BRITISH BLUES ARCHIVE

Louisiana Red

 

LOUISIANA RED, THE BLUES COLLECTION, ISSUE 81, 1996

 

Louisiana Red has, from his earliest recording days, been a master of biting blues songs. He has also adapted the styles of such blues greats as Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins and Jimmy Reed to critical acclaim and the approval of fellow musicians. Yet after more than 30 years' sweat on the blues circuit widespread recognition of his work still eluded him .

The year was 1964 and half a dozen Pye International compilations of Chess blues material had reached the British Top 20 album charts. R&B had hit the headlines of the British music press in a big way. New Musical Express declared, ‘It's Rhythm-and-Blues that's booming now.' Melody Maker enquired, ‘Just what is R&B?' and Record Mirror was debating at great length the subject of ‘Genuine R&B'. Riding the crest of that R&B wave was the release, in May that year, of The Lowdown Back Porch Blues, by Louisiana Red on the Columbia label, licensed from Roulette Records of New York. It captured the imagination of the music press in such a way as to propel it to cult, rather than hit, status. One critic ecstatically proclaimed, ‘He has a refreshingly individual approach to the blues, a fine earthy voice and accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica.' Another enthused, ‘In a blues field which has been dominated by the same artists for a long time, he strikes a note of originality and freshness, which one is liable to under-estimate on first hearing.' Jazz Journal, normally dismissive of anything slightly avant-garde, also added its approbation, ‘He is a very modern blues singer, but by no means uninteresting. He sings and plays in two styles, high and frantic, and low and controlled. His guitar playing in particular alternates between single string bass patterns and wild clusters of chords. Seriously, what this young man shows a great deal of talent for is the invention of extremely unforgettable guitar riffs.'

RED'S THREAT

It wasn't necessarily the riffs that astounded the popular music press but the topicality and outspoken ‘protest' element found in some of the material. Two songs in particular, ‘ Red's Dream' and ‘Ride On, Red, Ride On', drew much comment. The former because of the implied threat of using Nikita Khrushchev's head for a ball, ‘Georgia shaving' Fidel Castro and demanding of JFK that ‘soul brothers' Ray Charles, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Big Maybelle be installed in the Senate. The other song was hailed as confronting the Civil Rights issue by openly stating a desire on the part of the singer to travel with the freedom riders to rid the Southern states of America of racism: ‘Ride on to your freedom, make the Northern states your home.' One highbrow reviewer, overwhelmed by what he was hearing, labelled Louisiana Red ‘the first Kennedy-line blues singer', which doubtless would've left Red bemused and Kennedy, had he lived, speechless.

What most were not aware of was that the material had been recorded in 1962 and that those two numbers (not actually composed by Red) had been released as a single in the USA. Apart from dedicated blues collectors in Britain buying the record by mail order, the songs escaped notice or comment on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of their original release. Ironically, the popularity of the album in Britain two years later brought it all back home to Roulette Records in New York, who originally recorded the material, prompting a renewed interest Stateside. Up until then much the same could be said of Louisiana Red's fortunes. Born Iverson Minter on 23 May 1936 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Red spent his earliest years with his grandmother in New Orleans, his mother having died of pneumonia a week after his birth. When he was five, his estranged father became the victim of a Ku Klux Klan lynching in Harlan, Kentucky. At some stage an aunt, Corrine Driver, who lived in Pittsburgh, took the orphan to live with her, but due to his tender years at the time, Red's memory of those events is rather hazy and confused. As he explained when interviewed in 1973,'1 spent most of my young life on the railroad, going to and fro. I was only a little kid. I stayed there until my aunt and uncle would get worried and she'd (the grandmother) come and get me. I had relatives in Alabama and New Jersey.'

