I’m going through a weird phase of reminiscence. So it’s just perfectly appropriate that I decided to dig out all my old albums and give them another chance to come to life. And I can tell you, I’m having a great time. The past few days have been dedicated to a very interesting project that was thankfully captured on tape/disc for future generations. I’m talking about the “Pretty Things/Yardbird Blues Bands – The Chicago Blues Tapes 1991” – notice the singular here, it says Yardbird, not Yardbirds. Well, that one “bird” is Mr. Jim McCarthy who’s playing the drums and what a fine job he did. Pretty Things vocalist takes care of the singing and I hope I am not insulting the die hard fans here when I say that I personally think he actually sounds better than on the early Pretty Things. His old companion dick Taylor plays a hell of a lead guitar throughout the whole gig. Studebaker John keeps a steady background groove with his rhythm guitar and occasional slide solos. In addition to that, Mr. Richard Hite from the Canned Heat contributes with his heavy bass completing the core team. However, there is also a whole list of guest players which I will mention with names a little later.
Here is the text that is printed on the inside of the CD booklet, written by the producer George Paulus:
The inspiration of this project goes back a few odd years. Way back in the mid 60s my high school spending change went into only one direction, record stores. The greater percentage went to the dusty funky-ridden in the black section of the south and Westsides of Chicago. After hearing the blasting sounds of Muddy Waters, the Wolf and Jimmy Reed on my older cousin’s radio while cruising in his red hot Merc coupe, the addiction had begun. Rambling around the Southside looking through basements of record stores filled with old 78 RPM and 45 RPM records, or “jams” as we called them, we discovered all the “Kings of the Blues” and rhythm and blues. More than one pair of store owners, rolled eyes as a pair of of white boys asked about records by Sonny Boy, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, L.B. Lenoir, or anyone else who might be a low-down blues man. The few white customers they saw usually requested the Motown sounds. These white boys sho’ be strange! We knew, of course, we had discovered the most incredible music yet invented by man. But synchronicity took parts in other in other parts of the US and oddly enough, across the ocean in England.
In the first wave of the musical “British Invasion” there was a lot of pop stuff that was cute, but didn’t have the intensity of our dark-skinned , processed heroes. That changed almost immediately when a few stations started playing the Stones, Pretties, Yardbirds, Animals, Manfreds, Fletwood Mac (pre-ladies, of course!) and Cream. Of course, this boogie disease broke out in the States also with Paul Butterfield, Memphis Charlie Musslewhite, Capt. Beefheart, Canned Heat and John Hammond. Everybody had the Blues. Suddenly everybody also had long hair, blue jeans, velvet, leather, grass, LSD, black lights, incense and an unstoppable interest in the cultural awareness of the North, South, East and West.
Some bands became blues purists; others took the blues to new and previously unheard dimensions. The Yardbirds took the blues over, under sideways and down – no matter who played lead guitar. For the Pretties, the intensity of power of the blues never left Phil May’s vocals, or Dick Taylor’s guitar leads even as they invented the first rock opera. Four Brits even honored a dirigible in the band’s name, and plugged into Memphis Minnie, and very Muddied Waters.
End of history lesson, you all knew that anyway…fast forward to 1990.
While on Holiday on London in September of 1990, I rang up Phil May, lead singer of the Pretties to see if he’d care to meet for drinks and to chat about a recording session in Chicago doin’ some blues and R&B. “Let’s talk” agrees Phil. Over bitters and bourbon in a Soho club, Phil and I go over the outline of the proposed blues jam. With a wink and a nod, the place must of course be Chicago. If it wasn’t Chicago Phil says he wouldn’t even be attracted to the idea. Naturally, the session must include Dick Taylor, Pretties co-founder and lead guitar man. Mr. Taylor would surely grab his axe and be at the Heathrow whenever. “Drums?” queries Phil. I mention that I met Yardbird drummer Jim McCarthy the other night in a pub and ran the idea past him. Jim said: “Chicago!…I’d love to be part of it, especially doin’ some blues.” “But what about the rest of the band?” asks Phil. “No problem, my man” I respond.
My long-time friend and record collecting buddy, Richard Hite of Canned Heat fame, could cover bass. Local Chicago friend Studebaker John could have his amp, guitar, slide and harp in his van and be ready to go in a flash! Another cat named Chicago Slim, who’d been playing blues around Chicago since the early 60s had previously said just call when you’re ready. A guestlist of additional players could be easily drawn up.
Phil is clearly knocked out by the idea, but expresses his concern that this may or may not work. Everybody’s got to groove just right, if the feeling isn’t there between everyone the session won’t work. “Hell, Phil”, I relate, “it’s gonna burn!”. We order the last round and seal the deal…
There’s fog, frozen temperatures that hit you like an ice pack and three inches of snow on the ground as we go into the studio. The T.V. announces that missiles are now flying into the Gulf. Chicago Blues, wartime sessions…..
