A daughter and an elder statesman of the blues come together here in soulful celebration: Zora Young, one of Chicago’s leading blues divas, joins Hubert Sumlin, the guitarist who helped forge Howlin’ Wolf’s fabled sound in the ‘50s and ‘60s, for a set that mines deep Delta roots yet also exemplifies the musicianship and craft (to say nothing of the raw energy) that continue to characterize the contemporary Chicago style.
The link between Zora and Hubert, aside from their mutual love for, and dedication to, the blues, is Howlin’ Wolf. Zora hails from West Point, Mississippi, the town that’s often cited as Wolf’s home (actually, he was born in White Station, a few miles northeast of West Point). It’s possible that her family and Wolf’s were related, although the precise nature of the relationship is uncertain, and in any case it didn’t mean much to her when she was growing up. “We come from around the same place,” she says, “and I always heard my grandma say that we were related. But I didn’t know nothin’ about him. I knew his music; I knew he came there to play one time and they seemed awful excited. He came to the house and he ate, and he gave us a big ride – gave us a ride in the car. That’s about it; I didn’t know who he was then.”
What did matter to her, though, was music. “I liked all the music I ever heard in my life,” she recalls. “In the house that I grew up in, my mama didn’t allow – I couldn’t be listening to that worldly music. But I listened anyway, and when she left me to be babysitting, then I’d get a quarter to sing blues songs; people give me a little money to sing songs that I liked to sing.”
Zora also sang church songs with her mother and her stepfather, who was a sanctified preacher; she remembers singing with them on a gospel program on radio station WROB in West Point. But life was tough in the south, and when Zora was seven or eight years old, her mother and stepfather moved north “to get away from that sharecropper thing,” as she told Living Blues Magazine in 2002. For a while, she and her mother stayed in Carbondale, Illinois while her stepfather worked to gain a foothold in Chicago; eventually, they joined him there. Life in the big city was faster and noisier than it had been down home, but the distractions didn’t quell Zora’s musical enthusiasms: “Up here in Chicago, I held amateur hour in the back yard. I made up boxes for the stage, and I used sheets for the curtains, my mama’s sheets and aunt’s sheets, they’re hanging out on the line, I made curtains out of ‘em, and I had everybody to come sing. That’s what I wanted to do. All my cousins and everybody remember. They say ‘Oh, we’re not surprised [that Zora became a singer]; she been singin’ all her life.’”
Nonetheless, Zora insists that she became a professional singer in Chicago more or less by accident. “I wasn’t trying to get involved in it,” she maintains. “I’d just be leaving choir rehearsals so I knew I could carry a tune a little bit, but I wasn’t into that kind of music.” She liked going to the clubs, though, and it was almost inevitable that she’d eventually begin to want to perform in them. By the early ‘70s she’d begun to break into the local circuit. She worked for a time with guitarist Bobby King’s band, and she sat in occasionally with others at various South Side venues. Within a few years she found herself fronting a flamboyant soul/R&amp;amp;amp;B outfit called the Misfits; then, when soul-blues stalwart Bobby Rush’s band left him, they hired her as a vocalist. She remained with that band (who saddled themselves with the unlikely moniker Cleaning Company Number Three) for about six or seven years.
By now it was the early ‘80s, and the modern-day blues “revival” among young white listeners was in full swing. “I was a soul singer before I was a blues singer,” she maintains. “Blues came back to me later because, living in Chicago, eventually, everybody comes back to it. They told me if I sang the blues I could go to Europe.”
“They” were right. In 1981, before she had even recorded under her own name, Zora embarked on a tour of France; the following year, the LP Blues With The Girls, featuring Zora along with tour-mates Bonnie Lee and Big Time Sarah, was released on the Paris Album label. Since then, her career has maintained a gradual but steady upward trajectory: balancing motherhood and business, she has worked hard to raise her children in Chicago while maintaining her performing career locally,. nationwide, and overseas. She’s recorded for various small labels both in Europe and the U.S.; most recently, her output on Chicago’s Delmark imprint has garnered significant critical acclaim. Her vocals combine the churchy passion of her youth with the raw-edged emotionality of the blues heritage she has so fully embraced.
In several important ways, this session represents something of a homecoming for Zora. The featured guitarist on Blues With The Girls was the same man who leads the musical proceedings here: Hubert Sumlin. Sumlin is a living legend among blues aficionados. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1931 and raised in Hughes, Arkansas, he became enamored of the blues early on. When he was still a youth, he snuck away from the house to a nearby juke, where he perched precariously atop a pile of empty crates outside the window and watched a powerfully built local celebrity with a rapidly rising reputation named Chester Burnett –a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf– hold forth inside. Entranced, young Hubert lost his balanced and toppled through window, landing almost in the big man’s lap. That was the beginning of a relationship that would eventually become one of the most important in blues history.
