Various: The Boxer, The Bluesman & The Jazzman – Boxing In African-American Music 1921-1962

It's perhaps no surprise that in its earlier more rumbustious manifestations jazz went hand in glove with pugilism


Just as I thought my book (here’s a shameless plug for Jazz & Cricket – An Unlikely Combination, see review, April 2021) collared the niche market, along comes this unusual double album, a compilation drawing strong links between boxing and African-American music.

The tracks range from early blues to R&B / rock & roll, but include Jelly Roll Morton’s Strokin’ Away (1930) – amongst his many claims, Morton at one point was a fight promoter in Washington – and a few modern jazz numbers. Eminent boxers are mentioned, in particular Joe Louis (by Memphis Minnie, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson with Count Basie’s band and others), whose co-ownership of the Rhumboogie Club gave the opportunity for T-Bone Walker to appear regularly and to record for the house label. Sonny Boy Williamson also sings of Louis and his fight for the world heavyweight title with John Henry Lewis in 1939.

Jersey Joe Walcott, another world heavyweight champion, is heard on the mercifully short Say A Little Prayer, with Marie Knight, whilst Sugar Ray Robinson makes a much better fist of Knock Him Down Whiskey, accompanied by Earl Hines’ band. Robinson is referenced by Baby Boy Warren and Sonny Boy Williamson on Baby Boy Blues and on Sugar Ray by the trio of Roy Haynes, Phineas Newborn and Paul Chambers. Surprisingly, Babs Gonzales’ 1952 recording of Sugar Ray is not included.

An odd bit of information regards the inclusion of Ezz-thetic, by Lee Konitz and Miles Davis. Its composer, George Russell, named it after boxer Ezzard Charles, whom he knew in Cincinnati.

The second disc has its emphasis on musicians who actually took part in the sport, some better known than others. Bluesmen Bukka White and Otis Spann both had periods in the ring, and Willie Dixon worked briefly as Joe Louis’s sparring partner. Champion Jack Dupree, however, was the most successful, encouraged by Louis, and fought over a hundred bouts in the 30s. Here he’s heard on Sporting Life Blues, recorded for Storyville in 1962.

There are a number of tracks sitting in the R&B / rock & roll / doo-wop corner, and there’s a raunchy tenor by Harold Battiste on Messed Around by Lee Dorsey (formerly boxer Kid Chocolate), but the set closes with three modern jazz titles: the former army boxing team member Kenny Dorham contributes Lotus Blossom (from Quiet Kenny, New Jazz, 1959); ex-welterweight Red Garland, who once fought Sugar Ray Robinson, plays Crazy Rhythm, from the Prestige album It’s A Blue World; vibist Johnny Lytle performs The Moor Man, from his 1962 Jazzland album Moon Child. Like many of those mentioned, Lytle was a Golden Gloves champion, the competition covering several levels of boxing in the USA.

An interesting and informative booklet is included and it’s surprising the number of well-known figures who combined the two. No doubt a follow-up release would include Miles Davis’s Jack Johnson recording – see, it was more prevalent than you might think.

CD1: King Curtis Battle Royal; Hattie Bolten Prize Fighter Blues; Eubie Blake Baltimore Buzz; Leadbelly The Titanic; Rev. J.M. Gates Tiger Flowers’ Last Fight; Jelly Roll Morton Strokin’ Away; Joe Pullum Joe Louis Is The Man; Memphis Minnie He’s In The Ring; Sonny Boy Williamson Joe Louis & John Henry; Paul Robeson with Count Basie King Joe Pt.1; The Dixieaires Joe Louis Is A Fightin’ Man; Cab Calloway Ole Joe Louis; Solomon Burke You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide; T-Bone Walker You Don’t Love Me Blues; Charles Brown Peek-a-Boo; Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan Petootie Pie; Marie Knight & Jersey Joe Walcott Say A Little Prayer; Lucky Thompson Stay In There; Clark Terry Little Old Mongoose; Lee Konitz & Miles Davis Ezz-Thetic; Harold Burrage She Knocks Me Out; Baby Boy Warren Baby Boy Blues; Sugar Ray Robinson Knock Him Down Whiskey; Roy Haynes / Phineas Newborn / Paul Chambers Sugar Ray (76.43)
CD2: Bukka White Parchman Farm; Willie Dixon & Big Three Trio Signifying Monkey; Tiger Haynes & The Three Flames I Saw My Mummy Hugging Daddy Last Night; Champion Jack Dupree Sporting Life Blues; McKinley Peebles Give Me A Heart To Love; Wild Bill Moore We’re Gonna Rock, We’re Gonna Roll; Roy Brown Mighty Mighty Man; Jimmy Liggins That’s What’s Knockin’ Me Out; Jimmy McCracklin She Felt Too Good; Bobby Nunn & The Robins Framed; Otis Spann It Must Have Been The Devil; Sam Griggs & The Coronets Nadine; Screamin’ Jay Hawkins This Is All; Jackie Wilson Reet Petite; Johnny Copeland Rock And Roll Lily; Raymond Hill Bourbon Street Jump; R.C.Smith Don’t Drive Me Away; Eddie Bo I’m Wise; Lee Dorsey Messed Around; Roy C Hammond & The Genies Who’s That Knocking; James Brown Good Good Lovin’; Kenny Dorham Lotus Blossom; Red Garland Crazy Rhythm; Johnny Lytle The Moor Man (67.00)
Frémeaux & Associés  FA5800