The Italian Comet Record company continue to lovingly repackage American blues via their Universe imprint, releasing sumptuous sets stuffed with music, each with booklets that detail the recordings and musicians involved. Now the label has turned its attention to the Chicago blues label Mercury. Sensibly, the Italians carve up the U.S., dedicating two volumes to each region of the country, although in their case they seem to be as geographically challenged as most Americans. "Southwest blues" refers not to the greater American southwest, but the southwestern segment of the blues scene, running along the Gulf of Mexico coastal states between Arkansas and Texas. Then again, was anyone playing blues in the real American southwest? Probably not, so you can see their point. Volume one opens with half a dozen numbers from pianist Jay McShann's orchestra, split between a trio of singers, including the revered Jimmy Witherspoon. The vocalists are impressive, but even Witherspoon can only barely overshadow McShann's sensational piano playing. Even McShann, however, would be hard pressed to muscle Alma "The Lollipop Mama" Mondy out of the spotlight. Backed by George Miller's Mid-Driff's, the powerful Mondy knocks out half a dozen tracks, each a show-stopper. The Mid-Driffs backed a number of other singers, including Little Joe Gaines and Hosie Dwine Craven, but it's their number with Theard Johnson, a storming boogie, that's arguably their finest moment. However, it's Roy Byrd (aka Professor Longhair) and his Blues Jumpers that garner the most attention, with nine tracks spread across this set. Deliciously diverse, Byrd and his Jumpers agilely slide from Delta blues to boogies, and even bring a Caribbean lilt to one of their numbers. Arranged chronologically, this first volume spans 1945-1951, while volume two picks up in that latter year and continues through 1955.
The Mercury Blues Story: Southwest Blues, Vol. 1 Review
by Jo-Ann Greene