The eighties aren’t generally regarded as one of music’s golden decades. The emergence of music videos ushered in an era where a performer’s looks (and hair) seemed to matter more than the music itself, and cheap technology meant computers and generated beats all too often replaced real musicians.
The blues suffered more than most musical genres, though, and many artists simply gave up the musical game, while others scrambled to make ends meet any way they could. Journeyman guitarist Jimmy Dawkins, a fixture in Chicago’s clubs at the time, launched his own label. Without a distribution deal, most of Leric’s output received little more than local jukebox play. Thanks to Delmark Records, the best of those recordings, some of ‘em genuine gems, are now widely available.
Things kick off with a pair from the little-known Little Johnny Christian, with the hard-core horn-fuelled blues of “A New Life” and the slinky funk of ”Luv Somebody” (the latter a signature tune for Dawkins himself). Next up is Tail Dragger, a bit of a Howlin’ Wolf imitator, who growls his way through a pair that includes his signature tune, “My Head Is Bald,” with the requisite ferocity. Queen Sylvia is hard-core as well, with a pair of classic twelve-bar tunes delivered with sass and propelled by Dawkins’ stinging guitar work. Vance Kelly alternates between blues (“Use What You Got,” with a stop-time “Mannish Boy” riff) and soul (instrumental “The Jam”), but Nora Jean takes things into pop territory on both “Untrue Love” and “Oh My Love” – both tunes feature stellar vocals but syrupy arrangements bog things down, and apart from historical curiosity there’s little reason to listen to either a second time.
Big Mojo Elem only gets one track, and that’s a shame – he’s a powerful singer with great presence. Little Johnny Christian returns for two more, one rather incongruously punchy and bright (“I Gotta Sad Feeling”) the other an organ-driven grinder (“Ain’t Gonna Worry About Tomorrow”). Things wrap up with two gospel tunes from Sister Margo and Healing Center Choir, both stunning efforts that show just how closely related gospel and blues – the sacred and the profane – are related.
Recording information is spotty – a few familiar names appear (guitarist Johnny B. Moore, harmonicist Eddie Burks), but many tracks feature “personnel unknown.” The sound is less than pristine – often overly compressed, it’s clear that Dawkins didn’t have the budget to compete with major labels or high-end studios. But blues is more about feel than pristine sound, and the tracks gathered here prove that feel – the vital, elemental spark of raw emotion – remained alive and well despite prevailing trends and commercial disinterest.
Not entirely essential, perhaps, but a fascinating slice of history that fills a bit of a gap in recorded blues – recommended!