George Starostin's Reviews



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Duane Zarakov <> (07.06.2000)

...whoa damn,you think "the Rolling Stones still did Chuck Berry better than Chuck"?

two little words - "Come On" !

 ...yeah well maybe that ain't strictly a fair suck o' the sausage - the Stones themselves'd surely be first to admit their version of "Come On" was the feeblest track they cut until,uh,a bit later on,& yeah Chuck B's own rendition is I suppose hardly 1 of his hottest tickets (still tho',a fuckin revelation to me when I finally got to hear it after years of familiarity with only the Stoners' weedy travesty);my case in general,tho',is that your "Classic Rock" orthodoxy treats '50s Rock pretty rank. Consider this - analogous to how you snub most '70s/'80s/'90s/21st-century rock as mere retreading of the halcyon age of Jethro Tool & Genesis &  such yummies,well how 'bout how a circa-1963 smartguy coulda made a solid case for the Beatles being nothing that Chuck B. & Buddy H. & Carl P. hadn't already done with piles mo' snazz? or, how 'bout how in 1969 you coulda perhaps illustrated that to any audience not addled on pot, Cream & Zep & Jeff Beck weren't adding much but flatus & diarrhoea to the inventions of Howlin' Wolf,Elmore James,B.B/Albert/Freddie King...? yeah & on the point,holy shit,The Who's "Summertime Blues", "more interesting" than the orig.? GET OFF & MILK IT,MAC! Yo,The Who's version of that song is less "interesting" than T.Rex's.(Actually I dig The Who the most,but that song's no career pinnacle...& man if you wanna heavy-rock version o' that tune,well you know BLUE CHEER's sinks Mr Townshend's boat definitively).

Ho hum.Having blurted forth all the above ,whew, gotta say as a newcomer to yr site i find it entertaining & thoughtprovoking (don't have to agree w/ much (or ANY) of yr opinions to find it so...of course I do tho' (agree w/ various of yr opinions that is)...main big deal to me as I get into sites like yours and Prindle's (yay!P-R-I-N-D-L-E,appreciate,who do we!) is I just think it's great how the I-net is taking Rock Crit ouuta the stranglehold of the Professionals and delivering it back to the people  - that's great.(& for that I reward you with all this blathering & rudeness)

But yeah back to the part i hope you will actually print (uh,pertinent comment about music) - I reckon if you get more into '50s rock you'll come to regard it as more than mere prologomena to the real stuff and hear it outside the context of Ancient Grease, as REAL ROCK'N'ROLL that actually ROCKS - that's why it's called that,'cuz that's what the fuck it DOES. (Check out Nick Tosches' "Unsung Heroes of Rock'n'Roll", one of the 2 or 3 greatest books ever writ about rock'n'roll,also that FUCKIN' ACE box-set comp. on Rhino Records that I forget the name of.Yeah and Link Wray,you should definitely listen to Link Wray.)(yeah & the best Chuck Berry collections NO FUCKING DOUBT are still the 3 vol's of "Golden Decade" double LPs - all ass-kickers,no fucken "Ding-a-Ling",lotsa great obscure trax so's you can dig Chuck other than thru the stupefying filter of over-familiarity).

[Special author note: actually Duane Zarakov IS quite right, if you just change the syntax a little! The Beatles around 1963 (but only around 1963, mind you) WERE nothing that Chuck B and Buddy H hadn't already done... with piles mo' snazz. That is, the Beatles had piles mo' snazz, not Chuck B or Buddy H.]

Lyolya Svidrigajlova <> (31.12.2000)

Proto-rock heroes in general:

[Gee! "Elvis is rapidly losing his God-like status"?! Whether you like it or not, George, it is not true. Elvis is still #1. Elvis is still upper than Beatles. Although I'm not such a big fan of Elvis. In fact, I'm not at all a fan of Elvis. Believe it or not.]

Okay. To be sincere, I would rather agree with Duane Zarakov than with George Starostin. [Although I think that Duane's style might appear rather offensive] With some remarks. Personnaly, I think that original and cover version (if it is not a "note-by-note" copy, of course) are two different songs. And I could never say which one is better. They are just DIFFERENT. [The other point is which I would prefer. I won't give you my point of view. Actually, it depends... Aww, it's all unnecessary.]

On one hand, if somebody is making a reviews page, he'd better learn the roots of rock'n'roll. But attention! Don't forget that the recording technology in 50's was much worse than in 60's and so on. And, sorry to remind you, George, there existed another direction beginning in 50's which you didn't mention at all. Garage rock, I mean. The guys who actually did punk before punk popped his head out and psychedelia before psychedelic era. The problem is that those records are almost inaccessible - at least, in Russia. [Wow! I'm still dreaming about the whole pack of records by "Quazimodos" or "Hush Puppies" or... there are SO many!] Obscure rarities... [Never mind. Might as well say that Lyolya Svidrigajlova is way too biased towards garage rock (a garage rock fanatic) and skip that.] But if somebody is interested in the roots...

On the other hand... Yes, if you want to get to the roots, you should dig deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper... through early rock'n'roll to rhythm'n'blues, then to traditional songs and classical music, then... and at last, you'll come to a conclusion that rock'n'roll actually came from tribal dances. In fact, all the music came from tribal dances... But it is impossible for one person to study everything in this world! And, in fact, "de gustibus non est disputandum"... Let everyone listen to what he/she wants...

One last point - if we talk about early rock... Whether I do like Beatles or not, or other guys, I don't think there is any reason in saying something like "they didn't actually do anything that wasn't done before them". We're all influenced by the things which were before us. So... you sit down to write a song, some tune/line/riff occurs to you, you write it down, make a song out of it, think it's great... and then you realize that somebody has already done it before you. And, of course, everybody begins (and sometimes continues this line) by imitating something (or somebody) which inspired them (and sometimes not on purpose!) Really, you can take it from me, as I'm a songwriter myself (not a great or even good one, of course, but still...) As a conclusion... there's no use in snubbing what you don't love deeply (to the advantage of what you do love deeply). Or it sometimes can make people think that you don't listen attentively to what you are not so crazy about (really, George!)...

[Special author note: actually, I'm not too sure about what this is all supposed to be about... I don't know how Lyola decides about the # 1 status of Elvis; I draw my conclusions from the actual observations and tastes of people in this Web medium. Not too many Elvis fans around. Also, I'm a bit baffled as to what concerns my 'forgetting' garage-rock. As far as I know - in its traditional definition, at least - garage-rock is an American movement inspired chiefly by the British invasion, and dates to the mid-Sixties and not mid-Fifties unless there's some kind of other garage rock that neither I nor most information sources are aware of. Therefore, garage-rock can in no way be qualified as a 'roots' movement of any kind. As for the last paragraph, its idea escapes me totally; the only thing I'd like to mention that I was in no way 'snubbing' Fifties rock. If I were 'snubbing' Fifties rock, I wouldn't have dedicated an entire page to it.]


Album: Rock Around The Clock (TKO Records, 1992)

Morten Felgenhauer <> (03.01.2001)

Bill Haley deserves his credit as one of the Inventors of Rock. He may not have been the first to play this music (although he had playing it a couple of years before becoming famous), but he was the first Rock'n'Roller to have international success. My problem with Bill is that most of his songs sound very much the same (I have a compilation with the original studio recordings). However, no collector with pretentions of understanding the whole concept called "Rock" should be without "Shake, Rattle and Roll" or "Rock Around The Clock". Stick to the studio recordings, though. These are "The Real Thing". Since Bill was touring long after his heyday and live recordings of the 50s & 60s can be dubious affairs, it is often wise to avoid these.