WATERS ON THE WAVES

Sometime during his early teens he mastered harmonica and guitar by playing along to the radio and the recordings of Muddy Waters, which he slavishly imitated. In 1949 or 1950 Red left Pittsburgh and headed for Michigan, hoping to find work at General Motors. ‘They were hiring at the employment office in Pittsburgh and we were hired on. We worked for the General Motors Oldsmobile plant in Lansing, Michigan,' recalled Red. Lansing not being that far from Detroit, a car-owning friend was persuaded to drive him to see John Lee Hooker performing at the Harlem Inn. ‘Unfortunately that night John Lee was down South on a tour. So I met Eddie Burns.' Red also made friends with the owner of the club, a Mr Wilson, who ‘allowed me to play there but I wasn't allowed to have no (alcoholic) beverages'. He performed under such pseudonyms as Rockin' Red, Cryin' Red, Rocky Fuller or Playboy Fuller. The nickname Louisiana Red, acquired during his childhood, due to his predilection for Trappey's famous condiment, Louisiana Red-Hot Sauce, wasn't used for professional purposes for some years to come.

MAKING THE BREAK

When Red was 16 he managed to join the army by claiming to be a year older and was shipped out to the Korean conflict, where he was attached to a labour battalion. However, his military career was short-lived and upon being discharged he made it his business to get acquainted with Detroit's Joe Von Battle, who ran the JVB and Von labels. Von Battle informally recorded him several times, in different settings, in the backroom of his Hastings Street record shop, which doubled as a studio. Red's material from that period was blatantly imitative of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Lightnin' Hopkins, although he was still searching for his own style. A solo session of eight songs produced just one release, via a licensing deal made with the Chess label, as by Rocky Fuller and His Guitar. ‘Soon One Morning' was a John Lee Hooker-type blues, the flip side, ‘Come On Baby Now', a Hopkins-style boogie; a good example of one release being aimed at two distinct markets.

A BOLD CHALLENGE

Joe Von Battle also recorded Red on a couple of occasions accompanied by harmonica, piano or drums. Two numbers, ‘Gonna Play My Guitar' and ‘Sugar Cane Highway', were highly evocative of the early Muddy Waters band style. The former title, with its slashing bottleneck playing, contained a cocky challenge warning Muddy that when he got to Chicago there would be a ‘guitar battle'. To the victor the spoils, Muddy's women; or so the song would have listeners believe. Almost true to the sentiments that were expressed in the song, that was just about how the meeting with Muddy Waters came to reality. Recalled Red, ‘When I met Muddy Waters it was through a telephone conversation. I says, “Look I'm coming to Chicago and I want you to learn me how to play bottleneck.”” Surprisingly, Muddy agreed. Red boarded a Chicago-bound train and he was allowed to sit in on one of Muddy's club appearances with the result that Red's performance produced from Muddy Waters the comment, ‘Well I'll be damned, that boy sounds just like me. How do you manage that, son?' Quite an accolade coming from the then King of Chicago Blues.

An introduction to Len Chess was effected and Red recorded some demos, including ‘ Funeral Hearse at My Door' (a remake of ‘Soon One Morning') and ‘Rollin' Blues' with Little Walter and an unknown guitarist as accompanists, but the songs were never issued and remained so for almost 40 years. The instant fame and success that Red had hoped for never really materialised, and after six months in Chicago he returned to Pittsburgh a somewhat sadder and wiser man with regard to the commercial reality of the record business. In 1960 Red moved to New Jersey, met a girl named Ealease, who was later to become his wife, and took a day job. However, so determined was he to play blues that in the evenings he performed in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with James Wayne and the Night Hawks, using the billing of Louisiana Red. Tommy Robinson of the New York-based Angletone/Atlas Records recorded and released one single by the group, as well as recording two numbers by Red in his own right and putting them out as a single.

