George "Harmonica" Smith is a curiously overlooked, albeit influential bluesman. His unique technique can be heard in the sound of acolytes such as Rod Piazza, William Clarke, and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Although the shadow of the Chicago blues style hangs heavily over Smith's vocals and harp playing, when tempered with the years he spent traveling the south as a teen, or playing gospel music, or fronting his own band in Kansas City, Smith's unique experience would create a sound that would make him known as one of the architects of the West Coast blues style.
Sadly, Smith was sorely under-recorded during his brief lifetime, the harp wizard passing away in 1983 at the age of 59 years old. Other than a handful of singles released during the 1950s, there are a couple of early 1970s albums with the blues-rock band Bacon Fat, which also featured Piazza and guitarist Buddy Reed; a pair of well-regarded mid-70s discs with singer Big Mama Thornton; and a half dozen or so releases under his own name, from mostly European labels, and not easy to acquire except for the most diligent (and rabid) of collectors. Smith's mid-1950s tenure with the Muddy Waters Band went unrecorded, as did much of his mid-1960s return; although a 1967 session with Otis Spann resulted in The Blues Is Where It's At album.
George Smith & the Chicago Blues Band's Blues With A Feeling
Smith was heavily influenced by the style and grace of Little Walter Jacobs – few harp players of the 1950s and early '60s wouldn't feel that influence – so it was only fitting that Smith's first album would be a tribute to the master harp player. Recorded in L.A. in October 1968 with members of Waters' band, including pianist Spann, guitarist Luther Johnson, and Muddy Waters himself, Blues With A Feeling would be released in early 1969 to near universal critical acclaim. The album featured material that was written, or recorded by Little Walter during his brief career, with the exception of "West Helena Woman," a James Cotton song that was a favorite of Smith's.
The entire recording and release of Blues With A Feeling took place only weeks after Jacobs' death, making it the ultimate tribute album, and the performances featured in the grooves were inspired, no doubt, by the relationship that many of the musicians in the studio had with the late harp player. The album kicks off with "Mellow Down Easy," a Willie Dixon composition that will be instantly familiar to any Chicago blues fan as it's long since become a blues standard. Smith's performance here display the first strains of the West Coast jump-blues style he helped create, the band jumpin'-n-jivin' behind his soulful vocals and jaunty harpwork.
Little Walter's My Babe
Little Walter's "My Babe" was one of the harp player's biggest hits, and Smith and crew do the song justice with a smooth-as-silk delivery. The band shuffles languidly behind Smith's upbeat vocals and squalls of harmonica, Waters adding a little fine rhythm guitar alongside Spann's almost hidden piano fills. Equally important to Little Walter's success was the raucous instrumental "Juke," his first hit single. Smith recreates the magic of the original with a few tonal flairs of his own thrown in, young guitarist Marshall Hooks layering in some trembling guitar behind the raging harp. Cotton's "West Helena Woman," recorded previously by Smith on a couple of occasions, is a Chicago-styled flamethrower with plenty of soul, Smith's raw harmonica trills, and Hooks' twangy fretwork.
Big Bill Broonzy's "Key To The Highway" was already a bona fide Chicago blues standard by the time that Jacobs recorded it in 1958, and Smith delivers a superb performance. His often underrated vocals are robust but as subtle in their phrasing as any soulman of the 1960s, while his harp fills are fluid and understated. Spann's piano shines here, tinkling away in the background and adding a jazzy punctuation to the song. Another Willie Dixon-penned tune, "Too Late," closed out the original album, the song an upbeat blues/jazz hybrid with some invigorating brushwork from drummer S.P. Leary, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson's electrifying guitarplay, and Smith's rough-n-tumble harp blasts.
This 2012 CD reissue of Blues With A Feeling from U.K. archival label BGO Records includes three performances recorded for, but never released, on the original album. The first, a slow and greasy reading of "Goin' Down Slow," offers an incredible Muddy Waters' slide-guitar solo that will scorch your speakers, the master obviously inspiring the young harp player, who knocks out an incendiary solo of his own. Little Walter's "Just A Feelin'" is provided a perfunctory take – not bad, but not up to snuff when compared with the other tracks. "Love With A Feelin'," featuring vocals from Spann's young wife Lucille, is the odd man out here, as Smith appears nowhere on the track. Although Mrs. Spann is a Koko Taylor-styled soul-shouter, her vocals are lost even in this subdued arrangement, but there's no faulting the playing of professionals like Spann, Waters, and Luther Johnson.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Fans of the traditional Chicago blues sound, as well as fans of Little Walter, will find a lot to like on Blues With A Feeling. Aside from representing the first full-length album from the great George "Harmonica" Smith, you get to hear a brace of time-tested Little Walter songs performed by a crackerjack band of Chicago blues legends like Waters and Spann. Throw in the original LP notes courtesy of Pete Welding, and new liner notes from Tony Russell, and what more could a poor boy want? (BGO Records, released March 13, 2012)
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