Palash Ghosh <> (12.03.2001)

I know little or nothing about Bill Haley, but I have always loved 'Rock Around the Clock' (from long before I even knew it was by Haley). That song just jumps out and grabs you by the collar as much as 'I want to hold your hand' or 'Hound dog' or 'Satisfaction.'

Ol' Bill was probably at the right place at the right time, but I'm sure glad he had the good fortune to be where he was!

William Shute <> (16.03.2001)

It's not really fair to judge Bill Haley and the Comets by a later lineup that, except for Rudy Pompilli, doesn't even feature any of the 1950s band. Like many early rocknroll greats--Little Richard and Chubby Checker come to mind--Haley later re-recorded his hits (and other people's hits) on cheesy budget labels for a quick buck. We wouldn't want to assess Bob Dylan based on, say, REAL LIVE, without having heard BLONDE ON BLONDE and his other seminal work. With Bill Haley, that begins with the UK Rollercoaster lp HILLBILLY HALEY, which features late 40s country and western swing recordings. Haley had put in almost a decade as a journeyman C&W performer before he signed with Decca and about a year later became a superstar via the inclusion of "Rock Around The Clock" in the film Blackboard Jungle. The lessons those hard years taught Haley--showmanship, musicianship, pacing a set, featuring all the members of the band, being ENTERTAINERS--never left him.

Next you need to hear the 51-53 Essex/Holiday recordings: Rocket 88, Crazy Man Crazy, Rock The Joint, etc. THESE are the records that represent the coming together of rocknroll. I love and have a huge collection of both late 40s jump blues and late 40s country boogie, and when you play any proto-rocknroll tune in either genre, it may rock, it may have the right lyrical stance, it may be sizzling hot, but it isn't rocknroll. Play Jackie Brenston's original of Rocket 88--an amazing record, but it's still rhythm'n'blues. Play some late 40s country boogie by Moon Mullican or Zeb Turner or Hank Penny--it rocks, but it's country boogie. Play the Haley tracks mentioned above--the first of which was Rocket 88, often called the first rocknroll record--and you'll hear that they take elements of each style, add some impossible-to-define "other" quality, and a new genre is created. Nothing was ever the same again.

By the time Haley joined Decca in 1954, and he was able to take advantage of former Louis Jordan producer and Commodore Records founder Milt Gabler's production genius, he found the formula that will forever be associated with his name. Let's not forget that Haley's band was full of men who had deep roots in either jazz or western swing, both musics that are reliant upon improvised solos. In fact, Haley's guitarist, Franny Beecher, had actually played and recorded with Benny Goodman in the late 40s, during Goodman's short-lived bebop period. And Haley's legendary tenor sax man, Rudy Pompilli, had been a successful jazzman before joining Bill, and Bill ALWAYS allowed Rudy a lot of solo space both on records and in concert. As the Haley formula got a little old in the waning days of his Decca contract and much of his material was nonsensical and absurdist (but then, isn't a lot of late 40s/early 50s R&B/country boogie equally nonsensical in the lyric department? It's the groove that counts), the records still sounded great and featured hot solos from all. Tax problems and general ennui sent Haley to Mexico in 1960, where he carved out a second career adapting his formula to Latin tastes and scoring MANY hits in Mexico...and appearing in more movies there than he did in the US in the 50s!

Meanwhile, his 1960s recordings are full of surprises. His "twist" album is beyond belief--his abrasive "twist" rendition of "Lullaby of Birdland" predates the retro-swing movement by 30 years and kicks its butt. In 1967, he recorded with a mariachi band AND the Arizona psych-band The Superfine Dandelion. In 1969 he made some fine serious country records for United Artists, and could have gone down the country route if he'd wanted to.

Finally, beginning in 68-69, he made a series of records produced by the legendary Sam Charters (who had made great blues, traditional jazz, and psychedelic rock records prior to working with Bill) which did very well in the International market.

There's a lot more to Bill Haley's career, but he WAS the alchemist who brought together the elements and created a new form: rock and roll.

Listen to his Essex/Holiday sides (available on CD in the UK on RollerCoaster and in the US on Schoolkids);listen to any collection of his original Decca recordings; check out the recent Soundies label reissue of TWISTIN KNIGHTS AT THE ROUND TABLE; find a serious fan to play you some of his never-reissued-on-CD western swing sides. After you do that, listen to the R&B and hillbilly boogie records of the 1948-51 era. Then play Haley's 1951 recording of "Rocket 88." You should have some kind of revelation! At that point, you'll be ready to write an assessment of Bill Haley's contributions to music.


Album: 30 All Time Greatest Hits

Inge Iden <> (21.11.99)

Buddy Holly is one of my absolute favourite artists from the fifties, along with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.

His singing style, and simple song-stucture brings a lot of life to his songs, and his albi\ums are great to listen to even after all these years.

Rose Mary <> (27.02.2000)

"Raining in my heart" is such a tasteless sirupy ballad, that makes me wonder who in hell considers Holly a rocker.. It is clear that at the end Holly was following the path of destruction and the boring ways of popdom....

mjcarney <> (20.08.2000)

Well, I have the 20 Golden Greats album, and all I can say is that it is terrific.  Buddy Holly is by far and wide my favorite 50's performer.  Why? Well, I am sure that the Beatles had something to do with it--at least at first--but really it is because his songs are so great!  Some are dated yes, and some are horrible-the "Raining In My Heart" etc. final songs.  Overall though, Buddy Holly was a genius, and I believe he was only 22-23 years old when he died! What a tragedy in rock and roll, imagine if he started to progress into different areas--like most 60's acts--what he would have accomplished, it would likely have changed the history of rock and roll--I mean the Beatles started out as "pops little angels" and look what they did, Buddy Holly was only 2-3 years older than them, so you can't quite write him off, which amongst other things is why his early death was such a shame for rock music.  Still though, he has a tremendous amount of classics and few of them have been better performed.  The Stones's "Not  Fade Away" is perhaps the best Buddy Holly cover, but the Beatles' "Words of Love" is also amazing, both are two songs that I feel surpass the originals.  THe Stones for the power added to the song, and the Beatles for Lennon's intricate singing (it can't be beat!).  Anyway though, Holly's classics of the classics are "Peggy Sue" (possibly the first "surf song" in my book all the other surf songs copied this master at least for their sound), "Oh Boy", "Maybe Baby", "Everyday"--sappy but gorgeous, "Rave On"--one of rockabilly's finest!, "Heartbeat", and of course "That'll be the Day".  Holly's music continues to shine today, and it is a perfect time piece.  Why is he my favorite 50's songwriter, why its because he perfectly mastered the art of writing poppy/catchy songs at such an early time.  He is often overshadowed by Elvis, Berry, Richard, etc., but believe me Buddy's music could have definately stood up to all of them. Even if his  final tapes were poor there were only a couple songs (Maybe they wouldn't have been released or maybe he was just having writer's block, we'll never know).   The thing is with his early death, Rock and Roll lost one of its greatest geniuses. 

Palash Ghosh <> (12.03.2001)

I agree that if Buddy Holly hadn't died so early in his life, his reputation and legacy would've likely been tarnished and he would've suffered the same fate as many of his contemporaries -- that is, swamped by the British invasion of the 1960's.

But I think, based on what material we have, Holly is indeed a major force in rock/pop history. Not only was he a fine songwriter (uncommon at the time), he was dedicated to his craft and the record companies wouldn't (or couldn't) make him seem 'glamorous' or more 'commercial'. He made it cool to look ordinary and even wear glasses!

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were greatly influenced by Buddy and admired him tremendously - that fact alone should make endear him forever.

