May 25, 2024

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Joe Williams: Renaissance man of Ballads and Blues: Photos, Video

McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, gave the world one kind of great Chicago blues – harsh and electrifying, ferociously intense and deeply rooted in down home poetics. Joe Williams has shown us the other face of the South Side blues – urbane and gracefully witty, smooth and swinging, yet not less powerful.

His was the sort of bluesy sophistication that could only emerge from a complex musical upbringing in the big city, in times of eclectic tastes and enthusiastic jazz creativity, and that came from being exposed both to church wailing and secular strains, to polyphonic street sounds and dynamic big band arrangements. Growing up listening to Ethel Waters’s diction-perfect torch songs and Big Joe Turner’s sunny, extrovert, humor-tinged shouting, Joe Williams has turned into the rare singing Renaissance Man capable of fusing blues and jazz and pop aesthetics in one coherent musical image – an achievement that allowed him to become the ideal vocal soloist of the band (Count Basie’s) that shared that aesthetical vision, reviving in the post-war era the magic of the Thirties and early Forties collaboration between Basie and Jimmy Rushing. Georgia-born (1918, as Joseph Goreed) and South Side-bred, Joe had been an active and fairly popular Chicago performer for twenty years before finding national and international acclaim as Basie’s vocal sensation. For a while he was an intimate club’s balladeur, singing “soft and low” (as he told biographer Leslie Gourse) to the accompaniment of just a piano player: and he also frequently tested his versatility and rhythmical punch as jazz band singer – first with Jimmy Noone, masterful clarinet player in the New Orleans tradition, then on the road with the more modern ensembles led by Les Hite and by Lionel Hampton, at the same time (around 1943) when Hamp’s female attraction was another great Chicagoan, Dinah Washington. He was a regular at such South Side musical landmarks as the Regal Theatre, where he also worked as stage-door manager and got in touch with the great entertainers of the Forties (among whom his favorite crooners, Billy Eckstine and Pha Terrell), and at State Street’s New Club DeLisa, where early in the Fifties – backed by Red Saunders’s houseband – he started refining a well-balanced repertoire of his own. Around that time Chicago gave him the first opportunities to record. Joe cut a bunch of blues and ballads both with the Saunders’s group and trumpeter King Kolax’s band, issued on the Okeh, Regent and Checker labels. His deep, spacious and mature baritone revealed humor and forceful extroversion in the alcoholic celebration of “Hey! Bartender” and a moody intensity in the torchy and stormy meditation of “It’s Raining Again”; and if Leroy Carr’s Great Depression blues, “In the Evening”, found new life in his well-crafted, dynamic interpretation, his future theme-song, Memphis Slim’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” (with the trademark percussive vocal crescendo: “no-o-o-o-ohbody loves me…”), saw him climb the national Rhythm & Blues charts for the first time, in the fall of 1952. Three years after, on Norman Granz’s Clef label, Joe’s new version of “Every Day” – now with Basie subtly complem- enting him on the piano and the saxes and brass acting as a dynamic and explosive choir – was a formidable hit around Black America. The singer had already been with the prestigious bandleader for a few months at Chicago’s Brass Rail, in the summer of 1950, and had definitely joined the band on the road during the Christmas season of 1954, soon to conquer critics as well as audiences: the “Down Beat” poll crowned him best band singer for 1955 and 1956.

The several albums recorded with Basie in the second half of the Fifties, first on the Verve label then on Roulette, reveal a perfectly defined vocal image. A charming stylistic trait d’union between Joe Turner and Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams shows originality and vitality both as a bluesman and as a balladeur. The blues (“OK, All Right, You Win”, “The Comeback”, “Smack Dab in the Middle”, all become classics thanks to his treatment) he knows how to personalize with swing and wit and vigor, lashing and torturing phrases and words with that muscular yet always musical eloquence – and that plastic, rotund diction – that bespeak of a profound affinity for the Basie tradition. To the ballads (Arlen and Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine”, Don Redman’s ancient “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You” or Joe Turner’s bluesy “Chains of Love”, where singing shifts into an effective parlando) he may not give Arthur Prysock’s hearty pathos or Johnny Hartman’s elegance and emotional nuances: but he sculpts them into sunny and shapely lyrical statements that have an infectious quality, all his own. His vocal instrument is both overwhelming and refined. Joe has a full, dense baritone, characterized by chiaroscuro shadings and bittersweet note- bendings, with a jazz trombone’s relax and rich resonance, its deep breath and flexible rhythmical pace. Moving along the harmonic changes, he displays a sort of tactual sensuality, as if he enjoyed feeling melodic curves and sinuosities: and within his portamento, he draws strong lines and arcs which gracefully grow and decrease in power, in vibrato and in color texture, while the reprise of the song allows him to freely and easily change accents and tempo and to create a new and often exciting syntactic balance. However, it’s been since the early Sixties – after leaving Basie to become a classy and internationally respected solo artist – that Joe Williams has really explored his potential to a full extent, expressing a remarkable versatility without ever losing his solid stylistic imprint. On a few Roulette albums (A New Kind of Love or One Is a Lonesome Number) he has strengthened his image as a romantic and virile balladeur, while subsequent RCA and Solid State collections have brought a wider, more complex and swinging repertoire, turning him into an interpreter for all jazz seasons.
The Lp recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963 proves he can emulate his sidemen Clark Terry and Coleman Hawkins, masters of instrumental improvisation, by resorting to his ever inventive, loose and multicolored scat (“When it comes to scatting,” the late alto sax player and vocalist Pony Poindexter used to tell me, “the final battle is between Joe and me!”), with those irresistible, humorous peaks of falsetto: and a Fantasy live set cut ten years later with the Adderley brothers’s combo confirms he can move from tenderness (“A Beautiful Friendship”) to bluesy realism (“Going To Chicago”) with effortless imagination. As an interpreter of lyrics and melody, time has made him even more thoughtful, poignantly mature. With the sensitive support of fellow-Chicagoan pianist Norman Simmons (and his trios and quartets), in warm rooms like Manhattan’s now deceased Marty’s or Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, and in several records and discs produced well into Joe’s own marvelous sixties and seventies for Delos and – once again – for Verve, the man with the deep and sonorous jazz shout successfully deals with all kinds of dramatic climates, using passion, melancholy, irony, exhilaration, and all the in-between humors – from the preaching and soulful drive of Benard Ighner’s contemporary “Same Ol’ Story” to the elegant intimacy of George and Ira Gershwin’s timeless “Embraceable You”.
(Originally published in “N’Digo”, the Chicago magazine edited by Johnny Hartman’s niece, Hermene Hartman)


