Chicago label Bea & Baby Records and its subsidiaries may never have achieved the same recognition as others like Chess, Alligator, Delmark and Vee-Jay, but listening to the new four-CD set Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection from Chicago’s Earwig Music Company, you certainly get the sense they should have, with recordings from such blues greats as James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, Earl Hooker, Eddie Boyd and Hound Dog Taylor, as well as more than two dozen other artists, several of whom, like the label itself, should be much better known than they are.
Included in that latter group would be singer and harmonica player Little Mack Simmons, whose shuffling “Times Are Getting Tougher”, grooving “Don’t Come Back” and slow, passionate blues “You Mistreated Me” (as St. Louis Mac), the last co-written by Bea & Baby Records chief Narvel “Cadillac Baby” Eatmon and a “Sil” — presumably the famous Chicago bluesman Syl — Johnson, are among the album’s finest cuts, in addition to playing harmonica on childhood pal James Cotton‘s tough, slow-burning “One More Mile” and swinging “There Must Be a Panic On” (with Cotton returning the favor on Simmons’ jaunty “I’m Your Fool”) and delivering respectable covers of blues classics such as “Mother-in-Law Blues”, “Help Me”, “The Sky is Crying”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Tore Down” and “Trouble No More”, several of which were previously unreleased on the Bea & Baby label and find Simmons backed by musicians with much more familiar names to blues fans, including Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Taylor, Homesick James, Sunnyland Slim, and Carey Bell.
Longtime Howlin’ Wolf bassist Andrew “Blueblood” McMahon also makes quite an impression, backed by Simmons and some of these same players on songs like the creeping “Lost in the Jungle” and shuffling “Special Agent” and “Worried All the Time”, with notable tracks from other sidemen taking a turn in the spotlight including a T-Bone Walker-ish “Sharpest Man in Town” and “Nit Wit” (later covered by Canned Heat and others) from L.C. McKinley, who nearly a decade earlier played guitar on Eddie Boyd’s “Five Long Years”, and gruff, dragging “38 Woman Blues” from drummer Willie Williams, who backs many other artists throughout the compilation but is supported here by Bobby King and Eddie Taylor on guitar, Carey Bell on harmonica, and Sunnyland Slim on piano, among others.
A 101-track collection of as much of the Bea & Baby family’s complete catalogue as Earwig president and founder (and Pittsburgh native) Michael Frank could compile from a variety of sources worldwide over the past nearly three decades, including old 45s from various collectors and a reel returned by British producer Mike Vernon that contained, among others, several previously unreleased songs from an early 1960s acoustic session of guitarist Sleepy John Estes and vocalist and harmonica player Hammie Nixon, the set of course includes the label’s best-selling numbers like Earl Hooker band member Bobby Saxton‘s lone, swinging recording “Trying to Make a Living” (which was originally released as the reverse side of Hooker’s instrumental “Dynamite” and would later be covered by Koko Taylor on her 1975 album I Got What It Takes) and Detroit Junior‘s swaying R&B/soul track “Money Tree”, in addition to all the other tracks released by the label over a 30-year period, some that were never put out by the label but appeared elsewhere, and some, like the Estes and Nixon tracks, that never before saw the light of day.
It’s hard to find much better than Hound Dog Taylor‘s first single (released by Bea & Baby more than a decade before Taylor put out his debut album on Alligator Records) in the slow blues, Elmore James-ish “My Baby is Coming Home”, along with its B-side of “Take Five” on which Taylor steps up the tempo amidst an urgent refrain of “gotta’ go”. Sleepy John Estes‘ and Hammie Nixon‘s slow-gospel “Lay My Burdon Down” may well be worth the price of this set alone, but fortunately, we’re also treated to three other previously unreleased front porch blues guitar and harp tracks from that 14-song recording session in “Worry My Mind” (“Worried Life Blues”), “Cadillac Baby Passed So Fast” and the crawling spiritual “Spirit Don’t Leave Me”.