Tom Mitchell <> (19.05.2004)

I realize that these reader remarks are several years old, but I feel compelled to respond. I do NOT think that Holly was heading in an entirely "pop" direction at the time of his death. Here is my reasoning:

When Holly worked with producer Norman Petty, he had practically free reign in the studio. He had access to session musicians, he had Petty to work as an arranger/producer, he had almost unlimited (all things considered for the time) resources at his disposal. What did he create? "That'll Be the Day," "Oh Boy," and "Peggy Sue." These were songs that broke new ground musically and sonically. They were rock-n-roll. (They were also big-selling songs.) In the wake of this success, Holly likely fought substantial pressure to become a crooner and consolidate a more adult audience. How did he respond to this pressure? Yet issued similarly groundbreaking work mainly in the rock idiom (which he helped invent). When the man was left to his own devices, he did not create pap.

At the time of his death, Holly was faltering commercially, but he certainly was no worse off than when he was completely unknown! Holly had split from Petty and the Crickets, but he was still a proven commercially successful singer AND songwriter (quite rare for the time). It stands to reason that--with some degree of negotiation and, of course, if he hadn't died--he would have at least attempted to satisfy some noble musical goals. Just because he cut some sessions with strings didn't mean he had turned away from the genre he helped create. According to Philip Norman's precisely researched Holly bio "Rave On," Holly was working on his own musical AND business pursuits (including publishing AND starting a record label) at the time of his death. There is evidence to show that Holly actually planned to mentor Ritchie Valens musically and business-wise. This does not sound like the work of a man who had resigned himself to a life of musical mediocrity.

But the most damning piece of evidence that completely refutes the "Holly was gonna end up shilling for the man" theory is The Apartment Demos. These are songs he recorded in his New York City apartment during December of 1958. I have this bootleg-only collection which has circulated among collectors and Holly aficionados for nearly 40 years. If the songs Holly was demoing right before his death are any indication, he had no intention of softening up his sound. Yes, he was certainly a little more introspective in his songwriting (on tunes such as "Learning the Game"), but his "Crying, Wishing, Hoping" (NOT the sappy overdubbed version that was altered after his death) hits you--uptempo, great changes, impassioned vocal. What about his re-arrangement of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'"? He plays it several times on this tape. One take is a rockabilly romp. Another take is an intentionally lethargic and down-tempo interpretation that emphasizes the gut-bucket original roots (blues) of the tune. This doesn't sound like the work of a would-be middle-of-the-road "pop" singer.

When people only rely on hits collections and the copyright/release date information contained therein, they just get part of the story. So much overdubbed and altered material was issued with Holly's name on it after he died. That wasn't his fault. When you consider the entirety of his career (all 18 months of it), he only recorded a handful of traditional-sounding "pop" songs with strings. That's right: a handful. It seems like it was much more because these companies beef up their hits collections by including these songs. As a result, it seems like a disproportionate amount of his work was string-laden garbage. How unfortunate that this man's legacy has been tarnished by a few sessions he cut before he tragically died AT THE AGE OF 22.

If licensing and publishing matters were erased, I could make an extremely compelling anthology spanning Holly's entire career that would prove that his only plan was to refine and develop rock music. Thank God we had the Beatles to continue his legacy (read any one of their bios for proof of his influence). As The Apartment Demos and 90% of the recordings he physically participated in show, Holly was a visionary who altered (and, I argue, would have continued to alter) the face of music. The official studio session logs and "greatest hits" collections may tell a different story, but I think there's plenty of evidence to suggest that Holly wanted to rock and would have rocked.


Album: Boppin' Blue Suede Shoes (Sun Records, 19??)

Fredrik Tydal <> (02.03.2000)

I've got a pretty good sixteen track compilation named (unexpectedly) Blue Suede Shoes. Being shorter than yours, it leaves out some of the doo-wop (unfortunately not "Let The Jukebox Keep On Playing" and "All Mama's Children", which wasn't on your compilation) and concentrates more on the faster numbers. I grabbed the CD at once since it was quite cheap and most importantly; "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby", "Honey Don't" and "Matchbox" was all included. Turned out The Beatles did them a whole lot better, but it was nice to hear the originals anyway - if not for paying the respect to Carl.

Duane Zarakov <> (07.06.2000)

...and while i'm flogging that '50s vs '60s horse,what's up with yr assertion that the Beatles do Carl Perkins tunes better'n ole Carl? Carl's twice the guitar player George Harrison was ever gonna be.

Lyolya Svidrigajlova <> (31.12.2000)

[thank ya, Duane Zarakov!!!]

"Bleeting voice"? Hummmm... Maybe I don't have a taste for music or vocals, but I do like Carl's voice. Actually, it is neither strong nor very profound but... anyway, it sounds sincere and that's what makes me like it. Anyway, it's even charming (to my ear, of course).

I really do like his rendition of "Blue Suede Shoes" more than Elvis' one. I'm not an hypocritic. [ah, still, you might have your own opinion but I'll have mine]. Carl's also a very good guitar player. At least, for 50's he's a great guitar player. Anyway, he's my favourite from 50's (bar garage rock). Beatles didn't do "Honey don't" better than Carl. They did it just some other way (maybe). I'm not sure that their rendition of this song was much different from Carl's. Carl is Carl (HE wrote this song) and Beatles are Beatles. Why to mention Beatles when we're talking about Carl Perkins? Uh? [Call me a fanatic. Ha-ha-ha....]

Morten Felgenhauer <> (03.01.2001)

You sum it up pretty good, but of course I disagree on some points. Carl has over the years produced his share of forgettable songs, but at his best no-one can compete. The Beatles cover versions are not neccessary better than the originals. And the Elvis version of "Blue Suede Shoes" is definetely of lesser quality than Carl's version. Elvis just rushes through the song, while Carl does a much cooler version. Listen to the intro: "Well, it's one for the money" [pause] two for the show...". That pause is so important. Generally I think Elvis does songs which were previously "unknown" better than when he does "classics". One thing that has not been discussed enough is the down-home (uncommercial) rockabally recordings he did before "Blue Suede Shoes", such as "Gone Gone Gone". Here he truly shines.


Album: The Best Of Chuck Berry (MCA, 1994)

Joshua Fiero <> (10.01.2000)

A much better Berry compilation is The Great Twenty-Eight. It includes all the classic moments from the disc you reference, except, unfortunately, "You Never Can Tell", dumps the shit (including "My Ding-A-Ling," the most unlikely comeback song ever), and adds some other great tunes. Pick it up if you get a chance.

Fredrik Tydal <> (02.03.2000)

Yep, Chuck did a couple of sappy ballads too. But they didn't get on many compilations... I've got a great CD which chronologicly presents every song he released between May '55 and February '58 (there's supposed to be a second volume, but I haven't seen it). So, there's a fair share of ballads, though they're not all necessarily sappy. The ballads include "Wee Wee Hours" (the flip-side to "Maybellene), "Together (We'll Always Be)", "Drifting Heart" and "Havana Moon". As hard as it is to believe, Chuck can actually sing them; though I'll have to admit rock singing clearly was his forte. There's even a couple of instrumental tracks, which I doubt you ever get on any ordinary compiliation.