As the smokes are fired up, the Gamay Beaujolais and brews are passed around to dull the tensions; the amps are being plugged into the sockets. Overhead, blue studio lights are dimmed and some fat Chi-Town blues harp blasts out of Studebaker John’s cranked-up amp. Jim starts kickin’ at the drums. Dick is sitting at the edge of his Supro amp dicing some lead fills. Richard Hite is downing the last draught of his beer before bounding out with some Canned Heat bottom across the studio floor. Phil’s outward calm is shattered as he lets loose with frantic vocals, as we attack Tommy Tucker’s “Long Tall Shorty” the first track of the night.
Get the picture! British blues boys going back to the blues roots along with their American allies. Head cuttin’ live, letting the intensity grow, quickly ferment and become potent.
After throttling up to cruise speed the band has a go at it with some Bod Diddley riffs. That Brit feel of doing the Diddley beat, full of that rhythmic power is perfect for Phil’s vocal moan and screams. It’s the classic ’64 English feel updated, backdated and totally new, harder than ever. Lean, clean and bluesy, jammin’ ‘til it sounds blue and feels tough and natural. Chicago Slim drops by to exercise his slide on his vintage Les Paul Jr.. The band slams into Howlin Wolf’s “Down in the Bottom” and Elmore James’ “Can’t hold out”. With screaming slide, house rockin’ rhythm and Phil’s blues wailing about how he can’t hold out for his baby, all thoughts about the unit as a band might sound are crystal clear. The select guest list is knocked out. A couple of days in the jam and this is a working Chi-Town blues band. The engineer is screaming: “WOW! This is incredible!”
This blues-hardened band comes out punching with more. From the loping rhythm of Slim Harpo, “Scratch My Back”, to a thrice-removed version of “Don’t start crying now”, to jam a couple of Billy Boy Arnold tracks. The feel is raw and alive, taking the blues feel to the edge.
Late in the evening the band percolates with some Jimmy Reed tunes, always an icon with the Pretties. Slow, sardonic blues vocals, at the crossroads in Chicago. The Reed numbers had to be cut after midnight, nighttime is the righttime for a slow moaning walking boogie beat. As a tribute to Jimmy Reed the tracks were masterful, for fans, more proof that the Chicago blues magnetism has done its magic.
The Pretty Things/Yardbirds blues jam took some of the best musicians from the early Brit invasion days who had a respect and feel for the blues and mixed that up with a handful of Chicago cats who dug the idea of getting’ way down in the Windy City.
What you hold in your hands is black and blue lacquered, hand polished boogie. Minimal overdubs, recording eight days non-stop, capturing every nuance of the session. It’s strictly fine down-home blues, electrified in Chicago by the gov’nors and bossmen who aren’t pretenders. A combination of Southside BBQ and a couple of cases of Fullers ESB. Pour yourself a drink. Smell that “Q”, hear that harp, check that axe, y’all in Chicago now…
George Paulus, Chicago, 1991
Here is what the core band members had to say about the Chicago sessions:
“Flying to Chicago to start work on this album the day the Gulf war started didn’t feel like such a good idea. Early morning radio obsessed with final acts of diplomacy. London seemed to be holding its collective breath. No apparent increased security at Heathrow. Very strange!
Dick and Jim had already checked in, we were on our way via Paris. Apart from the war my thoughts were full of George Paulus, a blues collector/producer, who over a couple of drinks together in London had hatched this plot. We were going back to our roots, Sweet Home Chicago. For us pennyless art students in the sixties it had been Mecca (and I’m not talking ballrooms here). Now we were on our way to do a session there. The Iraqi gunners didn’t think we were worth a scud, so eight and a half hours later we were gliding into the chill embrace of O’Hare Airport, nine below zero! George then swept us off to a serious liquid debriefing in order to prepare us “holistically” for the task ahead. From then on, once the full cast had been assembled, it was Red Roof Motel and Sea Grape Studio for eight days straight.
It’s something I wouldn’t have missed for the world, or a war. You ladies and gentlemen must make up your own minds.”
Phil May. London, September, 1991
“This is the way I love to play. Liv, raw with feeling, this is fantastic! ****ing hell. It’s the best session in ages. When’s the next one scheduled for?”
Dick Taylor, Isle of Wight, September, 1991
“I love coming to Chicago, especially when it’s freezing! Ha! Who needs sleep anyway! Of course I’ll be there for the next “Holiday”…Did miss the curry though…”
Jim McCarthy, Richmond Surrey, September, 1991
“We boogied some, hell, we kicked the doors down, blew the roof off. More beer!”
Richard James Hite, Memphis, September 1991
“Yeah man, we’re starting to sound real Southside now. It’s tough man, real tough…”
Studebaker John, Chicago, September 1991
Well, there is not much left to be said here. It is a fantastic blues album with a strong Bo Diddley groove to it. Heavy and raw, not “arranged to death”. An absolute top pick in my opinion. And you can actually get it through the Guitar Shop.