It's now been fifty-six years since Robert Koester founded Delmark Records in St. Louis. For any independent record label to have lasted that long is pretty amazing, for it to be one that's dedicated itself primarily to the music of one city is damn near a miracle. Yet since he moved down river from St. Louis to Chicago the majority of records produced by Koester's label have featured musicians playing in and around that city. What makes this story even twice as remarkable is that no matter what the winds of fashion have dictated or the whims of the marketplace have suggested, the label has never once deviated from producing the jazz and blues Bob started selling our of his college dormitory room.
Although Koester has supplemented his own recordings by buying up other companies old masters and issuing the occasional re-release, the majority of titles issued on the Delmark label have been recorded in either their own facilities or live from the stage of one of Chicago's clubs. So it was only fitting when they gathered to celebrate Delmark's fifty-fifth anniversary of recording blues records that they would do so in the club owned and operated by one of Chicago's biggest name in blues, Buddy Guy's Legends. In May of 2009 It Aint Over: Delmark Celebrates 55 Years Of Blues, as either a CD or DVD, was released to commemorate that party held on March 7, 2008. Not only did the party include performances by some of Delmark's finest, Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, issued a proclamation marking that day as Delmark Records Day in Chicago, and the label was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for their 1965 recording of Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues.
While all the accolades are great, what everybody was there for that night was to celebrate the music that Delmark has released over the years. While the DVD contains a few extra tracks by some of the performers, the line-up on it and the CD are the same, representing a cross section of the talent you'll have heard and continue to hear from Delmark. If you're new to the label, and unfamiliar with the Chicago blues scene, you might not recognize many of the names performing. However anyone whose been following Delmark for even the shortest of times will find lots of familiar faces; Zora Young, Jimmy Johnson, Little Arthur Duncan, Lurrie Bell, Eddie Shaw, Aaron Moore, and, of course, Tail Dragger.
The great thing about Chicago blues, and more specifically Delmark blues, is the community of musicians it has created. While some of the performers at Buddy Guy's that night had their own bands, the majority of them used what for many of us has come to be recognized as the Delmark house band. The rhythm section of Kenny Smith on drums and Bob Stroger on bass held down the fort for the majority of the high flyers on this night, and on most songs they were joined by Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards. While there was a little more variety in the guitar players, one name appears on the credits for this night far more often than anybody else, Lurrie Bell.
If there were anyone who might be considered a star on the Delmark label it would probably be Lurrie, although he might be the last to admit it. Whether he's the front man, handling the vocals and lead guitar as he does with "Don't You Lie To Me" and "Reconsider Baby", or supplying his guitar work for another's performance, his work is some of the best you'll ever see. I've seen and heard him play now ever since I heard my first Delmark recording, and I've yet to hear him play any of the standard, cliched, blues guitar leads. I've never figured out why so many guitar players don't seem to realize their instrument has a neck that extends quite some distance away from the body of their guitar and they can play notes up at that other end. Lurrie Bell not only knows this, he also gives a clinic in how to play a lead that compliments a song without stealing it away from whomever is doing the singing
While Lurrie represents a polished form of urban blues, the same can't be said for either Tail Dragger or Little Arthur Duncan. Tail Dragger howls and growls his songs as he strolls through the audience. Flamboyant and extravagant as he may be, there's still no one who quite matches him for putting his heart and soul into his performances. You know when he flops down into his chair between songs he needs his rest. However, he jumps right back up as soon as the opening chords for the next song start, ready to put his all out there again. Little Arthur is another of those old time singers whose voice seems to be connected directly with his heart and soul when he sings. Perched on his chair downstage, either blowing his harp or singing his heart out, his material drives right through you and pins you back in your seat.
It's not only men on the Delmark label, and both Zora Young, who opens the show, and Shirley Johnson remind you that for every man whose felt the blues because of a woman, there's a woman who has been made to feel blue because of some man. When you listen to either of these wonderful voiced women sing, you'll wonder at the injustice of a world that will make stars out of squeaky voiced child or some so called pop diva, while ignoring them. They both can reach down deep to power a song, but they never go over the top or succumb to the bouts of hysteria that seems to pass for emotion among too many female singers in popular music today.
In the optional commentary supplied by Bob Koester for the DVD, he talks about how its always been a performer's voice that's attracted him over the years. It doesn't matter if they're saxophone players like Eddie Shaw, or guitarists like Jimmy Johnson, each and everyone of the performers on this recording has a voice that reaches out and pulls you into the song they're singing. You couldn't ignore them if you wanted to. Like all the previous Delmark recordings that I've heard, both the DVD and the CD have impeccable sound. Again and again Delmark has proven they are more than a match for the big labels when it comes to ensuring the highest quality of sound and video in everything they produce. The only difference is that with a Delmark production the performers you hear are so good that you don't pay any attention to whether the sound is surround or mono – they'll blow you away no matter what.
If you've never been to Chicago and inside a blues bar, experience the next best thing, pick up any DVD or live CD from the Delmark label. If you want a great sampling of what they have on offer, It Ain't Over!: Delmark Celebrates 55 Years Of Blues either on CD or DVD will fill that bill. The only problem either of them is the disc hasn't been made that can hold all the great music that comes out of this great Chicago label.