads, clueless as to what he’s going to do next. Despite his dismissal of the lord’s assistance, Elmore sounds remarkably like a hell-fire preacher (and just as horny).

“My Bleeding Heart”: I find it unbelievable that one of Elmore James’ greatest songs wasn’t rushed into the stores as soon as the master was finished but had to wait four long years to see daylight as a posthumous release. It’s no wonder that Jimi Hendrix made several attempts to duplicate its intensity while fashioning his unique interpretation of the original, finally getting it right in the live versions. Elmore’s original is intensity squared, opening with a disarming, understated set of riffs, gradually raising the heat through a no-holds-barred vocal performance that builds to a hard-picked bending crescendo as the horns of Danny Moore and Johnny Williams cry out in parallel agony. The blues rarely gets better than this.

“Dust My Broom”: This remake of Elmore’s first big hit is a radical departure from the original, which landed somewhere between the Delta and Chi-town. The Fire remake is 100% Chicago with horns blaring, percussion thumping, and Elmore ripping it like there’s no tomorrow. The difference between the two vocals couldn’t be greater, as young Elmore was terrified of recording, and his comparatively thin voice was further hampered by a common early-fifties recording technique: direct-to-disc with everyone on the same microphone. What is special about the original is the slide guitar on overdrive with that famous repeating triplet figure simmering in vibrato and delivered machine-gun style. The remake features Elmore with his fully-matured voice, laying out the vocal with complete command. While I appreciate the inventiveness of the original, I’m forever attracted to hot-and-steamy as well as a man in total command of all his faculties, whether real or in my imagination.

The Best of the Fire Sessions is a fully engaging listening experience, whether you’re libidinially oriented, emotionally centered or a music aficionado searching for excellence. The tragic aspect of his short existence comes through clearly in his stylistic development and the late-stage jazz leanings that reveal tremendous potential, but the sheer joy of listening to a man expressing heart, soul and fire through his music moves the discussion from what could have been to oh, my fucking god, listen to what this man is laying down.

And now, back to the Brits.

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