A SPIN WITH ROULETTE

At this point he decided to make New York his home and soon became part of the city's thriving blues scene. In 1962, probably at the suggestion of Champion Jack Dupree, whom he had known for many years, he made the acquaintance of record producer Henry Glover, who not only recorded a full session with him for Roulette but also wrote the two remarkable songs that were to cause all the furore. ‘My favourite is “Red's Dream”. Henry Glover was the writer of the song but I was the one who put the music to it,' said Red 30 years later. All other compositions were his. Despite the great popularity of both single and album in Europe, Red's career didn't take off as he might've hoped and, although it made his name known, it certainly didn't get him on the package tours which took artists like Muddy, Lightnin' and John Lee to Europe. However, between 1965 and 1973, independent record producer and former Atlantic staff member Herb Abramson took it upon himself to record Red at Atlantic's old New York studio, which produced a massive tally of 78 songs. ‘He has the ability to make a guitar talk and a harmonica cry in the manner of the great bluesmen of the past,' enthused Abramson in 1972. But for all that, Herb Abramson had released just two songs, on the Laurie label, in five years and it was only in 1972 that a selection from the sessions was released as an album, Louisiana Red Sings the Blues. Every so often, a new compilation culled from those tapes appears in the market place, but more than three decades after his debut a vast amount of Red's recorded material remained unavailable to the blues public. Throughout the late 1960s and the early 1970s, in addition to his studio work for Abramson, Louisiana Red continued to appear at venues in and around New York. In May 1973 Ealease died of cancer, leaving him with three children to support. When interviewed later that year, he sounded very philosophical about his lot, especially concerning the recording industry which, up until that point, hadn't done well by him. ‘I pretty near have to be a father and a mother to them. So I take my guitar and try to make a living for them. This recording business is a chance you have to take. It's like a roulette wheel. You may win, you may not. Like the game of life.' That roulette wheel finally turned in his favour and in 1975 overseas booking agents took an interest in Red following the release of two excellent solo albums, Sweet Blood Call and Dead Stray Dog, on the New York based Blue Labor label. The recordings had found favour with fans in Europe and he was invited to perform at that year's Montreux Blues Festival.

EUROPEAN TRAVELS

Over the next year he was kept busy gigging in New York under the watchful eye of the city's Grande Dame of the blues, Victoria Spivey - ‘She's my mama, and I go with her everywhere she goes.' Then the European bookings began to roll in and over the following two or three years he extensively toured France, Germany and Switzerland. Despite several false starts, Red eventually made it to Britain, under the aegis of JSP Promotions, some 14 years after the initial ‘craze' for the music of Louisiana Red. The 1980s and 1990s were very busy for Louisiana Red. In 1982 he moved from the USA to relocate in Hanover, Germany because, as he later explained, ‘I got tired of just doing the same things, just going to the same places, and I hadn't seen Champion Jack Dupree in many years and I went to see him in Germany and he got me an apartment in the building he's in.' So, Louisiana Red, like Memphis Slim, Curtis Jones, Willie Mabon, Eddie Boyd and others before him, became a European-based bluesman. In 1996 Louisiana Red celebrated his 60th birthday. While mention of his name in the world of rock music may not have quite the same impact as say Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker or Robert Cray, one of rock's most famous sons has certainly been moved by Louisiana Red's music. As Red is quick to remind us, ‘The write-up Eric Clapton wrote about me, really thank him for it. That I was the greatest blues player he saw in many years.'

FURTHER LISTENING

Red’s very earliest recordings, made for Joe Von Battle and Len Chess, are unavailable at the time of writing, but the stunning ‘Funeral Hearse at My Door’, cut for Chess in the early 1950s, can be found on the compilation The Blues Volume 6 (MCA/Chess CHCD 9330) and is fairly representative of that era. No Louisiana Red collection should be without The Lowdown Back Porch Blues (Sequel). These recordings from 1962 for Roulette have been repackaged and augmented with two further titles, ‘Sugar Hips’ and ‘I’m Too Poor to Die’, together with various alternative takes, including three of ‘Ride On, Red, Ride On’, which give a good insight into how Red and his producer worked with the drummer and bassist to produce memorable blues.

A small fraction of Red’s eight-year (1965-73) association with Herb Abramson can be sampled on Sings the Blues...Plus (Blue Sting), which mainly focuses on the recordings made in 1965 and is very much a logical extension of his work for Roulette. Accompanied variously by piano, bass, harmonica and drums, the selection concentrates mainly on the Elmore James/Muddy Waters persona, though ‘Someday’ is, in all but name, James Brown’s ‘I’ll Go Crazy’ reworked.

