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Pradinis puslapis D Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis - Chicago Blues
Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis - Chicago Blues
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Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis died just after Christmas, on December 28th, in Chicago after suffering a heart attack. Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1925 this singer and guitarist first recorded for Sam Phillips’ Sun label in Memphis in August 1952, singing and playing guitar, under his real name of Charles Thomas. The two sides, “Cold Hands”/”4th and Broad” were sent to Chess and Jim Bulleit’s Bullet label, but they remained unissued. In 1964 he cut two sides that were issued on Testament and he waxed a full album issued by Elektra in 1965.

Never a prolific recording artist, occasional sides appeared on Takoma, Sonet in the UK and the UK's Bruce Bastin released some live material on his Flyright label. Jimm'y last major outing was for Austria's Wolf label, "Chicago Blues Session Volume 11" issued in 1989. Chris Smith's obituary on Jimmy Davis will appear in B&R 107. In the meantime, below we are reproducing the late Pete Welding's sleevenotes to the excellent Elektra album called "Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis". This set is now extremely rare and a timely reissue on CD would be welcome.

"Every Sunday morning from late spring to early autumn--whenever, in fact, the weather is warm and clement--the pungent, earthy sound of the traditional blues rings loudly through the streets of Chicago. In the city's bustling open-air Maxwell Street flea market area, where one can haggle for anything form high-button shoes to a winnowing machine, the cries of the hawkers and vendors mingle sharply with the acrid, pain-filled shouts of the blues singer and the fervent moans of the sidewalk evangelist.

Through most of contemporary America, street singing is a fast disappearing folk art. Municipal legislation and the compulsory licensing of peddlers have seen to that in most large US cities, and the days of the itinerant sidewalk minstel seem sadly though inevitably numbered. Except, that is, in Chicago. If anything, the art appears to be thriving here. It's tied directly, or course, to the continued flourishing of the Maxwell Street market as a vigorous facet of Chicago culture that has refused to give up the ghost in the face of urban renewal, increasing cultural homogeneity and other aspects of modern "progress."

The market, which encompasses an area roughly three city blocks deep by seven or eight wide, has proved hopitable to the blues for decades now; in 1925, for example, Papa Charlie Jackson, on of the earliest recorded country blues singers, recorded his Maxwell Street Blues for Paramount, and bling Chicago street singer Arvella Gray recalls that as far back as 1922, when he first arrived in the city, blues artists have had in the area's sidewalks a ready platform for their strong, undilute music. Gray remembers that at that time the streets were surfaced with large wooden blocks. Today's asphalt streets are still just as hopitable to the singers of the blues.

One of the finest and most expressive of blues performers who regularly work the steet is 40-year-old Charles Thomas, better known as Maxwell Street Jimmy. In his dark, urgent, powerful singing and rhythmically incisive guitar playing are strong, pungent echoes of his yourth in the Mississippi delta, thatt spawning ground of so many great bluesmen. Jimmy is natural heir--by way of John Lee Hooker and Tony Hollins--to that tradition of stark, emotionally direct blues singing that goes all the way back to Charlie Patton and Willie Brown, among others; though it has been tempered to a degree by developments that have taken place in the blues over the last few decades, Jimmy's style of singing and playing has remained remarkably pure and faithful to the spirit of the older Mississippi blues bards. His sole concession to comtemporaneity, in fact, would appear to be the inclusion of a number of latter-day blues "hits" in his performance repertoire. However, these pieces are completely reshaped as Jimmy performs them so that they become, in effect, wholly new songs rendered in the Mississippi blues style of which he is a master.

