TESTAMENT RECORDS

by Pete Welding



I started Testament Records in 1963 to issue some of the recordings of blues and black folksong I had been making over the previous four or five years. During that time I had recorded, first in my hometown of Philadelphia and then in Chicago where I moved at the beginning of 1962, a fair number of artists whose music, I felt, deserved to be heard.

Through my friendship with Bob Koester, who was operating Delmark Records in Chicago, I saw what was involved in putting albums together and determined it was something I could do too. Having a good-paying job at the time, I didn't have to worry overmuch about the records paying for themselves, so I put out what I thought was interesting and worthwhile. Come to that, Testament never had any commercial pressures behind its releases, so these were as irregular as they were unusual and, I hope, valuable in documenting a number of the music's overlooked genres and performers. These were what I largely concentrated on, since the more popular and commercial ones were being adequately documented.

I started off with an album by Maryland singer and 12-string guitarist Bill Jackson who I had first met almost a decade earlier and had recorded fairly extensively. He was the first artist I had presented when conducting a folk music program on radio station WHYY, operated by the Philadelphia Board of Education, through which I sought to introduce listeners to the folksong traditions of the Philadelphia area. Bill was one of the foremost discoveries I made during these years and, as the art of the songster was at the time little documented (Jesse Fuller and Mance Lipscomb were the two major songsters then active), it seemed appropriate to initiate the label with an artist whose music not only would expand our knowledge of the idiom but be enjoyed for the accomplished and invigorating singing and playing it was. Titanic Blues, one of my favorites of Bill's deep repertoire, shows the strength of traditional utterance and Bill's personal handling of it. LONG STEEL RAIL, the album from which it has been drawn, was the first sampling of the black folksong traditions of rural Maryland and, three decades after its release, remains one of the albums I am proudest of having produced.

Blind streetsinger Connie Williams, originally from Florida where he attended the same school for the blind that Ray Charles did a few years later, is another Philadelphia find and subject of another WHYY program. Like many street-singers, particularly in modern times, Williams performed only sacred music on the sidewalks of Philadelphia's South Street market area--the police, he explained, were far less likely to harrass or run off one who sang and played religious material rather than blues or other secular music. Connie had a large store of the latter, as his One Thin Dime so well illustrates, as well as that he was a superlative guitarist in the highly musical East Coast style. However, he primarily played accordion on the street for two reasons-its greater volume carried much farther than would guitar and was much easier on the hands over a full day's performing. On either instrument he was wonderful.

The second Testament album was ROUGH AND READY, which introduced pianist and sometime singer Jimmy Walker to the blues audience, on his own and with his then reular playing partner Erwin Helfer in a series of duets recorded in Jimmy's basement flat over many happy Sunday afternoons. I was introduced to Jimmy by Billy Boy Arnold and in turn introduced him to Erwin; despite widely different backgrounds and a great difference in ages, the two found common ground in the blues piano that each loved so much, and took to one another instantly. From the start they played together as if they always had. Going Back To Texas with a functional vocal by the Memphis-born Walker, is typical of their easy rapport and effortlessly driving playing styles. This sumons up some wonderful memories for me, for this is how many a weekend afternoon was spent-with two good friends and plenty of joyous music. I hope you enjoy it too.

On a more sobering note, A Man For The Nation, performed on guitar and sung by Tennessean John Lee Granderson, was the initial track recorded for an album of songs about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It actually inspired the album for it was John Lee who mentioned to me that he had written a song about this while, repairing a car, he listened to the radio in the hours following the shooting. When Big Joe Williams told me he had done the same, I contacted other performers to see if they had done likewise, or could write a song about ihis tragic event. The album that resulted, CAN'T KEEP FROM CRYING, recorded in the weeks following the assassination, is a unique document that memorializes the deep feelings Kennedy's death inspired in many black Americans, and stands as one of the few events in modern times to have produced such an outpouring of topical song.

