The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) (Hip-O Select / Geffen)
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., April 24, 2009
Little WalterThe Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) (Hip-O Select/Geffen)
Etta James uncorked her can of whup-ass on Beyoncé after destiny's child played the first lady of soul in Cadillac Records and then serenaded the president and his wife with James' nuptials, "At Last," at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball back in January. Leave it to Little Walter Jacobs (1930-1968) to take care of any other backsides in need of tanning. Drawing mileage from the aforementioned Chess Records biopic, wherein Walter's Oedipal exit from the Muddy Waters band (and Muddy's gal) rocks the film, The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) follows up with five CDs' worth of chapter and verse from the harmonica's greatest practitioner. That the king of the blues' Mississippi moan kicks over only the first of 126 radiator-cooked cuts becomes a crucial plot point, as it contrasts Waters' mountainous vocal inevitability with Walters' Louisiana edge. In the master prevails Delta blues classicism that came to define the Chicago branch of the genre, while in the student's raw bayou blues bristles the Windy City's grittier irreverence that the British Invasion adopted in both attitude and sonic chutzpah. Walter's "Mean Old World" bares teeth Eric Clapton had falling out of his head at the end of Derek & the Dominos. Lonesome train whistles such as an alternate take of "Blue Midnight," Walter's first Chess single, and blaring juke joint "Boogie" knock knees with the syncopation of "Crazy Legs" and cantina smear all over "Off the Wall" in incinerating disc one. "Blues With a Feeling" couples with "Last Night" ("I lost the best friend I ever had") and ornery "You'd Better Watch Yourself," strung along by Robert Jr. Lockwood, Luther Tucker, and blues laureate Willie Dixon on bass on the second CD. Three evens out into electric maintenance ("Boom, Boom Out Go the Lights") and begins stacking multiple takes as material erodes on disc four. Even with the frontman's worn rasp crackling out of the speakers toward the end of his life, the spirit rankles inside his chrome moneymaker. That he wrote most of this material speaks to his investment in it. Bo Diddley, whose Chess Masters series on Hip-O Select meets Chuck Berry's continuing Complete Chess rollout, joins Buddy Guy and Otis Spann in a cameo. The Cadillac cruisers Leonard Chess paid all his artists with still barrel down Little Walter's highway to hell.