Morten Felgenhauer <> (18.01.2001)

Everybody with the slightest interest in rock'n'roll needs some Chuck in their collection. It sounds like a cliché, coming with an argument like that, but it's a FACT! There were other rock'n'rollers in the 50s, of course, but I doubt the British beat bands in the early 60s would have sounded like they did without him, and that again would of course have affercted the whole history of rock. He was rather limited as a composer, as his many re-writings of his own songs witness, but in the early he was rather "experimental" and trying out various forms of music, as slow blues and Carribbean music. It's just that the popularity of his R'n'R songs overshadowed the others. Not all his later efforts were made on the same formula either, as "You Never Can Tell" and "Nadine" prove. There are hundreds of Chuck Berry collections in existence and it's difficult picking the right one. To play it safe The Chess Box (3 CDs) is a good alternative. Sure, the energy level drops somewhere on CD 2, but this is largely compensated for by including every classic and many other ("unknown") songs of very high quality. When Chuck's diciple #1, Keith Richards, covered his songs with The Rolling Stones' early years, they wisely chose those that hadn't been perfected by Chuck originally ("Come On", "Around & Around, Carol"). The songs often sounded sloppy and unfinished, so it's quite possible that Chess released those without Berry's knowledge and that they were only meant as demos or rehearsals. I think the young Stones were quite correct in their choices of songs, because NOBODY can improve upon classic Berries like "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode" (not even that Jimi guy, arriving some ten years later).

Palash Ghosh <> (12.03.2001)

I used to like Chuck Berry until I read about him and found out he was nothing but a creep. (Okay so many musicians are creeps and worse). But what really galled me was an interview I saw him give in which he seemed to berate Elvis Presley. Berry, and many other black rock/R&B/blues singers either discount Elvis or denigrate him - the bottom line is that they were INSANELY jealous of Elvis and his good looks, great singing voice and immense global popularity. Whether ol' Chuck likes it or not, Elvis is the Rock's Number One Icon and will always be.

Having vented all that, let me say that Berry was a terrific songwriter and guitar soloist. I don't really know how 'original' and 'innovative' Berry was (since I'm largely unfamiliar with the blues music scene of the 1940's when he was learning his craft). Berry gave 'birth' to literally hundreds of (mostly white) guitar soloists down the line, thus his legacy is huge, perhaps incalculable.

But, alas, Chuck was ugly and had a mediocre singing voice - so, in the unforgiving commercial world of pop music, he could NEVER EVER be the equal of Elvis.

<> (16.05.2001)

I'd just like to chime in and give "Memphis" its due. This charming little rockabilly gem earnestly unfolds its story, and the poignancy hits when you find out the girl isn't his sweetheart, but his 6-year-old daughter. My favorite version was done by Pianosaurus, performed on toy instruments (no kidding).


Album: Elvis Gold - The Very Best Of The King (BMG, 1995)

Joshua Fiero <> (10.01.2000)

Elvis couldn't play guitar or write songs, it's true, but I think folks identify those things too closely with what makes a performer truly talented; there is, after all, such a thing as a singer whose special gifts lie in an ability to interpret material. Your inference that he's similar to the Monkees is well-made, but a bit glib. True, Elvis was not self-contained, in the way Buddy Holly or Carl Perkins were, and his handlers had an inordinate control over his artistic decisions, but he was still something special. While I understand that you may have no love for the vocal music that topped the charts pre-1960, there is a tremendous body of work out there created by people who never wrote a note, in tandem with "real" creators, and much of it is well worth hearing. Elvis, though he is idenitified as a rock legend, worked primarily within that tradition. He simply happened to love the blues and country, two forms which experienced a great deal of collusion during that period in American history, due to the similar social status of the target audiences for both genres. Just remember that Elvis was a singer, first and foremost, and a ferociously talented one at that. Sure, "In the Ghetto" blows as a song, but his performance is inspired: just think if the material had matched that sincere, soulfull interpretation! The tunes you love from the compilation's first disc are, there's no denying, great, precisely because that was the only time in the man's life when the product was equal to the producer. Though don't to think so, they would suffer without Elvis' presence.

Jeff Blehar <> (05.02.2000)

Hey, I hate to burst your bubble, but you have a pretty comical misstatement on this here Elvis section of your site: NONE of the songs here are from Elvis Presley's "Sun Sessions." Not a dang one. That early stuff on the CD you're reviewing is from his early RCA material ("Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," etc.) recorded 1956-57 right after he left Sun. The "Sun" sessions consists of songs like "That's All Right Mama," "Milk Cow Blues," "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" and "Mystery Train," all amazing little classics. Just wanted to clear that misconception up.

If you can, you oughta get your hands on a copy of the Sun Sessions if possible (you'll NEVER find them mixed in with his RCA material, for licensing reasons, except possibly on some box sets--I'm not too familiar with his output, to be sure), because they give more creedence to the Elvis-as-innovator claim than the stuff you're reveiwing. In fact, many folks contend that everything AFTER Sun was one long slow decline for the King, and that only those sessions were truly brilliant. I think that's rough on the guy myself, but what's important about these sessions is that they're NOT product given to the man--he chose to cover these songs himself, played guitar (darn well, though not Scotty Moore quality) and worked on the arrangements. His interpretation and phrasing are more than half the genius here; at this point he's not just performing material shoved at him, but choosing to cover songs he knows and loves, and like the best covers by ANY band or artist (Beatles, Stones, etc.) he wholly reinvents the material and makes it his own.

[Special author note: yeah, right, got muddled again. You caught me! I did hear some of the real Sun material, though, like 'That's All Right Mama' and 'Mystery Train' and 'Good Rockin' Tonight' (all great tunes, of course). And funny enough, they WERE mixed in with his RCA material on the one double LP I mentioned above - the French 40-hit collection. Perhaps licensing problems are not so stark in France... I'm pretty sure it wasn't a bootleg.]

Morten Felgenhauer <> (17.01.2001)

First of all - I'm not interested in Elvis the icon, I only care for his music - and I'll be the first to admit that VERY MUCH of his output was not of lasting value. But when he was inspired he produced some of the best music in the history of rock. He more or less invented R'n'R (along with some others) in 1954-55 during the Sun period and the quality of his work did not drop noticeably on his RCA records made before he went in the Army. Both of these periods are collected in their (almost) completeness on the killer box The King of Rock'n'Roll, which is recommended heartily. The weakest songs in this period are Elvis' versions of songs that already are R'n'R classics (Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bill Haley & Carl Perkins). These songs usually could not be improved upon, and he very often sounds less inspired on these.

When he returned from the Army he was more a family entertainer than a "dangerous" rock'n'roller, but the first years (60-62) produced a lot of good music, more pop than rock. Then in the mid-60s his movies and soundtracks dominated his career and he hit rock bottom in 1967, when the rest of the music business flowered (sorry!). Then he had his famous comeback TV-show in 1968 and while it is musically overrated, it more importantly marked that Elvis became interested in and took control of his own musical career again. As mentioned there were some gems underneath all the dreck. The "best" of the soundtracks (seriously, there are some good songs) are collected on the double Command Performances, while the rest of his 1960-69 studio recordings are collected on the box From Nashville to memphis. The latter proves that most of his bad songs origins from his movies, as this is surprisingly good.

He was a religious man and loved singing gospel songs anytime and anywhere and released several albums committed exclusively to religious music. These are collected on the double Amazing Grace, and should be considered by all who want to understand the complete Elvis.

His 70s output is not considered very hip today, and I can understand why. Nevertheless he had matured enormously as a singer since those early days and this period shows an artist in complete artistic control, performing the songs he cared for himself. Sadly he became a parody of his former self in the end and tragically died. Anyway, for those interested in these final years should check out the box Walk a Mile in my Shoes, a comprehensive "best of" 1970-77, including live material.

Although he was an adequate player on piano and guitar, his major strength was his Voice. It is this an his abilities as an interpreter he will re remembered for. I can understand that all the albums mentioned above contains more Elvis than most people need, but to understand what he actually was about, it helps to have at least HEARD them. If you're short of cash, at least save up to the 50s box and buy a collection of his 60s and 70s hits (it's not as bad as George says, it just doesn't ROCK).

