FROM THE DELTA... TO THE CITY
On the trail of 'Hot Foot Powder':
In 1999, The Robert Johnson Songbook by Peter Green and Nigel Watson was voted Best Comeback Album of The Year in The Prestigious W.C. Handy Awards organised annually by The Blues Foundation. And in some ways this achievement echoed a phenomenon which took place during the 1960s - something now remembered as the transatlantic blues crossover. This phrase illustrates the fact that it took British blues-based bands such as the Rolling Stones and Cream, and their sometimes radically updated interpretations of Robert Johnson classics such as 'Love In Vain' and 'Cross Road Blues', to draw the attention of young white America to its own rich blues heritage.
The only people quick to wag a disapproving finger at musicians such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton who were looking to progress and develop a cherished and traditional folk art were blues purists - the kind of shallow-minded ilk of traditionalists who booed and jeered Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall for having the nerve to take to the stage armed with - God forbid - an electric guitar and a head full of fresh ideas.
History sort of came full-circle when Green and Watson released their first Robert Johnson collection of sixteen songs in May 1998, reviewing it in the 'cutting edge' music column of a daily broadsheet newspaper, one eminent British music critic not only frowned upon, but he also seemed truly offended by the innovative and sometimes radical arrangements on that album, which was a pity because everybody else loved those modern interpretations - especially, the Americans - something subsequently confirmed by the Memphis based Blues Foundation. So in a sense it was the crossover revisited - two Brit bluesers showed the music world on both sides of the Atlantic some of the endless possibilities in Robert Johnson's raw but complex music.
Encouraged by strong sales of that CD and the always rapturous audience reactions to Robert Johnson songs when performed at Splinter Group gigs (acoustic duo numbers as well as band efforts such as Nigel Watson's arrangement of 'Terraplane Blues'), the W.C. Handy Awards accolade helped to pave the way for 'Hot Foot Powder' - fresh arrangements of the thirteen songs from the Robert Johnson canon which were not covered by Green and Watson in "The Robert Johnson Songbook".
'Hot Foot Powder' - the very special guest list:
From the start, 'Hot Foot Powder' was bound to be a bold musical project innovating Robert Johnson's music and hoping to widen its appeal with the help of special arrangements and very special guest musicians. Namely, six American artists whose experience virtually spans the whole history of the blues, David 'Honeyboy' Edwards who actually played at the same gigs as Robert Johnson and at 84 is a living musical link to the Delta legend. Hubert Sumlin who at 69 was part of the generation who established the blues of Chicago in the 1950's (notably in Howlin' Wolf's band) and adapted the music to suit the rowdy, smoky bigger clubs of a big city. Chicago blues moved forward fast in the late 1950's and early 1960's thanks to Buddy Guy and Otis Rush - back then these two were keen rivals on a cut throat competitive musical scene where if you wanted to stay in work you had to come up with something different. Each week San Franciscan Joe Louis Walker, who at 50 is the youngest guest on 'Hot Foot Powder' developed his brand of blues during the mid- 1960's West Coast blues boom alongside Earl Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins. And 59 year old Mac 'Dr John' Rebbenack, who brings the fruits of over forty years of New Orleans barrelhouse and voodoo piano playing to the sessions.
Peter Green, Nigel Watson and co-producer Roger Cotton share some recent precious musical memories:
Peter: 'We always listen to Robert Johnson in the car and we always discuss Robert Johnson'
Nigel: 'And one of the magical things about his music is that you can hear a song a hundred times and then suddenly you hear something else in it that you never heard before. There's a raw side of Robert Johnson which we always want to portray, but we also are keen to see what else we can do with some of his songs. So when we thought about a co-producer to help us do this we thought of Roger Cotton. Roger has got a lot of musical experience - not just in blues - he likes to thrash ideas around in search of new feels in music. He's got a good ear and so knows how to get the best out of people and he's also an accomplished studio engineer. Another thing we liked is that Roger was looking at a wider audience for the styles we play combined with city blues'.
