Man releases Arkansas blues album 40 years later

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — It’s spring, 1976, in Arkansas’ rural Delta flatlands. A Philadelphia native and former Pine Bluff Commercial reporter named Louis Guida, fresh out of college, is driving through the countryside, past fields soon to be covered with rows of cotton and soybeans.

He’s with photographer Cheryl Cohen and musician William Black and is hauling a heavy, cumbersome Pioneer reel-to-reel recorder, microphones and cables. Guida and his companions are in search of the blues, the places where it is played and the people who play it.

“I grew up in inner-city Philadelphia and blues, jazz, R&B and soul, that was the music I listened to,” Guida told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ( ) late last month from his home in Lexington, Kentucky. “One of the reasons I took the job at the Commercial was I thought I might be able to write some articles and do some work on the blues in the Delta.”

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Other reporting duties dashed those hopes, though, so Guida found another route. Armed with a Bicentennial grant from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, he set out to record Arkansas blues musicians wherever he could find them — in juke joints, at home, in prison.

The result was the 1983 album Keep It to Yourself, Arkansas Blues Volume 1: Solo Performances, which included some of the first official releases of CeDell Davis as well as lesser-known artists like W.C. Clay, Willie Wright and Nelson Carson.

And now, at last, Meet Me in the Bottom, Arkansas Blues Volume 2: The Bands sees the light of day.

So, yeah, 40 years after the initial recording and 33 years after the first record, any particular reason it took so long to get Volume 2 off the ground?

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“Funding,” said Guida, who runs a creative media business in Lexington. As in, lack of funding.

Through a grant from the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, Guida was finally able to release the long-awaited follow-up album, which is on the Stackhouse Recording Co. label run by Jim O’Neal, co-founder of Living Blues magazine, who originally issued Volume 1 on his Rooster Blues imprint.

The Butler Center now houses all of Guida’s materials from his original excursions into the Arkansas blues landscape, including video, notes, interviews and 28 reel-to-reel tapes that hold more than 10 hours of music. The collection has also been digitized, so the public can hear at the Butler Center much more than what has been commercially released.

The records and other materials are “a snapshot of the music community, a snapshot of the African-American community” said John Miller, Arkansas Sounds Music Coordinator at the Butler Center. “We’re really blessed to have this as part of our collection.”

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Unlike Volume 1, which featured solo, stripped down songs, the 15-track Volume 2 is all about the bands. Groups like Little Rock trio Queen Bee & the Soul Seekers — sisters Essie, Mary and Merrill Smith — doing the loose, rag-tag “Shake Your Butt,” the Cummins Prison Band’s version of King Biscuit Time radio show star Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” and the Texarkana Five with Harmonica Slim on the title track and “Texarkana Hop.”

Other tracks range from after-midnight, gospel-tinged electric blues jams like Calvin Leavy’s take on “Consider Yourself,” recorded at the Party Lounge in North Little Rock, Sounds of Soul’s version of Willie Dixon’s “Red Rooster” and the swampy Arkansas stomp of Duke Bradley’s “You Don’t Love Me,” recorded at the Jungle Hutt in Pine Bluff.

Guitarist Essie Smith of Queen Bee & the Soul Seekers is now Essie Neal, and remembered recording with Guida at her parent’s home.

“They recorded us in my parent’s living room,” said the 62-year-old Neal. “I remember ‘Shake Your Butt.’ We decided to do that particular song. It was one I had written.”

Her 21st century response to her mid-’70s composition?

“It makes me laugh. I was thinking, ‘Oookaay.’ When Mr. O’Neal called and asked me about it, I had forgotten the words to the song. But I heard it and thought, ‘Well, that’s what we sounded like back in the ’70s.'”

Her father, Richard, a musician who encouraged Neal to play even after one of her early guitar teachers said girls couldn’t play the blues, blows harmonica on the final track, “Jump.”

Though her sisters don’t play music much these days, Neal, who lives in Little Rock, has released two albums over the years as Essie the Blues Lady and still plays guitar.

Julius Gibson, 72, of Osceola is the only surviving member of Sounds of Soul.

“They cut it in my living room,” he said of the recording session. “Forty years, and I’d forgotten about it. But they contacted me in the past year and said they were working on (the Volume 2 CD) and I said, ‘I’ll be dogged.'”

He still plays local gigs every now and then, he said.

“We did just about all the blues singers,” said Gibson of his band’s sets back in the ’70s. “From Albert King to Johnny Taylor. We did everything. It was more like rhythm and blues.”

As with Neal, hearing his 32-year-old self on the newly released tracks brought Gibson a chuckle.

