At first listen, J.B. Lenoir might not impress. He was a rudimentary guitar player, generally using slow to midtempo Jimmy Reed-like blues progressions, and his voice was high-pitched and could waver at times, sometimes resembling a screech more than anything else. But first impressions can be deceiving. Lenoir was passionate and intelligent, with a strong personal and political agenda, and all these traits combine to make his body of work unlike any other player in the blues genre. Lenoir’s earliest recordings were done for the JOB and Parrot imprints, and it was with the latter label that he had his only national hit, the sublime "Mama Talk to Your Daughter," which hit the R&B charts in 1955 and essentially functioned as Parrot's swan song, but his final two albums before his death in 1967 may well have been his crowning achievements.
Alabama Blues (1965) and Down in Mississippi (1966), both produced by Willie Dixon, were recorded for the German label L&R, and both featured stripped down acoustic arrangements that recast Lenoir as a Southern folk-blues troubadour. Lenoir's lyrics on these two albums (which have been packaged by Evidence Records on one CD as Vietnam Blues: The Complete L&R Recordings) approached pure poetry as he skewered racism and other cultural ailments with a fiercely focused passion. Some of the tracks featured the veteran Chess drummer Fred Below, as well as an occasional backing vocal turn by Dixon. Alabama Blues, recorded in Chicago in 1965, appears to be made up of outtakes from those sessions, or possibly rough home demos done to get a feel for the direction Lenoir wanted to go -- he sounds somehow both relaxed and intense on these short pieces, and his agenda of both personalizing and politicizing the blues is well in evidence on songs like "Alabama Blues" and the harrowing "Remove This Rope." Had Lenoir survived into the early '70s, his sharp writing, his emerging experiments with African rhythms (which he called "African Hunch"), and his fierce determination to speak the truth may well have made him an international star on the order of Bob Marley. Fate took over, though, and Lenoir was all but forgotten at the time of his death, and continues to be too little-known, even in the blues community. His last recordings, including the enticing fragments found on Alabama Blues, are arguably his best, outlining a focused, socially committed direction for the blues.