Palash Ghosh <> (12.03.2001)

Oh boy, George, we really part company here -- Elvis Presley was the greatest rock and roll singer of all-time! His voice, his presence were magnetic and stellar. I never saw the man, but I've spoken to people who saw him perform in person (not all of them Elvis fanatics) and they said he was incredible and unforgettable.

You say Elvis is largely deified for being a 'national symbol' -- a symbol of what? Southern white-trash rednecks living in trailer parks? Come on, if that were true, why do people from all over the globe (including folks who don't have a clue where Tupelo is) adore the man?

I, for one, utterly detest the vulgar 'industry' that surrounds his death and his image. It's disgusting and really brings him down.

But what cannot be destroyed is that from 1956 to roughly 1960, Elvis ruled, he single-handedly changed the culture of the world forever. Yes, he couldn't write songs; yes, he was not really a musician; and, double yes, his 'protégés' (Beatles, Stones, etc.) made much better records -- but he started the whole ball of wax rolling!

Elvis was ruined by three things: Colonel Tom Parker, those hideous Hollywood movies, and prescription drugs. His career was completely controlled by others who had no interest in 'art' or 'progress' whatsoever -- he was their ultimate cash cow that they squeezed for every last dollar. Plus, Elvis was pigeonholed by his image from the 1950's he really had no chance to 'evolve' or 'change' through the 1960'sand 1970's (but the same could be said for Sinatra, too).

Anthony Stewart <> (21.06.2005)

Well George, I am a huge fan of your essays on almost anything but I have to disagree with you totally here. My initial reaction with your take is it makes me want to say "G. you don't get it." But I KNOW this isn't so. Anyone who knows and sees the Stones for what they are knows about sex and rock'n roll and the power. Maybe you just don't like Elvis, period. The Sun sessions are not represented at all in that compilation, first off. His early stuff had much input from Elvis himself. And his vocals were groundbreaking and I think much more than "hit or miss". His comeback was , yes very planned out, but also very successful. I think EP was never better than in 68 to 71. And I am not even close to being an Elvisfan. Maybe a Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana (greatest drummer ever) and James Burton fan. The Vegas show in 68 is one of the best Liveshows ever. EP arranged much of his music and was a tough man to lead rehearsals from wehat I've read. A strong balladeer too. I love "In the Ghetto". I try to remember the times it was sung in.

Paul Watts <> (14.09.2005)

No, Elvis was not a songwriter, and nor was he a musician. Nor were the Beatles brain sugeons. Elvis was a singer, and the world has seen none better.

It is in my view not fair to criticise an artist for something they didn't attempt, or attempted only sporadically. Hence, I don't believe it fair play to criticise Elvis because he didn't write songs, or didn't seriously play an instrument, just because others did these things. Others couldn't sing like Elvis. Being able to build an internal combustion engine does not in itself make one a better driver. Likewise, from the Beatles on it became normal that every member of a band, even the singer, would play an instrument, whereas Elvis, who of course predated the Beatles by some seven or so years, only had his guitar as little more than a prop. Again this is irrelevent to his merits as a singer and performer.

I don't even think it is fair play to criticise Elvis overall as a result of his choice of music style over the years, his (or someone's made for him) decision to, for a number of years, abandon rock music completely. This was a commercial decision. Without doubt he put out some increasingly abysmal crap between about 1962 and 1966 apparently under orders from his manager but this should not denigrate the quality or importance of his best work, and not only that made early on, but that made after the "dark age" of the early to mid 1960's. Of course as a young singer bursting onto the scene, he for a short while determined the direction rock 'n roll music would take, but within three years he was no longer cutting edge, and had moved elsewhere. Although his role in rock was important, I don't think it should be regarded, as seems to be happen on a lot of rock oriented sites, as his most important or only important role in 20th century music and/or entertainment. He was an irrelevence for a number of years that really should have been his best and most productive, leaving no significant legacy from that period, which is quite a tragedy, given what he achieved before and after. This shift in direction from about 1960 on was not done for artistic reasons, of course. It was done because his brains trust (Colonel Tom Parker) pointed Elvis in the direction he (Parker) saw as the most lucrative. As far as his music goes, this meant Elvis in the early 60's became a "popular" artist with a wider appeal but with nothing new to offer musically. He would return very successfully to rock in the final 8 years of his life, as a performer operating in a similar area as Neil Diamond, for instance. The transformation to popular artist driven by commercial considerations rather than artistic ones also meant Elvis appeared in ever more turgid travelogue type films. These films started OK (GI Blues and Blue Hawaii are fine, if impossibly lightweight, entertainments) and one or two of them are very good indeed. Flaming Star has always been my favourite Elvis film, but it features no songs performed in the film whatsoever. In an odd piece of casting, Elvis plays the role of a half-caste Indian torn between his conflicting roots, and actually gets to act. Both this film, King Creole and Jailhouse Rock, both the latter great vehicles for the young Elvis, showed that he had some sort of ability as an actor given a reasonable script. Flaming Star, in particular, was a departure from the formula, and I don't believe a film made especially as a vehicle for Elvis (it was in fact a vehicle for Marlin Brando). For a start it has other name actors, including Delores Del Rio, Steve Forrest and a young Barbara Eden. But by the mid-60's Elvis was plumbing new depths with each successive film, all of them following the same formula in a different exotic location. BUT for a very long time these films entertained a lot of people, so many that they continued to be made and shown, and would most likely still be made and shown today if the star was alive and if they made money. This was, after all, 20th Century America. There is something about people laying down their cash that affords credibility. The thing they are buying may well be of poor quality to many but it is their money and they have every right to decide what is value for money. Entertainment is about entertaining, and people were entertained by this garbage to such a degree that it continued to be made. From a music, and particularly a rock/pop perspective, though, the Hollywood Elvis during the the years 1962-1968 represents a criminal waste of a huge talent at a time it should have been at its very zenith. Much what George is saying about style over substance.

Almost all of these appalling films, and there were dozens of them, were accompanied by equally appalling soundtrack albums. Most were sold at full LP price, but contained little over half an LP worth of music, and much less than half of that was worth hearing. (As an aside here, when I hear record companies bleating about internet music piracy, I think of these 20 minute Elvis soundtrack albums that they were more than happy to sell to the sucker public at full price 40 years ago, a time before the advent even of cassette recorders. They could have combined two of them together on a single LP, 20 or 24 tracks an album without any appreciable loss of quality, but of course they didn't. Now the sucker public's children and grandchildren have found a way to by-pass them. I think it's called karma). Eleven or twelve minutes per side, that was it. The voice was still there, often very little else, and the songs were almost all godawful. At least they didn't sell. So it's easy to understand why Elvis was regarded as something of an industry joke by 1965. If these soundtracks were the sum total of the singer's music, it would be more than valid to dismiss him as style over substance. And I don't have a problem in the world with dismissing Elvis as a shite film actor. He got his real chance, in the early 70's, to play the male lead in "A Star is Born". But Parker would never let Elvis appear alongside an actor/singer the calibre of Streisand.

Apparently because of Elvis's status as a singer, Parker, who without doubt knew his way around a dollar, was able in the late 50's and early 60's and beyond to negotiate a cut of the songwriter's royalty when Elvis used a song. In other words, songwriters were queueing up to have Elvis sing their songs and would accept a lesser percentage because Elvis meant guaranteed sales. By the mid-60s this no longer applied as Elvis no longer had huge hits, and wasn't having many minor ones either, and songwriters of any standing avoided him like the clap. This may in part explain why most of his 60s material, in particularly the soundtracks, is of such poor quality. And I suppose the audience kept faithfully going to see these films so Parker saw no need to change things.

