Jesse Fuller, Josh White: Four Classic Albums

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Avid’s latest release in its Four Classic Albums series pairs the rough and ready Jesse Fuller with the smoother, more stylish, Josh White: two solo albums from Fuller, plus two small combo records from White. Neither man quite reaches the heights of Elmore James or Lightnin’ Hopkins – both on recent Avid packages – but they have their own recognisable styles and these CDs showcase an eclectic mix of songs including a few jazz standards.

Fuller, in his 60s at the time of these recordings, is the more extrovert performer, White the more laid-back and relaxed. Fuller was a one-man band: 12-string guitar, harmonica, kazoo and cymbals, plus the fotdella (which the sleeve notes call a “fordella”), an instrument of his own creation that’s essentially a foot-operated standup bass. The result is a fuller (sorry) sound than White achieves on his trio and duo sets.

The first of White’s albums, Sings Ballads-Blues, is notable for the presence of Al Hall on bass and Ellington stalwart Sonny Greer on drums. Familiar songs include Miss Otis Regrets, Midnight Special and the legendary Gloomy Sunday, on which Hall’s droning arco double bass establishes a musical atmosphere that echoes the doomy lyric.

Empty Bed Blues is mostly a duo album, with Bill Lee on bass, and focuses on blues rather than mixing in a few jazz standards. It’s all the better for this approach: White sounds more comfortable with the song selection and gives a more involving performance. Baby Baby Blues adds uncredited instruments (piano, drums and clarinet), giving the track a jazzier feel than the rest of the album.

Fuller’s performances are earthier than White’s and sound more spontaneous. He tackles Tiger Rag like he approaches most of these songs – head on in roaring, high-energy style. It’s a typical Fuller performance even if the song is not typical of his repertoire and it sums up the difference between the men as demonstrated on these albums. White’s style is urbane, smooth, even when he’s singing traditional blues. Fuller’s having fun, putting his heart and soul into each song for the sheer hell of it. White comes across as the more accomplished singer and instrumentalist, Fuller as the guy most likely to keep the party going until dawn. As a result, Fuller’s albums take the entertainment honours.

Discography
CD1: [Jazz, Folk Songs, Spirituals & Ballads] (1) Take This Hammer; Linin’ Track; I’m Going To Meet My Loving Mother; Tiger Rag; Memphis Boogie; Raise A Ruckus; By And By; Fingerbuster; Stagolee; 99 Years; Hesitation Blues [The Lone Cat] (2) Leaving Memphis, Frisco Bound; Take It Slow And Easy; The Monkey And The Engineer; New Corrine; Guitar Blues; Runnin’ Wild; Hey Hey; In That Great Land; The Way You Treat Me; Down Home Waltz; Beat It On Down The Line; Buck And Wing (76.29)
CD2: [Sings Ballads-Blues] (3) Midnight Special; Miss Otis Regrets; Halleleu; Woman Sure Is A Curious Critter; Prison Bound Blues; Gloomy Sunday; Ball And Chain Blues; One For My Baby; Jim Crow Train; Told My Captain; So Soon In The Morning; Bury My Body [Empty Bed Blues] (4) Empty Bed Blues; Mother On; That Train; Bottle Up And Go; Blackwater Blues; Baby Baby Blues; Lord Have Mercy; Home In That Rock; Paul And Silas; His Eye Is On The Sparrow; (5) That Suits Me (73.37)
(1) Fuller (v, g, hca, kazoo, cymbal, fotdella). Los Angeles, January and April 1958.
(2) as (1), Los Angeles, 12 September 1958.
(3) White (v, g); Sam Gary (v); Al Hall (b); Sonny Greer (d). New York, 1955-56.
(4) White (v, g); Bill Lee (b). No place of recording given, 1960.
(5) as (4) add Josh White Jr, (g).
Avid Roots AMSC1344