Ever had those mid-week, demanding-boss, traffic-jam, forgot-to-get-milk-on-the-way-home-so-partner-was-pissed-off blues?
If it was 1967 you had a number of musical options to sooth your troubled western mostly-white electric-urban-blues soul. Loose the bad vibes, lose the hyphenated sentences, enter the transatlantic none-more-blue worlds of John Mayall and Paul Butterfield.
You might imagine John Mayall was dismayed by the departure of his young tyro guitarist Eric Clapton (to form Cream, also active in 1967) but not a bit of it. Mayall had a keen ear for talent and recruited Peter Green to fill the vacant chair. Of course, Green did not last long either, leaving to form Fleetwood Mac, but that’s another story. This tale is about the third album by the blues entrepreneur, A Hard Road by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers.
Recorded in October and November of the previous year, A Hard Road was released on the Decca label in February 1967. In addition to the leader on vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano, and organ, Green on guitar, John McVie (soon to contribute the third syllable to Fleetwood Mac) on bass, either Hughie Flint or Aynsley Dunbar on drums, this version of the Bluesbreakers also packed brass in its pocket. John Almond and Alan Skidmore added sax while Ray Warleigh contributed ‘wind instruments’.
A Hard Road is a solid sixties British blues album. Mayall’s vocals were never the slam-you-against-the-wall kind, but he truly sings with character. Eight of the fourteen tracks are Mayall originals with Green getting onto the scoreboard with two songs. Indeed, where this LP really flies is when Peter Green steps forward, as on the instrumental number “The Stumble” and his own “The Super-Natural”, two highlights. The latter piece is worth the price of admission alone. In fact the sustained opening note of “The Super-Natural” is worth the entry fee.
I like the echoing “Another kind of love” (another Mayall why-doesn’t-she-behave-properly-and-love-me-the-way-I-deserve song) where the saxes sing in the background and Green soars in the foreground. The sinewy R&B of “Leaping Christine” is foot-tappingly energetic and another highlight. And any blues album containing a cover of Elmore James “Dust my blues” is OK by me. This Bluesbreakers version really pops; fast, driving, committed to an absence of dust.
The cover painting, a wintery portrait of the band by John Mayall himself, fits perfectly with a bluesy English February; moody and downbeat.
This is British blues played with respect for the sources but keen to differentiate. On A Hard Road John Mayall and his band mostly succeed. Less than compulsive, perhaps, yet an entertaining listen.
3 ½ stars.
Musicians love getting together and playing. So when Mayall had the opportunity to rope in his US counterpart Paul Butterfield for a recording session, he leapt at the chance as energetically as Christine in the Hard Road song. The Chicago blues-harpist and singer recorded an EP with Mayall entitled, with pleasing directness, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Paul Butterfield. Can’t argue with that, nor can I say much about it, other than it provides a neat across-the-ocean segue to the second member of this blues-album-duo.
Harmonica player and singer Paul Butterfield is a central figure in the expansion of the blues beyond its original race-based confines in the US. His barnstorming blues treatments popularised electric Chicago blues with the white record-buying public while his enthusiasm for sitting in with black blues musicians in Chicago’s blues clubs earned him respect and a level of acceptance.
The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw—the odd moniker was guitarist Elvin Bishop’s nickname—was the third Butterfield Blues Band LP, released in late 1967. With punchy brass from the trio of David Sanborn (alto), Gene Dinwiddle (tenor) and Keith Johnson (trumpet) plus neat keyboard fills from Mark Naftalin, this edition of the BBB has a strong soul feel. It’s almost like an R&B album, with impassioned vocals from the leader and interplay between brass and guitar (Bishop is terrific throughout).
As if to underline the soul credentials, the record opens with a version of “One more heartache”, released by Marvin Gaye the previous year. After that comes the centrepiece of the album, the magnificent “Driftin’ and driftin’” which it utterly engaging across its nine minutes. Who else was laying down nine minute blues-rock epics in 1967?
Next up is one of my favourites on The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw, an electric—in every sense of the word—performance of Bobby Bland’s “I pity the fool”. Clocking in at six minutes, Butterfield extracts maximum hurt and venom from this love-gone-wrong tale and does it so well you want to feel what he feels just so you can sing along.
The first side closes with another cover of a recent hit, and another highlight, the BBB’s version of Albert King’s “Born under a bad sign”. They nail it. Now if you glance back over the commentary on these four tracks, you’ll notice that I’m giving them a big rap. No mistake there; this is one of the classic sides of sixties electric blues.
Side two is just as good, just as grab-you-by-the-lapels-and-give-you-a-good-shake as the first. Add in a magnificently psychedelic cover painting by Kim Whitesides and you have a package that deserves the appellation ‘essential’.
4 ½ stars
The sharp-eyed reader will have detected an abundance of hyphenated utterances in this piece, despite the second-paragraph promise to ‘lose’ same. This affliction had me scouring the internet for relief, which I found in the form of a rare blues song by lexicographer and blues-harp wailer H.W. Fowler*. It is reprinted here in the hope others suffering from hyphenatosis might find solace in its lines.
I got those hyphen-laden blues
Those ol’ hyphen-laden blues
Too many short dashes, too many words to choose.
Those hyphens lock me down
Those ol’ hyphens lock me down
My sentence is too long now, beginning to hyphen-drown.
Gotta leave those hyphens be
Leave those connecting dashes be
Return to modern usage, use commas and be free
* Author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1968) Oxford University Press (His prowess on harmonica is not well documented)
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers — A Hard Road Label: Decca Released: February 1967 Duration: 37:16
The Butterfield Blues Band — The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw Label: Elektra Released: December 1967 Duration: 44:29