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Music Review: Floyd Lee Band – Doctors, Devils & Drugs

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Stripped down, spare, lean, pure down-home blues is what you get on this disc. Sit back and close your eyes and you’re in a Mississippi juke joint on any night of any month of any year from 1920 onwards.

You listen to Lee’s voice and you can feel the heat, the humidity. You can smell the beer-soaked floorboards, the smoke-infused walls. The air is heavy with tobacco smoke and the smell of the best barbecue in the world, both fighting for superiority. There’s no fight for the music you’re listening to, though. It’s simply the purest, meanest, leanest, birthplace-of-the-blues, blues. This disc is country blues and 21st century blues, it’s electric and acoustic, it’s hot and nasty, and it’s smooth and silky. Yeah. It’s all those things and more.

Floyd Lee may not have been born with blues blood running through his veins, but he certainly acquired it quickly enough. Lee was barely a year old when his mother left home for parts unknown. What I’ve read is somewhat vague and contradictory, so bear with me when I say his mother left when he was a year old, or when he was three months old, and he was raised either by his father or another family. In various places, though, he said he saw his father performing in the streets of Memphis when he was small, so I gather that much is solid.

However, let me tell you about the film that goes with this CD, and that’s due to be released soon. It’ll be shown at the Shadows of the Mind Film Festival later this month, which is held at Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. To the best of my knowledge, this will be the first public showing, and I wish I could be there for it. It looks to be a doozie from the available clips and the sparse print that’s available. 

The director, John Gardiner, latched onto Lee when he first met him in New York, where Lee was a regular street performer and a sometimes venue performer. Over the course of the next couple of years, Gardiner and Lee talked about Lee’s upbringing and the turmoil and trouble in his youth, which culminated in leaving home before he was even in his teens. According to one version, the mother of the family he was with made up a small cardboard sign which said “Chicago” on it, hung it around Lee’s neck, and put him on a train to the Windy City.

Lee didn’t stay in Chicago very long and hit the road again, ending up in Cleveland, where he delivered the local newspaper and ultimately won a contest which won him a two-week stint as batboy for the Cleveland Indians, who became World Champions that year.

He eventually moved on to New York, where he worked as a doorman by day and a bluesman by night, busking, sometimes getting lucky and backing up some name bands. When he retired from his day job, he began chasing the blues full time. Enter John Gardiner.

Condensing the epic saga which is emotionally told in the film, Lee and Gardiner filmed in various places, including Mississippi, where Lee was born. When Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zipper renown opened a recording studio in Clarksdale, which is spelled B-L-U-E-S, by the way, the deal was sealed and Lee, Sam Carr handling the sticks, guitar whiz Joel Poluck, and Brad Vickers on bass recorded the CD whose name gave birth to the upcoming film, Full Moon Lightnin’.

Clarksdale is heavily steeped in blues history and lore, and to ice the cake, Mathus’s studio occupied the hallowed ground of the old WROX radio station, where, when it was on the air, the likes of Robert Night Hawk, Houston Stackhouse, Sonny Boy Williamson 1& 2, Robert Jr. Lockwood, BB King, Elvis Presley, and Ike Turner passed through. Lee must’ve been at a loss as to whether he should be intimidated or amped by the ghosts of these giants. Various descriptions of that CD include “a work of rare power and breathtaking beauty” (John Taylor, Blues On Stage), “glorious recreation of all that is good about Mississippi juke joint blues” [Byron Foulger, Blues & Rhythm Magazine (England)], and "Floyd Lee sounds truly haunted by ghosts. A spellbinding ride!" (David Whiteis, Living Blues Magazine)

Lee and Gardiner’s trip took them from Harlem to Brooklyn to Sun Studios in Memphis, on to KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, for King Biscuit Time. Then a short hop to Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s re-created juke joint in Clarksdale, then to the former WROX radio station, on to Hopson Plantation, finally ending up in the middle of a cotton field in Merigold, Mississippi, in what is one of the few remaining authentic Mississippi juke joints, Po’ Monkey’s. One hell of a ride! And it's all depicted on the site.

I’ve noticed that the CD is getting play in Europe and Canada, but I haven’t heard it on my local blues station yet. I’ll have to correct that. And be sure to check out the website for the film and take a look at the clips there. You can also order your copy of the CD there, since it's currently unavailable on Amazon.

If you're still not sure if this CD is for you, I'll let the director, John Gardiner convince you: "… the CD is such an important part of the movie. In order to understand the meaning of the CD you really need to experience the movie. That's not to say you can't enjoy the music on its own, just that it takes on an entirely different meaning. I like this about the CD in that you can listen to it on different levels and the more you listen, it reveals even more to the audience."

This CD has vocals of raw power and undeniable feeling, based on some events in the film. Be sure to catch the trailers and clips.

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About Lou Novacheck