Texas Alexander was something of an unlikely blues celebrity in his prime. Cut from the coarse cloth of country blues his voice was raw as birch bark with a dire edge and volume that balked at notions of lyrical finesse. In addition unlike most of his contemporaries he didn’t play an instrument. Instead the Okeh label hired musicians to accompany him a practice running contrary to blues convention, which set an influential precedent in the industry.
The accompanists chosen were among the finest in the ‘race recording’ genre and included Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks and even New Orleans legend King Oliver. Hearing Alexander’s gruff, often improvisatory vocals set against such accomplished accompaniment is quite a shock and makes for an intriguing juxtaposition from the opening double entendre antics of”Bog Hog Blues.” Both Johnson and Lang, who alternate guitar duties on about half the tracks, were renowned for their polished agility on the frets. But Alexander doesn’t sound the least bit intimidated on the various songs he shares with them, often slowing and speeding the tempo of his verses at will and forcing both men to keep a careful attenuated ear. “Work Ox Blues” and “Penitentiary Moan Blues,” the two tunes where the guitarists share duties, are among the highlights of the disc and the pairs jazz-inflected riffs weave beautiful support around Alexander’s mournful pronouncements.
Some of the other sidemen such as Willie Reed don’t fare as well with Alexander’s idiosyncratic phrasing. The effect is most striking on the disc’s title track where the guitarist barely has time for his signature sped up preface before the singer chimes in bullheadly with the first vocal chorus. The interplay between the Chatmons and Alexander also proves a rocky pairing with both parts of the ensemble stubbornly sticking to their respective guns and giving little collaborative ground. Instead of detracting from the music however they supply some exciting ambiguity.
Sequenced out of session order for programmatic reasons the tracks form an interesting cross-section of Alexander’s various line-ups. Whether he’s being backed by the sparse string picking of fellow Texan Little Hat Jones or the clarinet-led quartet the Sax Black Tams the amusing thing is that his vocal style and delivery don’t vary that much. Alexander’s commercial fame was relatively short-lived. Though he continued performing for the next several decades, firmly cementing his reputation in Texas Blues folklore. With fine sound and informative liners this Catfish collection is an excellent encapsulation of his finest work.
Catfish on the web: www.catfishrecords.co.uk
Personnel: Texas Alexander- vocals; Lonnie Johnson- guitar; Little Hat Jones- guitar; Willie Reed- guitar; Eddie Lang- guitar; Bo Chatmon- violin; Sam Chatmon- guitar; Eddie Heywood- piano; King Oliver- cornet; Clarence Williams- piano. Recorded: various sessions during the late 1920s and early 1930s.