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CD REVIEW -- Various Artists
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Various Artists

Chicago/The Blues Legends/Today!


West Tone Records


15 tracks/68:32

Chicago The Blues Legends Today CD


by Greg Easterling


Blues anthology records have always been a fine way of spreading the word about this most American of musical styles. Especially in a genre where even the most major blues talents were not always allowed to record full albums, sometimes limited to 45 rpm singles or sharing an LP with another artist. In 1966, music historian and record producer Samuel Charters came to Chicago and recorded some of the most vital blues artists of the day, many of whom were gigging regularly on the South and West sides of the city. Charters tapped the talents of now legendary Chicago blues figures Junior Wells with Buddy Guy, J. B. Hutto, Otis Spann, James Cotton, Johnny Shines, Otis Rush and Big Walter Horton. The resulting three records were released on separate LPs by Vanguard Records as Chicago/The Blues/Today!, Volumes 1-3 with each artist represented by an average of six songs. It's also a series that a beginning blues fan might have found in any number of independent record or local chain stores in the city or suburbs back then alongside crossover releases such Father and Sons or Electric Mud on Chess and Hooker N' Heat from United Artists.


In the late 1970s, Chicago's burgeoning Alligator Records used much the same formula with their acclaimed Living Chicago Blues series. Four volumes spotlighted a mix of current and classic artists in Chicago at the time including Jimmy Johnson, Carey Bell, Lonnie Brooks, A.C. Reed, Eddie Shaw, Magic Slim, Pinetop Perkins, the Sons of Blues with Billy Branch and others.


Now, indie label West Tone Records has resurrected a similar approach with their recent release Chicago/The Blues Legend/Today! and a cover design that apes the original Vanguard Records releases. Project producers Rockin' Johnny Burgin and longtime eastern Pennsylvania band leader, the late Mike Mettalia chose three decidedly lesser known, but no less authentic, Chicago blues artists to spotlight on this worthwhile release. There's veteran Windy City blues club singer Mary Lane, who's currently enjoying a late career renaissance with a new solo album calledTravelin' Woman and a documentary titled I Can Only Be Mary Lane.  Also, Little Jerry Jones, who was mentored by the legendary Elmore James, and Milwaukee Slim (Silas McClatcher) who's recorded with Billy Flynn and Barrelhouse Chuck among others. For this album, Burgin and Mettalia contributed their individual instrumental and vocal talents as well as their obvious love of the traditional electric Chicago blues sound birthed here by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and others. Burgin is known for his noteworthy Delmark albums as the Rockin' Johnny Band and local appearances before relocating to the West Coast several years ago. The late Mettalia, who passed from complications from ALS as this review was being written, was from the Allentown and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania area; he was the leader of the Midnight Shift band with whom he recorded and played clubs and festivals out east. Mike was a huge fan of 1950s electric Chicago blues and his playing was influenced by Little Walter, Carey Bell and Rick Estrin (from Little Charlie and the Night Cats).

Mike Metallia, Rockin' Johnny, Mary Lane
L to R: Mike Metallia, Mary Lane, Jeff LaBon, Rockin' Johnny, Steve Dougherty


Chicago/The Blues Legends/Today! specializes in the kind of no frills electric blues that tourists come to Chicago to experience at spots such as Buddy Guy's Legends, B.L.U.E.S., Kingston Mines, Blue Chicago, Rosa's and Harlem Avenue Lounge. Listening to this album brings back memories spent at the aforementioned local clubs where the real deal is still available on a near nightly basis.


The album kicks off with a classic sounding Chi-town blues shuffle, “Hurt My Feelings,” sung by Mary Lane, who's featured vocally on a total of five songs here. Written by Lane's ex, Morris Pejoe with whom she recorded in the early 1960s, this opening track also sets the tone for the rest of the recording with sharp sounding solos from Mettalia on harp and Rockin' Johnny on guitar.


There's plenty of blues standards on this album and Milwaukee Slim follows with a spirited rendition of the Jimmy Rogers' penned classic “Sloppy Drunk” with great sounding guitars from Rockin' Johnny and session player Illinois Slim. Some studio chatter among the participants has also been included recalling past all-star recordings like Delmark's Southside Blues Jam with Junior Wells and Blues Jam in Chicago with Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and a  bevy of Chess session players on the Blue Horizon label. Next, Rockin' Johnny gets  into the act vocally with a memorable Magic Sam number, “Things Gonna Work Out Fine” that features his fine lead vocal and guitar.


Then it's back to original material with the first of two songs on the album written by Mettalia. It's “Midnight Call,” a song that spotlights Mike's vocals and great harp blowing. Just like the rest of the album, this track reflects Mettalia's love of the real Chicago blues. In the liner  notes, Burgin recalls that Mike purposely wanted to showcase some Chicago performers such as Lane, Jones and Slim whom he felt had been overlooked here in their hometown. Mettalia enjoyed sitting in on harp with Rockin' Johnny and Jimmy Burns at their Smoke Daddy club gigs when he visited Chicago several decades ago.


After a run of four up-tempo blues numbers, Little Jerry Jones is up next with the album's first ballad, “Let's Make Love Tonight,” at a slower pace. It's a Jones original and clocking in at 7:29, the album's longest track featuring his vocals and lead guitar. Then Mary Lane returns with the first of two songs that she wrote, “Don't Want My Lovin' No More” with fine performances from Rockin' Johnny on slide guitar and Mettalia blowing some nice harp.


The next track, a Junior Walker instrumental “Hotcha” is an unexpected but effective musical interlude that marks the midpoint of the album with some chill sounding guitar by Rockin' Johnny and more Mettalia harp work.


Part two leads off with Mary Lane paying tribute to a forgotten R&B/ jazz singer from 1940's-50's, Little Miss Cornshucks and her song “Papa Tree Top”. She was an influence on Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker. Two Howlin' Wolf songs follow, one very familiar, the other less so. Little Jerry Jones takes on “Smokestack Lightning” with an arrangement that recalls the Willie Dixon classic “Spoonful.” Rockin' Johnny resurrects Wolf’s “I'm Leaving You” on track 10.


Mary Lane dominates the rest of the proceedings, singing three songs, including the original, “I Always Want You Near” and another great blues standard, “Goin' Down Slow.” Mike Mettalia gets topical with “Unemployment Risin',” tapping Milwaukee Slim for the lead vocal this time with Rockin' Johnny on slide guitar once more. And Little Jerry Jones closes the album with the Elmore James classic “Dust My Broom,” running over six minutes and serving as a salute to one of Jones' major musical influences.


Other musicians contributing to this album include Jeff LaBon and John Sefner splitting bass guitar responsibilities, Steve Dougherty on drums and Illinois Slim on lead and rhythm guitar. The sessions took place in 2016 at Strobe Studio and Hi Style Studio in Chicago with John Schramm and Alex Hall engineering this great sounding recording.


You'd be hard pressed to find an album as representative of the real Chicago blues sound still on display in local clubs as Chicago/The Blues Legends/Today! Kudos to Rockin' Johnny Burgin and the late Mike Mettalia for this labor of love, shining a light on unsung Chi blues heroes Mary Lane, Milwaukee Slim and Little Jerry Jones. Sadly, it's also likely to be the final word from Mettalia who helped realize a dream to pay tribute to the Chicago blues that he loved so much. One couldn't ask for a better legacy.


To buy the CD, visit Bluebeat Music


Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.


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