Train…I ride…sixteen coaches long

The first time I heard this song was in the early Nineties. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t an old record or the radio, but it was on USA Network late one night on cable TV. I came across a film called “The Last Waltz”, which is a great concert film about The Band’s last live show. Guest musicians included everyone from Neil Young to Neil Diamond and many more, including Bob Dylan. Of all the great songs in the film, “Mystery Train” was probably my favorite. It was a duet with The Band’s drummer/vocalist Levon Helm and blues harmonica player Paul Butterfield.

To my ears, this song had it all — simple, straightforward lyrics, but it was bluesy, rockin’, and a little mysterious. (To my knowledge, The Band’s version is the only one with that catchy guitar riff a la Robbie Robertson.) Basically, it was about guy trying to figure out where the mystery train has taken “his baby.” Sounds like a good reason to sing to me.

As time went on, I found out credit for popularizing the song really went to The King: Elvis Presley. He recorded it at Sun Studios in Memphis and it was released in 1955. However, the original version (1953) was written and recorded by fellow record label mate Junior Parker (the ensemble Little Junior’s Blue Flames). I’ve even seen Sun Records Guru Sam Phillips given a songwriting credit on this one.

The original has the train-like instrumentation and vocals on it. It reminds me of the tune “Night Train” in that way.

“Mystery Train” is a song that has absolutely taken on a life of it’s own. The beauty of classifying the Elvis version as rockabilly says something to me — it’s not really a straight blues or a country song — it lives in some great place in between both musical worlds. This version by Tom Fogerty is a great example.

This is a song which has been recorded by A LOT of musicians: Neil Young, UFO, The Staples, AND SO MANY MORE…..Scotty Moore, The Nighthawks, Amazing Rhythm Aces, Brian Setzer (Stray Cats, ’68 Comeback Special), Link Wray, Alvin Lee, Jerry Reed. I’m partial to the guitar playing of Pete Anderson — longtime associate of Dwight Yoakam. Hopefully, there’s a version that suits your taste. Viva, Mystery Train!

Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon!

Tears Rolling Down the Street

I’m a big fan of the sound of slide or “bottleneck” blue guitar. It’s hard to say exactly where I first became aware of it, but I can remember one particular song which made a lasting impression on me. I first heard George Thorogood’s version of “The Sky is Crying” when I was about seventeen — most likely on a cassette tape. My buddy was washing his pride and joy on his driveway: a candy-apple-red vintage Mustang. The first line of the Elmore James composition “The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street” blasted on the stereo while soapy water rolled like tears down the inclined driveway and into the street.

It’s a funny coincidence that life was mirroring art at that particular moment, but that’s how it happened. (I think I would have still gravitated towards slide guitar without it.) It took a few years before I heard Elmore James’ original version of the tune, but I was not disappointed.

It’s hard to top Elmore’s original version in my humble opinion, but I found this soulful version by Gary B.B. Coleman while doing a little research.

There are at least fifty versions of this song by various blues and rock musicians: Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers. As you can imagine, they’re not all recorded in the slide guitar vein, but some are.

In case you’re wondering, it’s called slide guitar because the guitarist uses a (glass or brass) bottleneck to slide across the guitar neck — as opposed to fretting the notes (pressing them down to the fret board with your fingers). Slide guitar takes some finesse to really get the desired sound. I would compare playing slide guitar to European style hockey — more finesse and less physicality — as opposed to North American style hockey and regular guitar playing. (It’s an example which might not make a lot of sense to some people.)

A lot of slide guitar songs are played in open tunings where the strings are tuned to sound a chord without fretting any notes (pushing down any strings). So in Open D tuning the strings are not their normal notes of (E, A, D, G, B, E), but rather (D, A, D, F#, A, D) to sound a D chord. There are other technical things about slide guitar, but those are some of the basics. For my money, it doesn’t get much better than “the King of the Slide Guitar” Elmore James.

Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon.

That’s No Way To Get Along

If the title of this blog entry sounds vaguely familiar, there are a few possibilities: You enjoy country blues music….You own “Beggars Banquet”…You play resonator guitar in open tunings…or maybe all of the above. I was looking at some Rolling Stones chords/lyrics from their previously mentioned 1968 effort and started thinking about their song called “Prodigal Son,” but I couldn’t place the origin. I thought the feel of the song had an older blues vibe to it.

The song was originally written and recorded by country blues artist Robert Wilkins as “That’s No Way To Get Along”, which is lyrically referenced by The Stones.

Wilkins later re-recorded the gospel themed story as “Prodigal Son” as well. Versions I found on YouTube are about ten minutes long. I also stumbled across this version of the original tune by a musician named Sarah Rogo.

