Reference: BMCD 6004
Bar code: 8427328060042
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That this saxophonist was one of the earliest rhythm and blues honkers is hardly in dispute, but how early his sounds first started getting captured by recording microphones is another matter. Various biographical information and reviews relating to a collection of his material on the Blue Moon label indicates that it was the goofball bandleader Louis Jordan who first began documenting Lem Johnson during sessions for the Decca label in the late '30s. He may be on some earlier recording sessions with Sidney Bechet, however, although in that case, his potential to honk is vastly overwhelmed by the leader's ability to make his soprano saxophone sound like a lovesick blue jay. At any rate, tenor sax solos such as the one Johnson plays on Jordan's "Flatface" have lost none of their majesty over the years.
Johnson didn't stay put with Jordan, however, joining a group led by Skeets Tolbert in 1939. This leader recognized the reedman's potential as a vocalist and managed to get that aspect of his talents on recording for the first time. Eddie Durham also featured Johnson as a vocalist on a single recording. Johnson soon had his own opportunity to record as a leader, with material that was collected on the aforementioned CD along with other recordings the saxophonist and singer made with leaders such as Sammy Price. Of the solo material, the most famous recording is Johnson's version of "Going Down Slow" by St. Louis Jimmy. This 1941 recording is the earliest version known of what developed into a blues warhorse, a perfect send-off for anyone not expected to recover. Johnson also recorded in the early '50s with fellow tenor blaster Sam "The Man" Taylor.
- by Eugene Chadbourne
Isaiah "Doc" Ross was a throwback to a bygone era; a true one-man band, he played harmonica, acoustic guitar, bass drum and high-hat simultaneously, creating a mighty racket harking back to the itinerant country-blues players wandering the Delta region during the earlier years of the 20th century. Born Charles Isaiah Ross on October 21, 1925 in Tunica, Mississippi, he took early inspiration from the music of Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller and Sonny Boy Williamson I; primarily a harpist hence his nickname "The Harmonica Boss" he only added the other instruments in his arsenal in order to play a USO show while a member of the army during World War II. (The "Doc" moniker was acquired because he carried his harmonicas in a doctor's bag.) Upon his release from the military, Ross settled in Memphis, where he became a popular club fixture as well as the host of his own radio show on station WDIA; during his club residency he was witness to a number of brutal murders, however, and swore off appearances in such venues during the later years of his life. During the early 1950s, Ross recorded his first sides among them "Chicago Breakdown" for labels including Sun and Chess; in 1954 he settled in Flint, Michigan, where he went to work as a janitor for General Motors, a position he held until retiring. In 1965 he cut his first full-length LP, Call the Doctor, and that same year mounted his first European tour; as the years passed Ross performed live with decreasing frequency, however, and was infamous for backing out of shows to catch his beloved Detroit Tigers on television. Upon winning a Grammy for his 1981 album Rare Blues, he experienced a career resurgence, and played festival dates to great acclaim prior to his death on May 28, 1993.
- by Jason Ankeny