The music that Wolf and Hubert eventually forged together –exemplified by such Wolfian classics as “Killing Floor,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Going Down Slow,” and “Louise,” to name just a few– combined coruscating intensity with melodic and harmonic inventiveness in a way that can still startle over half a century later. Hubert’s unique bare-fingered lead style (at Wolf’s urging he abandoned picks early on) and unique improvisational imagination lent an aura of almost surrealistic intensity to Wolf’s already-ominous creations: out front, Wolf roared, howled, and rasped his harrowing tales of hard times, hard loving, and hope-against-hope blues survivorship; meanwhile, Hubert slashed out lead patterns and chordal accompaniments that sometimes sounded like nothing of this Earth – yet he seldom, if ever, lost the powerfully-honed emotional and musical focus that became one of the enduring trademarks of Wolf’s sound.
Despite some health problems in recent years, Hubert has lost little of his strength and none of his inventiveness, as his contributions to this disk prove: his vocals on the Delta-drenched Looka Here Baby are among the surest and most powerful he’s ever summoned; his stylistic range, from the downhome acoustic rawness of Looka Here through the pristine postwar Mississippi-to-Chicago elegance of Travelin’ Light to the rollicking big-city ebullience of Hubert’s Groove, remains as all-inclusive as ever. And that antic imagination of his –length-of-the-fretboard string-zips; off-time punctuations; unexpected pops, shrieks, and off-beat fillips inserted unerringly in exactly the right places, at the right time– is as compelling and personalized as ever.
But there’s another presence that makes itself felt throughout this session – the spiritual power of a man who passed away in 1995, yet remains alive in the hearts and memories of all who knew him. Sunnyland Slim, the pianist who helped introduce Muddy Waters to the world back in the late ‘40s and whose own indelible keyboard contributions graced over 250 Chicago blues sides as both leader and sideman, was a friend and mentor to several generations of Chicago blues artists. He was also the founder and original proprietor of the Airway label. On Airway he reissued some of his earlier sides, as well as newer and previously unheard material. This included recordings by Zora herself, Big Time Sarah, Bonnie Lee, and others he was helping to groom for success. The bands on some of those sessions like a blues lover’s dream: on one cut the Aces –the Myers brothers and drummer Fred Below– are joined by harpist Walter Horton, saxophonist Marcus Johnson, and Sunnyland himself. Other sides featured the likes of Eddie Taylor, Hubert Sumlin, or Byther “Smitty” Smith on guitar, and drummers such as Clifton James or Sam Lay.
Producer Sam Burckhardt, who played saxophone in Sunnyland’s band for many years, has revitalized the Airway imprint. Pianist Barrelhouse Chuck, who studied under both Sunnyland and Little Brother Montgomery, weighs in here with a note-perfect tribute to his old mentor on the appropriately titled Sunnyland, which composer Burckhardt patterned closely after Sunnyland’s own Bassology. Goin’ Back To Memphis and the street-tough revenge fantasy Thompson Machine Gun are also well-known Sunnyland standards. Zora, who remembers that she dreamed of being a wrestler when she was a child, summons an appropriately homicidal pugnacity on Thompson Machine Gun, which Sunnyland originally recorded in 1947 on the same day that Muddy Waters, who was there at Sunnyland’s invitation, laid down his first-ever tracks in the Chess Records studio.
One of Sunnyland’s favorite expressions was “You can’t have it all,” and over the years he did as much as anyone in Chicago to share what success he had with others. That same charitability of spirit makes itself felt throughout this disk, as vocalists and sidemen toss ideas back and forth, share the spotlight, and play off one another with collegial ease and unerring synergy. Zora, for her part, meets the challenges posed by the diverse settings she’s been placed in with her characteristic meld of womanly sass, street-tough aggression, and unflappable hard-won dignity. “I come from Bad Avenue,” she says. “I know what goes on. Reality – that’s what it is. I think the blues is life. That’s why it crawls on its own, no matter where it’s pushed. It may disappear but it’s always around the corner somewhere. Because it’s reality. It’s the truth. Tell it like it is.”
released March 1, 2009
Recorded: Riverside Studio, Chicago, IL, by Steve Wagner, June 5, 6, and 7, 2007; June 27, 2008 (horn section)
Horn arrangements: Sam Burckhardt
Mixed: JoyRide Studio, Chicago, IL, by Blaise Barton, summer 2008
Zora Young, vocals on all but 4., 6., 7., & 11.
Hubert Sumlin, guitar on 3., 4., 5., 6., 7., 9., 10., and 13., on and vocals on 6. and 13.
Steve Freund, guitar
Sam Burckhardt, tenor saxophone, except on 2. and 13.
Chuck Parrish, trumpet on 1., 4., 5., 6. and 10.
Steve Horne, trombone on 1., 4., 5., 6. and 10.
Barrelhouse Chuck, piano expect on 13. , Farfisa organ on 4. and 10.
Bob Stroger, bass guitar except on 13.
Kenny Smith, drums except on 13.
Producer: Sam Burckhardt
Executive Producer: Aart de Geus
Graphic Design: Beth Strever
Photography of Zora Young: Robin Visotsky
Photography of Hubert Sumlin: Manny Papanicholas
A native of Switzerland, Sam Burckhardt came to Chicago at the invitation of Sunnyland Slim and played in his band for 13
year. He was a founding member of The Mighty Blue Kings. He performs with a wide array of artists, from blues legend Hubert Sumlin to jazz and dance great Othella Dallas. He is touring regular in the States and abroad....more