«…the place had all the charm and quiet class he thought a real nightclub should have. Chic, urbane, and tastefully laid out, it was the perfect setting to catch a veteran like Johnny Hartman – a handsome, brown¬-skinned singer whose range and repertoire were stunning. His performance was so moving, in fact, that Dixie, during the course of one ballad, put down her rink and whispered to Durwood, “I can’t understand why he isn’t rich and famous.”»
In his 1980 novel, Ask Me Now, Californian writer Al Young pays this simply eloquent homage to maybe the most underrated among Chicago’s great singing sons. Dixie’s puzzlement at Johnny Hartman’s comparative obscurity has been shared for decades by jazz musicians, fellow vocalists and loyal fans. His deep but agile baritone voice was characterized by subtle (too subtle?) elegance, an original, mature, seductive sound, a clear sense of melody, a personal way of interpreting lyrics, the unusual strength to gently lead into the vivid emotional microcosms of his songs. Yet, his status on the popular and jazz-oriented music scene has never equaled that of other similarly gifted Chicagoans such as Nat King Cole, Joe Williams or Mel Tormé: just compare the mere, widely-spaced sixteen albums to his name to Mel’s forty-plus, during careers which have run parallel until Johnny’s death in 1983.
The fact is that this peerless balladeur, refined and laid-back melodist, and stern believer in the beauty and natural entertaining power of the art of popular song, while frequently appealing to a wider audience than the purist clique of jazz, has never really pursued the ways of commercialism; and when he has (rarely), his very approach showed that his heart was not in it. Compromise has always seemed foreign to his nature: and so has that mixture of pugnacity, histrionics and affectation which – although in different proportions – is often necessary to reach the “official” peaks of the singing profession. The goal of purity and expressiveness, his devotion to basic musical and lyrical values, has granted him that strange mélange of greatness and marginality.
Born in the South Side of Chicago on the 3th of July, 1923 (actually born “in Houma, Louisiana, in the Terrebonne Parish, just before the family migrated north”, as reported by Gregg Akkerman in The Last Balladeer: the Johnny Hartman Story, 2012), Johnny Maurice Hartman received a musical education relatively complex for a Black singer of his generation. During the years spent at Du Sable High (a mine of jazz talents) he gained experience by joining the school’s choir and dance orchestra, and he also privately studied singing at the Lincoln Center, distinguishing himself for his precocious technique and winning a scholarship to the Chicago Music College. In the meanwhile he attended the St. Luke’s Baptist Church on Indiana Avenue, where he happened to sing gospel songs and hymns to the lively piano accompaniment of a young Ruth Lee Jones, soon to be known as Dinah Washington. Differently from Dinah’s, however, his style was not contaminated by the fervor, excitement and drive of Black religious music. «I was a cool singer even when I sang in church,» he would later recollect for “Essence” magazine, «That was just me, my style of singing. It wasn’t none of the hollering and screaming, and I got my message over. The old ladies used to shout.»
His “coolness” and control, coupled with a suavely romantic sensibility and the rich color and texture of his baritone, naturally placed him in the crowded category of “crooners”, both White (Bing Crosby, Jack Leonard, Perry Como) and Black (Harlan Lattimore, LeRoy Felton, Herb Jeffreys, young Billy Eckstine), who ruled over the male vocal scene in the Thirties and early Forties. And his smooth crooning would soon catch a few sympathetic ears even in the secular field: Johnny came out first in one of the Windy City’s popular amateur nights, securing himself a gig at a well known club for a week that ended up stretching into a whole year. From that moment, as he gave up all ambition to enter the business world (he had started commercial studies at the Wilson Junior College), Hartman would unconditionally embrace a professional music career.
After World War II, and his own discharge from military service, his name started appearing in the scant jazz chronicles of the period. Record-wise, we first meet him in a 1946 Chicago session by pianist Marl Young’s String Ensemble, on the Sunbeam label: Johnny’s debut titles were “The Songs You Sing” and “Always Together”. It was around that time, maybe a few months later, that he joined one of the major big bands of the Era, the one led by piano great Earl “Fatha” Hines (who’ll tell jazz historian Stanley Dance: «I was lucky enough to meet a young man named Johnny Hartman, who was an excellent singer…»), and certainly this proved to be a significant – and prestigious – move. In fact the orchestra had been the ideal training ground for Billy Eckstine, the trailblazer among a second generation of Black crooners somewhat interested in the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of the bop musicians (such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) bravely hired by Hines, and the vocal chops and the very sound of the younger singer could easily compare with Mr. B’s. Eckstine himself seemed to recognize in Johnny a sounder and more personal talent than in other epigones of his. «We went to Washington’s Howard Theatre,» Hines remembered, «where Billy by now worked as a solo act. The promoters thought it was a good idea to have us share again the same bill. But when Billy heard Johnny, he came to me and said, “Why did you have to put this competition on me?”.»
Late in 1947, with Hines and an orchestra that included such Midwestern notables as Budd Johnson, Ernie Wilkins, Willie Cook, Scoops Carry and Gus Johnson, Hartman recorded “I Need a Shoulder to Cry On”, “When I Dream of You”, “Louise”, and Fats Waller’s immortal “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (which would always keep a relevant place in his repertoire). That December he also made his first recordings as a solo artist, in two different sessions for Regent where his already flexible and polished baritone is respectively framed by Danny Mendelson’s string choir and pushed by a modern, swinging combo with Tyree Glenn on trombone and vibraphone, Carmen Mastren on guitar, John Simmons on bass, Cozy Cole on drums, and bopper Sanford Gold on piano. Posthumously collected in a Savoy LP called First, Lasting and Always, these sides reveal both the singularity of Johnny’s gift and a certain lingering emotional callowness in this early phase of his evolution. The string-laden ballads, all run-of-the-mill tunes, with the exception of Sinatra’s 1940 hit, “I’ll Never Smile Again”, already point to his partiality for very slow tempos and a romantic atmosphere (although the torchy sentimentalism here prevailing will be rejected by the mature artist) and bring forth his Crosbyian stylistic foundation, filtered through a twofold Eckstine and Como influence: the first one is manifest in the sonorous and palpable modulation of the plastic bass tones (eloquently counterbalanced by the sandy, finely grained, delicate highs), the second one in the choice of an amiable relax and in the soft, slightly dégagé inflections of his middle-register enunciation.
If touches of naivety are still discernible (in “I’ll Never Smile Again” the first diphthong in realize is unexpectedly broken in two, while “A Woman Always Understands” and “Just A Wearying for You” come with short and rather lugubrious monologues of pure Kitsch, along the line of Hop Jones’ bass “raps” on the Ink Spots records, but without Hop’s irony), his phrasing has a charming cat-like grace sustained by a more than adequate rhythmical nimbleness. This is better shown in the jazz tracks: Jerome Kern’s “Why Was I Born?”, driven into a bluesier and earthier performance by Budd Johnson’s tenor sax, “Just You, Just Me”, its rubato verse and soberly swinging refrain chiseled by Hartman with a sunny aplomb already symptomatic of his real personality, or “There Goes My Heart”. The latest performance also alludes to other possible influences on the singer: Nat King Cole’s, for the roundness, clarity and warmth of diction (that Chicago trait: each syllable – to quote Marty Hatch – rolled and caressed in a manner that imbued each word with power) and for the sympathy for the tune, and even Maxine Sullivan’s, for the immediacy and candor of the melodic drawing.
In November 1948 Johnny Hartman went back to the recording studio with Earl Hines, this time cutting “Midnight in New Orleans” for MGM. In the meanwhile, though, ha had been recruited by another Hines’ alumnus, Dizzy Gillespie, in whose very advanced big band Johnny’s full and relaxed vocals worked as a necessary romantic foil to the leader’s bop scat, always witty and desecrating. During a year-long collaboration, the Chicago crooner developed a more intense jazz feeling, which – far from clashing with them – would eventually enhance his primarily melodic, non-improvisational interpretations. Broadcasts from one of Manhattan’s jazz temples, the Royal Roost, informal recordings at a Cornell University concert and the few commercial tracks for RCA, tell of a repertoire which was becoming less casual and more personalized, quality-wise more selective: Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s throbbing “That Old Black Magic”, in a Jimmy Mundy arrangement, two gems by lyricist Sammy Cahn, “Day by Day” and “I Should Care”, and “S’posin'”, a serene ballad inherited from Bing Crosby.
This song, when Johnny left the band to definitively embrace a career as solo performer, was also part of the program of his July 1949 session for Mercury, in New York, together with “Close Your Eyes”, “Everything Depends on You” and Gordon Jenkins’ touching “Goodbye”: the backing was provided by Jimmy Carroll’s Orchestra, which included Bobby Tucker, one of the great all time accompanists at the piano. One month later the singer was coupled with another jazz piano giant, the exuberant Erroll Garner (with his trio), on four more sides, “Home”, “Remember”, “September in the Rain”, and “Easy to Remember”, a significant ballad performance in which he first expressed his lyrical affinity for the refined writing of Rodgers and Hart. Mercury, evidently, was counting on the commercial potentiality of his great voice, and also on the promotional value of his personal glamour: “Billboard”, in its February 25 issue, announced that “in a tie-up with Mercury Records, Ramon Bruce of WHAT (Philadelphia) offered a date with the label’s Johnny Hartman as a letter-writing contest prize.” But the company’s aim to cover with him the “race market”, at that time particularly strong in the ballad department, failed. Johnny was apparently unable to challenge in popularity Billy Eckstine, or even other Black crooners like Arthur Prysock of “They All Say I’m the Biggest Fool”‘s fame, Herb Lance (his was the best-loved 1949 version of “Close Your Eyes”), or Ellington’s blind, influential alumnus, Al Hibbler (“Trees”).
In the Spring of 1950 he shifted to Apollo, a New York-based, Black-oriented label for which he cut a few uncelebrated sides with an orchestra led by George Williams, a modern arranger who had more successfully worked for Gene Krupa’s post-war band. Although the handsome “warbler” (in “Billboard”‘s jargon) was winning himself important engagements – such as the two consecutive weeks at Harlem’s Baby Grand – and getting to be acknowledged as a fine nightclub personality, his status as a recording artist remained precarious, and his being added to the too large talent roster of RCA Victor, in 1951, didn’t help matters: RCA proved itself unable to understand his skills and satisfy his needs, matching him with Perez Prado’s mambo orchestra for some exotic titles – “Wild”, “Safari” – or entrusting him with a coutry-pop ditty like “Wheel of Fortune” without making any real effort to push him into the “hot charts” (as Mercury and Capitol would soon do with Dinah Washington’s and Kay Starr’s luckier covers). Occasional, in 1953, was his reunion with Earl Hines for a sextet date which produced a couple of King sides: a new version of “When I Dream of You” and a rejuvenation of Irving Berlin’s venerable Broadway anthem, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”.
Unwilling and maybe unequipped to fit in the extrovert, gospel-rooted Rhythm and Blues bag which was becoming more and more appealing to Black audiences, and eventually to young White ones, Johnny Hartman also found that barriers of crudely racist show-business prejudices were starting to hinder his career. «I’ve seen times,» he would reminisce in the Seventies with “Essence”‘s Vernon Gibbs, «when I couldn’t go into white clubs and sing my style of singing. You either buck danced or sang a real gutbucket blues, and then they would let you in. But to go in with a shirt and tie and stand there clean and sing like Perry Como or anybody else, they didn’t want to hear that. You get the feeling that you’re never supposed to be serious or be a man who could fall in love.»
So, gravitation in the freer jazz orbit derived for Hartman not only from an aesthetic but also from a practical concern, and it’s not by chance that – between 1955 and 1956 – his first really coherent and finished work was done for a jazz label, Bethlehem, lending the bronze-like, thunderous, elegantly menacing side of his voice to villain Crown in Russell Garcia’s well-known studio remake of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (remarkable for its terseness is the duet with Frances Faye in “What Do You Want with Bess”) and cutting two albums of great impact and graceful cohesion, Songs from the Heart (with a small combo) and All of Me (with orchestral backing).
Complemented by the economic phrasing and rich harmony of English pianist Ralph Sharon, who had just migrated from London, and by Howard McGhee’s imaginatively subdued countermelodies on trumpet, Hartman in the first LP defines himself as the supreme balladeur, a sort of Black equivalent to Dick Haymes: only jazzier and less narcissistic. His shapely, virile instrument, by now perfectly balanced between the livid and at the same time velvety resonance of his profound basses and the clear, reedy breath of his higher tones, animates the song through respect and personalization. The flexibility of his timing, a dynamic relationship with the microphone, the intimacy of the musical context, allow him to play with nuances and to hold back from any forceful approach, while diction and intonation are constantly under control. The results are often precious: there’s a gracious solemnity in Kurt Weil’s “September Song”, to accompany the poignant sense of the caducity of human things in Maxwell Anderson’s lyrics, there’s a tender calm in his unusually slow version of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, there’s a deep rubato feeling and a mature dignity in Frankie Laine’s “We’ll Be Together Again” and particularly in “I See Your Face Before Me” (you’d almost think Dietz and Schwartz’s writing followed Johnny’s natural singing, and not the other way!), where verses set the pace for his absorbed interpretation. As for “Down in the Depths”, Cole Porter’s bizarre song introduces the singer’s talent for identifying himself with a character (a talent he’ll keep developing in time, as his 1966 version of the same tune – with Gerald Wilson – shows). Here he is the wealthy Porterian gentleman who fights solitude and ennui, “down on the depths on the ninetieth floor”, caught between self-pity and self-irony. The crooner acts his part by alternating declamatory tones (the initial invocation to Manhattan) and soft, breezy accents, and by tastefully using the colors of his palette so to comply with the poetical and musical values of the lyrics. Peculiar is his way to have the nasal sounds vibrate, as in “neon rainbows”.
The second Bethlehem LP, on four tracks, pairs him off with a big band arranged by Ernie Wilkins and supported by the excellent rhythm section of Hank Jones, Milt Hinton and Osie Johnson: a concise “All of Me”, a sparkling “I Get a Kick out of You”, urge Hartman to swing, and he does it with elegance, if not with the power and free-wheeling inventiveness of a hard core jazz singer. The remaining songs, with Frank Hunter’s misty strings – from a philosophical “The End of a Love Affair” to Alec Wilder’s moving “While We’re Young” – arouse instead his heartiest romanticism. Although less subtle and probably less individual than Songs from the Heart, the album – with its aura of prestige and display of classy versatility – marks Johnny Hartman’s entrance in the front rank of great Afroamerican singers.
A mature vocal presence in his early thirties, he still has room to progress as an interpreter. Later in the Fifties, he tries his luck on TV shows and as a vedette in London and Paris boites («I had to skip all over the world in order to make a living»), and he records a pensive ballad album for Roost with pop-jazz orchestrations by Rudy Trailor, And I Thought About You, including a melancholy rendering of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful” and a pictorial reading of “There’s a Lull in My Life”. Signs of farther stylistic reflection and of a closer communion with the songs are evident here, and when we can hear him again – thanks to makeshift recordings in a St. Louis club, in 1961, with Chicago pianist Andrew Hill and his trio – his singing appears looser and informal, touched with a sense of jazz fun and blessed with slight extempore inventions: like the surprising (maybe even fortuitous) paraphrase he opens a lively “Somebody Loves Me” with and the almost self-mocking pianissimo he later develops, or the tension created in “Stella by Starlight” through the interplay of deep short phrases and astute pausing, his voice fuzzy and dark, tinged with a beautifully sparse and fastidious vibrato.
Hartman, however, didn’t consider himself to be a real jazz singer, not in the category of fellow-citizens Joe Williams and Bill Henderson: «Jazz has been successful for me,» he used to say, «and good to me, so I have no qualms about being classified as a jazz singer, but actually I’m not.» His reverent improvisations are mostly chiaroscuro microvariations on the song’s contours, intended to bring its lyrical image and climate to a personalized focus. He was puzzled, therefore, when Bob Thiele of Impulse Records asked him to record an album with John Coltrane’s avantgarde quartet. «I had never heard of Coltrane playing ballads, so I was a little reluctant. But one night I went down to hear the band at Birdland and I did a couple of tunes with him on the next set and it came off so great that we went in the next week and recorded the album. It wasn’t at all like I thought it was gonna be, a lot of wild stuff going on.»
It happened on a memorable March 7, 1963. The LP, simply titled John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, would remain one of the most eloquent, widely celebrated and unpredictably well-balanced combinations of voice and instrument in the whole history of jazz. Coltrane and his powerhouse rhythm section express themselves with a kind of natural restraint (never constraint) through six superb ballads that Hartman comes to interpret with rare aplomb and depth, distilling different shades of feeling with the essential representative lyricism of an impressionist: “They Say It’s Wonderful”, “My One and Only Love”, “Dedicated to You”, a softly mesmerizing “Autumn Serenade”, a tenderly ecstatic “You Are Too Beautiful”, and a peerless “Lush Life”, made into a finely contrasted sound tapestry in which vulnerability, dainty sensuality and worldly hurt, and a sort of blasé grace are convincingly interwoven. Apart from this Billy Strayhorn classic, the very selection of the program, almost an artistic manifesto, seem to point to the singer’s thematic priorities. «Johnny was meticulous in choosing his songs,» remembers pianist Tony Monte, soon to become his loyal accompanist of the last fifteen years. «With few exceptions he sang lyrics that expressed positive emotions, the kind of material that would define his romanticism, his gentility, his refinement, his courage. He sang his songs with the intention of sharing a wonderful discovery with his listeners: this idea kept even the most familiar lyric fresh and alive.»
Although not as inspired and musically symmetric as the Coltrane-Hartman event, the Impulse and ABC albums published during the following three or four years exalt this aspect of the singer’s poetics, his calm intensity, his gift for telling love stories enlivening a quiet sentimental approach through a relevant jazzy breath. The quintet and quartet sessions led by Hank Jones (with, among others, the hot Texas tenor of Illinois Jacquet and the guitars of Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell or Barry Galbraith) yield performances of a transparent and mature sensitivity, like “I Just Dropped By to Say Hello”, “In the Wee Small Hours” (a perfect Hartman vehicle, as it had been years before for Sinatra) and Bill Evans and Gene Lees’ “Waltz for Debbie”; of a suffused nostalgic throb, like “These Foolish Things” (he really gives the lyrics’ cliché excesses a new credibility); of a dry, smiling swing, like “Let Me Love You”, “The More I See You” and Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s “A Sleepin’ Bee”. As for Johnny’s outstanding version of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Charade”, it suggests how keen and selective his ear was for contemporary songwriting: an impression confirmed by his treatment of Frank Loesser’s “Joey Joey Joey” and Jerry Bock’s “Sunrise, Sunset”, two recent Broadway hits “revisited” in another 1964 session with unusual Bob Hammer arrangements for marimba, flute, English horn, guitars, percussions.
Standards – by Gershwin, Porter, Warren, Loewe, Mercer, Waller, Rodgers – make up the whole repertoire of a spirited and homogenous 1966 LP with Gerald Wilson’s Californian orchestra, significantly titled Unforgettable Songs: while the following ABC album, Today I Love Everybody, looks again for a balance between the old and the new, failing where the arrangements are steeped in Jack Pleis’ bland pop melodism (even Johnny, here, occasionally gives his measure up to a full-voiced rhetoric) and partly redeeming itself when Oliver Nelson takes over, directing a large band “live” in a Hollywood studio. There’s brilliance, particularly, in Neal Hefti and Bobby Troup’s ironic “Girl Talk” and in a sanguine “That Old Black Magic” which digresses into an amused quotation of “Matilda”‘s calypso.
Touring as far as Australia and Japan, frequently gigging around his New York base, at Baltimore’s Royal Roost as well as Manhattan’s Shalimar, Hartman essentially remained a musician’s singer, an interpreter mostly appreciated for his subtle expressive qualities by fellow jazzmen. «Jazz musicians,» says his former accompanist, Ralph Sharon, «have always respected him. He was a gentleman and an artist. His love for slow ballads reflected his warmth and affability as a person: he has never been that lucky, career-wise, also because he didn’t have the aggressiveness and toughness of the star.» He also revealed himself humble enough to take acting lessons, trying to reinforce the stage practice acquired at various times through his appearances in Golden BoyRaisin in the Sun and other plays, and feeling that his very singing would gain in emotional involvement as a result of this parallel vocation. For a while, in the early Seventies, he seemed to aspire to a Hollywoodian experience and with Billy Dee Williams was among the candidates for Nat King Cole’s role in the planned movie biography of the Chicago singer-pianist. His choice would have been a most credible one, but unfortunately the film never happened.

