There is way more blues in these 86 tracks than there is rock’n’roll, despite the evenhanded subtitle.
As to the R&B content, one’s judgement may be conditioned by age: when Chess recordings were introduced into the UK in the 60s they were all called R&B, whether they were by Wolf and Muddy or Chuck and Bo. (I hope it’s unnecessary to point out that the R&B of the 50s and 60s was rather different to what goes by that name these days.) So it may be useful to be more specific about what’s on offer here.
Rather more than half the set is unequivocally blues: three to five tracks each by Wolf, Muddy, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Rogers, J. B. Lenoir and Lowell Fulson, plus a few by John Lee Hooker, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, and other musicians of similar stature. Then a broad borderland where you might locate artists who sometimes perform blues, sometimes not – Chuck, Bo, Etta James, Sugar Pie Desanto, Earl Hooker, Billy Emerson and so forth. And on the other side? Little more than a couple of rocking numbers by Dale Hawkins and Eddie Fontaine’s Nothin’ Shakin’ (But The Leaves On The Tree).
But then, nobody rational ever contended that Chess was a significant rock’n’roll label. It was a stronger, more diverse, R&B label than this set suggests, because its compiler Lois Wilson has excluded vocal groups (perhaps reserving them for another compilation). But the imperishable glory of Chess will be seen, long term, as its catalogue of straight – which is not to say unswervingly traditional or conventional – blues, so the imbalance of this set is justified by both history and the reasonable expectations of its potential purchasers.
Naturally there are milestones aong the way such as Juke and I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man, Reconsider Baby and Don’t Start Me Talkin’, Jimmy Rogers’s Walking By Myself and Hooker’s Walking The Boogie.
There’s also acknowledgement of lesser rated but fascinating figures as John Brim, whose Rattlesnake and It Was A Dream catch Chicago blues on the cusp between downhome and uptown, as well as Willie Nix, Dr Ross and Betty James.
On the other hand, I have to say that a few selections are a little odd: if you’re only going to pick three Chuck Berry tracks, you really don’t want Jaguar And Thunderbird; a couple of Bo Diddley selections could have been improved upon; and for Eddie Boyd’s single track to be not 24 Hours or Third Degree but the (unissued at the time) Hard Time Gettin’ Started is eccentric.
But, from the fact that I’m cavilling at only four tracks out of more than seven dozen, you may gather that a fellow-compiler thinks Ms Wilson has executed her task well, and has done justice to one of the great catalogues of black popular music.
Via Fantastic Voyage