Johnny Temple - The Essential Classic Blues
Written by John Miller Johnny Temple - The Essential Classic Blues, , CBL 200038
This 2-CD set collects a large roster of the greatest hits of Johnny Temple (1906-1968), a transplanted Mississippi blues singer (to Chicago), who enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the period between his initial recording in 1935, and the early Post-War period. There are 36 songs included in the set, so you really get a hefty sampling of what Johnny had to offer.
Johnny's first recorded number, "Lead Pencil Blues", was very forward-looking number--a shuffle with duet guitar accompaniment in which the guitar laying down the time was employing the classic riff associated with Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" and countless blues since then. Also anticipating the future in the cut is the flat-picked lead guitar, something encountered with great frequency on Johnny's later recordings. Two early recordings, similarly duets, "Big Boat Whistle" and "The Evil Devil Blues", are terrific. The interplay of the two guitars, one of which was Johnny's and the other, I believe, Charlie McCoy's, is excellent, as was Johnny's singing. "The Evil Devil Blues" is a bona fide oddity--a cover of Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman" that shows you can really end up with good things occasionally by NOT copying someone too carefully. Unfortunately, these two songs were the last time that Johnny was to participate so prominently in his own accompaniments. From this point onward he operated almost exclusively as a vocal soloist with various instrumental ensemble types backing him.
The remainder of the material on the set does a great job of showcasing both the strengths and the weaknesses of the '30s studio system for recording blues singers who were not self-accompanied. On the strength side, you have:
* Some pretty stellar musicianship from the sidemen. On these cuts you encounter players like Joshua Altheimer and Sammy Price on piano, Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie and Joe McCoy, and Jazzers Teddy Bunn and Al Casey on guitar, and the entire Harlem Hamfats group, including in addition to the McCoy Brothers, Odell Rand on clarinet, Horace Malcolm on piano, John Lindsay on bass and Fred Flynn on drums. With line-ups like this, you end up with some great playing.
* Freed up from having to accompany himself, Johnny delivers some tremendous singing. He always sang really well, though.
On the weakness side, you have the following:
* This is definitely blues as Pop music, and as a result you encounter a good bit of both repetition and music by formula. For a working professional musician it is a good thing to sell records, but popularity breeds covers of hits and covers of the covers. A certain sameness of sound creeps in when you listen to multiple cuts recorded with this approach.
That having been said, there are many high points in the program after the earlier, more "Country" tunes have played. Johnny does a great job on "New Vicksburg Blues", where he is joined by Joshua Altheimer and Bill Broonzy. The silly "Gimme Some of that Yum Yum Yum"has great piano and exciting clarinet, played in the mold of Sidney Bechet. The much-copied "Louise, Louise Blues" was a well-deserved hit--what a vocal! Lonnie Johnson walks away with the accompanist honors on "Jellyroll Bert", playing with tremendous spontaneity and skill in C (!). There is a great contrast between Johnny's country approach to singing and tone production with his sophisticated backing ensemble on "Bowleg Woman" and "My Pony". My favorite cut on the whole collection is "Good Suzie". Johnny's vocal here is sensational, and he has a mannerism of ending each line in the first four bars with a falsetto catch in his voice that merges into a buzzy head tone a la Rubin Lacy or Ishmon Bracey--whew, is it great! Johnny covers another Skip James tune with "Cherry Ball", on which he is joined by an excellent clarinet. On "Sundown Blues" and Jinxlee Blues" Johnny is accompanied by a guitarist (Teddy Bunn or Al Casey?) strumming away at a straight four beats to the measure like a Swing rhythm guitarist. "Better Not Let My Good Gal Catch You Here" is Johnny's cover of Ishmon Bracey's "Saturday Blues", and "Rooming House Blues" introduces an interesting note of paranoia when Johnny sees his girlfriend coming out of a rooming house.
I would not rate this CD set as highly as my favorite Country Blues recordings of the '20s, but that is just my own taste. The execution on the program here can not be faulted, and if you like occasional Jazzy types of progressions, nifty ensemble work, and are looking to expand your repertoire with Blues that have pretty much stayed beneath the radar of the current generation of Country Blues fans, you will find much to admire here. And it must be said: Johnny Temple sold a lot of records for a reason--he was a great singer.
PROGRAM: Disc One: Lead Pencil Blues; New Vicksburg Blues; When The Breath Bids Your Girlfriend's Body Goodbye; Big Boat Whistle; The Evil Devil Blues; Gimme Some of That Yum Yum Yum; Stick-up Woman; Louise, Louise Blues; Snapping Cat; Jellyroll Bert; Bowleg Woman; Peepin' Through The Keyhole; Good Suzie; My Pony; Corrina, Corrina; Evil Bad Woman; Baby Don't You Love Me No More; Every Dog Must Have His Day
Disc Two: Mama's Bad Luck Child; What Is That Smells Like Gravy; Big Leg Woman; Big Woman Blues; Up Today, Down Tomorrow; The Sun Goes Down In Blood; Cherry Ball; Sundown Blues; Jinxlee Blues; Yum Yum Yum; Better Not Let My Good Gal Catch You Here; Streamline Blues; Fix It Up And Go; Jive Me, Baby; Let's Get Together; Roomin' House Blues; Sit Right On It; Lovin' Woman Blues