I was pleasantly surprised to see/hear this song is still alive and well. I also like the idea of sitting on the bass drum while you play it. Eric Clapton has also recorded this tune as well, but his take on it is a little less roots and a little more studio production. I never really liked the whole story of the “Prodigal Son”, but the song is a good one.

Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon!

Blues Kids: Messin’ & Confessin’

It’s amazing how certain songs find their way to us. You can look at it any number of different ways. You like this style of music, these bands, but it still seems pretty random to me. The first song I’ll mention is called “Messin’ with the Kid.” I’ll give some credit to The Blues Brothers for recording this one and helping to keep it alive and well over the years. It was originally recorded by Junior Wells in 1960, and was produced and written by Mel London. I came across a version by Junior Wells and Buddy Guy about ten years ago from a friend who’s into the blues.

It’s a got a funky feel to it, some great harmonica, and that guitar riff really hooks me into it — especially, the way Wells drops the lyrics out. “Messin’ with the…(insert 8 note guitar riff)”. It’s been recorded by lots of blues bands/artitsts: Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter, Sugar Blue, and more. While researching this blog entry, I found a version featuring Buddy Guy and Kid Rock. There’s even a rehearsal version by AC/DC out there. (It sounds like singer Brian Johnson smoked a case of Marlboro, then gargled with a pint of Jack Daniels for good measure. Give him credit, that’s his sound.)

The second song, ironically, came my way via The Rolling Stones’ second American album called “12 x 5.” Honestly, I’ve never owned this album so I probably heard it on public radio or found it on YouTube. “Confessin’ the Blues” is another great blues song which often features the harmonica.

I’m assuming the Stones were inspired by harmonica great Little Walter’s version. Someone in the band does a good job of duplicating one of the guitar riffs note for note. Little Walter (Jacobs) didn’t write the tune ( but his version is worth a listen). That credit goes to bandleader Jay McShann and singer Walter Brown. The original is a lot jazzier and mellower to my ears.

Other artists to record this song include Wynonie Harris, Chuck Berry, and B.B. King, It’s hard to believe this song was originally released in 1941, but there it is. I wonder how it will find its way to others in the future?

Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon!

Christmas Blues

I’ve spent a long time thinking about blog-worthy Christmas songs — man, there are a lot of them. Every year I think about which one is my favorite. While it’s basically impossible, I think it comes down to personal taste. You know…what styles of music do you relate to and enjoy the most? For me, it’s rock n roll and blues.

Some might say this song is overplayed around the holidays, but The Eagles’ version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” (released in 1978) is one I always enjoy hearing.

Again, I like older styled songs so this one suits me fine. Some might be surprised to learn it was written and originally recorded by Charles Brown and released in 1960. Give credit to Don Henley as a singer. His billionaire rockstar ponytail and whining about Walden Woods annoyed me years later (One of my friends dubbed him “The Philosoph” during this time period) , but his vocals are great on this track. There are plenty of other versions out there including John Bon Jovi and lots of country singers as well.

Perhaps the most widely known “Christmas blues” tune is by The King himself — Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.”

This song gets a lot of airplay around the holidays, but I never change the station or turn it down. It has a great bluesy feel to it a long with backing vocals from gospel group The Jordanaires and, of course, The King. It was released on 1957’s aptly-titled “Elvis’ Christmas Album.” It’s been recorded by many others, but who can compete with this track? “Blue Christmas” was written by written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson .

Another bluesy Christmas song is “Merry Christmas, Baby” by Chuck Berry. I’m not big on this song, but one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs of all time is his confusingly-titled “Run Rudolph Run.”

Berry didn’t write the song, but added his instantly-recognizable guitar riff to it. It was written by Johnny Marks and Marvin Brodie and released on the legendary Chicago blues label, Chess Records. Like Berry, I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, so I may be biased towards his music.

Although not a blues song, Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is one of my other top favorites. I think I’ll create a random, rockin’, Christmas YouTube playlist and share for another blog entry.

Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon.

Shakin’ with Stevie Ray

I rummaged through a bunch of CDs this morning and found something interesting. It was a disc of random songs I burned at a Borders Books location years ago. (It must have been some time between Napster and iTunes. I don’t think the “Mix & Burn” trend lasted long. Thanks, ASCAP!) I found some interesting songs on there and a Stevie Ray Vaughan cut I repeatedly blasted on my car stereo today.