Between 1972 and 1973 his perennially irregular recording was resumed thanks to a couple of Perception albums which bear some traces of the then ruling soul music, introducing him – as a consequence – to a new generation of Black listeners. The program of the first LP, Today, embraces both a sophisticated Stylistics’ soul ballad, “Betcha By Golly Wow”, and country-¬soul-pop songs like “Games People Play”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. Skillfully integrated by tenorist George Coleman’s quintet, that now agrees with his sublime relax, now dialectically confronts him with its electric, “churchy” drive, Hartman puts his mark on all kinds of songs – and he does it without ever betraying the original writing, but adding to it and giving it a really evocative quality with the precious and musically logical shade-light games of his dynamics, with his melted metal reflections and deepest diaphragmatic caresses, with the rounded essentialness of his enunciation. He also reverts to a classic Jerome Kern page: and his “Folks Who Live on the Hill” finds perfect proportions, the voice moving from bluish quasi-Eckstine resonances to soft reedy mordents close to the roof of its range, and drawing lines that have the same conversational artlessness of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. Even the final cadence avoids any emphasis.
Arranged by Tony Monte, with Jimmy Heath’s tenor sax occasionally acting as second voice, the next Perception album – I’ve Been There – is less lucid and consistent, excellent in “You Go to My Head”, too commercial-minded (and far from the singer’s heart) elsewhere. In the meantime, two albums recorded in Tokyo for Japanese Capitol, late in 1972, and never available in the States, bring Hartman back to the more familiar (and maybe even too informal) atmosphere of the jazz trio and quartet, with trumpet player Terumasa Hino, and to an all-standard book, related, in the second disc (Sings Trane’s Favorites), to John Coltrane’s repertoire. He gives a fast “Fly Me to the Moon” an Olympian placidity, and makes “Summertime” breathe slow and wide, starting it and closing it with a charmingly fitting quotation from another Porgy and Bess theme, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.
The decade doesn’t add much: a forgettable quasi “disco” album for Musicor, another Japanese LP, live, with the Roland Hanna-George Mraz duo, his guest appearance in a Clark Terry LP, on the well-beaten tracks of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, his customary work in jazz and supper clubs. But not all is routine. The singer is called to an important and ground-breaking collaboration with the illustrious songwriter and song historian Alec Wilder, for concerts (at Manhattan’s Michael’s Pub, in March 1977) and radio shows intended to celebrate the great tradition of American song. And at the beginning of the Eighties, on a musical scenery that becomes more open and responsive to jazz-oriented voices, Johnny Hartman’s quiet class seem to be finally getting close to its long-deserved recognition. In the summer of 1981, at the New York Festival, with Joe Williams, Carmen McRae and the amazing young lion Bobby McFerrin he is the headliner of an evening devoted to The Art of Jazz Singing: while two albums recorded the previous summer, respectively for Bee Hive (a label consecrated to Chicago artists) and Audiophile (a posthumously issued collection, this one, with Tony Monte’s quartet), give the most exact definition of his art, the Bee Hive opus, Once in Every Life, also winning a Grammy nomination. Here Johnny works side by side with jazzmen, from Billy Taylor to Frank Wess, who share his musical philosophy and understand the elegant, subtle creativity of his phrasing: he condenses all his balladeur’s wisdom in “For All We Know” and “I See Your Face Before Me”, and, with the only harmonic-rhythmic help of Alex Gafa’s guitar, moulds the suburban nostalgia of “Nobody Home” into a monologue of nude, touching eloquence.
When this writer sees him at a Loeb Center’s concert, in Greenwich Village, Hartman is the master of sophisticated understatement, of the hypnotizing rubato, of a relax almost bordering (but there is art in it) with nonchalance. There’s always a hint of a genial grin on his face, and his stage presence is placid, easy-going, like a natural storyteller’s, free from any excess or gimmick. His interpretations reflect all this. Johnny invents a windy yet subdued intensity of his own for Cole Porter’s tragicomic “Miss Otis Regrets”, his full baritone rippling in chiaroscuro; he sculpts “Lush Life” in his audience’s memory, with a “sad” descending through a wide portamento touched with a fine-grained sense of loneliness; he projects through “I Just Dropped By to Say Hello” the glinting image of an all intimate restlessness.

Just months later, on September 15, 1983, Johnny Hartman dies, a victim of cancer. The kind of fame and attention he had conquered during the last few years had not changed him, as Tony Monte recalls. «He had no entourage, no screaming fans. He remained shy and conventional, loyal to his family and old friends, always his gently disarming humor, serious about his art, never about himself.»

(Also written for “N’Digo”, after an interview with Johnny’s niece Hermene in her Near North Side office in the early Nineties.)

PINK SHADES OF CURTIS MAYFIELD: the gentle soul master from Cabrini-Green photographed in Pistoia, 1988
A sorpresa, alla testa del quintetto (caratterizzante, nella sua estetica, la presenza dei bongos), è apparso anche il grande cantautore di Chicago Curtis Mayfield, e la sua prova – benché fischiata da ampi e primitivi settori di un pubblico già ebbro – è risultata la più coerente e suggestiva dell’intero festival. Al contempo lieve e determinato, dalla sottile e cangiante tensione emotiva e dal vibratile falsetto d’ancia, il chiarissimo, inquieto canto di Curtis sa ancora controllare con eleganza i messaggi sociali (di mirabile icasticità poetica, come in “If There’s a Hell Below” o “Freddie’s Dead”, da Superfly) e l’ipnotica quanto raffinata trama ritmica delle sue originalissime canzoni soul. (Dalla recensione del festival blues di Pistoia, luglio 1988, pubblicata su Musica Jazz).


Like other great Chicago-bred voices before him, including Nat King Cole and Lou Rawls, Bill Henderson has had to move West to try to strike fame. Hollywood, however, has ended up monopolizing his talents, and for many years audiences have been more familiar with his finely understated and slightly ironic acting than with his thoroughly original way with a song. Through the 80’s and early 90’s he has charmingly played non-singing parts in such movies as J. Lee Thompson’s brutal Murphy’s Law, as a retired policeman (and Charles Bronson’s chum) victim of a psychotic killer’s revenge, and City Slickers, as one of Billy Crystal’s partners in a mock Western adventure. Only Henderson’s later film, Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump, coupling him with another prominent veteran of jazz singing, Jon Hendricks, has finally spotlighted the vocalist together with the actor.
The two roles need not to be viewed separately, in his opinion. “Basically I’m a singer,” genial, bespectacled Bill told this writer some time ago between sets, at Milestone’s, an elegant San Francisco jazz boite where he was gigging during a pause in the shooting of a film. “And in Hollywood I still approach acting as a singer, a singer who listens to lyrics first: because to me the lines in the script are like the words in a song. Sometimes you have good lyrics, sometimes you have bad ones, and you’ve got to do your best to make them sound credible or interesting anyway. The only real difference is that as an actor you must do them all: you’ve got to act, no matter what, because to become an accomplished actor and realize your potential you have to become obedient to different situations. As a singer, instead, you don’t have to sing what you don’t want or don’t feel like singing. Unless, of course, commercial reasons lead you to do it.”
A vocal artist who in the four decades of his career has never been commercially minded and who has rejected major recording contracts not to be forced to tackle inferior or unsuitable material, the Bill Henderson one sees on the stage of an intimate jazz room, backed – ideally – by a piano-led trio, is a singer who lives a totally symbiotic relationship with his repertoire, savouring the lyrics and the melodies of every standard song and every occasional blues that he chooses to interpret – and obviously enjoying the freedom and relax the context allows him. His natural sense of understatement and his long-developed taste, however, always keep him alert: he knows how to give a song a deep and personal touch with elegance and simplicity, making it his own without overdoing it. A fluid, mellow and soulful baritone with rich, bronzy resonances and palpable crooning tones, Henderson is a master when it comes to define the essentials of a tune, to draw its contours and discover its real expressive core. From Duke Ellington’s bittersweet “Tulip or Turnip” to Truman Capote and Harold Arlen’s breezy “A Sleepin’ Bee”, from the thoughtful tenderness of Dietz and Schwartz’s “I See Your Face Before Me” to the controlled and mordant shouting in Big Joe Turner’s “Roll ‘Em Pete”, he tells stories with a strong musical substance: while his peculiarly staccato and rhythmically flexible phrases, both cautious and hard swinging, tagged by short vibratos and punctuated with colloquial accents and eloquent, mostly unpredictable pauses, carry a unique and infectious melange of romantic lyricism and bluesy, street-wise concreteness – with a humorous tinge that makes his performing and his presence (he also likes to play around a song, exchanging little jokes with the audience) warm and exhilarating. A creature of Chicago’s South Side, where he was born in March 1930 (actually 1925, as he’ll reveal later on), and the older brother of Finis Henderson, the distinguished dancer, William Randall Henderson shares with fellow Chicagoans Cole, Rawls, Johnny Hartman, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, a non-rhetorical rotundity of enunciation, an attraction for the shapely, well-sculpted lyrical statement – and an absolute rhythmic grace. Joe Williams, especially, he looks at with affection, sensing an affinity in idiom. “As I grew up,” he reminisces, “I listened to all kinds of singers: Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Arthur Prysock. But Joe was the one who – being on the Chicago scene for so many years before he made it with Count Basie – really happened to have an influence on me, at least as far as generic inspiration and friendly guidance go. I wouldn’t say that I sing like he does, but a great deal of people think that the force and power that I exert while I perform is a Joe Williams kind of thing: and that can only make me proud. We cover the same territory, from blues to jazz. And that’s what it’s like in the music business, a matter of territory. Sometimes you conquer it and sometimes you don’t: but God gives you a chance to come back and try again, until you get it straight.” With a background in singing that reaches into his early childhood (he was 4 when accordionist Phil Baker chose him to perform a song-and-dance routine in his show) and covers the days of high school amateur reviews, the time spent in the army special service entertaining troops in America and in Europe, and the struggling years in Chicago jazz clubs, the first musical territory that Bill Henderson really conquered was that of hard bop. Convinced by pianist Billy Taylor to move to New York, after an odd spell as chimney sweep and then as shrimp picker at the Gaslight Club (a funny job, he says, that was created to keep him busy) Henderson struck Horace Silver, the hard bop maestro, as the ideal vocal interpreter for his funky-Latin composition “Senor Blues”, a hit in the jazz community. In that now classic Blue Note recording made in June 1958, Bill’s virile and already ripe baritone dynamically matched Silver’s gospel-imbued piano playing and the dense energy of his quintet, expressing the bluesy, changing mood of the lyrics in a peculiar combination of witty restraint and declamatory vigor. During the following months, while also displaying his facility with words as an emcee at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and as a radio dee jay, the singer appeared on record with other leading soul jazz instrumentalists: namely altoist Cannonball Adderley on Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, the plug side of a Riverside single, and Hammond wizard Jimmy Smith on a few ballads (“Willow Weep for Me”) and blues (Ray Charles’s “Ain’t That Love”) cut for the Blue Note label. Considering these and subsequent collaborations (in 1961 Bill joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for a Far East tour) and on the strength of a harmonic, rhythmic and emotional compatibility with the genre, critic Will Friedwald – in his book Jazz Singing – has described him as the definitive hard bop vocalist. Henderson, however, has proved himself to be more than just that. The first Lp’s to his name, recorded for Chicago’s own Vee Jay between 1959 and 1961 and simply titled Bill Henderson Sings (the most successful one, with Ramsey Lewis’s soon to be famous trio and an exceptional sextet starring Booker Little and the Miles Davis’s rhythm section) and Bill Henderson (mainly with Jimmy Jones’s orchestra), already showed that together with a clear stylistic outline, in sound and in phrasing, went a complex, versatile personality. Both in old and illustrious songs like Rodgers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind” and “My Funny Valentine” or in new ones like Frank Loesser’s “Joey” and Cy Coleman’s “My, How Time Goes By”, Bill emerged as a sensitive and sophisticated yet totally unsentimental balladeur, with a dry and sometimes whimsical sense of melody sustained by the incisive timing of a tap dancer. Then, in the mid-Sixties, an intimate and swinging album in which he was accompanied by jazz legends Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, With the Oscar Peterson Trio, and an eclectic, pop-inspired collection with full orchestral backing, When My Dreamboat Comes Home (both for MGM/Verve), allowed him to freely move through several moods and regions of the song form. Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Jule Styne, Charles Trenet or Bob Dylan, all found a sympathetic and sunny interpreter in him, with an original and more or less subtly creative approach. Later in the Sixties, Bill experienced the discipline of life on the road – both in American and European tours – with the powerful Count Basie Big Band, playing a role which a decade before had gained Joe Williams his international acclaim. Times had changed, in musical taste, and he was unable to repeat Joe’s brilliant and lucky achievement. Anyway, his only commercial recording with Basie – a touching, conversational version of Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday”, on a chiaroscuro Chico O’Farrell’s arrangement – testified to his versatility and his feeling as a swing band singer. It was after leaving the Count, in 1968, that Henderson decided to settle in Los Angeles, where he worked as record promoter for Bill Cosby, a good friend, and started appearing on television and in movies, including Trouble Man, his first relevant part.
Although disappointed by the record industry’s and young audiences’ lack of attention to solid jazz vocals, he didn’t stop singing: and by the mid-Seventies he was able to find in Albert Marx of Discovery Records a producer more interested in serving his style and his commitment to musical excellence than in manufacturing hits. With the small combo of West Coast pianists Joyce Collins and Dave McKay quietly and often sensibly supporting him, Bill Henderson, in his Discovery albums, has given performances that are tersely honed, briskly paced and pensively mature. Live at the Times, a 1975 club recording, and Street of Dreams and A Tribute to Johnny Mercer, two Grammy nominees from 1979 and 1981, fully illustrate the qualities of his relaxed and mobile baritone, the loose retards and caesuras in his rhythmic syntax, the blue note-bendings, the fine shadings and the graphic force of his diction, which rejuvenates standards like “All the Things You Are” or “Angel Eyes” (a clever and unusual duet with miss Collins, who on the same harmonic changes sings “This Masquerade”‘s lyrics in a snappily melodic interplay) and hard bop classics like Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” and also infuses post-Beatles pop songs (Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” or James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face”) with a timeless jazz eloquence. Although somewhat discontinuous in the arrangements and in the very performance, the Johnny Mercer’s tribute – in particular – offers some of the most intriguing episodes in contemporary vocal jazz: episodes (and among them a driving “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” and a slow, irresistible “Hooray for Hollywood”, Bill’s and Johnny’s playful homage to Movieland) that reveal a poetic vision shared by the great interpreter and the master lyricist, with a gentle yet sharp kind of humor and a tangible fondness for the musical colors and evocative power of words, and also vividly synthesize Bill Henderson’s gifts as singer and actor. (Originally published in “N’Digo”, Chicago 1993)

