Thursday, 22 April 2010

“The Complete Chess Masters (1950 – 1967)” by LITTLE WATER. A Review of the USA-Only 2009 Hip-O Select Label 5CD Mini Box Set.

"…I Hear That Man Blow!"

Released March 2009 in the USA-only, “The Complete Chess Masters (1950 – 1967)” is a non-numbered limited edition of 5000 copies - and 41 years after his death in 1968 - is 'the' definitive retrospective for his entire output on the Chess offshoot label Checker.

Hip-O Select/Geffen B0012636-02 is a 5CD mini box set with 126 tracks (10 previously unreleased, 8 previously unreleased in the USA) and breaks down as follows:

Disc 1: has a 'Checker Records Co.' Red Label Design, 25 Tracks, 74:52 minutes
[Tracks 12, 13 and 17 are Previously Unreleased]

Disc 2: has a 'Checker' Plain Red Label Design, 25 Tracks, 72:11 minutes
[Track 21 is Previously Unreleased]

Disc 3: has a 'Checker' Plain White Label Design, 26 Tracks, 74:33 minutes
[Tracks 22 is Previously Unreleased while Tracks 18, 23 and 24 are Previously Unreleased in the USA]
NOTE: Tracks 12, 19 and 20 are mistakenly missing their track info in the booklet

Disc 4: has a 'Checker' Light Blue Label Design, 27 Tracks, 71:59 minutes
[Tracks 3, 11 and 14 are Previously Unreleased; Tracks 22 and 24 are Alternate Takes 1 and 2 and are Previously Unreleased in the USA]

Disc 5: has a 'Checker' Multi-Colour Label Design, 23 Tracks, 68:01 minutes
[Tracks 21 and 22 are Previously Unreleased while Tracks 17, 18 and 19 are Previously Unreleased in the USA]
NOTE: Tracks 21 and 22 “Feel So Bad” and “Make It Alright” (from January 1964) feature DO DIDDLEY

When you take off the “Little Walter” Obi that wraps around the outside, you get a chunky gatefold card sleeve that folds out into three flaps on either side – the first 5 flaps contain a label-themed CD in each (as listed above the colour is appropriate to the years involved) and the last flap to the right houses a 36-page booklet by noted biographers TONY GLOVER, SCOTT DIRKS and WARD GAINES who co-authored the 2002 book “Blues With A Feeling – The Little Walter Story”.

The sound is GLORIOUS throughout, the original master tapes remastered by tape expert ERICK LABSON (has over 850 restoration and mastering credits to his name - including most of the Chess catalogue). Each track has extraordinary power and presence – his amplified harmonica blasting out through your speakers. Apart from the totality of the package, the really great sound quality is for me one of the best reasons to buy this set.

Three major USA Chess retrospectives are all here in their Little Walter entirety (including their previously unreleased tracks at the time) – the 2CD set “The Essential Little Walter” and tracks from the 4CD Box Set “Chess Blues” (both from 1993) and the 2CD set “Blues With A Feeling: Chess Collectibles, Vol.3” from 1995. In between those songs are the A & B sides of every one of his Checker singles, exclusive LP cuts and the Previously Unreleased Versions listed above.

The sessions also featured Chess legends WILLIE DIXON, OTIS SPANN and BO DIDDLEY along with other great session men like Jimmy Rogers on Guitar and Fred Bellows on drums. The mighty MUDDY WATERS turns up here and there too - the opening track on CD1 is “Evan’s Shuffle” (pictured below), the B-side of Muddy’s "Louisiana Blues" 78 on Chess 1441 which first charted in January 1951 – it’s Little Walter’s first appearance and it’s a blast (the title to this review is Muddy shouting enthusiastically during the track).

In truth of course it’s hard to take this amount of harmonica blues on one CD let alone five, but just when you think you can take no more, he hits you on CD2 with “Rocker” - a 1954 single on Checker 793 – it’s a raucous instrumental with his trademark warbling harmonica technique that is absolute mind-blowing. I played it on a shuffle play in our shop and I could see customers foot-tapping and boogieing along to it as they browsed through our record racks…

Downsides – for customers outside of the USA, “Complete…” is a very expensive import – the track info missing on some songs is sloppy (something Hip-O Select has been accused off before), there’s some nice colour photos in the booklet and on the some of the flaps, but 5 are blank when they could have been filled with ‘something’. There’s no album sleeves pictured, the track-by-track annotation doesn’t tell you what’s the A or B of a single, its year of release, chart position attained if any - so from an informational standpoint, the whole thing feels a little too lightweight for such an important release. Having said all of that – the musical content is a genuine thrill. And yet despite booklet and packaging niggles, this is a huge Blues release – and at last gives respect to one of the genre’s most mercurial and brilliant of musicians.

Born Walter Jacobs in Louisiana in 1930, he’d formed his first band at age 11 and was a star by 1951. He died of a head injury from a fight in February 1968 – a lifetime of drinking, gambling, womanizing and gun toting having finally caught up with him…

Little Walter literally dragged the blues harmonica kicking and screaming into play and there will always be millions of people around the world who will love him forever for it.

Nobody blew the blues harp like him and “The Complete Chess Masters” is a fabulous celebration of that. Big time recommended.

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