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As one half of what was the easily most popular blues team of the Pre-War era, Scrapper Blackwell tasted the fruits of fame and fortune early in his career. His partnership with pianist/vocalist Leroy Carr turned in more ‘race record’ hits for Vocalion than any other act in the label’s talent stable. Sadly the duo’s relationship, both professional and personal, eventually soured when the dual sins of hard liquor and hard living caught up with them. They consigned Carr to the coroner and forced Blackwell to hit the bricks in search of work after a brief and ultimately fizzled solo stint with Bluebird. A quarter century passed until this gig for the Prestige subsidiary Bluesville marked another brief, but welcome return to the recording arena.
Taped at Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio, there is a surprisingly coarse edge to the session that works well with Blackwell’s rough, unadorned style. His picking chops are largely intact and his stentorian strums ring out with a healthy immediacy on such standard melancholy fare as “Blues Before Sunrise” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Whether he’s singing a humorous retooling of the old nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue’ or recounting the bleak existence of life lived in the wardrobe of prison grays (“Penal Farm Blues”), his skillful fretwork frames each tune with a perimeter of dynamically placed chords. The two instrumental blues (each named for its respective root key) offer the most telling evidence of his sustained prowess. His hoarse, world-weary voice suggests the most noticeable toll the years had taken on his sound. Gone is the cocksure inflection inherent in his youthful sides cut for Bluebird. In its place is the mature depth and resignation of a man who’s survived a litany of hard times.
“Little Girl Blues” and “Shady Lane” give Blackwell’s piano abilities some purchase and he shows himself a competent, if not particularly adventurous practitioner. As a swan song for one of the most instrumental figures in early blues, this Prestige date is a model of both taste and distinction. Recorded when Blackwell’s powers were still up to par, it stands in strong contrast to the trend that exists today where artists far past their prime are still encouraged to retread tired material as the tapes roll on.