Delmark Records, and the joined-at-the-hip Jazz Record Mart, are venerable Chicago musical institutions. Formed by Bob Koester better than half-a-century ago and specializing in jazz and blues music, Delmark is the longest-running independent record label in America. The label's back catalog is a veritable cultural treasure chest, representing some of the most influential and important recordings in both the blues and jazz genres.
In March 2008, Delmark celebrated the label's 55th birthday with a party at Buddy Guy's Legends club in Chicago that featured most of Delmark's current blues roster. The two-disc CD/DVD set 55 Years of Blues is a further continuation of the label's anniversary celebration, a look back at Delmark's storied past with music from both well-known blues artists like Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Sleepy John Estes as well as lesser-known, but incredible singers and instrumentalists like Bonnie Lee, Willie Kent, Jimmy Dawkins, and Floyd McDaniel.
Delmark Records' 55 Years of Blues
The CD half of the set kicks off with Junior Wells' blistering "Little By Little," a live track from his Live At Theresa's 1975 album and a soulful romp through the blues. Unadorned by studio gimcrackery and embellished by the sweet-and-sour guitarplay of underrated Chicago string-masters Phil Guy and Byther Smith, the song sounds like one of your favorite club performances, lingering in your memory like the smell of a former girlfriend's perfume long after the last note rings.
The other 16 blues performances provided 55 Years of Blues are just as strong a statement for Delmark's musical legacy. Brownsville, Tennessee bluesman Sleepy John Estes spent 15 years on the label, which released six Estes' albums, including the recently-revived On The Chicago Blues Scene. Estes' "I Ain't Gonna Sell It," from that album, is a rollicking number fueled by Sunnyland Slim's undeniable piano-bashing and drummer Odie Payne's spry rhythms.
The too-long overlooked Detroit Jr. displays both his lyrical skills and his smoky piano runs on "Call My Job," a wonderfully wry tale of Monday morning regret. Accompanied by Maurice John Vaughan's red-hot fretwork and some major-league horn-blowing, the song takes on the nervous, hungover sway of the weekend warrior. Legendary slide-guitarist J.B. Hutto delivers a stinging example of his slinky, serpentine slideplay with "Evening Train," a vintage track from 1966, recorded hot in a club environment, sans audience.
Legends of the Chicago Blues
Delmark's 55 Years of Blues offers up plenty of the stuff that earned the city its reputation, the album featuring performances from some of the true legends of the Chicago blues. Barkin' Bill Smith, an old-school torch singer, is represented by the sultry "Suffering Mind," his soulful vocal workout complimented by Steve Freund's fluid guitar style and a masterpiece horn section.
Syl Johnson is another underrated Chicago bluesman, one of the leading lights behind the "west side" guitar style that includes Magic Sam among its proponents. Johnson's "Keep On Loving Me" is a fine example of his R&B side, the track featuring the singer's smooth vocals, augmented by 1970s-style female backing harmonies, and propelled by Johnson's funky six-string play.
Speaking of Magic Sam, the famed guitarist is represented here by the raw, rocking "I Don’t Want No Woman," a live cover of a favorite Bobby "Blue" Bland song and a solid showcase for Sam's incendiary fretburning guitar style.
Another bona fide Chicago blues legend, Otis Rush, appears with a smoking live performance of "Please Love Me," from his better-late-than-never release Live At The Wise Fool's Pub. Taken from a 1976 radio taping, "Please Love Me" has everything that a Chicago blues fan could ever want, from Rush's hearty, rough-hewn vocals to his scalpel-sharp six-string surgery.
Everything But The Kitchen Sink
Delmark can boast of a diverse range of blues resting in its vaults. Big Joe Williams, the "King of the Nine-String Guitar," brought his unique brand of country blues to Delmark, beginning in 1957 and including four albums. "Coffeehouse Blues," from the 1961 sessions that resulted in the Williams' album Blues On Highway 49, is a prototypical Delta-styled jukehouse rave with atypical guitar styling, Williams creating a mighty noise with his unusual instrument.
Piano blues are often an overlooked segment of the milieu, and few have ever done it better than the legendary pianist Roosevelt Sykes. His "Fine & Brown," from 1951, is a barn-burner with energetic key-pounding by Sykes and subtle backing guitar by Robert Nighthawk. Guitarist Steve Freund's "I'll Be Your Mule" is a blue-rocking prizefight, Freund's psychedelic-tinged, distorted leads and gravel-throated vocals matched by the strength of the backing band's shuffling rhythms.
Delmark On DVD
With the new century, Delmark evolved to include video among its offerings, and the DVD half of the set features full song-length clips taken from the label's recent releases.
Tail Dragger's houserockin' "Tend To Your Business" has the veteran bluesman knocking out a solid vocal performance in front of Lurrie Bell's ringing guitar tones and Billy Branch's manic harp-blasting. Bell breathes new life into the old chestnut "Baby Please Don't Go," his scorching guitarplay balanced with the blues harp mastery of his late father, the legendary Carey Bell.
Other live performances offered here include such blues stalwarts as Byther Smith, Little Arthur Duncan, Dave Specter, Mississippi Heat, and Zora Young, who performs her "Til The Fat Lady Sings" with Lurrie Bell, taken from last March's Delmark anniversary party.
The Reverend's Bottom LineWe could argue about what the folks at Delmark didn't include on 55 Years of Blues, and some critics no doubt will flap their gums for days about the set's alleged shortcomings. Why bother? It's all good, people, and if you've been looking for a sampler to introduce yourself to the charms of the Delmark label's enormous and impressive back catalog, you won't do better than 55 Years of Blues.
For you neglected jazz music fans, Delmark has also released a companion set, 55 Years of Jazz, that features artists like King Curtis, Curtis Fuller, Coleman Hawkins, and the mighty Sun Ra, among others. Go ahead and buy, 'cause you'll want both of 'em in your music library. (Delmark Records, released October 21, 2008)