The song is called “Shake For Me”. Blues guitar phenom SRV didn’t write the song. (For my money, the song’s composer Willie Dixon is the single best blues songwriter of all time: “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “My Babe”, “Back Door Man”, and more, but I digress.) The Stevie Ray version was posthumously released on 1992’s live album “In The Beginning” .

This song grabbed me the first time I heard it on the radio. For me, it was like simultaneously hearing thunder and getting struck by lightning. KABOOM! One time a friend of mine said, “He’s tearing it up!” while we were watching a young guitar player at a blues jam. You could say the same thing about the SRV recording. According to Wikipedia, it was a 1980 show recorded at Steamboat 1874 in Austin, TX and broadcast on KLBJ-FM radio.

I couldn’t understand all of the lyrics in the SRV version outside of something about willow trees and Jell-o so I sought out the Howlin’ Wolf version featuring Hubert Sumlin on guitar.

The Howlin’ Wolf version seems tame in comparison, but give him credit for getting the ball rolling. By the way, did someone actually GET PAID for the album cover featuring the rocking chair and acoustic guitar? I mean, it’s roots music, I get it, but come on! The dude’s stage name was Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett). You couldn’t do something a little more exciting with that?

I also discovered a version of “Shake for Me” by a Minneapolis band called The Underbeats.

Their version reminds of The Rolling Stones first album called “England’s Newest Hitmakers”. I wonder if Stevie Ray Vaughan was familiar with their take on it? The SRV version is on my bucket list of songs to learn on guitar among many others. Fantastic guitar tone! By the way, the bass player on the SRV version is Jackie Newhouse, not longtime Double Trouble member Tommy Shannon.

Till next time, Keep your Mojo on the Horizon!

I’ll Change My Style

There are songs and artists which some folks call “Oldies”, and I love a lot of them: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, and many more. I could try to place some of the blame on the 1970s TV show “Happy Days”, but I’ve never gone for what’s musically current and I make no bones about it. Some songs just seem to have an old style or feel to them, regardless of when they were actually recorded, and I gravitate toward them.

One overlooked Oldie in my book is a song recorded by Jimmy Reed called “I’ll Change My Style.”

I’m a big fan of Jimmy Reed and, while this song is a slow one, it’s pretty typical of his style (no pun intended): lazy/loping beat, harmonica solo, and slurred vocals. I read part of a Jimmy Reed bio called “Big Boss Man: The Life and Music of Bluesman Jimmy Reed” by Will Romano. One of the most revealing things I learned from the book, is Reed was an epileptic and apparently drank alcohol because he thought it would stave off seizures. That could explain the “slurred” sound on some of his recordings. (On one album, Reed is heard hilariously saying, “I can’t get let loose if I don’t get my juice”.)

Reed was an enormous influence on countless blues musicians. For example, Jimmie Vaughan (The Fabulous Thunderbirds, SRV’s older brother) and Omar Kent Dykes (Omar and the Howlers) recorded a tribute album called “On The Jimmy Reed Highway.”

It’s worth a listen. Another blues musician Reed influenced was Delaware’s own George Thorogood. In addition to live versions, Thorogood recorded a version of it on his debut album “George Thorogood and The Destroyers.”

Thorogood’s version might have been the first one I heard. Kudos, George! To tie it all together, The Rolling Stones recorded one of Reed’s songs on their first album as well — ironically, Thorogood was the opening act for the Stones on one of their tours.

Unfortunately, I know very little about writers of “I’ll Change My Style”: William Parker and Manuel Villa. Reed released the song in 1962 on Vee-Jay Records. There are other versions out there, but these are some of the ones I’ve encountered.

Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon!

Blues Outside The Lines

There’s a song/saying that goes “The Blues had a baby and they named it Rock n Roll.” I think Muddy Waters recorded it. For me personally, I discovered blues music through my uncle and some bands I had in my collection like Led Zeppelin . Big blues influence on their first two albums. Same thing with The Rolling Stones. Before they started writing their own songs, they covered lots of great blues artists like Jimmy Reed and many more.

What’s interesting to me is hearing how different musicians can play THEIR OWN version of the blues. You know, the musical progression/chord changes are still the blues, but it comes out differently than say Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. One of those songs is “It’s So Hard” by John Lennon. It was on the Imagine album.

It’s got a great bluesy feel to it, but it also has John Lennon’s stream of consciousness observations on life. My favorite line is, “You gotta be somebody, you gotta shove.” The lyrics aren’t anything fancy, but I think they’re fantastic. “When it’s good, it’s really good.” I take it as him saying life can be hard, but it can also be…well, really good. Plus, King Curtis plays a mean saxophone on it.

Another one of my favorite examples of a straight blues tune with the artist’s unique stamp on it is “Jean Genie” by David Bowie.