Midnight Rambler (Tomato) is Red’s 1975 back to basics album, Sweet Blood Call, expanded with some previously unreleased material from the same period. Gone are the Muddy impersonations, here it’s just Red and his guitar at his most introspective (‘Look at the Children Run’), intense (‘When My Mama Was Living’) and doomy (‘Death of Ealease’), all probably accounted for by the recent death of his wife from cancer. By the time European fans finally saw Louisiana Red perform, his tragic and stressful existence had found its way into the blues he was composing. In the absence of currently available material from that period, Sittin ‘ Here Wonderin’ (Earwig), recorded in Phoenix, Arizona in 1982, is as good an example as any of Red’s return to his roots, capturing under studio conditions the intensity of his live solo performances. Brothers in Blues (CMA Music) is Red’s collaboration with harmonica player Carey Bell and was recorded in Austria in 1993. An interesting and generally successful experiment, it is notable for Carey’s use of chromatic harmonica, a rarity in a duo setting, providing some real musical highlights on ‘House Rent Party’ and ‘When a Woman Gets in Trouble’.

As well as countries like Austria, Louisiana Red’s touring circuit now takes in Poland and Greece. Last Mohican of the Blues (Polton), recorded in Warsaw, finds him in the company of a quartet of Polish musicians. On occasion, the presence of a string bassist and violinist recalls the early black string-band music, especially on numbers where Red plays his steel-bodied dobro. Blues Meets Rembetika (Diastazi) is worth checking out in specialist shops for the presence of bouzouki player extraordinaire and Rembetika star Stelios Vamvakaris.

THE LOWDOWN BACK PORCH BLUES (SEQUEL Nex CD213) Ride On, Red, Ride On (three takes)/l Wonder Who/Red’s Dream/Working Man Blues/I’m Louisiana Red/Sweet Alesse/ Keep Your Hands Off My Woman/I’m a Roaming Stranger/ The Seventh Son/Sad News/Two Fifty Three/Don’t Cry (two versions of take 1)Sugar Hips/ I’m Too Poor To Die

SINGS THE BLUES...PLUS (BLUE STING BS034)
Who Dat?/Rollin’ Stone/I’m Louisiana Red/Country Playboy/ You Don’t Have to Go/Mean Ol’ Frisco/Story of Louisiana Red/ The Same Thing/Freight Train to Ride/Where Is My Friend?/Red’s New Dream/Louisiana Blues/ Standin’ by the Airport/ Evil Man Blues/Let These’ Blues/ Little Girl Take Your Time/Let Me Give You Your Exercise/My Blues Came Rolling Down/ Someday/ Early in the Morning

MIDNIGHT RAMBLER (TOMATO CD 269342)
The Whole World/Had A Date With Barbara/First Degree/ Sweet Blood Call/Was Out Walking/ Thirty Dirty Women/ King Bee/Death of Ealease/ Who Been Fooling You/Going Home/Too Poor to Die/Standing at Your Door/Been Down So Long/Turkey Killer/walk Ail Over Georgia/Look at the Children Run/Recreation Blues/Midnight Rambler/When My Mama Was Living SITTlN’ HERE WONDERIN’ (EARWIG CD4938) E Street Bridge/Stella Blues/Sadie Lee/I’m Lonesome/Back Door Friend/Sittin’ Here Wonderin’/ Bumble Bee/Nothing but Trouble/Prison Blues

BROTHERS IN BLUES (CMA MUSIC CM 10009)
After a While/Easy (When I Lost My Baby)/Girl from West Point/House Rent Party/l Want to Sail a Ship Across the Desert/Rambling Around/When a Woman Gets in Trouble/Blues with a Feeling/Sweet Geneva/My Friend Carey/Mean Old Frisco

LAST MOHICAN OF THE BLUES (POLTON CD PL047)
Dedicated to Johnny Shines and Homesick James/Long Time Ago/ My Baby Went to N.Y./All You Texas Women/ Devil’s Daughter/Memory of the Blues Experience/After While/You Wreck My Mind Baby/Where’s My Friends/Last Mohican of the Blues/Blues Night Shift/Lullaby for Majka Jurkowska, Jo Ann Kelly, Alexis Korner

BLUES MEETS REMBETIKA (DIASTAZI SD 007) Standing at My Door/Voodoo Woman/Nelson Mandela/Korea Blues/Orphanage Home Blues/Hey Now Baby!/That’s All Right/Imagination within Power

Blues Notes

A Listeners Guide to Blues Collection CD: Pretty Woman BLU NC 081

Louisiana Red’s most successful recordings are usually delivered when in company of producers and supporting musicians who are fully aware that the blues are Red’s life and Red’s life is the blues; for Louisiana Red the two are inseparable.