Roger: 'And that, really was our challenge paying homage to the past yet working in the present. We knew it was like we were dabbling with an old masterpiece because Robert Johnson's Delta blues was music of that time and of that place - one guy telling his story to the accompaniment of a guitar, over sixty years ago in the Deep South'
Peter: 'But to me Robert Johnson is also the beginning of jazz and blues as a style of music. On his song '32:20' which we did on our first album - when I hear him sing "Where did you stay last night" now if that was blues or spirituals like Josh White, then the next line would be "In the pines, in the pines where the sun never shines" - that was the blues. But on '32:20' that line "Where did you stay last night - your hair's all tangled and you ain't talking right" that to me is the origin of jazz. And the same goes for things like 'Kind Hearted Woman' - he was kind of like the original jazz singer to me in a way; a musician with a brilliant sense of humour and blues often ain't got that, obviously'.
Roger: 'When we flew out to the States with the backing tracks to record those blues legends we were a bit nervous-you know, a bit like we were about to touch on sacred ground or take coals to Newcastle!'
Nigel: 'But then when we did the sessions every one of those musicians said how much they liked what we were doing and the sound we'd got. Buddy Guy's face lit up when he heard "Cross Road Blues".'
Roger: 'And every single one of them also made a point of saying how proud and flattered they were that somebody like Peter would choose them for this album. There was so much respect for Peter Green.'
Peter: 'Er yeah, but they were only being nice. What did you expect them to say!'
Nigel: 'When Buddy Guy got to the studio he said "Who do you want? What kind of runs do you want me to play?" and I said we want you - nobody else. We said the same to Otis Rush - play your style and we'll be happy and they had a free rein just to play what they wanted. Only Otis Rush heard the backing tracks before we flew over - all the other guys played as is. For each track we took quite a few takes and later back in England we spent a long time choosing the one that worked best for the song. We think the result is that is sounds like they're playing in a room with us.'
Roger: 'Yeah, and I think a lot of credit for this must also go to our rhythm section - Larry and Pete - who took into account our thoughts and feelings about the feel we wanted for the material.'
Nigel: 'Pete Stroud plays on every track and his contribution is exceptional - the feel that his upright bass playing gives certain songs. On "Malted Milk" for instance, we were looking for a different atmosphere and couldn't come up with anything until Stroudie hit on the idea of using a bow on the double bass and then played his part like a humorous character - the sort of notes that Robert Johnson played on guitar.'
Peter: 'On "Cross Road Blues" what his bass playing says to me is that he is a collector of Robert Johnson's kind of music and has listened to a lot of it in the past. And Larry can easily switch to the old fashioned style of drumming that works so well here. But the thing I enjoy most now about listening to the finished album is that it reminds me how each of the musicians we used in America played perfectly. They never played the same thing twice in different takes. It was beautiful and I got a better feeling from this than I do from their own records in some way, I don't know why. It wasn't as exciting or bluesy - it was just fantastic guitar playing to me and I just loved it.'
'That Turnaround To The Blues' Honeyboy Edwards On The Robert Johnson legacy:
In the studio in Chicago, December 1999, Peter, Nigel, Roger and Stuart Taylor (who set up the US sessions) were in for a rare treat. After several takes of Honeyboy laying down his unique Delta slide on an upbeat arrangement of "Traveling Riverside Blues", Nigel made a request: would Robert Johnson's one time guitar partner play "Cross Road Blues" for them. Watson and Green had heard 'Honeyboy' perform the song with Robert Lockwood Jnr. during the 1998 Robert Johnson Convention held at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, at which Green and Watson also played. (Lockwood Jnr. - now nearly 85 - in fact had accepted an invitation to guest on the 'Hot Foot Powder' sessions, but sadly he felt unwell on the scheduled day. His style was an influence on B.B. King in the 1940's, and today Lockwood Jnr. is the other remaining living link with Johnson. Johnson actually taught him to play guitar).
Honeyboy gladly obliged and played "Cross Road Blues" there in the studio control room to the delight of all present. What follows is the transcript of a conversation afterwards between him, Nigel and Roger. Pete and Honeyboy briefly chatted at the start of the session; Honeyboy recalled the previous occasion when he, Peter and Fleetwood Mac were in the studio together nearly thirty one years ago at Chess Studios playing on the "Blues Jam at Chess" sessions.
