James Whiting has been playing the harmonica since grade school. And by the time he was a teenager he had been on stage with the legendary Muddy Waters. He took his professional name from an old Sidney Bechet record, “Sugar Blues,” which he'd come across in the trash.
Sugar Blue has toured incessantly for the past 35 years, both as a solo artist and supporting the likes of Willie Dixon and Louisiana Red. His “Another Man Done Gone” was a part of a compilation album that garnered him a 1985 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. His greatest claim to fame is his work with the Rolling Stones who invited him to play on their albums Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, and Tattoo You. Just listen to the Stones' hit “Miss You” to hear him at his best.
Sugar Blue now stands as one of the great blues harp players in the world. His speed, clarity of tone, and fluidity which he runs through a number of octaves are second to none. His vocals are a bit strained in places but fit the blues tradition well.
Threshold is his fifth solo studio release and he gathers a tight band in support. The album features guitarist Rico McFarland, guitarist Moto Makino, bassist Noel Neal, drummer John Knowles, and keyboardist Ilaria Lantieri.
Blue wrote or co-wrote nine of the eleven tracks and while there are elements of rock, jazz, and funk he usually comes down within the blues tradition. The song structures are excellent and the lyrics and vocals competent, but they are usually the set-up for his harp work. “Stop The War” is a biting anti-war statement while “Cotton Tree” is an ode to harmonica legend James Cotton. “Noel News” is a celebration for the people of New Orleans. It is straight from the jump-blues tradition as his vocal and harp playing intertwine, creating a memorable track. “Ramblin’” is a smooth-flowing instrumental and features a creative harmonica duet with himself.
The two cover songs are both excellent. “Messin’ With The Kid” is an old Junior Wells tune which returns him to his roots. “Trouble” is a Leiber-Stoller composition, which was recorded by Elvis Presley, and Sugar gives it a nice blues workout.
If you appreciate the blues or the harmonica played by a harp virtuoso, Threshold is an album for you.