Señor Blues va a Hollywood: Bill Henderson, autunno 1985

Fuori, è la San Francisco più lugubre e tetra di un novembre piovoso. La Quinta Strada, all’incrocio con Harrison e all’ombra dei piloni autostradali, è un rifugio di vaghi deliri notturni. La realtà non abita i suoi marciapiedi, o – meglio – non li abita la realtà che conosciamo e che ci conforta. Una donna anziana con qualcosa di obliquo nell’andatura e nello sguardo chiede di indirizzi forse inesistenti: come inesistente è il livello a cui appartiene la sua stessa voce caracollante e friabile. Sarà anche ostile? Ostile, a suo modo, è il nero dalla lanosa chioma rasta che inveisce con lingua di fuoco e pugni folli scatenati nell’aria violetta. Ma è come se il suo incoerente rituale di aggressione si consumasse di là da uno schermo: simili al Peter Sellers-Chance di Oltre il giardino, vorremmo cancellarlo cambiando canale.
Dentro, è un piccolo, elegante paradiso per il fan del canto jazz, del blues più sofisticato e della solida, rinfrancante bevuta after hours. Sopra il bancone del bar, ampi pannelli con le immagini in bianco e nero di Billie Holiday, Anita O’Day, Milt Jackson, Miles Davis, simboleggiano il connubio dalla forte gradazione emotiva ed alcoolica, antico quanto la stessa grande musica afroamericana.
L’atletica cameriera bruna, dalla presenza ingombrante, danza freneticamente tra i tavolini per prendere le ordinazioni.
“Oh, io adoro il jazz, adoro il blues,” dice sgranando gli occhi e alzando la voce oltre l’educato chiacchericcio del locale, in un momento di pausa della energica musica della house band. Avrà una quarantina d’anni, forse qualcuno meno. I suoi modi e le sue movenze sono ad un tempo bruschi e cordiali, sembrerebbero un incrocio di West e di New York. “Questo è un lavoro ideale per me. Quando voglio posso scambiare uno sguardo con Anita o con Lady Day, ti pare niente? E assorbo tutta la musica che posso e che voglio. Se solo Sonny scucisse un po’ di più la borsa…”
Sonny Buxton è il gentiluomo nero di Seattle, impeccabilmente vestito e serio in volto, che gestisce il Milestones con mano di ferro in guanto di velluto. Non molto tempo addietro aveva portato il jazz in una delle reti televisive della Bay Area, ma combutte politiche e malumori di palazzo (e qualcuno sussurra anche di sottili rigurgiti razzisti) gli tarparono presto le ali. Il Milestones è la sua rivincita, un bar jazzistico con un tono distinto, un minimo di due drink per ciascun set, due sassofonisti californiani dalle inflessioni soulful come Teddy Edwards e il calvo John Handy ad alternarsi alla guida della band della casa, e un programma di artisti ospiti – attinti in prevalenza alla ricca fonte losangelena – di assoluto rispetto.
Come Barney Josephson ha sempre fatto nei suoi locali del Greenwich Village, dal mitico Cafe Society dell’Era del New Deal e dello Swing al Cookery degli anni post-nixoniani, Sonny ama presentare di persona le star delle sue serate. Voce scura, rotonda, dizione accurata, quel tanto di affabile professionalità da show business che non disturba: la breve, calzante rievocazione, il piccolo volo apologetico, la sensazione abilmente comunicata di far parte di una cerchia ristretta di fortunati che dividono i suoi gusti raffinati ed hanno in serbo uno spettacolo speciale.
“…ma oggi, per un motivo o per l’altro, la stirpe dei grandi cantanti afroamericani maschi sembra sul punto di estinguersi. Nel mio carnet non ne ho segnati molti più di due, a occhio e croce: e primo nella lista è certo questo gentiluomo che è venuto a trovarci da Los Angeles. Signori e signore, è per me un onore grandissimo presentarvi… Bill Henderson!”
Sunny Buxton, in una sola stagione, ha presentato molti dei cantanti che incidono per la Discovery di Albert Marx: gente con solide credenziali jazzistiche come Lorez Alexandria, una sorta di più sanguigna Sarah Vaughan svezzata con il gospel chicagoano, il blues shouter e balladeur Ernie Andrews, alunno delle orchestre di Harry James e Benny Carter e primo modello del più popolare Lou Rawls, e la biondissima Sue Raney, splendida voce quarantenne di rara limpidezza e flessibilità. Bill Henderson è tra tutti quello che più sa far vibrare il piccolo palcoscenico del Milestones. Oltre che un verace cantante di jazz, con un feeling per il blues a lungo coltivato nel South Side di Chicago, è uno showman esilarante quanto compassato e controllato, per il quale presentare una canzone (che interpreterà poi con intensità e penetrazione lirica) è sempre occasione per la battuta cool e immaginosa. “My name is Joe Williams…” sono le sue prime parole quando raggiunge placido il microfono. Al contrario di Joe, suo concittadino e maestro dall’elegante portamento, Bill non ha l’aria dell’uomo di spettacolo. La pancetta da ultracinquantenne a tirargli la giacca di velluto beige, cappello in tinta a nascondere la avanzata stempiatura, occhiali cerchiati di corno, sciarpa marrone, enorme anello alla destra, sembra piuttosto un solido, opulento commerciante di Oakland o di Watts.
A spalleggiarlo è un trio guidato dall’anziano pianista Gerald Wiggins, il Teddy Wilson della Costa Ovest, accompagnatore di classe, capace di superbi giochi di dinamica, di stimolanti contrasti di colore e volume, tra accordi a piene mani e garbate sottolineature in sordina: con lui sono un batterista veterano della scena di San Francisco, Eddie Marshall, e un giovanissimo e concentrato bassista, Peter Washington. Per Henderson è la compagnia ideale. Bill non ha bisogno di gareggiare con qualche strumento a fiato, che potrebbe anzi togliere compattezza e tensione al suo racconto drammatico.
Inizia con “Señor Blues”, il brano di Horace Silver che per primo gli dette la popolarità nei tardi anni ‘50: le frasi tagliate nette, con un uso misuratissimo della pausa, fino a un climax quasi gridato che si stempera – in conclusione – in un sibilo lamentoso. La sua voce è di metallo fuso, calda e bruna, rilucente e tagliente. La gestualità è minima, essenziale, perfettamente intonata al plastico staccato del fraseggio. Il suo umorismo è un sapore sottile (lo conferma subito in “Love Is Just a Bug”) che toglie ogni eccesso al gioco delle emozioni e bilancia l’eloquenza del canto in una luce screziata, sfaccettata, suggerendo al contempo partecipazione e una punta di distacco.
Un canto che ha dei suoi tratti riconoscibili, per quanto in momenti diversi faccia balenare il ricordo di Joe Williams, di Ernie Andrews, di Lou Rawls. Sono istantanee: Bill Henderson è pari soltanto a se stesso. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, l’antico sempreverde di Jimmy McHugh e Dorothy Fields che è stato veicolo delle ardite personalizzazioni di Louis Armstrong o di Billie Holiday, esemplifica quel fraseggiare staccato, quasi un cauto sillabare, un intimo e arguto recitare in sottovoce, che è il suo trademark più immediato: e il relax è palpabilissimo. E così “Never Kiss and Run”, con i versi inizialmente mozzati, sminuzzati, poi bilanciati da un uso più delicato di portamento e vibrato, sempre insaporiti dall’inserimento di elementi colloquiali, quasi vernacolari. Il repertorio è quello che gli si conosce sin dalle prime incisioni Blue Note e Vee Jay, e che spesso (come accadeva per Nat King Cole, per Dinah Washington e Carmen McRae, ovviamente per Frank Sinatra) rimane incollato alla sua immagine vocale, al suo modo di far risuonare una parola durante il climax della storia cantata, di passare dal forte lucente e denso al pianissimo che vibra appena – magari con circospetta ironia – nel microfono.
Forse è come dice la mia vicina di tavolo, una ragazza occhialuta dalla imponente chioma “isro”, cantante di jazz in fieri. Forse il suo fascino è nel romanticismo da crooner miscelato all’umorismo asciutto e crudele dell’uomo del blues: e in questo Bill sembra rappresentare uno degli ultimi epigoni della tradizione inaugurata a Kansas City da Jimmy Rushing, Joe Turner, Al Hibbler. E’ una costante, in effetti, delle sue interpretazioni: il lentissimo “Sleepin’ Bee” scritto da Harold Arlen con un paroliere di eccezione, il narratore Truman Capote, il tenero e immaginifico “The Twelfth of Never” (“ti amerò finché i poeti non esauriranno le loro rime …”), il “Joey Joey Joey” del maturo Frank Loesser broadwaiano, che Wiggins pizzica sulla tastiera e che Bill va a chiudere con un grido-richiamo, corposo ma misurato, un “Am I Blue?” e un “I See Your Face Before Me” distillati in monologhi pacatissimi. Qualche scivolata d’intonazione, qualche accenno di raucedine (frutto, dice lui, della cronica umidità di San Francisco) non spezzano la morbida tensione. E il set si va a concludere con uno scat boppistico improvvisato a cappella, senza accompagnamento: quando il trio rientra ad affiancarlo, le sillabe senza senso si coagulano – sugli accordi più classici del blues – nell’esuberante e vivacissimo “Roll ‘Em Pete” di Big Joe Turner. Bill Henderson sa essere anche uno shouter impagabile, con tutta la grinta e l’arguzia necessarie per coinvolgere e far sorridere il pubblico.