Perhaps by 1967 or so Elvis began to have more say in his own management, or maybe even the Colonel realised the already dead horse had been flogged to within an inch of a second death (most likely the diminishing returns from films convinced Parker or the films' bankrollers of this), because the films came to an abrupt stop, and the last few of them were of slightly better quality (but not much), a tiny bit less formulaic and a tiny bit more mature in orientation towards the end (Charro, The Trouble With Girls, Change of Habit- all made in 1969- these were the last 3 of his 31 films as an actor). From 1967 his recorded output began to improve as well. A brace of country-blues singles (US Male, Guitar Man, Big Boss Man) all of them quite listenable if never likely to be ranked among his best work, made little chart impression. Songs like Edge of Reality, Change of Habit, Charro and Clean Up Your Own Back Yard came from the latter films and were of far greater stature than the earlier soundtracks. The true renaissance of Elvis as a singer occurred in 1968-69. There was firstly a TV special which produced songs like "If I Can Dream",(Elvis's biggest hit in five years with "Edge of Reality" as a double A-side, a sure sign Elvis was desperate for a hit) and "Memories". "If I Can Dream" is a fine dramatic ballad, and "Memories" and equally lush soft number with lovely instrumentation beautifully showcasing the magnificent Presley baritone, which could now be discerned to be growing richer as the singer, now in his mid 30s, aged.

This was followed by a return in 1969 to his native Memphis to record what turned out to be his finest work. Originally released as From Elvis in Memphis and Back in Memphis as well as a number of very strong 1969-70 singles ("In the Ghetto, "Suspicious Minds", "Kentucky Rain", and the rather twee "Don't Cry Daddy"), these sessions were later released on a single CD The Memphis Record. You may not dismiss Elvis Presley as a performer, even a rock performer, without closely examining this recording, for it is, in the main, a return to rock and a triumphant one, every bit as important as The Sun Sessions. In my opinion, the way Elvis pours himself into this work, makes this something along the lines of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band as a personal statement and watershed, even though not one of the 21 songs on the set was penned by the singer. The fact is that he would never equal it again in his lifetime, although a good deal of great material came out a year or two either side of it. The concert film and accompanying soundtrack That's The Way It Is (1970) is excellent in its own right, also spawning a number of chart hits. By 1970-71, Elvis Presley was firmly re-established as a rock/popular singer with a growing string of substantial recent hits to his credit. His final years were spent as a top of the line live performer, mainly in Las Vegas. Up until his death in 1977, he released a regular stream of LP's and singles of often quite good quality, provided you aren't expecting them to compare with the cutting edge rock acts of the time. Having said that, one such cutting edge act was Roxy Music, and it would be foolish in the extreme to dismiss the importance of Elvis Presley, including the crooning Elvis, as a profound influence in the vocal performances and stage persona of Roxy's leader, Bryan Ferry.

He may have been labelled the "King of Rock 'n Roll" at some early stage of his career, but of that title, only the King really stuck later in his career. It is quite true he was no longer the King of Rock 'n Roll even by the early 60's, if such a tag was indeed ever really warranted, but he was still The King. Not the King of anything, just The King. I have no problem whatsoever with Elvis being The King.

Regan Tyndall <> (01.10.2005)

George, much like the two or three letters preceding, I'm gonna part opinions with you on Elvis. (Let me preface this by saying that I'm not at all a big Elvis fan---I've had arguments about this with my Dad who thinks he's great and the Beatles suck, if you can believe it.)

It seems to me that there are two major flaws with your assessment of the big E: 1) you simply haven't reviewed enough stuff. Sure he's not the most artistic or progressive guy, but since he's the second biggest selling recording artist in world history your site isn't very respectable until you've at least delved into more than one bootleg compilation--I mean you've gotta cover his first three LPs and 'From Elvis in Memphis'; 2) You seem to breaking your own rule in the "50's Rock Pioneers" overview, where you tell us that we have to listen to these artists in the context of their times. You then go on to denigrate Elvis because he didn't write songs like The Beatles, make a conscious artistic progression, etc. But of course nobody else did at this time, either.

The previous letter outlined his career curve well, so I won't review it. The thing to keep in mind is hear his music, especially in the 50s before he was made a relic, and not to make it your duty to knock down a sacred cow (which I consider of the few flaws of your otherwise excellent website--you seem to take a perverse delight in knocking down the few revered artists that you don't personally like).

Elvis was not musically incompetent. He played guitar and piano, and by all accounts was excellent in arrangements and in coaxing his musicians through take after take to get what he wanted. In any case, that's irrelevant. His legacy is as a singer, and he's hard to beat in that category.

You should also keep in mind that the artists that you hold most dear (The Beatles and Dylan--who are also my favourites) worshipped Elvis as a God. This is because they grew up in the times when he mattered and was a revolutionary cultural figure. (Incidentally, Lennon's lame take on 'Hound Dog' on Live In New York City should be some indication of how important vocal interpretations are.)

Another problem with the format of your site, as you acknowledge at the 50s section outset, is that LPs are a non-entity through the fifties. The only real way to review Elvis and Berry and friends is as singles artists. At least until the mid-sixties. Then again, who wants to listen to Elvis's movie soundtracks? Blah...

David Dickson <> (01.12.2005)

"In the Ghetto," bad, huh? Now THERE is an odd duck. (quack)

I only decided to mention this because I recently heard a song on the radio here--KFRQ Country 101's "retro hour"--and I recognized it as a standard from the youth. I recognized it 'cause it has this instantly-recognizable rapid-fire decending vocal hook before the title chorus line, lodged hard into my memory of living in Texas between 1986 and 1991. And what's the chorus line? "In the ghettoooooooo. . ."

Hell yes. Perhaps he DID release other songs during that period, but he might as well not have, because that one is a goshdarned classic across and through the board in these parts. Although I doubt it was anywhere else at all ever, because come on--who else other than the rural American South would have been even PLAYING such music in 1968? Hence its low reputation compared with his loud, faster, more rebellious greaser hits worldwide. Meh. I suppose you have to have lived here not to consider it awful crap. Let me conclude by saying I have no earthly idea about anything else related to Elvis. Great voice, the man has, and he sure puts on a fine tootin' image. This is the end of the paragraph.


Album: Blueberry Hill/Greatest Hits (Music Reflection, 1994)

Morten Felgenhauer <> (03.01.2001)

No, no no! The true talent of Fats Domino cannot be appreciated through some lo-fi live appearances recorded god-knows-where-and-when! If it's a good live show it can of course take its place next to the original 50s studio recordings. Also have in mind that Fats have recorded for several labels (I think he first changed label in 1962) and that he sometimes re-recorded some of his greatest hits. Generally, avoid cheap compilations which doesn't reveal the origins of the contents. You get what you pay for. What about the music of the fat man? One CD is enough (if it's well compiled), but we all need Fats in our collections.

Palash Ghosh <> (19.03.2001)

Fats Domino's first commercially available song, the 'Fat Man' (released in 1949!) might be considered the first true rock and roll song. But, I agree that Fats had little at all to do with the evolution of rock and he never really changed or 'evolved' in music in any way. (If I'm not mistaken I think Fats is still alive and playing the same old songs in concerts.) Still, he was a great piano player, performed many classics and exuded a warmth and charm that eluded many of his contemporaries. Fats' style and persona are permanently stuck in 1958, but he did what he did better than anyone else.


