DOCD-5692 Blues From Maxwell Street (1960-1965)
Daddy Stovepipe (Johnny Watson); vocal, guitar and harmonica.
Blind James Brewer; vocal and guitar.
King David; vocal and harmonica.
Blind Arvella Gray; vocal and National steel guitar.
Genres; Country Blues, Country Blues guitar, Country Blues harmonica, Field Recordings.
Extensive, informative, booklet notes by Paul Oliver, Rien Wisse and Gary Atkinson.
Extracts abridged from this CD’s booklet notes:
Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market was once a hive of mercantile activity from the 1870s until it finally closed and fell silent in 1994. Like Beale Street in Memphis, this was also a home and a birth place for the blues. From Papa Charlie Jackson to Robert Nighthawk, Arvella Gray to John Wrencher, Maxwell Street played host to some of the best and greatest blues musicians and served as a working example where could be found one of the most iconic figures of the blues; the street musician. For many of them, such as Charley Jackson from New Orleans, Arvella Gray from Texas, Maxwell Street was a landing place for the many musicians who migrated from the South to Chicago, bringing with them their music and songs and making them part of the Chicago blues landscape.
In the summer of 1960 blues researchers and historians; Paul Oliver, John Steiner Bjorn Englund and Donald R. Hill took their notebooks and recording equipment to what was then a typical Sunday at the bustling and vibrant Maxwell Street Market. Paul Oliver wrote;
“The introduction to the blues of Maxwell Street was salutary. Descending from the Halstead streetcar brought us within ear-shot of the powerful voice and thunderous guitar of Blind Arvella Gray who was shouting his blues to an unseen audience, tin cup on his chest and white stick held against a sewer vent on the sidewalk’s edge so as to orientate himself. The first two fingers of his left hand were missing and his third finger was sheathed in a glass bottleneck which he slid up the strings of his old National steel guitar, picking and plucking rapidly with the case-hardened fingers of his right hand the while A burly, muscular man, he reinforced the impression of great physical strength and fitness with the ferocity of his blues singing.
In contrast to Blind Gray were number of groups of singers who lined the street in small bands, a lead singer and guitarist being supported by a washboard player, another guitarist, even a rough-hewn trumpeter. Seated on a couple of boxes on a street corner were two young blues singers who took turns to accompany each other. One was Maxwell Street Jimmy, who played a fast and highly rhythmic guitar in which the influence of John Lee Hooker could be heard, though he had much to give that was essentially his own, whilst his companion answered only to the name of King David – playing his harp with an ability that could well be the envy of many a better known harmonica-player, and singing in a gritty, deep voice that seemed belied by his amiable features. Another nearby corner was occupied by a venerable singer three times King David’s age, a veritable one-man, band who had a harmonica on a frame round his neck and who pounded a cheap guitar on which a length of iron had been tied with a piece of string to act as a capo. Dressed in a royal blue jacket with gold epaulettes, the parade dress of some forgotten age which he had probably picked up on this self-same market and in his shiny—peaked cap, Daddy stovepipe was a diminutive but striding character who drew the attention of the passing crowd.
Above the sounds of the many groups of blues singers could be heard a more rocking beat and the volume of many voices singing verses and responses of Gospel songs. Amongst these could be heard accomplished guitar-playing with more than a shade of the blues in his phrasing of a blind, straw-hatted man seated on a folding-stool: Blind James Brewer. Near him an earnest seventeen—year old youth named Froine, his lead-boy, kept watchful eyes on him whilst he sang the words of the gospel songs. Like a number of other street guitarists on Maxwell, Blind James Brewer was playing, surprisingly, an electric guitar. The owners of the houses that lined the road hired out extensions from their light installations for a dollar a day to the performers below, and as the dimes clattered in the tin cups and plates it was not long before the cost of the hire was met.”
The knowledge and foresight of the small group of men who captured the audio snapshot of the blues being played and sung in one its most natural settings is to be greatly applauded. Now, long gone are the musicians and Maxwell Street Market fell silent at the hands of the city planners in 1994.
These recordings first appeared in 1961,fifty-one years ago (at the time of writing) on Heritage HLP 1004 with only 99 copies pressed. It was a small independent label run by Tony Standish, one of several pioneering record producers and label owners of the time who’s mission it was to preserve and make available recordings of such important recordings.
In addition, Document has put together, for the first time anywhere, the complete output of Blind Arvella Grays 45 rpm singles, which he recorded, produced and released under his own “Gray” label in 1965.