Ralph Willis

Complete Works, Vol. 1: 1944-1951

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A native of Birmingham, AL, guitarist Ralph Willis learned to sing and play the blues in North Carolina where he absorbed the influence of Blind Boy Fuller, and cut his first record in New York City in 1944 at the age of 34. Out of about 50 sides cut for eight different labels over a span of nine years, 42 were reissued by Document on two albums in 1994. Volume one, which covers the years 1944-1951, opens with his earliest pair of titles, which originally appeared on a record bearing the Regis logo. "Comb Your Kitty Cat" is closely related to "Let Me Play with Your Poodle" and fits into a blues subgenre of harmless exercises in smuttiness that was perfected 10 and 15 years earlier during the hokum boom by people like Bo Carter, Sam Theard, and Tampa Red. Willis recorded for 20th Century Records in 1946 with guitarists Brownie McGhee and Judson Coleman as the Ralph Willis Alabama Trio. In June, 1948 he recorded again as a solo act, this time for the Savoy label on which he was billed as Alabama Slim. Three months later, he cut four more sides for Savoy with washboard percussionist Pete Sanders. "Christmas Blues" and "Neighborhood Blues" were released under the name of Washboard Pete, while "Amen Blues" and "Mama, Mama Blues" were issued under the heading of Sleepy Joe & His Washboard Band. After waxing four titles for the Signature label in late 1948 and early 1949, Willis teamed up with McGhee (who was listed as Spider Sam) and knocked off a few sides for Abbey records, including the premonitory title "I'm Gonna Rock." This enjoyable survey of mid-century East coast blues closes with Willis' first two Jubilee recordings, made in 1950 with McGhee and bassist Dumas Ransom. Seventeen more selections representing most of the remaining works of Ralph Willis can be found on a second volume together with eight tracks by his fellow Alabamian Leroy Dallas.

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