“E il brutto è che non glielo puoi spiegare, quello che ti sta succedendo.”
Bill Henderson scuote il testone e mi studia con occhi malinconici. Poi esplode in una di quelle sue risate cordiali e contenute, mentre lo sguardo si fa ironico, pungente, dietro le lenti spesse. E’ tutto infagottato, sciarpa, cappello calato fin sugli occhi, giacca pesante. Tutto inutile, l’autunno di San Francisco è maligno per chi viene dal sole di Los Angeles.

“Il brutto è che al pubblico non gli puoi dire: sentite, la ragione per cui oggi non sono al meglio della forma è che mi ritrovo con questo fottuto raffreddore. No, il pubblico non ne vuol neanche sentir parlare dei tuoi problemi. Vogliono semplicemente sentirti cantare, interpretare quelle canzoni per cui ti conoscono e per cui sono venuti. Per il resto, potresti anche crepare. E se ti sforzi di spiegare, vi prego, non mi sento troppo bene oggi, le tue parole si schiantano contro un muro di indifferenza. O di indispettita incompresione.”
La voce è quella del cantante, vigorosa, penetrante e palpabile a dispetto – in realtà – della gola che gratta e duole. Nel sotterraneo che serve da camerino, nudo e ancora provvisorio (sulla parete, soltanto una gigantografia in bianco e nero di Vernon Alley appoggiato al suo contrabbasso, vecchia gloria del R&B e jazz di San Francisco, con il suo sorriso – come dicono gli appassionati di qua – da un milione di dollari), risuona con virile grazia da palcoscenico sopra il brusio che filtra dal bar affollatissimo, sopra le nostre teste.

“Credimi, questo è il business più incredibile del mondo. Ad un comico non è permesso lamentarsi. Oggi non è la mia giornata, prendetevi pure mia moglie e lasciatemi in pace, oppure: mi sento d’inferno, non posso far questo e non posso far quest’altro. Ma un cantante… Anche un ballerino può dire, diavolo, oggi non sono io, ho i crampi ad una gamba o roba del genere. Ma un cantante deve andare avanti, in qualunque condizione si trovi. E’ quello che chiamano dues, i nostri debiti con la vita, e dobbiamo pagarli continuamente.

“In realtà, però, il pubblico finisce per divertirsi, comunque vada, a dispetto di qualche errore. Se la spassano. Il vero problema sei tu stesso. Perché da te esigi la perfezione. Vorresti dare sempre e assolutamente il meglio.”
Il pubblico – anche quello più smaliziato – si lascia conquistare da Bill Henderson anche se la sua gola fa i capricci. Il suo modo di inquadrare una canzone in una sorta di musicalissimo, melodico recitativo rende il godimento della sua performance relativamente indipendente da eventuali, modesti cedimenti tecnici. Bill è un attore naturale: un attore entro i confini della canzone, e oltre. Anche Hollywood se n’è accorta di recente.

“Sì, negli ultimi anni sono stato molto impegnato come attore. E la cosa mi diverte. Domani sera, per esempio, concludo il mio ingaggio qui al Milestones e la mattina dopo, alle sei, debbo già essere sul set a Hollywood per un nuovo film con Charles Bronson, un poliziesco che si chiama Murphy’s Law. Sembrerebbe roba scottante, anche se non ho ancora letto la sceneggiatura per intero. Ho già recitato in diversi film, con Madeline Kahn e Christopher Lloyd in Clue, con John Belushi in Continental Divide, con un sacco di altra gente famosa. E ho partecipato a serie televisive come Sanford and Son, con Redd Foxx, e come Good Times. Dal punto di vista economico e dell’esperienza, sono assai fortunato ad avere la possibilità di lavorare tanto sul set. Al tempo stesso, è il canto che è il mio primo amore, e il cinema e la televisione mi impediscono di dedicarmici quanto vorrei.”
Gli chiedo se abbia mai compiuto studi di recitazione, se abbia un qualche background formale. Deve apparirgli una domanda particolarmente ingenua, perché mi guarda con un sottile lampo di ironia negli occhi.
“E’ quello che hai dovuto affrontare nella vita,” mi dice, ridacchiando sotto i baffi, “quello sì che costituisce un background importante. Perché se sei stato capace di spostarti da un punto all’altro della tua esistenza, be’, ne hai dovute passare di esperienze per riuscirci, amico mio!”

E’ un uomo di Chicago, Bill. Come Nat Cole, Joe Williams, Lou Rawls, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, Johnny Hartman. Una bella fetta del canto afroamericano di maggior classe – e sul versante femminile si contano Dinah Washington, Lorez Alexandria, Lurlean Hunter – ha radici nella Città del Vento.

“A Chicago sono nato – nel 1930 – e cresciuto, e a Chicago ho cominciato a cantare professionalmente, in un lounge del South Side. Con un trio che comprendeva il batterista Red Holt, il bassista Eldee Young e naturalmente Ramsey Lewis al pianoforte, che col tempo sarebbe diventato più celebre di me. Lavoravo regolarmente con loro, e con loro avrei poi registrato il primo album a mio nome. Era il cuore degli anni ‘50, e questo ti dimostra che non sono più un ragazzino di primo pelo, eh eh! No, potrà sembrarti strano, ma non ho l’esperienza di canto gospel che hanno alle spalle quasi tutti i cantanti neri. Però cantavo a scuola, alle elementari, alle medie: ho sempre avuto l’ambizione di diventare uomo di spettacolo.

“Naturalmente, con il blues, ho cominciato prestissimo ad ascoltare anche i cantanti di jazz. Joe Williams, Dick Haymes, Frank Sinatra, Arthur Prysock: tenevo le orecchie ben aperte per chiunque. Credo che, essendo anche lui di Chicago, Joe Williams abbia avuto un’influenza un po’ particolare su di me. Voglio dire, la sua amicizia e i suoi consigli sono stati fondamentali. E benché a me non sembri di cantare come lui, molte persone pensano che l’intensità e la potenza delle mie performances siano analoghe a quelle di Joe. Naturalmente questo mi inorgoglisce. E’ vero, copriamo più o meno lo stesso territorio, tra il blues e il jazz… Ed è proprio di questo che si tratta, territorio, nel senso bellico della parola … A volte lo conquisti, altre volte no. Ma Dio ti dà sempre una chance di tornare e di riprovarci, finché non ne vieni a capo.

“Fammi pensare. Credo di aver registrato prima con Horace Silver e poi con l’organista Jimmy Smith, sempre nel ‘58, per la Blue Note. Fu Horace a offrirmi l’opportunità di farmi sentire su scala nazionale. Mi scelse semplicemente dopo avermi sentito cantare. La prima volta che andai a New York, per un motivo o per l’altro capitai a casa sua e lui mi parlò di questo pezzo che aveva scritto, ‘Señor Blues’, e che io già conoscevo come brano strumentale. Anche il testo era suo: un blues alla messicana! ‘Señor Blues is what they call me, way down Mexicali way…’ Con l’organo Hammond di Smith, invece, incisi ‘Angel Eyes’ e quel pezzo R&B di Ray Charles, ‘Ain’t That Love’.

“Per il primo album Vee Jay oltre al trio di Lewis avevo con me anche diversi musicisti che appartenevano al gruppo di Miles Davis, come Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb. C’era anche Booker Little, un trombettista straordinario, e anche Yusef Lateef. Quei dischi Vee Jay ottennero una discreta popolarità, e con mia sorpresa giunsero all’orecchio di gente come Oscar Peterson se è vero che fu proprio lui, qualche anno dopo, a chiedere di suonare per me in quell’album MGM, Bill Henderson with the Oscar Peterson Trio. L’album, con il mio arrangiamento d’un vecchio blues, ‘Baby Mine’, e una versione quasi-gospel di ‘You Are My Sunshine’, doveva essere l’inizio di una lunga serie di cose per la MGM. E invece… Presto l’intero regime cambiò, i cantanti di jazz divennero persone non grate praticamente dalla sera alla mattina, e ogni bel progetto si volatilizzò.

“Venni a Los Angeles per viverci nel 1967, dopo che ebbi finito di lavorare per Count Basie. Ero rimasto con il Conte per un paio d’anni, sempre ‘sulla strada’, in tournée europee e via dicendo. Fu divertente: e inoltre con Basie imparai anche a disciplinarmi, come artista e come uomo. Perché quando lavori con una big band devi saper aspettare, finché non viene il tuo turno devi essere molto paziente: altrimenti potresti anche farti prendere da un esaurimento nervoso.

“Era un’orchestra di formidabile potenza, un’orchestra esplosiva, meravigliosa. L’esperienza non influenzò tanto il mio stile – che più o meno si era già formato – quanto il mio carattere. Non avevo mai cantato con un’orchestra prima di allora. Mi spiego. Quando lavori con un trio, come stasera, ti trovi costantemente in primo piano, sotto il riflettore. Ma quando sei con un’orchestra, allora sei costretto ad attendere fino a quando loro hanno completato quello che hanno da offrire e a quel punto… A quel punto farai bene a portare sul palcoscenico tutta la dinamite che hai in corpo per cantare la tua striminzita parte del programma, perché devi fare un’impressione immediatamente positiva. In genere il cantante non è altrettanto conosciuto e amato quanto lo è l’orchestra. Questa disciplina che ho appreso con Basie credo che sia molto importante: è importante riuscire a controllarsi in qualsiasi circostanza, e mantenere la propria performance a un buon livello anche quando le cose non vanno per il meglio.”
Bill scrolla le spalle, e sghignazza.

“No, non ho mai cantato il repertorio di Joe Williams con l’orchestra, anche se Joe mi aveva preceduto con tanto successo nella compagine di Basie. Era uno dei patti: sarei andato con la big band, ma non avrei dovuto cantare nessuna delle cose cantate da Joe o da altri in precedenza. Così mi portai dietro i miei arrangiamenti, scritti da gente molto nota, come Billy Byers, Al Cohn, Ernie Wilkins. Avevo un repertorio tutto mio, non volevo apparire come una specie di surrogato di Joe.

“Con Basie feci una sola registrazione, per l’album dedicato ai Beatles. Cantai ‘Yesterday’, con un arrangiamento che Chico O’Farrell scrisse appositamente per me. Quindi smisi di registrare, fino al 1975. Perché ero molto deluso, non mi andava a genio quello che i discografici volevano far cantare a cantanti come me. La maggior parte delle compagnie, in un modo o nell’altro, volevano tirar fuori dalle tue corde vocali uno hit e in genere, quando sei un cantante di jazz, il successo commerciale non è molto facile da raggiungere. Mi spin¬gevano a cantare materiale contemporaneo, pop: e roba del genere con me proprio non funzionava. Quindi decisi che la cosa migliore era semplicemente di piantarla di fare dischi. Quando ripresi fu grazie alla Discovery di Los Angeles. Per via che Albert Marx, che è il produttore e il proprietario, è il tipo che mi lascia fare le cose che ho sempre voluto fare – accompagnamento jazzistico, canzoni standard. Lo misi in chiaro sin dal principio, altrimenti è probabile che non avrei registrato mai più. Ma la nostra è stata una relazione felice, abbiamo avuto persino due ‘nominations’ per il Premio Grammy, con l’album Street of Dreams e con quello dedicato alle canzoni di Johnny Mercer.
“L’idea dei duetti vocali con la pianista Joyce Collins, in Street of Dreams, fu in buona parte sua. Fu un’idea ingegnosa. La sperimentammo con ‘This Masquerade’ e ‘My Funny Valentine’, intrecciando le melodie e i versi delle due canzoni sulla stessa armonia. Sembrava molto complicato. In realtà, una volta entrati nel feeling della cosa, risultò assai semplice: benché i brani apparentemente non fossero affini, c’erano certe coincidenze nel testo e anche nel clima, per cui una singolare affinità poteva essere evocata. E la gente, evidentemente, se n’è accorta, perché c’è stato un qualche feedback. Quanto a Johnny Mercer, sono sempre stato un suo fan. I suoi testi hanno profondità ed eloquenza: a mio parere Johnny è stato il più prolifico genio lirico nel mondo della canzone. Una volta deciso di realizzare l’album, ho cercato di entrare nel vivo della sua poetica. E ho imparato molto su di lui, ho imparato che è stato un uomo non solo creativo, ma anche perennemente in cerca di nuovi traguardi e soluzioni. Aveva questo dono meraviglioso per trovare le parole esatte per le melodie che gli venivano sottoposte: scriveva con un sacco di compositori diversi, e per molte persone diverse, sempre tenendo presente la personalità di ciascun interprete. Prendi ‘I’m An Old Cow Hand’. Lo scrisse per uno dei musical hollywoodiani in cui appariva Bing Crosby, Rhythm on a Range, e per Bing, con la sua ironica bonomia, fu un veicolo ideale.”

