Gunsmoke Blues Video and Review by Tim Schuller
Now for some time travel...
The bluesfolk Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, George “Harmonica” Smith have all passed on, but thanks to music/film producers Richard Chalk, Link Wyler and Texas blues label TopCat Records, we can scroll back to yesteryear and hear them rip a place apart!
In 1971, cowboy music/film producer and Gunsmoke TV show crew member, LinkWyler rustled up enough loot to field a blues roadshow of epic proportion. One of his sidebar showbiz endeavors had been managing Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, so she was on the tour from the getgo. Soon the other aforementioned artists hired on, and the caravan took to the road. The songs on this DVD are from performances at The University of Oregon, Washington State University, and the Monroe State Prison in Washington.
Mud was still cutting for Chess in those years. His great work for the label was well behind him, however, and he was some years from the fine albums he would cut for Blue Sky. But if his recordings were slack, he was still a dreadnought live. Mud mixed raw power, seniority, and vigor, in a way few other artists ever will. Mud completists will find these cuts interesting as well. On these he’s ably backed by Big Mama’s band, the Hound Dogs. Recorded at a rehearsal at the Monroe lockup, these selections are interesting additions to the Great One’s oeuvre.
Next up are two of blues’ bigfolk, Willie Mae Thornton and Joe Turner. Less than a year before the Wyler tour, Ralph J. Gleason - at the time one of the most important and progressive music critics in the popular press - positively raved in the San Francisco Chronicle about a Big Mama performance he’d seen. But soon came a sorrowful decline. The woman who’d made classic recordings for the Duke label in the ’50s became noted more for drunkenness and bad humor than for music. At one point she had to sell the rights to her hit “Ball and Chain” to pay legal fees when she “accidentally” shot her boyfriend - six times! Luckily he recovered. But Big Mama was penniless and nearly forgotten when she died in 1984. All the reason to value her vibrant performance here. The bullwhip voice and on-the-spot timing she sported in her Duke heyday are in plentiful evidence here.
Big Joe Turner, personifier of the “shouting” style of blues singing, is also in good form on this CD. The Hound Dogs were a far cry from the jump bands Turner recorded with in the old days, but that didn’t hold him back. Far from it. He took the reins like Ben Hur on caffeine and the band hung on, as he forcefully free-associated from verse to verse, on a full-blown BJT filibuster. What a set of pipes this guy had!
As for George Smith, he was a godfather to the whole extant West Coast blues motif. His dynamic use of the chromatic harmonica (plus that of his pupils William Clarke and Rod Piazza), is a major reason for the popularity of that instrument today. His spirited take on the instrumental “Juke” seems to end without him, but that’s because he stepped off-mic to bask in the audience’s delight and applause, as the crowd begged him to continue the song. Undoubtedly that was vexing to the person running the soundboard, but such performance tacks were popular back then. (Still are, for that matter.) Some labels would’ve edited this part but not TopCat, whose tradition is to give you live recordings the way they happened, without any of the post-show studio gimmickry that sullies many “live” recordings.
Mud, and Smith in ’83. Thornton and Turner died in ’84 and ’85 respectively. You can’t replace people like this. The present is a lesser place for their presence. Newcomers to blues must marvel at stories of blues revues of yore, when giants like these strode on-stage and thrilled audiences with their rugged, rousing music. Thankfully, we can access their stirring art because of a cowboy producer named Link Wyler, who had the vision to record these masters, and to Richard Chalk and TopCat, for understanding the importance of issuing these rare historical performances of genuine, straightup blues that no fan should miss.
Tim Schuller was a Dallas-based journalist who contributed to Blues Access, Living Blues, Downbeat, Guitar Player, and many other publications. He passed away in 2012.