Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Written by David Whiteis
University of Illinois Press
by Mark Thompson
Even though it accounts for an extremely small percentage of the sales of recorded music each year, the blues is a widely varied genre that regularly displays rock, folk, R&B, and country leanings. Flying under the radar of most listeners over the last thirty-plus years, an entire industry blossomed in the Southern states that focused on a sound that started out focused on a bluesy shuffle but soon was transformed into a heavily processed sound based over smooth love ballads or rowdy boasts of sexual prowess.
David Whiteis offers an in-depth look at the music and some of the most acclaimed purveyors of the style. While some trace the start of the genre back to Z.Z. Hill’s mega-hit “Down Home Blues”, the author postulates that Hill’s record simply struck a chord with listeners who had enjoyed releases from the now defunct Stax Records label. One label, Malaco Records, quickly became the leading label for soulful blues singers like Hill, Little Milton, and Bobby Blue Bland, whose career really embodied the successful melding of the two styles.
After a broad overview of the history and development of music, Whiteis uses the second section of the book to examine the careers for four artists labeled “Soul Survivors”. Benny Latimore will always be remembered for another song that epitomizes soul-blues – the classic “Let’s Straighten It Out” – and the impact of that hit on his career. Denise LaSalle recorded for Chess Records, had a #1 hit on the Westbound label before she started shaking things up with a 1977 release, ‘The Bitch is Bad!,” and later staking her claim with the song “(I’m) Still the Queen”. She also wrote the foreword to the book, tracing the history of the music from a unique perspective.
As a member of the Soul Children, singer J. Blackfoot generated several hit records for Stax before the label’s untimely demise. He eventually became a solo act and had a major hit in 1983 with “Taxi”. But Blackfoot never achieved the recognition he felt he deserved, creating a layer of bitterness that grew as the years went by. Yet he never lost the ability to generate the level of intensity in his live performances that would bring an audience to their feet. The career arc of Bobby Rush is quite similar to the history of soul-blues. He had a few hit records in the blues vein before the disco years forced him to learn a living through constant touring and dynamic live shows, building an audience that never deserted him. He continued to adapt, adding overt sexual elements like female shake dancers to his live show. Somehow, Rush managed to cross over to the white blues audience, becoming a fixture on the blues fest circuit.
The next section delves into four members of next generation of singers – Willie Clayton, Sweet Angel, Sir Charles Jones, and Miss Jody. Clayton benefited from the helping hand of WVON deejay Pervis Spann, who created opportunities for Clayton’s deep, wide-ranging voice and his multi-layered original songs, allowing the singer to become a consistent leader of the genre. The chapter on Sweet Angel chronicles her progression from a popular DJ to a compelling vocalist who mixes poignant originals with a live show that features her alto sax and a dildo prop. Escaping the gangster life of his teenaged years, Jones now works the stage with the intensity of an evangelizing preacher, offering a plea to those who are lonely. Titles like “Big Daddy Don’t You Come’ and “You Got to Play with it Before You Lay with It” attest to the carnal nature of the approach favored by the in-demand Miss Jody.
Whiteis doesn’t shy away from some of the hotly debated issues surrounding the soul-blues format. The music’s “raunch” factor is discussed at length to determine if eroticism offers salvation or a path down an eventual dead-end street. Subsequent chapters address the music’s lack of airplay on commercial stations, which lead some artists to stage more outrageous live shows to maintain their drawing power. The author also delves into the area of songwriting, where every performer struggles to find balance between sex and the heart. The closing chapter profiles singer T.K. Soul, whose rapid rise can be attributed to his deft blend of a variety of styles, including pop trappings that make his records a staple for DJ mix-masters as well as the buying public.
The book also has sections – Leading Lights and Soul Serenade - with brief bios on other artists who have impacted or continue to make contributions to the genre. Southern Soul Blues adds up to an in-depth examination of a musical style that created a thriving, regional niche market while somehow never reaching the level of success that many feel the music and its best artists deserve. With a fair-minded and well-researched approach, David Whiteis fulfills the role of an author – he draws you in and gets you to care about his subject. But be forewarned – reading this standout book will undoubtedly result in significant growth in your soul-blues music collection!