Accenna un verso di quella venerabile filastrocca western, Bill, suggerendo appena il baritono di Crosby. Sorride, poi torna serio.

“In una canzone io cerco tanto un grande testo che una grande melodia. Come cantante di jazz, a me interessa personalizzarli entrambi. Mi considero essenzialmente un cantante: e anche nella veste di attore mi accosto alla recitazione con la sensibilità del cantante, affrontando le parole di una sceneggiatura come fossero il testo d’una canzone. La sola differenza è che l’attore non ha la facoltà di scegliere il suo materiale, sul set, deve recitare tutto quello che gli viene affidato, bello o brutto che sia, mentre un cantante, in un club, non è costretto a cantare quello che non gli piace. Per l’attore è una questione di sopravvivenza ma anche di esperienza. Non è possibile diventare un vero attore se non ci si sa adeguare alle diverse situazioni che si presentano.
“Essere un cantante prima che un attore non mi impedisce di apprezzare altrettanto anche la recitazione. Voglio coprire più spazi possibile nel mondo dello show business, e continuare a divertirmi mentre lo faccio. Sono aperto ad ogni direzione, e ad ogni cosa che possa indicarmi una direzione. Qualsiasi cosa che mi aiuti a migliorare la qualità espressiva della mia arte, e a sostenere la mia carriera e a tenermi in vita. Cerco nuove esperienze. L’esperienza della recitazione mi ha aiutato ad affinare il canto: e il canto mi ha permesso di impormi come attore. Non avendo trascorsi teatrali, l’esperienza del piccolo palcoscenico del club è stata determinante per farmi sentire a mio agio sul set.”
Per lungo tempo Hollywood non è stata particolarmente generosa e sensibile nei confronti degli attori di colore. E’ sufficiente pensare alle carriere tribolate e discontinue che hanno avuto Ethel Waters e Lena Horne, che pure sono state due delle più nitide personalità femminili degli schermi cinematografici americani. Il piccolo spazio del caratterista, dell’umorista, è stato quello che più sovente si è aperto: e in questo l’arguto Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers ha creato per decenni un prezioso standard espressivo.
“Con Scat ho lavorato in un paio di film, per esempio in Wagon-lit con omicidi, quel thiller comico con Gene Wilder. Scat è stato un grande modello, un attore a suo modo finissimo e un eccellente performer, un cantante inventivo: quell’uomo è stato nel cinema per non so quanto tempo. Quando io ero un ragazzino lui già appariva in questo o quel film. Non ho mai saputo la sua vera età. Molti di questi tipi mentono sulla loro data di nascita!

“La personalità di uno come Scatman, la sua versatilità… Non so se oggi esistano persone in grado di stargli alla pari. La sua era tutta un’altra generazione. E anche la mia è ormai un’altra generazione rispetto a quella dei talenti che emergono oggi. Tra i cantanti, comunque, si ascoltano delle voci interessanti. A Los Angeles c’è questa Tata Vega, che prima era con la Motown e adesso è con il gruppo gospel di Andrae Crouch, e che meriterebbe maggiore attenzione. Poi c’è questo tizio formidabile, McPhee, anzi McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin, e c’è Al Jarreau, che ha un grande successo. Ma nessuno, direi, che appartenga al nostro stile, alla nostra particolare fusione di jazz e blues: non ho mai sentito di nessuno intenzionato a cantare come Bill Henderson o come qualcuno come me. Lou Rawls, dici? Ma Lou Rawls è sulla breccia ormai da più di due decenni, ha una sua personalità compiuta, ed è uno dei più grandi cantanti di tutti i tempi.” Sorride, con modestia. “Dubito seriamente che abbia mai prestato attenzione a quello che faccio io. Un altro grande cantante, tra parentesi, che come me e Lou veniva da Chicago, era Johnny Hartman. I musicisti di jazz e gli autori di canzoni in particolare avevano per lui un grande rispetto. Eppure, per una ragione o per l’altra, Johnny non è mai stato valorizzato. I discografici volevano piazzarlo nella stessa categoria di un Joe Williams, ma questo è stato un clamoroso errore. Hartman non era né un bluesman né uno swinger, come non lo era Dick Haymes – che lui aveva ascoltato – e neppure Frank Sinatra, finché la sua voce non cambiò.
“Prima di morire, qualche anno fa, Johnny Hartman mi fece giungere un messaggio, tramite il comune amico Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, il trombettista di Basie. Dì a Bill che amo la sua musica, che lo ammiro moltissimo. Nel nostro ambiente è una cosa che non si sente dire tanto di frequente: per me fu meraviglioso, visto che quelle parole venivano da un grande cantante come lui.”

Gerald Wiggins, chino sulla tastiera del pianoforte, sembra rendere omaggio a Fred Astaire mentre, in solitudine, dà vita a “The Way You Look Tonight” con una delicatezza di tocco che sa farsi, all’occorrenza, determinata, assertiva. Buxton, tornando al microfono, lo presenta con orgoglio. Mentre lui cresceva a Seattle negli anni ‘50, dice, quella città nordica aveva una scena jazzistica invidiabile. C’erano Quincy Jones con una sua orchestra, c’era il giovane Ray Charles, c’era Ernestine Anderson e c’era Pony Poindexter. E Wiggins, che era l’accompagnatore supremo, quando un cantante di nome capitava nei paraggi. A Wiggins si affiancano Marshall e Washington e il trio percorre gli accordi rotondi di “It Could Happen to You”, con sobrio vigore. Poi torna Bill, e Bill ha ancora voglia di parlare.

“La maggior parte delle persone credono che non diventeranno mai vecchi, ma-a-an. Ma santiddio, non si rendono conto che è una maschera quella che indossano? Basta dare un’occhiata a quelle antiche foto dei tempi della scuola e poi darsi una sbirciata allo specchio, e che altro ti rimane da dire? Who-oahh, sono ormai un cittadino anziano!”
Gli cade l’occhio su una coppia di mezza età, proprio sotto il suo microfono. Punta il dito indice contro la donna.
“Smettila di dirgli, ‘Stai zitto, stai tranquillo.’ Non fai altro che ripetergli cose del genere. Perbacco, non lo vedi? Non si sta divertendo affatto. Dammi retta, ogni volta che lui ha voglia di dire la sua, lasciaglielo fare. Ci penserò poi io a dirgli quand’è il momento di tapparsi la bocca. Che diavolo vi sta succedendo, gente? Donna, donna, ti comporti sempre esattamente allo stesso modo. Ma lascialo andare, lascialo un po’ fare a modo suo. E poi una volta che siete tornati a casa…”

Una piccola routine comica che si svolge con pacatezza, scambiando battute con voci che si levano dal piccolo pubblico. Saremo un centinaio, o poco più, tra i tavolini intorno al palco e la galleria del bar.

Questo posto è dinamite. Tutte le persone che hanno a che fare con questo posto sono formidabili, i baristi, le cameriere, quei tipi che tirano tardi fuori dalla porta d’ingresso e che non sanno neppure quel che sta succedendo qua dentro. Tutti formidabili. You know what I mean? Grazie, Sonny. Ehi, Sonny!” (alza la voce) “Che localino hip che hai. Baristi hip, cameriere hip, pubblico hip, frequentatori regolari che vengono sempre qui e non gliene frega un accidente di chi viene a cantare, e io potrei anche essere Caruso e quelli se ne starebbero comunque lì a sbevazzare e a confabulare…”

L’intermezzo in “comedy” lo carica per il canto. E l’asciutta dolcezza di “Sweet Pumpkin” o la romantica icasticità di “Street of Dreams” (“Gold – silver ‘n’ gold – all you can hold – is in the moonbeams”, una strada dei sogni percorsa con andatura tipicamente staccata) ne conseguono come per naturale contrasto: e così lo swing aperto di “A Lotta Livin’ to Do”, l’animato understatement dell’ellingtoniano “Tulip or Turnip”, la concentratissima pressione drammatica di “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” e di “From Moment to Moment” (una gemma del Johnny Mercer anziano, su una melodia di Henry Mancini) e la tensione in blues di “Please Send Me Someone to Love” (di un’altra grande, laconica voce dell’Ovest, Percy Mayfield), il divertito crescendo di tonalità e di intensità, chorus dopo chorus, dell’inno country & western rivestito in panni jazzistici, “You Are My Sunshine”, e di “Baby Mine”, pseudo-work song fatta swingare, con naturalezza. Niente appare forzato (neppure il momento di blanda gigioneria in cui ci chiede di intonare assieme a lui you are my sun-shine, my only SUN-shine…), tutto è limato con matura eleganza ed essenzialità di enunciazione. Bill Henderson è un altro cantante afroamericano che conosce l’arte sottile della semplicità: l’arte di far apparire semplice, ineluttabile, ciò che al contrario presuppone un ricco bagaglio di tecnica, di esperienza, un lungo lavorio di ricerca espressiva.

Jimmy Rushing, Nat Cole, Joe Turner, Joe Williams, Lou Rawls, Bill Henderson. Presentano la canzone o il blues come se questi nascessero con le loro stesse voci, seguendo una logica emotiva del tutto personale: le note e le loro improvvisate divagazioni, le parole e le loro ombre, le loro suggestioni, non potrebbero essere diverse.
Bill Henderson si allontana a passi lesti che non hanno la grazia della sua voce. Forse ci sarà un terzo set. La notte di San Francisco, ignara, ancora nasconde simili piccoli tesori.

(Basato sull’articolo di “N’Digo”, e su uno precedente apparso su “Feelin’ Good”, e concepito per la raccolta di racconti Strani Blues dell’Ovest. da cui è stato poi depennato. Ancora attivo nel nuovo secolo, e ascoltato in notevoli album di Charlie Haden e Bill Charlap, Henderson ha rivelato di recente di essere nato nel 1925 e non nel 1930: era dunque appena diventato senior citizen ai tempi del nostro incontro.) (E nella primavera del 2016, pochi mesi prima di altri giganti del canto jazz come Kay Starr e Mose Allison, Henderson se n’è andato, a novant’anni, nella sua adottiva Los Angeles.)

OTIS CLAY, AMBASSADOR OF SOUL: at Wise Fools Pub, Chicago 1988

From gospel to soul it’s a short, direct journey, and Chicago’s soul – in its different incarnations, between refinement and earthiness – has a remarkable history of its own written by such original artists as ex-gospel leads Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls, crooner Jerry Butler, social commentator and falsetto master Curtis Mayfield.

For more than two decades, Otis Clay’s singing has been one of the most coherent and deeply rooted expressions of Chicago soul. Born in 1942 in a rural Mississippi Delta hamlet now out of every map, Waxhaw, and vocally grown in a sanctified acapella quartet, Clay symbolizes in his career the very variety and dialectics of Black Chicago (and particularly of the West Side, metropolitan “extension” of the Delta), where he settled as an adolescent: the constant, stimulating relationship with the Deep South, the inexhaustible interplay between soul, blues and gospel. A parched and passionate tenor, with a rough, palpable profile and a very solid rhythmic pulse, Clay comes out of an intense formative experience with the West Side’s gospel quartets, such as the Golden Jubilaires (led by veteran Charles Bridges of the historical Blue Jays of Birmingham), the Pilgrim Harmonizers, the Gospel Songbirds (with whom he recorded his first single in 1963, “Do You Ever Call Jesus”, for Nashboro), and even the nationally renowned Sensational Nightingales. In 1964 he crossed the thin musical line between sacred and profane – a very common move in those days for gospel singers in search of wider commercial horizons – also because, he says, “as I grew older, I became a little more broad-minded about life in general.” With Harold Burrage and Tyrone Davis, Otis soon became one of the regular attractions in such ghetto lounges as Curley’s, while some of his discs for local label One-derful – mostly with bands led by guitarist Cash McCall – climbed the Chicago R&B hit parade: sides like “I’m Satisfied”, “I Testify”, and his first nationwide smash, “That’s How It Is”, revealed a singular ability to translate religious topics and routines into a secular “soul” logic, his talent as raconteur-preacher, the glaring emotionality of his singing.