Big Joe Williams not only recorded for Testament--Annie Mae is one of many recordings I made with Joe over the years--but he frequently served as a talent scout as well. The fine blues fiddler (and singer) Jimmy Brown who performs with him on this piece is an artist he brought up from St. Louis on one of his scouting trips. Also from this city, and like Brown originally from Mississippi, is the marvelous singer Ruby McCoy whose affecting Black Mary, with Big joe in support, recalls Bessie Tucker. Ruby is one of a splendid family of singers and players, of whom her sister Bessie and brother George are two more who Big joe led me to on one of our trips to the St. Louis area (their recordings remain for later release).

Another artist who served as talent scout was Johnny Young, a fine, vastly underrated singer-guitarist-mandolinist who, like Big joe, I recorded fairly extensively over the years both as featured performer and as accompanist to others.

I issued the first of the many Young recordings I made on the compilation album MODERN CHICAGO BLUES, but the selection included here All My Money Gone stems from the set JOHNNY YOUNG AND HIS FRIENDS, which presents this fine tradional blues artist in the entirety of his multi-faceted talent, as singer, guitarist and mandolinist in settings that range from solo performances to small amplified ensembles. It's one of the albums l'm proudest of doing, and one that still gives me great listening pleasure, as I hope it does you.

One of the singular artists Johnny led me to was the multi-talented Carl Martin who, along with John Lee Granderson and harmonica player John Wrencher (another Young discovery) were brought together with him to form the ad hoc group I called THE CHICAGO STRING BAND and which made a full album under this name. Virginia-born Martin played guitar, violin and mandolin on these recordings, equally well by the way, and is heard singing and playing violin, with Young and Granderson on guitars, on the excellent Railroad Blues. On the other hand Wrencher's spirited I'm Going To Detroit, with Young on mandolin this time and Granderson on guitar, was included in the compilation MODERN CHICACO BLUES.

During the early 1960s Young, Wrencher and Granderson could be heard most Sunday mornings during the warm leather months performing on Chicago's Maxwell Street open-air market area. For a while, in varying combinations, they backed up the brilliant Robert Nighthawk, singer and slide guitarist extraordinaire. I was unable to record a whole album's worth of performances by the peripatetic Nighthawk but I did manage to do most of one in a session that resonates in my mind as perhaps the single finest one I was ever priveleged to do. The combination of Robert's lightly amplified guitar and controlled intensity, Young's acoustic rhythm guitar and Wrencher's quietly probing unamplified harmonica is breathtaking, almost chamber music-like in the perfection of its interlocking parts. This is my favorite Testament session. l'm Gettin' Tired, from the album ROBERT NICHTHAWK/HOUSTON STACKHOUSE, is a good example of why I still feel so.

Don Kent and I found Dr. Ross, the unexampled one-man band, on one of our trips to Detroit in search of both performers and postwar blues records. On this particular one we found a marvelous cache of the latter, and our visit with Fortune Records' Jack Brown led us to Flint, Mich., and Dr. Ross. We brought the good doctor to Chicago to perform at the University of Chicago folk music festival, where he was, not unexpectedly, a huge hit. In the days following his festival appearances, I recorded a whole album's worth of his bracing music, of which Cat Squirrel is typical. Small wonder Cream did a cover of it.

Fred McDowell is another performer I brought to Chicago to perform at the annual U. of C. folk festivals; we brought him up several times in fact, since his powerful music was always well-received. While most of Fred's many recordings over the years were of traditional Mississippi blues, he was equally, convincingly adept at religious song. This is well illustrated here by the stunning Jesus Is On The Main Line on which he was joined by the Hunter's Chapel Singers of Como, Miss. (Annie Mae McDowell, Fannie Davis, Crace Bowden and James Collins) with whom he performed on Sunday mornings when at home in Como. It's one of the highpoints of the album of Mississippi Delta spirituals AMAZING GRACE I recorded with the group in February of 1966. Coin' Down South, from MY HOME IS IN THE DELTA, recorded later in Los Angeles, is the Fred most blues fans are familiar with. The Johnny Shines acoustic track Hoodoo Snake Doctor Blues was recorded at my house in Altadena, CA in November of 1970.

