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Music Review: Sleepy John Estes – Sleepy John Estes On The Chicago Blues Scene

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In the past couple years of reviewing music for various blogs one of the nicest personal discoveries I’ve made is the amazing diversity to be found within specific genres. That’s turned out to be especially true about the Blues; it’s such a highly individual mode of expression that it almost changes from performer to performer.

Maybe it’s because of the inherent simplicity of the form. A twelve bar chord progression that can be repeated repeatedly to a particular rhythm is everyone’s starting place, but where they go from there is what makes the music so incredible. All you have to remember is that everything from the heaviest of heavy metal to the frothiest of disco hits originated with those twelve chords, and it will give you some idea of how truly versatile the sound can be.

Of course you don’t even have to leave the Blues to get an earful of diversity; there’s Texas Blues, Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, West Coast Blues, and the St. Louis Blues to name just a few. Within each of those categories, there are all sorts of subdivisions that are too numerous to itemize here. Sufficient to say, that you could travel around the world, stop into a Blues bar, and tell the provenance of a band’s style just by a quick listen.

That is if you have the ear to do so. On a good day, I’m able to tell the difference. There’s the urban and rural Blues, and then there is the more modern version as played by Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn, as opposed to the more traditional music of folk like Muddy Waters and B. B. King.

But after that the lines get real blurry.

You can’t even go by a person’s age to tell what he or she is going to be playing. John Hammond Jr. plays like he would have been right at home jamming with Robert Johnson, while Albert Collins played his guitar with his teeth and burnt down the house like Jimi Hendrix.

Now I’m a bit of an old fashioned guy so I’ve always been drawn to the more traditional rural music. But I’ve also developed quite a taste for Chicago style Blues with its uptempo, harmonica driven beat a la the late Carey Bell. Well, I’ve finally found the perfect marriage of the two in Delmark Records’ re-mastering of the Sleepy John Estes’s 1968 recording Electric Sleep on CD, with the new name of Sleepy John Estes On The Chicago Blues Scene.

According to the liner notes that accompany this CD, the new title is in reference to the two distinct eras of Blues that are being married together for this recording. Sleepy John hailed originally from the Deep South, where his father was a sharecropper who picked cotton. He also played a little guitar and he passed that on to his son. When John lost an eye to an accident at a young age, his usefulness as a farm hand was reduced. So he began to learn guitar and by nineteen he was playing professionally throughout the South.

The majority of John’s recordings were made before and during the early years of World War Two for the Decca label. John was an integral piece in the development of the Memphis sound around that time, with folk like B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bobby Bland. This Memphis scene played a big role in the development of what became the Chicago Sound. But John himself never made it up to Chicago in any serious way until the 1960s.

Like so many other older Blues players, he was given a second career through the folk revival in the States and the huge interest in traditional Blues music in Europe. In 1964, he was part of the American Folk Blues Festival that toured Europe annually in the early sixties, and began jamming with some of the more modern musicians for the first time. Delmark Records producer Robert Koester caught one of those jams and promised John a recording session to make an album of that type of music.
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The band assembled for that recording was some of the best of the best at the time in Chicago: Carey Bell on harmonica (and bass for two tracks), Sunnyland Slim on piano, Jimmy Dawkins on lead guitar, veteran Chess session man Odie Payne Jr. on drums, and Earl Hooker and Joe Harper splitting the rest of the bass duties. With John’s old-style singing voice added to that mixture of hot players, the contrasting styles made for some powerfully emotional music.

If nothing else, this disc shows there is no problem when the old meets the new and everybody wants the same thing: to make some great music.

On The Chicago Blues Scene is nearly an hour of some of the best Blues music I’ve heard in a long time. First of all, you have people like Carey Bell in his prime playing harmonica, and secondly you have a vocalist in John Estes who, in spite of his age and weakening strength, is able to cut through the music without ever sounding like he’s straining. Finally, the strength of the music’s rural roots gives the urban sound of the band a solidity that you hardly ever find in modern electric Blues.

Listen to a song like “Divin’ Duck Blues” with its infamous lines, “If the river were whiskey and I were a duck/I’d swim to the bottom and never come up,” and you’ll swear you’ve never heard it sung before. Instead of the line being a throwaway joke like you hear it now, you can hear the depths of sorrow a person would have to feel to actually believe that sentiment.
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It’s hearing John sing that reminds you forcibly that he is only one generation removed from slavery, and the music has a sub-context that would have been forgotten by the players he was recording with. The catch in his throat, the wellspring of emotion that can be heard behind each lyric, are not feigned, but born out of a life where existence is tenuous, and fear and mistrust are constant companions when dealing with the world.

Sleepy John Estes On The Chicago Blues Scene is a collection of great songs that brings together two generations of Blues musicians to create a disc that contains the best elements of the rural and urban sound. You can buy this disc for its historical significance if you want, but the best reason for getting a copy is that it’s great music.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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