You’ll also find numerous selections each from Sunnyland Slim and Eddie Boyd, both rather well-known pianists and vocalists, including several previously unreleased tunes from Sunnyland. Tracks like Sunnyland’s gritty, swaying “Worried About My Baby” (one of many songs on the set that feature Robert Lockwood Jr. on guitar) and slow blues “Little Girl” (with Hubert Sumlin and Eddie Taylor on guitar, Little Mack Simmons on harmonica and Fred Below on drums) are about as good as they come, although everything on the set from these two artists is really quite terrific, with other highlights from Sunnyland including the swaying “Drinking and Clowning”, uptempo “She Got That Jive”, and creeping “Too Late to Pray” (with some particularly stinging guitar) and “I Done You Wrong” and, from Boyd, the label’s first recording in the swaying “I’m Commin’ Home” and similar “Blue Monday Blues” and “All the Way”, as well as more swinging, Chuck Berry-ish numbers like “The Blues is Here to Stay” and “Where You Belong”, all accented by fine horns and several of which again include Lockwood Jr. on guitar.
Sunnyland can also be heard on piano — and Willie Williams on drums — on three excellent tracks from guitarist and singer Homesick James (a distant cousin to Elmore James) that were previously unreleased on the label: the bouncy “My Baby’s Gone” and instrumental “Homesick Sunnyland Special” and the slow blues “My Kind of Woman”, with “Singing Sam” Chatmon (a member of Memphis Slim’s band the House Rockers and son of pre-war blues guitarist Sam Chatmon of The Mississippi Sheiks) making a similar contribution to the collection with horn-laced tracks such as the slow, lamenting blues of “My Story”, a jazzy, spunky instrumental “Sampson” and the swinging instrumental “Calvin’s Reserve”.
Also worth mentioning are a pair of tracks from Willie Hudson, both featuring some rich organ from Tall Paul Hankins, in the slow, B.B. King-like “It’s You I’m Going to Miss” with its soaring croons from Hudson and the groovy, “Green Onions”-ish instrumental “Red Lips”; a few previously unreleased numbers from an unknown blues band recorded in the early 1960s that were discovered on the same tape as the Estes and Nixon session, including a slowed-down version of “Raise Your Window Baby” (“One Way Out”) and a jiving “Jump This Morning”; and a “Juanita” from Lee Jackson that starts off dragging, quickens the tempo for the chorus and then quickly slows back down.
Not everything here is blues (which also includes jump blues like The Daylighters’ “Mad House Jump” with L.C. McKinley on guitar and T. Valentine’s early rocker “Teen-Age Jump”): the set also presents numbers of the R&B, soul, gospel, doo-wop, hip-hop (from 17-year-old Richard Davenport, a.k.a. 3D, who was murdered just before his tracks were to be released in a collaboration between Bea & Baby and Earwig), and comedy variety, as well as even a few Christmas tunes, with songs like The Chances’ soulful “It Takes More Than Love Alone” and “One More Chance”(with Georgia Hinton and Little Mack Simmons on lead vocals, respectively), Andre Williams’ brisk R&B “I Still Love You”, Kirk Taylor and the Velvets’ flowing “Your Love”, Tall Paul Hankins & The Hudson Bros.’ groovy two-part instrumental “Joe’s House Rent Party”, Eddie Dean & the Biblical Aires’ testifying “Holy Place” and The Pilgrim Harmonizers’ crawling spiritual “Witness There Too” among the others also worth checking out, in addition to being able to hear from Cadillac Baby himself on things like his life and various aspects of his career, how he got his nickname and start in the record business, working with musicians such as Detroit Junior and Little Mack Simmons, and more.
But it was the blues that Cadillac Baby referred to as his “soul” and that thus really sets this collection apart. Offering up one great blues track after another, Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection is indeed a must for fans of Chicago blues music and history!