Since the late Sixties, while consolidating his style, Otis Clay has been restlessly wandering from label to label. He was briefly under contract with Atlantic-Cotillion, going back South to the Muscle Shoals Fame studios to cut a minor hit, “She’s About a Mover”, and offering his best performance so far in a vigorous, hurting cover of the soul standard “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man”. He spent a few years with Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records, in Memphis, making the Black charts again with “Trying to Live My Life Without You” and cutting two unsung masterpieces, “The Woman Don’t Live Here No More” and “House Ain’t a Home (Without a Woman)”, poignant metaphoric ballads of loneliness and deserted love-nests. Then he tried small Chicago companies such as Echo, but found unexpected luck in Japan, where he frequently toured, being hailed as the ultimate “soul man”. Japanese Victor issued his Chicago-recorded “Cheatin’ in the Next Room” (a George Jackson song that would soon become successful with Southern Black audiences in Z.Z. Hill’s version) and two live albums from concerts in Tokyo, the second of which – reprinted in the States by Rooster Records as Soul Man-Live in Japan – contributed to the mid-Eighties revival of deep soul.
Today in Chicago – while Southern labels Jewel and Hi (again) respectively produce the gospel and secular sides of his singing – Otis Clay is the authentic soul ambassador, speaking for the traditional values of the music. In the North Side’s clubs and pubs, in front of a mainly White audience of students, yuppies and tourists, with a few fellow West Side expatriates scattered in, he delivers his mundane sermons with a sober and hypnotic vitality. He’s the consummate, hard-working professional who fights with PA systems and acoustics troubles (and assorted noises coming from bar and tables) without batting an eyelid, who leads his combo (Hammond organ, rhythm section, three horns) with a firm hand, who believes in the routine of changing suits from set to set, even if he and his partners are forced on the uncomfortably narrow stage of such an informal, humble tavern as the Wise Fools Pub, on Lincoln Avenue.

His solid eclecticism is soon evident. Otis ranges from blues evergreens “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” and “Sweet Home Chicago” to classic themes of Sixties and Seventies soul: explicit, calibrated tributes to Johnnie Taylor (“Love Bones”), Al Green (“Take Me to the River”), Otis Redding (a strangulated, painful “The Dock of the Bay”), or more casual and somewhat hurried medleys in which he presses Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back the Hands of Time” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” and Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand”. But when he turns to the soul ballad and its conflicts, anxieties, tensions, letting all emotions hang out, then Otis becomes the rare, original master. “The Woman Don’t Live Here No More”, with an initial rap on “singleness” which melts into the very melody, is a dramatic monologue in which the hurt for love lost grows out of the turbulent interaction of veracious accents and bittersweet nuances and wild yet disciplined melisma, until the final ad-lib, with its dark crescendo of pathos. Eyes almost constantly shut, face marked with a blasé suffering (and not without a hint of self-irony), the singer-preacher deftly plays with lips and microphone, smoothing his dry and pungent phrasing and creating evocative shadings, electric quivers, deep torsions that tear and make the voice’s flesh bleed, while the sour, gracefully dirty highs seal the climaxes of his testifying, in the flat, crude light of ghetto’s realism. And always intriguing are his renditions of songs from O.V. Wright’s repertoire, the late Memphis soulster some of whose relevant interpretive traits have been absorbed and personalized by Otis: the raw and allusive “A Nickel and a Nail”, the abrasive, biting “We’re Still Together” and “Let’s Straighten It Out”.
At its best, this is musical theatre for a single actor, in which images of a scant and even commonplace quality are brought to a universal appeal by the intensely anguished and dynamic lyricism of a great, vehement voice.
(written in the early Nineties for Porretta Terme’s Sweet Soul Music festival)

BOBBY “BLUE” BLAND: master of Southern soul-blues

Robert Calvin Bland, well known to several generations of Black Americans as Bobby “Blue” Bland, has been able, with extraordinary eloquence and authority, to mediate in his unique vocal image stylistic elements from blues and gospel (and even some melodic traits borrowed from pop and country), and to lead the transition from traditional blues to eclectic soul-blues forms popular in contemporary Southern Black music. He has been – indeed – a clear and long-lived model for a whole, wide “school” of remarkable singers, from Little Milton to Z.Z. Hill, from Mighty Sam McClain to McKinley Mitchell.

Throughout his formative years, spent in rural Rosemark, where he was born in 1930, and (in the early post-war years, as a member of the gospel quartet, the Miniatures) on the Memphis scene, church music played a fundamental role for Bland. His singing, however, was soon influenced by several “secular” artists: sensitive shouter Roy Brown, white crooners Bing Crosby and Perry Como, and – last but not least – B.B. King, a few years his elder. With King, Bobby shared a blues-oriented expressive approach, while animating – about 1950 – Beale Street clubs and bars, as part of an informal aggregation known as the Beale Streeters, which also included future R&B stars Johnny Ace and Roscoe Gordon.

Bland cut his first recordings between 1951 and 1952 for Chess and Modern: one of these, a duet with harmonica player Junior Parker entitled “Drifting from Town to Town”, gained a certain success: as did the straightforward and still unrefined “Army Blues” (partly autobiographical: Bland was then serving in the army), recorded in Memphis in 1952 with Johnny Board’s band and issued by Duke-Peacock of Houston, the label owned by Black businessman Don Robey which was to feature him among its major artists for the next two decades. It is, however, the 1955 Houston session with a band led by tenorsaxist Bill Harvey and by Joe Scott, a skilful, imaginative arranger and trumpet player, that reveals the bluesman’s personality: in the bellicose “It’s My Life, Baby”, his voice, full and fleshy, rich of vibrato, well assisted by the mobile guitar of Roy Gaines (the first of a series of precious alter ego guitarists, including Clarence Holloman, Wayne Bennett, Mel Brown, Freddy Robinson), can already sculpture lyrics in a distinct way, muscular yet graceful.

While the Texan sound in his recordings is powerfully established, Bland’s voice, in the following years, acquires evocative nuances and a subtler flexibility in phrasing, as two great blues of 1957 show: “I Smell Trouble” and “Further Up the Road” (his first Number One in the Black hit parade). By the end of the Fifties, the explosive “Little Boy Blue” and the ballads “I’m Not Ashamed” and “I’ll Take Care of You” allow the singer – now imploring, now gloomily volitive – to display an unusual lyrical relevance, a formidable emotional tension and sensuality. In the meantime, inspired also by Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, the gospel lexicon overbearingly re-emerges in him: and together with his proud, anxious and slashing howl and his liquid falsetto calls (soon replaced by the stout growl, inherited from Rev. C.L. Franklin), the unquiet melisma, the creative syllable modulation, becomes his main peculiar feature. The “Blues Consolidated” traveling show, led until 1961 by Bland and fellow Duke artist Junior Parker in Black community theatres, confirms and reinforces his popularity in the world of R&B. In parallel with the beauty of his high-flying, brown-tinged baritone, always balanced between tenderness and carnality, coolness and despair, it is his look and gestures (a calm yet suggestive mirror of the dramatic crescendo of his songs) that allow him to dominate the ghetto stages, reaching female audiences in the intense, ritualistic way described in Charles Keil’s book Urban Blues.
The Sixties, commercially and artistically, are his Golden Age. The great number of Duke albums and singles, arranged by Scott in an orchestral frame which is, at the same time, simple and roughly elegant, with a Southern jazzy flavor reinforced by the powerfful responsory-like role of the brass instruments and by the subtle and bluesy comments from Wayne Bennett’s guitar, consolidate Bland’s highly personal style through a mature and eclectic songbook. To blues like T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” (a 1962 version, original and extremely influential) or the raging “That Did It “(1967) he adds fervent renderings of gospel-scented thems, like “Turn On Your Lovelight” and “Yield Not to Temptation”, “Don’t Cry No More” and “Ain’t That Lovin’ You”, quivering, deeply-felt blues ballads sprinkled with Baptist sacredness such as “Blind Man”, “I Pity the Fool” (a masterful piece of melodrama ghost-written, like other Bland titles, by Texan Joe Medwick, and a Number One in the 1961 R&B charts), and “A Touch of the Blues”; airy, sentimental ballads like “Cry Cry Cry” and “Two Steps from The Blues”, sung with moving lyrical surrender; and also country songs such as Charlie Rich’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be”, interiorized with soul and pathos, and a few jazz and pop standards, like “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blues in the Night”, which disclose a rare melodic taste.

After his last Duke hit in 1972 – the anxiety-filled “Do What You Set Out to Do”, a blues with intriguing minor-major changes – his image undergoes a slight modernization in a series of albums for ABC, in search of a new crossover audience. The operation is only partially successful, thanks to the first, fine Lp, HIS CALIFORNIA ALBUM (arranged by Michael Omartian), and two extemporaneous, live in studio sessions with B.B. King. Indeed, as it becomes clear in such recordings as “This Time I’m Gone for Good”, “Lovin’ on Borrowed Time” and Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, and – to a greater extent – in his live performances, the singer remains true to his own aesthetics. Although discontinuous and occasionally contaminated by quasi-disco triviality, the next MCA Lp’s underline the consistency of Bland’s idiom, and he finds again the best expressive concentration in episodes of the album HERE WE GO AGAIN, such as the standard “Don’t Go to Strangers” (from Etta Jones’ and Dinah Washington’s books) and “Is This the Blues?”, a composition by his Chicago epigone L.V. Johnson. Around the mid Eighties, his warm, thick baritone starts getting darker, losing part of his agility, but after joining the Malaco soul-blues roster, from the single “Members Only” (a lesser hit of 1985 and a real sleeper) and the album bearing the same title, Bobby Bland’s career finds new life in the firm sign of tradition. In funky tunes like “Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time”, country ballads like “There’s No Easy Way to Say Goodbye”, thoughtful soul sketches like “If I Don’t Get Involved” and “Years of Tears to Go”, blues like “I’ve Got a Problem” or “For the Last Time” (all written by talented Southern songwriters: George Jackson, Joe Medwick, Tommy Tate, Frank-O Johnson, Larry Addison), Bland, now tender now bitter now introspective, showing a relaxed and intense phrase control, a tormented and colloquial sort of modulation, is still able to give his variegated love tales emotional relevance and rich chiaroscuros.

(Written for the Enciclopedia del Blues e della Musica Nera, 1994, and translated by an old friend and drummer, Giancarlo Baccelli.)


Attraverso quegli anni inquieti Settanta in cui il soul di Curtis Mayfield e Marvin Gaye coglieva tormenti e gioie, ambizioni e disillusioni delle inner cities di Chicago e di Detroit, una voce dell’Ovest, quella singolare di Ted Taylor, nativo dell’Oklahoma (1937) e cresciuto a Los Angeles (e morto on the road, nel 1987), aggiornava le tematiche e i chiaroscuri del blues in una moderna chiave ritmica funky, molto contribuendo a tenere desto linguaggio e valori della tradizione attraverso l’intera fascia meridionale dell’America nera. Il falsetto agro e bizzoso di Ted, carnoso anche nelle puntate più abbaglianti, e quel timing e quella passionalità svezzati nel gospel, donavano un forte spessore emotivo alle sue incisioni per la Jewel-Ronn di Shreveport, Louisiana, autentiche fotografie sonore delle tensioni esistenziali del ghetto post-Martin Luther King e perfetta espressione della fusione stilistica tra blues e soul. Raccolta di inediti come l’iniziale, effervescente “Farewell” (affine ai successi del chicagoano Tyrone Davis), di rarità e di takes alternative (come “Walking the Floor”, eccellente duetto con l’altro Taylor di casa Ronn, Little Johnny), questo denso CD va a completare il precedente Be Ever Wonderful (che comprendeva anche i piccoli capolavori sudisti dei tardi anni Sessanta) e fa rivivere l’arte del Ted Taylor accorato balladeur (“Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere”, un classico R&B di Joe Morris) e soprattutto la sua incisività di immaginifico bluesman sarcastico (“Don’t Be Slappin’ My Hand”), tormentato dagli spettri della gelosia (“Call the House Doctor”) e capace di calarsi nelle ansie carcerarie di “Cummins Prison Farm”. Chitarre wah wah e robuste orchestrazioni funky-soul corredano con puntualità il tenore fremente di Ted, la grana chiarissima e palpabile delle sue toccanti prediche secolari.

North Bennington, Vermont, January 2009, at a party in Judith’s marvelous apartment: Luciano and his vocal hero JERRY LAWSON (once leader of the glorious Persuasions), singing “Gettin’ Tired of the Blues”, from the album Forgotten Dreams. Alas, Jerry has left us ten years later, in the summer of 2019.

Summer of 1988, in Viareggio, an interview with the Tan Nightingale from New Orleans, JOHNNY ADAMS, master of chiaroscuro soul-jazz vocals.

