That Spoon

A search in the “archives” results in a “new recording” from blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon.

Jimmy Witherspoon returns to Toronto as part of the 11th du Maurier Downtown Jazz Festival. He will be re-united with Junior Mance, who recorded with him back in 1969 on a CD that has just been issued on Stony Plain. Spoon plays the Royal Bank Pavillion at Yorkville & Bellair on June 28 at 8:30 pm. Photo by Duke Robillard.

There’s a great deal of blues at this year’s du Maurier Downtown Jazz: a quick list has Fathead and Robin Banks followed by Lucky Peterson and Downchild on Friday, June 20, Howard Armstrong, the last surviving member of the famous Stringband, Marting, Bogan & Armstrong that same night, a double bill of Stephen Barry with Van ‘Piano Man’ Walls and Georgette Fry, Lou Rawls for 2 shows, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas and… Jimmy Witherspoon. Richard Flohil provides this insight into his new/old Stony Plain CD.

Holger Petersen‘s friendship with Jimmy Witherspoon began in what might appear, at first glance, to be an unlikely setting — the 1994 Edmonton Folk Festival. And the friendship says something about the head of the Stony Plain record company, his long time involvement with the blues, and the ease with which he operates in the different worlds of roots music–folk, country, bluegrass and blues.

In fact, the friendship with Witherspoon stems, in turn, from another friendship Petersen cemented with another musician at another folk festival — this one with guitarist Duke Robillard at the Winnipeg Festival in 1993.

In any event, the meeting with Robillard has led, so far, to the release of no less than four superb albums–and there is always the possibility there will be more. Last month, two of the albums, a Robillard production featuring pianist Jay McShann and a long-lost live session by Witherspoon with the Junior Mance Trio, came out on Stony Plain. And now, as a result, Witherspoon and Mance will be reunited during the du Maurier Downtown Jazz festival in Toronto next month.

The interlocking nature of these friendships is, on the face of it, quite complex — and perhaps Petersen is the best person to talk about them. “I guess it started at Winnipeg. Duke and his band were playing there, and after one his sets we were chatting, and he told me he’d always wanted to make a record that paid tribute to the people who had so strongly influenced not only his blues styles, but the inspiration to play the blues in the first place.

“Basically, I said that Stony Plain would be interested in releasing it, if he ever got around to doing it. His response was that he was negotiating a contract with Virgin Pointblank, but he asked if such a `pure’ blues record for a small label in Canada would interfere with the deal that was being proposed. Virgin told him to go ahead — and he recorded Duke’s Blues (Stony Plain SPCD-1195) in September that year, using a small studio in Rhode Island.”

Duke’s Blues, when it was released in 1994, was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, and Virgin negotiated its release on their label for the rest of the world outside Canada (where it remains on Stony Plain); it went on to become a blues best-seller everywhere it was released, and it topped blues charts in France, Italy, and many other territories.

“Later, Duke and I talked about repeating the experience, and going back to the same studio with the band, and cutting an album with a singer. When, at my suggestion, Spoon was hired to play the Edmonton Folk Festival with the Amos Garrett House Band in 1994, I approached him with the idea of recording with Duke. He was interested, and when we involved tenor sax player Scott Hamilton in the project, he got really excited by it. A few weeks later we put the deal together.”

In December that year, using the same studio in Rhode Island, with Robillard producing, Witherspoon flew in from Los Angeles, and the sessions took place for what would be released the following year as Spoon’s Blues (SPCD-1211). The singer was delighted with the results, and even supplied a classic photograph from the early ’40s for the inside sleeve.

“After that, Spoon said he had some boxes of tapes at his house, and asked me if I would be interested in going through them to see if there was anything I might like to release. So, in July ’95, I visited his home — it’s a lovely house overlooking one of the valleys that run through the city, and it’s surrounded by his big RV and six different cars; he still drives a beautiful red Jaguar, and he’s still got some big motorcycles in his garage — John Baldry told me that until a few years ago, he would ride his motorbike to all his local gigs. Spoon’s 74 now, but he’s very healthy, and his son and daughter live close by and keep an eye on him and the house when he’s away.

“So I took a look at all the boxes of tapes, and they were a bit of a muddle. The tapes were on the wrong boxes, some weren’t marked at all; some were of live gigs, some were of radio shows he had hosted, and there was a fair bit of stuff done with Robben Ford. I’d rent a small home/garage studio from my friend Rick Cunha, and I took all the tapes over there, set up a cot in the control room, and settled down to listen to them. Rick, who was on the road playing guitar with Mason Williams, gave me the key, and his engineer came in for a day to show me how to use the machines, and how to dub the tapes onto DAT, and l was on my own.

“I discovered the gold, though, at the end of the first day. It was an unmarked tape that was, basically, pancaked inside an unmarked — and rusty — metal box, with the centre reel missing. So, the engineer and I gently threaded it back on a reel, and then played it back. It was dynamite, a live performance with an audience that’s really quiet, but which just explodes with applause at the end of every song.

“The next day, Spoon came by and identified it as a live concert he’d done in France–he thinks Paris — in 1969, with Junior Mance on piano, Jimmy Woode on bass (who’d worked with Ellington), and the pioneer bebop drummer Kenny Clarke. This one was the gem.” Indeed, the “gem” was released for the very first time last month (SPCD-1231), complete with some more photographs from Spoon’s collection.

At the same time, the label also released another gem that resulted, years later, from that long-ago conversation in Winnipeg with Duke Robillard. This one’s called Hootie’s Jumpin’ Blues (SPCD-1237), and it’s the result of Petersen’s suggestion that Jay McShann and Robillard’s band play the Edmonton Folk Festival last summer. McShann, of course, is the pioneering Kansas City bandleader (and, incidentally, the man who hired Witherspoon — and the young Charlie Parker — for their first professional recording sessions), and he and Robillard hit it off immediately.

Rehearsing and recording before and after the festival itself, the recording’s another example of Robillard’s skill as a producer as well as one of the very best guitarists around at recreating that wonderful style — of which Witherspoon is another major proponent — from the era when the blues, jazz and r&b all came together. A union, as we all now know, that resulted in the birth of rock and roll.

Richard Flohil