Hi Records is generally and justly thought of as the home of Willie Mitchell and Al Green, but before Hi replaced Stax as the city's greatest soul provider it was the home of Hit Instrumentals (what the "Hi" originally stood for) in the form of two titans of the long-defunct jukebox market: Bill Black's Combo and Ace Cannon. But now, with Hi Records Years collections from each of these two significant local acts, that side of the Hi story gets its due.
The continuation of a series that has also featured Hi soul artists Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, and Otis Clay, these two 18-song compilations contain liner notes from music historian Colin Escort, who wrote the definitive Sun Records history, Good Rockin' Tonight. The pieces captured on the two albums may seem pretty dated, but at their best -- like the instrumentals of Booker T. and the MGs and the Markeys -- these sides are a testament to the economy of the Memphis sound; Black's and Cannon's respective groups lay down tough, soulful grooves with no unnecessary flash.
Black was, of course, the bass player for Elvis Presley's Sun-era group, forming his own combo after parting ways with the King. The 18 songs on this collection -- which should be complete enough for most listeners -- follow Black's astoundingly successful instrumental group chronologically, from its founding to Black's death in 1965 from a brain tumor.
Most of the cuts on The Best of Bill Black's Combo -- The Hi Records Years (Hi Records/The Right Stuff; Grade: B) charted, and the lead cuts, "Smokie Part 2" and "White Silver Sands," both hit Top 20 pop and number one R&B. The changing lineup of Black's combo features the formative work of some of the era's finest regional talents, including Chips Moman, Tommy Cogbill, and Ace Cannon himself.
This collection mixes Black originals with covers of then-contemporary hits such as "Don't Be Cruel" (Black never worked with Presley again, but that didn't stop him from grabbing onto a good thing), "Tequila," and Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie." This stuff probably sounded a lot better at the time, coming individually out of a jukebox or as background music at a crowded bar or nightclub. But all together as one document it can be a bit of a drag to listen to, so much so that the likes of "Tequila" and "Blue Tango" are refreshing purely as changes of pace.
Honestly, unless you were there and harbor some nostalgic attraction or you're a music historian or you just blindly love any music associated with Memphis, I have a hard time seeing how these decent little R&B shuffles could hold much interest today.
Cannon's music holds up much better. The Best of Ace Cannon -- The Hi Records Years (Hi Records/The Right Stuff; Grade: B+) covers a decade in the formidable sax man's career, starting with his hit "Tuff" in 1961 and ending with the more modern-sounding "Drunk" from 1971.
Cannon's music didn't chart as well as Black's, though it was every bit as prominent on jukeboxes and sure sounds better today. The bulk of this collection consists of lean, tasteful instrumentals, with Cannon's slow, moaning blues sax spread over a reserved rhythm section of drums, bass, guitar, and organ or piano.
As with Black's combo, the material here balances interpretations of pop hits of the day ("Kansas City," "Searchin'," "Heartbreak Hotel") with original or more obscure material, but some of Cannon's interpretations are so reworked that the sources are almost unrecognizable, and the music is all the better for it. This is the case with Cannon's bluesy take on Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line" and his jazzy rendition of Hank Williams' "Moanin' the Blues" (here shortened to "Moanin'"). But not all is well. Cannon's take on "Cotton Fields" (which would be treated to a great version a few years later by Creedence Clearwater Revival) is done in an arrangement too jaunty by half and marred by some histrionic, white-bread backing vocals and misplaced handclaps. It's an atrocity.
Cannon's music shows tremendous growth over the course of this collection, as the late '60s and early '70s see him getting into straight, hard funk on "Soul For Sale," "Drunk" (the only cut with lead vocals), and (of all things) Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" with surprisingly credible results.
R.L. Burnside may have become a college-radio cause celebre in the mid-'90s, when hipster labels Matador and Epitaph joined Oxford's Fat Possum in figuring out how to market old blues to young alt-rockers, but he'd been making high-quality blues records for a long time prior to that "discovery," as two new collections attest.
Well Well Well (MC Records; Grade: B+) collects live recordings made by Burnside at five different locations from 1986 to 1993. This record adds something useful to the Burnside discography by capturing spontaneous and unguarded moments prior to Burnside's repackaging that reflect something of the man's personality outside of the image Fat Possum has cultivated for him. A hard, violent, and bemused take on the classic "Staggolee," recorded at a friend's home in New Orleans in 1986, is Burnside uncensored but detectably aware of the "badass" image he's playing with. Even better is the extraordinary "Grazing Grass Rap," a Richard Pryor-worthy monologue he delivers at a 1986 show in Charleston: "I was out in this yard, man. I was so hungry. I'd been hitchhiking for three or four days and I ain't got no money in my pocket and I'm eating grass here on the front yard. This little girl, she came to the window and she looked out there and she saw me. So she looked back and told her mother. She said, 'Mother, there's a man out here that must just be plumb near about to starve to death, 'cause he's eating grass.' So [the mother] gets up, comes to the window, looks, and after she sees that I'm a black man, she says, 'Mister, there's better grazing in the back yard, 'cause we ain't mowed that one.'"
Nothing else on the record can touch that, but the same intimate and relaxed mood informs the mix of Burnside originals and blues standards -- Muddy Waters' "Can't Be Satisfied," Lightnin' Hopkins' "Mojo Hand," Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years."
Also from Burnside is Mississippi Hill Country Blues (Fat Possum/Epitaph; Grade: B), a straight reissue of a 1985 solo record that was mostly recorded in the Netherlands. Mississippi Hill Country Blues, as a studio recording, has better sound quality than Well Well Well but isn't quite as interesting a document. It's probably best recommended to recent Burnside aficionados who have never heard his more traditionally acoustic, pre-Fat Possum material. This record also contains three very early Burnside cuts, recorded in Coldwater, Mississippi, in 1967: "Rolling and Tumbling," "Mellow Peaches," and "I Believe."
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.