‘‘When Red starts a hollering and a-sliding only a corpse could be indifferent,’’ someone once observed. This selection, drawn from various live and studio sessions held in London, Burnley and Chicago, between the years 1978 and 1990, certainly attests to that, as well as Red’s capacity to drag from within himself some startlingly emotive and personal blues.

VIVIENNE

The opening track finds Red in the company of a quartet of British musicians: Richard Studholme (guitar), Jon Cleary (piano), Marty David (bass) and Geoff Nicholls (drums). The song, recorded in London in 1990 during a tour of Britain, is a romping boogie based upon Jimmy Reed's ‘Big Boss Man', featuring Red's own harmonica playing. ‘‘I was really a harmonica player at first and then I got to learn guitar,'' reminisced Red when first interviewed at any great length in 1973. This exuberant number allows him to stretch out on the harmonica and if Red's various asides like, ‘‘I feel good” or ‘‘Aah, yeah, alright'' are any indication, he was obviously delighted at his own inventiveness on the instrument.

LEAVING TOWN

Recorded at the same session as track 1, the mood changes here, invoking the sound of Red's mentor and greatest influence, Muddy Waters. Red once remarked, ‘‘I knowed him so well I stayed at his home, he was like a father.'' That certainly shows on this robust number as he adapts the slide accompaniment to Muddy's ‘I Can't Be Satisfied' to suit his own particular musical needs. The Muddy Waters sound is further enhanced by some piano-playing after the fashion of Muddy's long-time pianist, Otis Spann. Had Muddy lived to witness Red's slide-playing at this event, he may well have been moved to exclaim once again, ‘‘That boy sounds just like me.''

NOTHING BUT A GYPSY MAN

Recorded in the Soto Sound Studios in Chicago during May 1982, this is pure John Lee Hooker. Red's voice is both demanding and menacing. His guitar has the same throbbing vigour and magnificent drive as Hooker's. Its terse, intense, almost African rhythmic phrasing acts as a foil for his falsetto outbursts, giving the song extraordinary tension. Those who have been fortunate enough to witness Red perform this sort of number live will probably be able to visualise him at work in the studio; rocking slowly backwards and forwards on the rear legs of his chair, eyes closed, completely immersed within himself. A powerfully expressed song in the best tradition of the blues.

VALERIE

Recorded at the same session as tracks 1 and 2, here Red turns his talent to the Chicago sound of Elmore James with great verve and vigour. The half-shouted vocals and soaring, broom-dusting riff are nicely driven along by pianist Jon Cleary who, for his performance at this session, was dubbed ‘Otis Spann Junior' by Red. For a time in the 1960s, Red appeared at gigs under the pseudonym of Elmore James Jr after having been allowed to sit in with James and his band at Biloxi, Mississippi in the late 1950s. Elmore would surely have approved of Red's rendition of this song.

SWEET BLOOD CALL

From the up-tempo exuberance of the previous number to the ominous, dark lyric of this track, the contrast couldn't be starker. ‘‘It would be hard to miss you baby with my pistol in your mouth/You might be thinking about going up North but your brains is staying South'', hollers Red in the opening line of this live recording, catching his somewhat startled audience unawares. He continues, ‘‘You can roll your pretty eyes if you intend to stay/But if you close ‘em again, I'm gonna blow your world away.'' The echoey nature of the surroundings in the 100 Club in London lends even more to the feeling of menace on this 1978 cut. The audience appear to be stunned into silence, perhaps awaiting the next episode in Red's haranguing of his woman. This song has always proved to be a great crowd pleaser, ever since it was first recorded in 1975, and this ccasion was obviously no exception.