Most blues fans are familiar with singer-pianist Otis Spann, mainstay of the Muddy Waters Band for so many years and in the opinion of many the finest blues pianist of the last four decades and more. Although his primary allegiance was to Muddy and his nonpareil band, Otis did come into his own as a recording artist. I am happy to say I was privileged to have had his friendship and to have recorded him; Nobody Knows My Troubles stems from Testament album OTIS SPANN'S CHICACO BLUES, on which he was joined by harmonica players Jimmy Cotton and Walter Horton, guitarists Johnny Young and Johnny Shines, bassists Jimmy Lee Morris and Lee Jackson, and drummers S. P. Leary, Fred Below and Robert Whitehead. Spann is heard alone on this track, however.

Spann served as the linchpin of several bands I recorded in early summer of 1966, just prior to my moving to Los Angeles (and UCLA), during which were documented the music of Johnny Shines (So Cold In Vietnam), J.B. Hutto (Pet Cream Man) and Eddie Taylor (Peach Tree Blues). One further artist was recorded at these sessions, singer-guitarist Floyd Jones, but space limitations have precluded the inclusion of one of his selections here. Harmonica play" Big Walter Horton and drummer Fred Below were used throughout these sessions (along with Spann), with Lee Jackson and Jones alternating the bass duties.

In addition to recordings I had made, Testament also released several made by others. Most notable of these are the recordings of fife-and drum band music made in northern Mississippi by David Evans which document some of the most archaic and interesting Afro-American musical practices existant in the Lower South (the spirited My Babe included here is a splendid example and has been drawn from the album TRAVELINC THROUCH THE JUNGLE), as well as Evans' recordings of Jack Owens, a singer and guitarist from Bentonia, Miss., whose music extends our knowledge of the blues of this region the best-known representative of which prior to Owens was Skip James. Then there's Eddie Lee "Mustright" Jones, a marvelous traditional singer-guitarist from rural Georgia whose exciting archaic music was recorded informally by researcher Bill Koon, not only documenting an earlier, pre-blues stage of black folksong but catching the spontaneous interplay between performer and listeners/participants that characterizes traditional music in its living context. l'm Talking' Bout You was one of sixteen selections included in the album YONDER GO THAT OLD BLACK DOG.

Singer-harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold provided a set of recordings of his own music he had made in Chicago, and these-of which Pleading And Crying is typical--were first released in the compilation album GOIN' TO CHICAGO. The track by Johnny Littlejohn, his remake of the well-known Dust My Broom, is from the BOTTLENECK BLUES album, which had been planned but never released on Testament untill now. This performance was recorded by Frank Scott.

The most recent of the recordings here is the selection by Texas-born singer-guitarist Johnny Turner who along with harmonica player Zaven "Big John" Jambazian co-led the band Blues With A Feeling during the late 1960s and early '70s. The track Don't Start Me To Talkin' was recorded "live" at the band's most regular venue, The Raven & The Rose, in Sierra Madre, CA. It must, regrettably, stand as tribute to Zaven, one of the blues' staunchest supporters in the Los Angeles area and friend of many well-known blues artists. In poor health for some years, he died suddenly last year and will be missed by all of us who knew and loved him. Play on, Zaven.

There remain, I am happy to say, large numbers of additional recordings yet to be released. The current plans are, once all the previous Testament albums have been issued on CD by HighTone, to embark on a program of further releases that will finally make available all the recordings that remain unreleased. So, look forward to selections by Big Boy Spires, Honeyboy Edwards, John Lee Henley, George, Ethel and Ruby McCoy, Doug Quattlebaum, Charles Copeland, Jimmy Brewer, Carl Martin and Ted Bogan, Blind Blues Darby, Jake and Frank Gilmore, Yank Rachell, John Henry Barbee, Willie Hatcher, Leroy Dallas and a host of others known and unknown. You'll not be disappointed.

--Pete Welding