Album: Greatest Hits - Finest Performances (Sun Records, 1995)

Joshua Fiero <> (11.01.2000)

Hey, I guess I'm starting to sound like one o' them freaky Elvis nuts, but I find myself compelled . . . Jerry Lee Lewis was a force to be reckoned with, it's true, but Elvis was just as powerful a vocalist. Listen to the way he tears into the material on the "informal" second disc of the Memories compilaton (taken from the NBC comeback special). That gritty, full-throated, wonderfully energetic, and, once again, _soulfull_ voice--that, as much as the swaying hips and sneering lip, is what people revere about the King. All my own qualms about the man's authenticity as a performer melt away before his forceful, rocking growl; it's the sort of thing you can't fake.

<> (20.02.2000)

there is a somewhat new jll compilation. it is called 18 original sun hits. it's probably the best jll collection around.

Ron Shiflet <> (17.04.2001)

Jerry Lee Lewis is without a doubt one of the most hardcore rock and rollers when at his best. I urge anyone who is interested in "The Killer" to get a copy of Live at the Star Club (recorded around 1965, I believe) to hear what he was capable of doing! There is indeed a good reason for this being rated by many people as one of the ten best live albums of all time.

It is a far better introduction to the man than the 12 song greatest hits package.

Eric K <> (21.12.2005)

If you're interested in the Killer, the only album you need is Live At the Star Club. That album tops the best live album list in terms of raw energy and attitude. And this was after the whole marrying his cousin fiasco, so what are you going to do when you're shamed out of an entire country? Go play your guts off on some unsuspecting piano in a seedy German nightclub, backed by an inexperienced local teen backing band, and storming through your best songs like you're trying to murder everyone you hate with every pounded piano note! This doesn't have the cheesy 60's idealism like Kick Out the Jams. There's no ambitious rock operas like Live At Leeds (as awesome as that album is anyway). And there isn't a drum solo in sight, unlike How the West was Won! Just raw musical energy, emitted only like the Killer can.


Album: Greatest Hits (Elap Music Ltd., 1993)

Morten Felgenhauer <> (25.01.2001)

Ooh - that Voice! I have one compilation called 22 Classic Cuts, which includes all the songs you need, unless you go for a box set. And every song lives up to the title (except for those few mentioned by George, but I guess they were minor hits, so their inclusion is justified). I think the piano/brass approach adds something "fresh" to the otherwise guitar oriented R'n'R of the period (In fact it's hardly something new, as classic R'n'B performers had been using this instrumentation for years). And some of those sax breaks really kick arse! If you listen again to that band you'll notice that their wild playing almost is on the edge of collapsing (outtakes reveal that they often did). This is some of the wildest pieces of music recorded before 1963. And there's hardly a guitar present. Beware of re-recordings, though! Little Richard has recorded for dozens of companies over the years, often duplicating his early hits. Make sure your compilation mentions "Specialty" (his mid-50s label) and you're in rock'n'roll Heaven!


Album: The Blues (Elap Music Ltd., 1995)

Fredrik Tydal <> (16.01.2000)

Muddy Waters can't actually claim sole author-ship of "Rollin' And Tumblin'" since it's very inspired by legendary Delta blues man Robert Johnsons "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day". I know; I was very surprised myself. I guess Muddy Waters did what everyone else was doing at the time; borrowing other's material and interpretating it. I was sitting casually listening to a CD with every single one of the twenty-nine songs Robert Johnson recorded in his short life-time. When I got to "If I Had Possession Over Judgement" I suddenly thought I recognized the opening guitar part. I thought it wasn't very strange; since people like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton had been quite inspired by this guy. But then I instantly heard why I recognized the song; the words "if I had possession over judgement day" was sang exactly like Muddys "Well, I rolled and I tumbled - cried the whole night long". By then it was quite clear what was going on and my suspiscions were strenghtened when I heard Robert Johnson sing: "And I rolled and tumbled and I cried the whole night long. Well, I woke up this morning my [unhearable] gone." Then he goes on for two further verses. So, Robert had the riff and the lyrics. Muddy took the riff and added and improved the lyrics. I think it was a bit unhonest by Muddy to claim credit for the song; but I don't know - maybe that was the way things were run back then...

Mike DeFabio <> (10.10.2000)

This guy rocks. My compilation omits more than half this material, but that's because I've only got Volume One. I'm hoping to get Volume 2 at some point. I'm really starting to get into this old blues stuff. It doesn't really matter that the songs are all pretty much the same, it's the sound. That really hissy, crackly, saturated, whole-band-gathered-around-one-mic-sound that makes the music sound, at least to my 17 year old ears, like it's existed since the beginning of time or something. And maybe it has! What if nothing existed before March 1983? Wouldn't that be scary? But my point is, it's got this really neat OLD sound, that old blues record sound that makes me wanna go out and great big milkshake.

What? Don't you like milkshakes?

Morten Felgenhauer <> (18.01.2001)

I'm glad you give old Muddy some credit, as he probably is the greatest blues performer ever. He can deservedly be called the King of Chicago blues. For those who don't know the difference, here's some basic facts. Delta blues has its name from the Mississippi delta, which was where the blues had its strongest impact from the 20s to the 40s. Usually it was played on one acoustic guitar (often slide) and sung by one voice. The songs usually are in the traditional 12-bar vein (like "Malted Milk" on Clapton's Unplugged). Its best and most famous artist was Robert Johnson. As the big cities in the North became more industrialized in the 40s many black people moved from the South to work in the factories. One of these cities was Chicago. In their spare time they continued playing their music and gradually began incorporating "new" instruments like drums, bass, piano and electric guitar. Voice and harmonica was often amplified. Again the basic 12-bar pattern was widely used, although variations occured. Although many other cities had their variant of the blues, this traditional type of electric blues is usually referred to as Chicago blues. I consider Muddy's "Hoochie Coochie Man" as the ultimate Chicago blues. George's collection misses some important tracks, like the one I just mentioned and "Mannish Boy". Better get the 3 CD Chess Box instead.

If you think Muddy is scary, you'd better check out Howlin' Wolf's Chess Box and run to mummy. Howlin's career was very similar to Muddy's and they both played in Chicago at the same time, but The Wolf is even more uncompromising and raw. He has delivered his share of classics as well.

The case of authorship in blues music is a contoversial issue, as most of the performers "borrowed" ideas from others and put their own name on the songs. By the way, Arthur Crudup who wrote "That's All Right" (of Elvis fame) was not a corporate songwriter, but another struggling blues artist who even ripped off himself on "My Baby Left Me" (also of Elvis fame).

Francis Mansell <> (08.02.2004)

I'm going to really stick my neck out here and say that Muddy (unknowingly!) was one of the pioneers of heavy metal.

Check out his song "Still A Fool" from 1951. Slow and bluesy as it is (just two guitars and a bass drum played by one of the Chess brothers) you can hear a close relation of the vocal melody of "Whole Lotta Love" ... 18 years earlier. And the guitars are grungy as hell, this record is way ahead of its time. It's so obvious that early heavy rock comes from this.

Because of the Rolling Stones and later 60s bands like Cream, Hendrix etc, the music of Muddy Waters and others of his kind has been far more of an influence on subsequent rock than any 50s rock & roll artists with the exception of fellow Chess signings Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley (the latter is often seen as a bluesman anyway, though there's much more to him than that, review him soonest George!).

