Cadillac Baby ran a record label but a better way to think of him is as a hustler -- somebody who figured out how to make a buck by running nightclubs, store fronts and, eventually, a record label. That label, Bea & Baby -- which Narvel Eatmon named after himself and his wife, who was never crazy about her husband's designs on the record business -- launched in 1959, right when his hometown of Chicago was teeming with a bunch of terrific blues and R&B labels, including Chess, Vee-Jay and Delmark. Bea & Baby is never mentioned in the same breath as those imprints, probably because it essentially imploded in 1961, after Cadillac Baby ran afoul of the local musicians' union. He turned his attention to his store, recording the occasional session, then experiencing an unexpected revival in 1971, when Living Blues ran a long interview with Cadillac Baby conducted by Jim O'Neal. That was enough to stir some new interest in the label, so he dressed up some old 45s in the guise of a fake live album -- the only LP the label or its Ronald, Miss, Key, and Keyhole subsidiaries released -- and started to record new acts intermittently from that point until his death in 1991.
Once Cadillac Baby was gone, the legacy of Bea & Baby faded, with only Clyde Lasley's "Santa Come Home Drunk" appearing on a stateside various-artists collection. Earwig Music Company's Michael Frank administered that license, a task that led him to acquire the Bea & Baby catalog from Cadillac's widow. He embarked on the decade-plus mission to assemble Cadillac Baby's Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection, a four-disc set that contains (with just a handful of justifiable exceptions) everything the label and its subsidiaries released, accompanied by a thorough history by O'Neal along with artist-by-artist biographies from Bill Dahl and, for the gospel acts, Robert M. Marovich.
The fact that there is a significant number of gospel tracks on this four-disc set underscores how Cadillac Baby recorded a bit of everything: vocal groups, uptown R&B, even rap in his waning years. Still, his bread and butter was the blues, music that he knew from his birth state of Mississippi and from the clubs he ran. He made deep connections, so he could get Eddie Boyd, Earl Hooker, Sunnyland Slim, James Cotton, and Andre Williams to cut records for his label (reportedly, Muddy Waters thought about jumping ship from Chess to Bea & Baby for a brief moment in 1959). He had a good ear, so he knew to cut Hound Dog Taylor as soon he heard him, waxing "My Baby Is Coming Home" over a decade before the guitarist's epochal debut for Alligator. Cadillac was also a bad businessman and treated artists cavalierly; in the case of Detroit Junior and St. Louis Mac -- both monikers handed to them by Cadillac without the artist's consent -- it could almost qualify as contempt. Despite all this, Bea & Baby and its sister subsidiaries not only recorded some terrific music, but they had a distinct identity. From the outset, Cadillac, his producers, and engineers and musicians recorded things quick and dirty, so the records still seem electrifying; they're greasy and gritty, music made with passion but with hopes of scoring a quick buck. Everybody involved with Bea & Baby was plying their trade, either as musicians or a hustler, and while the results may not always be perfect, that rawness is also why the set is so invigorating. This is down-and-dirty music recorded on the cheap, so it retains its excitement. It's a blessing that Cadillac Baby's Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection has finally arrived, as its existence helps paint a fuller, richer portrait of Chicago's blues & R&B scene of the '50s, '60s, and '70s.