“Soul Brothers & Sisters, 1970”. I miei eroi disegnati quando avevo sedici anni: non ci sono Johnny Adams (forse non sapevo ancora che faccia avesse, possedendo solo un 45 giri o due), Joe Williams, Bill Henderson, Jerry Lawson, Johnny Hartman, ma tanti altri tra quelli effigiati, quasi tutti, direi (anche se non tutti ben riconoscibili), sono ancora nel mio cuore

Humor, pathos, swing, senso del racconto e dello spettacolo, finezza e veracità nella definizione di un brano: qualità e valori di un bluesman e showman tra i più influenti e versatili del dopoguerra. Cantante meraviglioso dall’inconfondibile sound castano, dalle ombre scavate e dalla grana spessa, palpabile, il texano Aaron Thibeaux Walker, detto “T-Bone”, ha dato alla chitarra elettrica un prominente ruolo “vocale” sulla scena del Rhythm & Blues: un ruolo tanto innovativo quanto essenziale. Echeggiando quello del grande Lonnie Johnson, il suo solismo dal nitore pungente e dalla elegante incisività, una combinazione fluida e dinamica di accordi, arpeggi, frasi melodiche staccate e singole note torturate con grazia, ha fatto scuola nel panorama dell’Ovest (da Gatemouth Brown a Wayne Bennett, da Pee Wee Crayton a Lowell Fulsom, da Phillip Walker – nessuna parentela – a Albert Collins) e ha ispirato a fondo anche maestri di altre aree geografiche e stilistiche, come B.B. King e Buddy Guy, oltre a innumerevoli, brillanti epigoni bianchi come il suo conterraneo Anson Funderburgh o Duke Robillard.
Nato il 28 maggio del 1910 a Linden, nei pressi del confine con Arkansas e Louisiana, cresciuto a Dallas e morto a Los Angeles il 16 marzo del 1975, T-Bone Walker – di sangue in parte Cherokee – era radicato nella complessa tradizione rurale e cittadina del Sud-Ovest. Il suo percorso fu significativo e intrigante, sin dagli inizi nel sacro e profano del folclore texano: da bambino, come racconta la sua biografa Helen Oakley Dance, Walker aveva ascoltato lo shouting ora mesto e ora gioioso che si levava dalla chiesa pentecostale, ma anche il verace e lirico canto blues di Blind Lemon Jefferson, sul cui modello, e con il rustico nom de plume di “Oak Cliff T-Bone”, avrebbe debuttato su disco nel 1929, con “Trinity River Blues”. Quindi era passato attraverso esperienze come cantante, banjoista e ballerino nel medicine show del “dottor” Breeding, nelle massacranti walkathons di cui raccontano anche suoi contemporanei del Midwest quali Anita O’Day e Frankie Laine, nello spettacolo della popolare blues lady Ida Cox, e – come premio per aver vinto una serata del dilettante al Majestic Theatre – nell’orchestra di Cab Calloway. Sulla West Coast giunse negli anni Trenta, stabilendosi in quella Watts che presto – assorbendo un formidabile flusso migratorio dagli Stati Sud-occidentali – sarebbe divenuta la Harlem dell’Ovest: e dopo le prime affermazioni in locali come il Trocadero o lo stesso Little Harlem, T-Bone emerse come vedette dell’orchestra del sassofonista contralto Les Hite, mostrandosi vocalista blues dal tratto ormai urbano e sofisticato.

Registrato a New York per la Varsity, con gli uomini di Hite, “T-Bone Blues” definì le singolari qualità di versatile shouter/crooner del texano. Preceduto dalla languida e riverberante chitarra hawaiiana di Frank Pasley, l’alto e rilassato baritono dai contorni fumé di T-Bone Walker dava un vivido spessore e un colore pastoso al conflittuale racconto blues, riecheggiando il Leroy Carr di “How Long” ma anche gli “urlatori” di Kansas City, e in particolare il basiano Jimmy Rushing, allora nella fase più visibile della sua carriera. Il buon successo del disco favorì il passaggio alla giovane e già dinamica etichetta hollywoodiana di Johnny Mercer, la Capitol. I classici “Mean Old World” (“I drink to keep from worryin’, I smile to keep from cryin’…”) e “I Got a Break Baby”, realizzati nel 1942 con il trio di Freddie Slack, accentuano la capacità evocativa del Walker raconteur, la sua emotività contrastata (e certa icastica rotondità della sua scrittura), mentre introducono la sua chitarra come “voce” altrettanto caratterizzata e autorevole, dall’eloquenza tagliente. Successive registrazioni effettuate a Chicago, dove il bluesman affinò le sue qualità di uomo-spettacolo sul palcoscenico del Rhumboogie, creando una dialettica anche visuale (e funambolica, danzante) con lo strumento, sottolineano invece quell’eclettismo e quella sensibilità melodica che Walker condivideva con suoi maestri e contemporanei come Louis Jordan e lo stesso Rushing: in particolare il misterioso “Evenin’” (1945), un song in minore sul quale la chitarra chiosava i chiaroscuri del canto piazzando pochi accordi succintamente arpeggiati e un assolo dal respiro essenziale e penetrante. Ma la piena illuminazione stilistica dell’artista, in simbiosi con il definitivo affermarsi del linguaggio blues postbellico nella sua fondamentale espressione texano-californiana, avvenne attraverso le performances losangelene del 1946-47 per la Black & White: su tempi shuffle o su pensosi slow, con la cornice di archetipici, dinamici quintetti R&B guidati da pianisti come Lloyd Glenn e Willard McDaniel, animati dalla tromba di Teddy Buckner o dal tenore di Bumps Meyers, il trentacinquenne T-Bone Walker mostra tutta l’ampiezza ritmica e varietà architettonica del suo improvvisare, la piena, ombreggiata maturità del canto, con le sue morbide curve e i suoi margini incisivi e asprigni. Il topico “Bobby Sox Blues”, con gli all stars di Jack McVea, fu il primo grande successo, un disco che nei jukebox delle città nere si alternava ai prodigiosi hit di Louis Jordan, da “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie” a “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chicken”. Ma è “Call It Stormy Monday” (“…but Tuesday is just as bad:” un succinto catalogo di tormenti, oppressioni e gioie liberatorie nel corso dei giorni della settimana) che rimane l’episodio più significativo, con la sua “coolness” carica di suggestioni, le sue frasi penetranti e memorabili, la perfetta interazione tra voce e strumento, la composta intensità dell’interpretazione. Nelle ripetute letture di Walker (ma anche, in epoca soul, in quelle ben personalizzate di Bobby “Blue” Bland e di Benny Latimore) il brano si sarebbe imposto come lo standard per eccellenza del blues postbellico. T-Bone vantava allora anche un gustoso aspetto di swinger e umorista, appunto à la Louis Jordan, come nella canzone AABA “She’s the No-Sleepin’est Woman” (rimasta a lungo inedita): e rivelava un volto di caldo e intimo balladeur, dalla filigrana ironica, in “I’m Still in Love with You”, con i secchi accordi di chitarra che andavano a complementare un fraseggio canoro rilassato quanto elastico.
Da quegli ultimi anni Quaranta, accompagnando l’affermazione di altri importanti bluesman dell’Ovest che a lui facevano in qualche modo riferimento, come l’estroso “poeta del blues”, Percy Mayfield, o lo shouter Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone continuò ad arricchire la colonna sonora dell’America nera con episodi memorabili: “I’m Waiting For Your Call”, sempre su Black & White, “West Side Baby” e “T-Bone Shuffle”, su Comet, “The Hustle Is On” e “Evil Hearted Woman”, “Alimony Blues” e “Cold Cold Feeling”, tutti su Imperial – e gli ultimi due in compagnia di Maxwell Davis, sax tenore e arrangiatore, un altro prezioso ingegnere del R&B californiano. Poi, come è accaduto a tante importanti figure del blues, ha cominciato a rivisitare i luoghi della propria arte e del proprio repertorio: dall’alto, come nelle tre classiche session Atlantic del 1955 (a Chicago), 1956 e 1957 (a Los Angeles), di una maturità esemplare. Raccolte nell’album T-Bone Blues, queste session lo videro liberare il suo fraseggio strumentale e il suo denso canto baritonale con arguzia e pensosa determinazione: e con quella versatilità (in realtà una capacità di pilotare i diversi contesti espressivi, adattandoli alla propria immagine stilistica) evidente sin dalle prove con i piccoli maestri chicagoani, divisa tra l’estetica city blues dei brani con la seconda chitarra di Jimmy Rogers (fitto è il dialogo tra i due in “Vida Lee”, qui ribattezzato “T-Bone Blues Special”) e l’armonica “parlante” del giovane Junior Wells, e quella jump dei titoli con la band del sax tenore Eddie Chamblee. In questi ultimi – e particolarmente in due gioielli come “Papa Ain’t Salty” e “T-Bone Shuffle” – il cangiare di marcia e respiro della chitarra, il suo alternare toni predicatorii e accenti sferzanti, il suo fluido rispondere e chiosare, illumina e dinamicizza il racconto lirico sottolineato dal baritono con cauto sarcasmo, in quel peculiarissimo registro ombreggiato: scuro, ma al contempo morbido e insinuante.

Un colore vocale dalla profonda e incisiva sobrietà nera che domina le magistrali riletture dei tre classici walkeriani al centro della prima session losangelena, con il pianoforte di Lloyd Glenn (alla guida di un trio di R&B cameristico) capace di creare con la chitarra cornici di dialettica e chiaroscurale eleganza. Sul ritmo shuffle delle riletture di “T-Bone Blues” e di “Mean Old World” (racconto di crudeltà e solitudine, moderna proiezione di antiche tattiche di sopravvivenza degli schiavi: “Bevo per non tormentarmi, sorrido per non dover piangere / E per non far sapere al pubblico quello che porto nella mente”) T-Bone si esprime con economia e con intensità: e nel plastico remake di “Call It Stormy Monday” le quotidiane pene dell’uomo del ghetto, i suoi spassi e le sue preghiere, sono resi in un’intrigante altalena di palpiti confidenziali e pugnaci accenti da pulpito. L’ultima session, in compagnia del grasso, ruggente e lucente tenore di Plas Johnson e della chitarra jazz di Barney Kessel, rende omaggio a Leroy Carr e a Jimmy Rushing – con un “How Long” cantato con quieta ed evocativa cupezza e con una magistrale interpretazione di quella strana, inquietante ballata, “Evenin’”. L’armonia in minore si apre e rasserena mentre nel testo “cadono le ombre” – un effetto di contrasto che Walker asseconda con la sua notturna lettura insieme drammatica e ironica, da impareggiabile, compassato istrione.

Un istrione che avrebbe apprezzato a fondo anche il pubblico europeo, grazie alle tournée con l’American Folk Blues Festival (da un recente DVD è emerso il fosco “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong” di un T-Bone cauto e concentratissimo, fotografato in primi piani che illustrano tutta la mobile espressività della sua mimica facciale) e alle apparizioni in diversi festival jazz tra gli anni Sessanta e i primi Settanta. In quella fase declinante della sua carriera, sempre segnata, tuttavia, da una grande classe di interprete e di performer, T-Bone lasciò altre incisioni significative: I Want a Little Girl, una session parigina del 1968, con il sax di Hal Singer, su Delmark; Bosses of the Blues, seduta “all star” dell’anno successivo per la Bluebird, con Big Joe Turner, Otis Spann, George “Harmonica” Smith; e ancora una session dal piglio funky per la BluesWay, Funky Town, e lo stesso epilogo su un doppio Lp Reprise del 1973, Very Rare – gioco di parole tra la “bistecca” del nome d’arte del bluesman, illustrata in copertina, e la “cottura al sangue” – disco crepuscolare ma comunque incantevole per la felice varietà di programma e arrangiamenti, da “Fever” a “Well I Done Got Over It”, e l’eccellenza dei partner, da James Booker a Fathead Newman, da Charles Brown a Dizzy Gillespie. E si ritrovò più volte a fianco di altri veterani del panorama losangeleno. Il “Padrino del R&B”, Johnny Otis, amava raccontare della “battaglia del blues” da lui messa in scena nei primi anni Settanta in seno alla propria orchestra: protagonisti Big Joe Turner, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson e – appunto – T-Bone Walker, “uomini straordinari, che si amavano e rispettavano l’un altro, ma quasi perennemente ubriachi fradici. I problemi iniziavano quando si entrava nel vivo della competizione. ‘Guardalo là, quant’è brillo,’ mi diceva uno dei tre. ‘E’ meglio che mi ci faccia andare ME sul palcoscenico,’ aggiungeva un altro. E tutti e tre si bisticciavano sempre a proposito di chi fosse il più adatto a chiudere lo show. Ma appena lo spettacolo era finito, ecco che ricominciavano a ridere e a abbracciarsi e a scherzare a ruota libera, come niente fosse.”

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