I crank the volume on this song every time I listen to it. It’s got a rowdy, raucous feel to it that makes you want to shout “Jean Genie” every time it comes up in the song. I’ve read things about the inspiration and meaning to this song, but it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s a sort of spoken word blues on the verses with the loud chorus of “Jean Genie” along with it. The glam rock get ups may look dated in the video, but the music is just as fresh as when it was recorded. “Jean Genie” is a standard 12 bar blues progression with a great bluesy harmonica sound on it, but it’s Bowie all the way.

Both of these songs have great intros that just rock from the get go. I’m assuming John Lennon played lead guitar on his track while the great Mick Ronson played on Bowie’s. I always loved the descending bass line on the intro of “Jean Genie.”

Bob Dylan has at least one song I could have included in this blog entry, but I’ll save it for another time.

Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon!

Crossroads Mojo

Open a book about rock n roll, and it usually starts with legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson. He’s the guy who allegedly sold his soul to the devil for the ability to be a great guitarist.

Looking back at it now, the 1986 film “Crossroads” was an awakening for me. I didn’t know who Robert Johnson was or anything about blues music. I don’t think I could have named one film director — let alone this film’s — Walter Hill, who would become one of my favorites. This film is also a great introduction to blues music.

It follows the affable, fresh-faced Eugene Martone (played by Ralph Macchio) on his quest to leave classical music behind and follow his heart as a blues guitar player. Along the way he has to break out the crotchety, old harmonica player Willie Brown (played by Joe Seneca) of a correctional facility. (Incidentally, Willie Brown is referenced in the Robert Johnson song “Crossroad Blues”.) The two go on an adventure to the Mississippi Delta filled with not only blues, but brushes with the law, booze, trains, and pawn shops. They also cross paths with a sultry runaway played by a young Jamie Gertz. She eventually leaves and Eugene purges his emotions into a slide guitar masterpiece (“Feeling Bad Blues” by Ry Cooder.)

One part of Crossroads is a coming of age story. Eugene tries to discover who he is, what he wants, and the price he’s willing to pay for it. In addition, the story is an introduction into blues music and blues folklore. The crossroads theme/deals with the devil are a big piece of that. It also delves into things like mojo hands, which are referenced in some seminal blues songs like “Got My Mojo Working” for example. (Since this blog is titled Mojo Horizon, I feel obligated to elaborate. From what I’ve read, a mojo is essentially a “prayer in a bag” associated with hoodoo/voodoo. It’s usually a charm in a flannel bag and may contain a “lucky hand root” favored by gamblers.)

Some fantastic musicians were involved in the film and the soundtrack: Sonny Terry, Jim Keltner, Arlen Roth, Steve Vai, and Ry Cooder. It’s definitely worth a listen. The script was apparently written by John Fusco for his undergraduate thesis. This film tells a great story and does so with some great music.

Till next time, keep your Mojo on the Horizon!

It’s all about Jimmy Who?

Elvis, ZZ Top, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, John Hammond, The Steve Miller Band, Neil Young, Van Halen.

Q: Which musician had a big enough impact on these artists THEY ALL recorded his music?

A: Jimmy Reed.

 

Reed is remembered for his recording of  the song “Big Boss Man” (songwriting credits to Luther Dixon and Al Smith), but also for his laid back, if not lazy, sound.   For a beginning guitarist, he was total inspiration  –  and he still is to so many.   Learning the rhythm to a Jimmy Reed song not only sounded like something, but it felt like it, too.  It’s one thing to see/hear someone like Bob Dylan or Neil Young play guitar and then top it off with a harmonica in a neck rack, but they don’t compare to the feeling of Jimmy Reed.

Reed’s music has been covered by famous rock n rollers, country stars, blues artists,    bar bands, and everything in between.   One of my favorite YouTube videos is this version of Jimmy Reed’s somewhat obscure song called “Mr. Luck”.

(The song can be found on the confusingly-titled album Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall.      It doesn’t sound like a live recording because it’s not a live recording.)

Going back to the mainstream, Reed’s song “Bright Lights, Big City” has also been recorded dozens of times and appears in pop culture from time to time.   I remember the song (written by Reed) appeared in the film Backbeat about The Beatles’ early days in Hamburg.   More recently, guitarist Jimmie Vaughan (The Fabulous Thunderbirds/Stevie Ray’s older brother) partnered with Omar Kent Dykes (Omar & The Howlers) for a tribute album called On the Jimmy Reed Highway.

(This will not be my last article about the great, yet still underrated, Jimmy Reed. )

Keep your Mojo on the Horizon!