Otis Spann – Walking The Blues – Candid Records CJS9025 (1960)/ Pure Pleasure Records (2014) – audiophile vinyl, 45:10 ****1/2:
(Otis Spann – piano, vocals; Robert Lockwood Jr. – guitar; St. Louis Jimmy (James Oden) – drums)
While not as universally popular as guitarists, blues piano players had a significant impact on the genre’s development. Names like Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Sunnyland Slim, Dr. John and Ray Charles dot the landscape, but none eclipse Otis Spann. As a long-time member of Muddy Waters’ group (fifteen years), he was an iconic figure on the Chicago scene. He worked with Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Junior Wells, Lonnie Johnson, Fleetwood Mac (the blues version), Eric Clapton, T Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton and Buddy Guy. As a solo artist he recorded with a variety of labels from 1960 to his death in 1970. His signature style of gritty rhythm and passionate improvisation (always within the blues structures) has become a template for modern rock and roll piano.
Pure Pleasure Records has re-mastered the classic Otis Spann 1963 album, Walking The Blues to audiophile vinyl. With some assistance by guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr. and legendary vocalist St. Louis Jimmy (James Oden), seminal blues comes to life in modern technology. Side A opens with a barrelhouse intro on “It Must Have Been The Devil”. Spann’s ferocious chords and soulful vocal drive this rhythmic lament of the Devil. His technique (steady left hand and fleet right hand) produce a raucous jam. Lockwood Jr. joins with a solo and this duo become a band. On a mean and nasty vibe, “Otis’ Blues” could be a master class in blues piano. Spann seems capable of sustaining different tempos in each hand. There is a palpable connection to Delta music. Things get low down as St. Louis Jimmy adds his craggy vocals to his twelve-bar blues standard, “Going Down Slow”. Covered by Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Champion Jack Dupree, B.B. King, Jimmy Witherspoon and Eric Clapton (just to name a few), this loose funky jam is a tour-de-force for the trio. Lockwood’s shadings are perfect and Spann unleashes another powerhouse solo. Spann returns on vocals with “Half Ain’t Been Told” with its familiar context of motherless existence and the desire to …”take my troubles to the Lord”… St. Louis Jimmy’s hysterical love song “Monkey-Face Woman” (a twist on the ugly woman refrain) is a crowd-pleaser. Side A concludes with a gospel boogie-woogie, the rocking “This Is The Blues”.
Side B doesn’t let up a bit. In a slower tempo, “Evil Woman” is a blues classic. Wallowing in romantic despair (“…too evil to say your prayers…”). Spann’s gritty vocals and exceptional piano licks set a high bar for blues songs. Lockwood Jr. deftly plays in counter to Spann. St. Louis Jimmy appears on two tracks. “Come Day, Go Day” is a late-night, urban grievance for, yes another wayward lover! (“…you drink whiskey for your breakfast…”). Spann’s fingers are flying up and down the piano, and he and Lockwood Jr. demonstrate the strongest cohesive musicianship of the eleven songs. The second “ensemble” number is a witty St. Louis Jimmy composition about the false rumors of his death (“…Some people say I’m dead, but it’s all a big mistake…”). Perhaps the greatest highlight of Walking The Blues is the title instrumental. Spann’s two-handed assault on blues piano is mesmerizing. His nimble left-hand bass notation and intense, artistic right-hand flourishes build a complex, full sound from a straightforward template. The finale (“My Home Is In The Delta”), a “rootsy’ ode to his beloved Mississippi Delta origins puts him squarely in the rarefied company of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters.
Pure Pleasure Records continues to be the leader in re-mastering blues records. This vinyl pressing is devoid of surface noise and hissing. The tonality of Spann’s piano is sharp, maintaining the percussive essence. His voice is emotional, with considerable warmth. Lockwood’s guitar is not always prominent in the mix, but this does not mitigate the resonance of the music. Walking The Blues is an essential American blues album!
Side A: It Must Have Been The Devil; Otis’ Blues; Going Down Slow; Half Ain’t Been Told; Monkey-Face Woman; This Is The Blues
Side B: Evil Ways; Come Day, Go Day; Walking The Blues; Bad Condition; My Home Is On The Delta