PRETTY WOMAN

Here, in essence, is the sound and feel of the early collaborations between Muddy Waters and harmonica player Little Walter, recreated three decades later by Louisiana Red and Sugar Blue at London's 100 Club. There is total involvement on the part of both artists as Red sings about his woman being a ‘‘pure work of art''. The empathy is astounding and evocative of numbers like ‘Standing Around Crying' and ‘ Long Distance Call' cut by Muddy and Walter for Len Chess. If the various shouts of ‘‘ yeah'' or the spontaneous burst of applause for the guitar and harmonica solo are any indication, then the audience obviously appreciate the skills being displayed on stage.

SUGAR'S HARMONICA BOOGIE

Also from the 100 Club date comes this good-time boogie. The piece is very reminiscent of the harmonica style of Walter Horton, especially his Memphis recordings of the 1950s, being mainly a showcase for the talents of Sugar Blue. The underlying boogie-based guitar and piano figure, provided by Red and an unknown pianist, drives the number along nicely, all the while Sugar Blue speeding up the tempo of his harmonica playing, eventually working the audience into a state of ecstatic excitement that culminates in wild applause.

THIS LITTLE LETTER

Recorded at the same time as track 3, this song was originally done in 1960 for the New York-based Angletone label when Red was a member of James Wayne's band, the Night Hawks. However, the treatment that is given to it here is very much in the style of a Lightnin' Hopkins blues, Hopkins being another one of Red's great influences. ‘‘ I'm kind of old fashioned,'' confessed Red to an interviewer in 1973. ‘‘I got that from working with Lightnin' Hopkins down in Texas...he taught me a lotta ropes.'' There is certainly no doubting Red's admiration for Hopkins' style and his performance here could be called anything but old fashioned!

LOCKED UP SO LONG

Recorded at the 1990 National Blues Festival in Burnley, this number features Red accompanied by father and son team Carey and Lurrie Bell. Harmonica man Carey is well known to Red, the pair having toured and recorded together for the L&R label during the early 1980s. Carey Bell has encouraged many of his children to become blues musicians, the best known being Lurrie who joins them here on a number that uses the ‘ Rollin' & Tumblin” tune. Being a live recording, the song takes a little time to get itself together but when it does, they manage to attain a marvellous cohesion which drives this number along in much the same fashion as vocalist Baby Face Leroy achieved in 1950 with Muddy and ittle Walter.

SITTIN' HERE LOOKING

From the same session as tracks 3 and 8, this Chicago recording is yet another number in the Lightnin' Hopkins vein but with the notable difference that Red is using a slide, a technique which Hopkins himself rarely used. The cross-pollination between the Hopkins-inspired vocal and the powerful Chicago slide style is surprisingly successful. The number vividly recalls Red's Playboy and Rocky Fuller days of the 1950s and here, like then, has him digging deep into his personal experiences to produce a blues of total commitment.

RIDE ON

Yet another number from Red's 100 Club gig of 1978, this is one of the songs that rought him to public notice in the 1960s, and even though it was not written by him, it is still very much his own. It's a nice nostalgic performance and very much in the essence and spirit of the original. An obvious crowd pleaser, the references to being forced to ‘‘eat sandwiches on the street'' and ‘‘riding on to freedom'' are greeted with cries of recognition, even though for 1978 they are both out of context and given the location, London, rather out of place.

BLUES FOR IDA B.

The final track is from the 1982 Chicago session. Again Red is having problems with one of the women in his life. ‘‘Right now I'm not in good spirits, I just lost the one I love,'' he tells producer John Stedman and his wife. The half-sung, half-spoken, song develops into a long, introspective testament to lost love. Red's hypnotically economical guitar accompaniment, almost West African in nature, is so mesmerising that the listener can't help but be caught up in the song and Red's troubles. The number has all the elements of improvisation and one gets the impression that Red could've developed the theme for hours; rather like Bukka White and the blues he ‘‘just dragged right out of the sky''.

 

ALAN BALFOUR

 

 

© BRITISH BLUES ARCHIVE 2017