Honeyboy: (on finishing the song) 'I haven't played that for so long (laughs)! A long time since I played it. But it comes right back to you.'
Nigel: 'Do you remember seeing Robert Johnson play it?'
Honeyboy: 'Yeah! I played with him It was 1937 - 1937 - I was twenty two years old and he was twenty six. Robert was born in something like 1911 - something like that - and I was born in '15. We used to play a lot together so we did. We used to go clubs in Mississippi with Willie Mae, His girlfriend that was my first cousin ... Her mother was my mother's sister and we two first cousins. I was lucky to be around then and I played with all of them - Little Walter, I brought him to Chicago... I brought him here, he was fifteen when I brought him here. '45 he was fifteen, born in 1930. He could play then and I brought him into this town here.'
Nigel: 'So you played "Cross Road Blues" with Robert a year before he died?'
Honeyboy: 'Oh yeah! Yeah! He died in '38 ... But we were together all of '37 and we were together in '38 up until August, up until he died in August - died in August. Yeah! ... I knew him very well'
Nigel: 'He certainly left some music behind and there's a lot of people who love that music'
Honeyboy: 'well ... yeah ... well, he come out... He was the first guitar player to come out with the turnaround to the blues. Go off so ... you got to turnaround to the blues. Just like er ... Son House - he didn't have the turnaround to the blues; Tommy McClennan didn't have the turnaround to the blues; Tommy Johnson didn't have the turnaround to the blues - he just played guitar and voice a high voice - know what I mean?'
Nigel: 'Yeah. And about Charley Patton?'
Honeyboy: 'Yeah... he had a little something every once in a while but he didn't know what he was doing at that time. But he had a good voice and what he played was strong and everything you know? Like, those guys... After Robert Johnson come out with that turnaround with the blues Muddy Waters came out with it... then Elmore James, all of them come out with that turnaround and all the blues players come out and they play somethin' first - so many chords then they have that back up, you know, the turnaround back-up. So that makes the music sounds better - that's a sweetnin' to your music. Yeah, I knew Muddy ... all them... all those in Chicago together. Muddy Waters, Floyd Jones, Snooky Pryor, John Henry Barbee we always hung together. All of 'em gone just about, except a few. I'm about the last Delta blues player here Me and Robert Lockwood is the same age.'
Nigel: 'Yeah, Robert's ill at the moment isn't he?'
Honeyboy: 'Yeah, but he's still working - yeah, he workin' good. We played something about a couple of months ago place here, downtown here But he not well?'
Nigel: 'No, I'm afraid. You see we wanted you two to play together.'
Roger: 'May I ask you, how old are you, Sir?'
Honeyboy: 'How old a'me? I'm eighty four'
Roger: 'Wow, man, you look about... fifty one!'
Nigel: 'It's all those girls! [Honeyboy laughs at this]'
Honeyboy: 'I was born in 1915, the twenty eighth day of June'
Roger: 'You're still cutting it good, man'.
Honeyboy: 'Yeh... I'm doin' pretty good I believe. I've got a lot of work coming up in the next month. New York and then going back overseas ... somewhere there ... I'm going to Germany'
Nigel: 'Well, you keep doing it'
Honeyboy: 'Well, I'm not gonna quit....'
Roger: 'The secret of long life is hard work, yeah?'
Honeyboy: 'Well... once you get off into it, once you start to playing the blues and playing music, it's hard at my age now ... if I quit now I don't know nothing to do. I drive my car, really, I still drive the other day. But just laying around the house watching the television just for something to do - I'd rather be playing. You meet different people, talk with different people.'
'Jet' Martin Celmins
Contains original ingredients formulated by Robert Johnson and was made up to a special receipe by a combination of Peter Green Splinter Group plus added special guests.
Special Thanks: Masaki Rush, Scott A. Cameron, Peter Himberger, Rick Bates, Owen Parker, Gary Everest, Nicola O'Donegan, Bob Grummit (guitars), Andrew Lauder, Catherine Yronwode @ The Lucky Mojo Curio Co.
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Artisian Recordings, a Snapper Music Label
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