“I had to laugh,” he said. “It’s been so long. My guitar-playing changed over the years, but I could still tell it was me. We were so young. I love it. I really love it.”

The four decades between album releases may actually have been a blessing.

“In a way, it sounds fresher now than it would have back in the ’80s,” said O’Neal from Kansas City, Missouri, where he runs Stackhouse. It was O’Neal who published a 1977 story by Guida about the recordings in Living Blues issue No. 32. “Even though the bands were playing what was standard material and styles at that point, as time has passed contemporary blues styles have changed. A lot of it is more rock- or funk-oriented, so this has become more historic, in a sense, to present what was happening 40 years ago.”

The two albums also break from the common assumption that Arkansas blues means only Delta blues. On Volume 1, Herbert Wilson dips into the songbook of Texas giant Lightin’ Hopkins with a haunting version of “Hello Central,” which was recorded at the White Swan Cafe in Helena. Most obvious, though, is the Texas boogie and jazz influence of the three tracks by the Texarkana Five with Harmonica Slim — whose real name was Travis Blaylock — all recorded at the Shelter Club in Texarkana.

“That’s what makes Arkansas unique,” Guida said. “You have not just this strong Delta tradition in east Arkansas, but you have this whole southwest tradition closer to Texas blues. The sound is very different. Arkansas, because of its geography, you have both of those in the state. From the beginning, we wanted to look at the Texas influence.”

And in the beginning, there was Volume 1, 22 tracks of raw, stripped-to-their-essence songs and performances in intimate, solo settings. It was selected in 1984 as an Outstanding Folk Recording by the Library of Congress.

The album opens with Clay’s minimalist take of the “King Biscuit Time Opening Theme” (Clay, who lived in Elaine, played guitar on the program in the early ’50s) before he moves on to Williamson’s “Keep It to Yourself” and others.

Track Five is the chilling, a cappella cover of Bobby Bland’s “I’ll Take Care of You” by Reola Jackson of Little Rock, which is made all the more poignant because it was recorded at the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ Women’s Unit at Cummins prison, where Jackson was an inmate.

Guitarist Nelson Carson of Ashdown and Texarkana provides a history lesson of black music with the ragtime “Roaring Twenties Rag” and “Old Time March.” Wright paints a singular version of the folk standard “John Henry” and gives his guitar a proper workout on Muddy Waters’ “Standing Around Crying.”

“Willie Wright was real unique in his own way,” Guida said. “His version of ‘John Henry’ is really different.”

Another standout to Guida is Pine Bluff’s Duke Bradley, who appears on Volume 2 performing “Same Thing They Did to Me,” ”Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” and “You Don’t Love Me,” all recorded at the Jungle Hutt.

“He was a great musician. He had a small band in Pine Bluff, and he was sort of the house band at the Jungle Hutt. He was really good. His stuff is really distinctive.”

But it is the presence of four tracks on Volume 1 by Helena-born CeDell Davis — covers of “Let Me Play With Your Poodle,” ”How Much More?” and his own “Lonely Nights” and “Big G Boogie” — that stand out over both volumes.

The 89-year-old Davis, who lives in Hot Springs and still performs — he’s set to play an Arkansas Sounds concert at Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock on Nov. 4 — has a particularly fascinating and painful story. A childhood bout with polio left him without the full use of his hands, so he taught himself to play guitar with a butter knife as a slide. He would go on to become a King Biscuit Time performer before joining Robert Nighthawk’s band and moving to St. Louis. In 1959, he was caught in an audience crush during a police raid at a St. Louis show. His legs were so badly broken that he has been in a wheelchair ever since.

His recording career took off in the ’90s when he was signed to Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records and his 1994 album Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong was produced by Little Rock native and New York Times writer Robert Palmer.

But back in the ’70s, Davis was in Pine Bluff, where Guida recorded him. Although he had been recorded in the ’60s, O’Neal said that these are likely the earliest Davis performances to be released.

“CeDell was probably the most important person Louis recorded,” O’Neal said.

It’s hard to ignore Davis’ impact, says Guida, who first played the recordings for Palmer long before the initial record was released. And there’s more in the vault, including video.

“CeDell Davis had one of the more distinct styles and that made him stand out … At some point we’d love to release a CD of all of these original CeDell recordings.”

A-ha! Volume 3, perhaps? Maybe, Guida said.

For now, though, he’s happy with the two collections that are now available.

“It’s about the music on these things,” he said. “It’s about the musicians and the whole tradition of Arkansas blues. I’m proud that we were in the right place at the right time.”