In about 1962 Muddy made a record called "You Need Love" (composed by the ubiquitous Willie Dixon) on which he actually overdubbed his vocal over someone else's instrumental. But the point is that the song exactly follows the same vocal melody as "Whole Lotta Love", even though musically it's less close to heavy rock than "Still A Fool" 11 years earlier. It even includes lyrics like "Way down inside, baby you need love", in other words Zeppelin ripped it off wholesale. Willie Dixon sued them in the 1980s and they came to an out-of-court settlement that allowed Dixon's last years to be materially comfortable. Another blues artist who definitely contributed to the creation of heavy rock, even before Muddy, was John Lee Hooker. He started recording in 1948, and one of his earliest records is a solo guitar instrumental called "Stomp Boogie" - most of his early records feature him stomping his foot to create a beat. This raw and primitive record features what I believe to be the first ever example of the electric guitar power chord - no other artist I'm aware of from that period did anything like that, let alone anyone earlier. John Lee Hooker is brilliant in small doses, but a warning George: you definitely like a bit of variety (except possibly with The Ramones!) and in his early days (late 40s-early 50s when he mostly recorded solo) Hooker basically recorded endless variations on the same slow, medium and fast songs - they're all pretty interchangeable, apart from the lyrics (which vary from take to take of the same song) but the best ones have a unique feel that no one else has ever approached, and he was a fantastic singer too, every bit as good as Muddy in his own way.

A final comment about Muddy, he wasn't quite the pioneer of electric guitar that you make him out to be - he began recording electric in 1947, whereas the brilliant T-Bone Walker (a big influence on Chuck Berry, but a far better guitarist, much as I love Chuck) first recorded on electric no later than 1941, at which time Muddy was still on Stovall's plantation (though he was recorded as an acoustic country blues singer in that year - worth hearing).


Album: The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 1990)

Evan Williams <> (16.12.2002)

Robert Johnson's work is without peer. This is why the sold-your-soul legend came about.How did he do THAT? So quickly? So well. And having Son House as the enquirer adds a lot of creedence to the notion.

"They're Red Hot" is the last track on Blood, Sugar, Sex , Magic and "Come On into My Kitchen" is on The Joker by Steve Miller Band.

Incidently the sound quality isn't actually that bad compared with other field recording done in the late 30's. There was of course no tape machines only acoustically recorded wax 'masters' which then produced a metal master which reproduced the recording. The 2nd takes were usually inadvertantly issued and the subsequent rarity of these sides is shown by the 'uncleanness' of what comes back out of the speakers. They are very rare . Some of these sides have only 1 or 2 exant copies in the entire world , in fact it is a minor miracle that they exist at all !

There is another however. Dock Boggs. You think Robert is crackly and old - listen to him. 1920's country blues that is evil. He plays a banjo and sings. But not about just anything. About death, despair, alcohol ruinination - Dock's songs are the epitome of the Country Death Song.Not a pleasant one amongst them."Pretty Polly", "O Death", "Rub Alcohol Blues" are all country blues standards now. Just obscure!

Francis Mansell <> (08.02.2004)

"Probably not the first ever examples of recorded blues" - you can say that again George! The first ever blues record was recorded in 1920 and by 1923 artists like Bessie Smith were selling many thousands of records. But all the blues recorded in this period was an urban, piano-based music, usually with a female vocalist and sometimes a jazz band in the background. It wasn't till about 1925 or 1926 that the solo country bluesman with a guitar started to be recorded (although the style had been maturing since the turn of the century) with among the best-known early examples being Blind Lemon Jefferson, from Texas (his "Matchbox Blues" was recorded 30 years later by Carl Perkins, and subsequently The Beatles). From about 1927 to 1930 the floodgates opened and huge numbers of country blues records were released, primarily from Mississippi and Texas; when the Depression hit in 1929, record sales plummeted and some record companies went bust, so far less records were made in the early 1930s. Among the most notable artists pre-Robert Johnson were the following three artists:

Charley Patton - he was at least the equal of Robert Johnson as a guitarist, and very much the inspiration for the awesome Howlin' Wolf as a vocalist; you'll find that, while the sound quality of a lot of his records is WAY worse than Johnson's from some years later, the music is more varied; he is less legendary because he didn't have a hellhound on his trail and died in his bed from heart trouble in 1934, plus his recordings were not reissued until the 1970s, while an LP of Robert Johnson came out in about 1960, just in time to be discovered by the young Eric Clapton and other subsequently famous rock musicians. Many aficionados of Mississippi blues regard Patton as the greatest of all.

Skip James - another one where the sound quality is at times DREADFUL and at best rough, but worth hearing; he was the composer of "I'm So Glad", as recorded by Cream - his guitar playing on the original from 1931 is mind-blowing, and quite different in style from Johnson's, and he was also a highly individual pianist; his 1931 recordings (he recorded again in the 1960s after an unsuccessful 3 decades as a preacher) all fit on one CD.

Memphis Minnie - more prolific than Skip James or Robert Johnson, she recorded regularly from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, with inevitable changes in style. She tended to team up with male blues musicians so many of her records feature two guitars, but usually her playing is the better. She was a strong and raucous singer and is credited with Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks", though frankly anyone trying to spot the resemblance would be fairly baffled: only the lyrics bear any resemblance, and in fact on her version the vocals are by her then husband, Kansas City Joe McCoy. Given her longer career, m ore of her records are "listenable" for non-blues fanatics, though wide experience of prewar blues recordings will show that sound quality is not always correlated with date of recording - there are very listenable records from the 1920s and really rough ones from the 1940s.

Lonnie Johnson (no relation, a lot of blues artists were Johnsons!) - he was from New Orleans and recorded frequently from the mid-1920s right up to the 1960s. His 20s and 30s music was more urban, jazzy and sophisticated than the artists mentioned above (though still definitely blues) and the sound quality is usually WAY better, even than stuff recorded a decade later, but it's worth listening to because he was a jaw-droppingly brilliant guitarist - he recorded a lot of instrumentals, sometimes duetting with fellow guitarist Eddie Lang - these are some of the earliest recorded examples of virtuoso lead guitar - though they are, of course, acoustic. He also often backed other musicians/singers as a session musician. I find his later work (from the 1940s on) less interesting, but that may just be me.

And for a taster of (mostly) pre-war blues, check Proper Records' Broke, Black & Blue, a cheap 4 CD set setting out numerous ancient blues recordings, many of them excellent despite their staggering obscurity, in roughly chronological order. Only one track per artist, so there's about a hundred different artists on here. Only the last few tracks let the side down as they are stylistically different and not as good for their time (the forties) as much of the earlier stuff.

The bottom line is, Robert Johnson is just the tip of the iceberg of pre-war blues, and brilliant as he was, there's loads more out there, some of it very rough quality, some of it surprisingly clean. Quite a lot of country blues artists are, frankly, "easier" listening (in musical terms rather than necessarily sound quality) than Johnson - they often lack the intensity and bleakness of voice and subject matter, so if you like Robert Johnson but (like me) don't feel able to listen to him very often, check out some more and immerse yourself in the vanished world of 75 years ago.

Alexey Agranovsky <> (13.09.2005)

To Francis Mansell comment: that Robert Johnson was "just the tip of the iceberg" is a very good point! Moreover, some of his tunes had been played and recorded by others before him: thus, "When The Sun Goes Down" by Leroy Carr (1935) is similar to "Love In Vain", Scrapper Blackwell's "Kokomo blues" (1928) to "Sweet Home Chicago", Hambone Willie Newbern's "Roll And Tumble" (1929) to "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day/Travelling Riverside Blues" - to mention just a few. There is in fact a tremendous body of pre-war blues recordings. Of the guitarists and singers, Blind Willie McTell, Tampa Red and Sleepy John Estes must be mentioned, in addition to those listed in the Francis Mansell comment. But only some people are selected to be legends. And Mr. Johnson is the one.

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