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Jimmy Witherspoon – Spoon’s Life – Isabel Records (1980)/ PurePleasure (2015)

Jimmy Witherspoon – Spoon’s Life – Isabel Records (1980)/ PurePleasure PPAN021 (2015) –audiophile mono vinyl, 41:31 ****:

(Jimmy Witherspoon – vocals; George Smith – harmonica; Johnny Dollar – guitar; Sammy Lawhorn – guitar; Nick Charles – guitar bass; Roosevelt “Snake” Shaw – drums)

Jimmy “Spoon” Witherspoon made his mark as a blues shouter. Like Walter Brown, Duke Henderson, Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner and Eddie ‘Cleanhead” Vinson, this unamplified vocal style defined the genre. Witherspoon got his first big break with Jay McShann in the late forties. His first hit, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, became his trademark song. Subsequent hits, “No Rollin’ Blues”, “Big Fine Girl”, “Failing By Degrees” and “New Orleans Woman” kept him vital in the blues scene. As the blues shouting style went out of vogue, Witherspoon’s career descended. But in 1959, Jimmy Witherspoon Live At The Monterey Jazz Festival revived his career. That performance featured Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines and Mel Lewis. He also recorded with Gerry Mulligan, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Eric Burdon, Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, Count Basie and Van Morrison, to name just a few. He released albums and performed until his death in 1997. His legacy is carried on by a substantial catalogue and blues enthusiasts.

Pure Pleasure Records has re-mastered a 1980 album Spoon’s Life on audiophile vinyl. Recorded in Paris (the original label, Isabel Records had releases from stars like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Magic Slim, Memphis Slim and Big Moose Walker) on a single day, Witherspoon eschews his “Kansas City shout” style and performs traditional Chicago-style blues. He is backed up by a savvy band consisting of two guitars (Johnny Dollar & Sammy Lawhorn), harmonica (George Smith), bass (Nick Charles) and drums (Roosevelt “Snake” Shaw), Spoon’s Life is a stripped down (mono as it turns out, altho 1980) album. It is apparent that Witherspoon is refining his tight blues chops with the band. From the classic Dollar guitar intro on Willie Nelson’s “Night Life”, this is a band effort. Witherspoon’s confident, masculine vocals are timeless. On “Help Me’, there are hooks (somewhat like “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G’s) that sell the song. Witherspoon’s voice is utilized like an instrument.

Taking on a true blues classic like “Big Boss Man” inevitably draws comparisons to the great Jimmy Reed. This cover (while not as riveting as Reed’s) is more than respectable. The band is very cohesive as drummer Shaw keeps impeccable time. George Smith asserts himself an upper-tier harmonica player with an extended solo. Witherspoon’s assured vocals never overpower the band. He allows the instrumentalists to take center stage. Dollar shines on “Cold Cold Feeling”, an epic tale of “bad love”. His long (by blues standards) solo is essential blues, like B.B. King. The unusual guitar tuning and half-note slides are ear-catching. The structure of “Worried Life Blues” (another often-covered number) is reminiscent of Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen”.

Side B opens with one of three Witherspoon originals, “Did You Ever”. Lawhorn’s guitar licks (and expanded solo) are stellar. His chemistry with Smith is evident. This could be a new signature tune for Witherspoon (who isn’t reticent about occasional self-reference). There is an old-school r & b vibe on “Blues With A Feeling” which adopts a harp lead (and solo) before Witherspoon effortlessly inserts his vocals. Some of Witherspoon’s “scream” roots bleed into the comical “Big Leg Woman”. This simmering, “low-down’ adaptation speaks to the visceral, sexual contexts of the blues genre. The slow-burning finale “Bags Under My Eyes” is also less formal with Witherspoon exhibiting some anecdotal charm (“…My baby boy callin’ someone else Dad…”) and a slightly detectable “Yeow” in the beginning.

Spoon’s Life  is a good blues album, not one for the ages. [And expensive for a mono LP…Ed.]  The acoustics are crisp and understated. Perhaps a bit of sonic intensity would have livened things up. However, the instrumental tonality is balanced and Spoon’s voice is rich and potent.

Side A: Night Life; Help Me; Big Boss Man; Cold Cold Feeling; Worried Life Blues
Side B: Did You Ever; Blues With A Feeling; Big Leg Woman; Bags Under My Eyes

—Robbie Gerson

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