Jimmy was born in the Mississippi countryside near Clarksdale in 1925 and began to develop an interest in music when he was about fourteen years old. As was the case with so many older bluesmen, Jimmy's first instrument was a rude, home-made one. It consisted of several strands of baling wire stretched between nails driven into a wall. By sliding a bottle along the wires with one hand and strumming with the other, he was able to pick out simple melodies. Using this method, he taught himself to play Alberta, Catfish Blues, Mellow Peaches and That's All Right, among other traditional country pieces. His interest in music was fanned by the playing of the local performers he heard at back country parties, suppers and dances and by the recorded work of the late Sonny Boy Williamson, Peetie Wheatstraw and later, Tony Hollins, a singer-guitarist who was from the same neighborhood in Mississippi.

For several years Jimmy worked in the small medicine shows that traveled through the rural south. For three years he was a member of a touring Silas Green show and spent another two-and-a-half with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels--as a buck dancer. His specialty was "dancing on broken glass. Boy" he recalled, "I sure tore up lots of shoes, but it was something to see all right." During these years of continual travel from one small southern community to another he continued with music, working out his own vigorous guitar style, with its dramatic, compelling use of bass lines, completely unaided in his off hours. He ultimately left the shows because, as he explained, the work was hard, the hours long, and the money short.

In 1946 he moved to Detroit, Mich., where he found employment in the flush postwar years in a steel mill. He also met John Lee Hooker. The latter had been playing for several years in the small clubs around Detroit and was then on the threshold of a significant career as one of the most powerful country-rooted recording artist of the postwar years. It was the tutelage he received from Hooker over the next six years that gave the final shape to Jimmy's music; the influence of Hooker is most discernible in the dramatic, introspective way Jimmy uses his dark, brooding voice and in certain guitar figures.

Leaving Detroit, Jimmy spent several years traveling around the country. He spent almost a year in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he performed regularly at a barn dance, and broadcast over the radio in both Greenville and Clarksdale, MS, performing the blues associated with the region.

He has lived in Chicago ever since, except for a period of several months in 1963, when he went to New York City to try to "break into the big time." He played and sang at a few hotenannies in various Greenwich Village clubs but, discouraged, returned to Chicago. He currently operates a small restaurant, The Knotty Pine Grill, on Maxwell Street; it is in front of this that he may be heard perorming most Sunday mornings during Chicago's warm weather months. (In Jimmy's earliest years in Chicago, by the way, he came to know intimately Tony Hollins, whose work he had admired on record. He lived with Hollins for some time, until the older man returned to the Clarksdale area, where he died about six years ago.)

As this recording reveals, Maxwell Street Jimmy is one of the most arresting younger bluesmen working in the Mississippi traditions. His voice, dark-shadowed and heavy, is shot through with a brooding, inconsolable anguish that imparts intense force to his singing. And his delivery is in the same crying, introspective, pain-filled manner of the masterful delta blues singer. Words are half swallowed, broken off; phrases trail off incompleted; the songs are filled with wordless moans and cries that often carry far greater significance and emotional meaning than do the words themselves; and the guitar participates as fully as does the voice. The two are one, in fact, with the instrument often completing phrases that the voice breaks off.

It is an intensely personal, taut, highly emotional style, as if the singer were singing in his own private reverie, to and for himself. And the Mississippi blues tyle, as transmitted by a gifted singer, is oftern quite as powerfully cathartic for the listener as it is for the singer himself.

In the twelve gripping selections that make up this album, Maxwell Steet Jimmy has made tellingly personal use of the traditional elements of the blues of his Mississippi boyhood. Many of the songs he sings here are but recasting and new combinations of that vast pool of "floating verses" that have appeared in countless blues by various singers over the years. In a sense, these elements represent the working conventions of the Mississippi blues traditions. The gifted singer is the one who can invest these common verses, devices and conceits with new meaning through the individual way he combines and rings changes on them.

It is a measure of Maxwell Street Jimmy's power as a bluesman of uncommon strength and individuality that he makes such compelling new use of the blues traditions to which he was born. And as he so convincingly demonstrates here, conventions need not necessarily be a strait jacket. Often they can lead to an artist's liberation."

Pete Welding Elektra 303 1965

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