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Record Labels Rediscover the Blues

Spurred by Eric Clapton's hit CD, old ballads, new shuffles, and entire collections are filling store shelves

BLUES music has been important in America for most of the 20th century, but it seems to have only lately become big business. Last year, "From the Cradle," Eric Clapton's tribute to the music of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and others, was the first blues album to debut at No.1 on the Billboard charts. Granted, it was a release by a major rock artist, but its success reawakened record labels to the commercial possibilities of blues. No longer will this music be relegated to a far-off corner of the record store.

Two of the major labels, in fact, have set up divisions to release blues-oriented music: Sony has revived their Okeh label, and Virgin has Pointblank. Popa Chubby, whose debut release, "Booty and the Beast," is on Okeh, is typical of the nontraditional blues artist on whom the record labels have pinned their hopes.

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Born as Ted Horowitz, Chubby is a rambunctious, comical, blues rocker who blends Texas roadhouse blues with funk, rock, and rap in a combination that is pure fun. His single "Sweet Goddess of Blues and Beer" was a veritable teenage anthem this summer.

Pointblank features more traditional artists such as John Lee Hooker, one of the greatest blues singers, guitarists, and songwriters ever. Hooker, who took traditional music from the Mississippi Delta and brought it to the world of rock-and-roll (he was inducted in 1991 into the Rock Hall of Fame), reworks some of his classics and introduces several new songs on his latest release, "Chill Out." Among the musicians showing up to lend a hand are Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, and Charles Brown.

Prior to Clapton's release, the biggest-selling blues album in the modern era was guitarist Robert Cray's classic "Strong Persuader." Cray, who blends Memphis blues and R&B with a smooth vocal style, has released five albums since then, and although none has hit the same heights artistically or commercially, each features strong songwriting and even better playing. His latest, "Some Rainy Morning" (Mercury), is a tasty collection of ballads and shuffles that finds him working in a more sophisticated mode without his usual horn section.

The major labels have also gotten into blues reissues in a big way: "Danceland Years" (Virgin/Pointblank) features music originally released by the small Detroit-based label Danceland Records, including early recordings by John Lee Hooker (available for the first time in 45 years) and such neglected artists as Tony "Blues" Lewis and Candy Johnson. "Heart and Soul" (Pointblank) is a collection of quiet ballads sung by B.B. King, recorded during his tenure at Modern Records from the early 1950s to early '60s. "The Testament Records Collection" (Hightone) features the best from a small label that released music by the likes of Johnny Shines, Walter Horton, "Mississippi" Fred McDowell, and Big Joe Williams.

Most ambitious is Capitol, which is digging into its catalog for what will eventually be a 20-title "Capitol Blues Collection." The first seven have already been released, with most of the material never before available on CD: "Rediscovered Blues," featuring Lightnin' Hopkins, harp and guitar duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Mississippi Delta blues legend Big Joe Williams; "Chicago Blues Masters, Vol. 1," featuring Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim; "T-Bone Walker: The Complete Capitol and Black & White Recordings"; "Lil' Son Jackson: The Complete Imperial Recordings"; "Sonny Terry: Whoopin' the Blues, The Capitol Recordings 1947-1950"; "Son House: Delta Blues and Spirituals"; and "Roy Brown: The Complete Imperial Recordings." These items represent some of the most important blues recordings ever made. Four new selections are due out in September.

Two of the best record labels devoted especially to blues are Alligator Records (located in that bastion of the blues, Chicago) and Blind Pig. Some of Alligator's recent releases include: "Straight Up!" by the kings of West Coast Jump blues, Little Charlie and the Nightcats; "Deep Down," a solo album by Chicago blues harp legend Carey Bell; "In Your Eyes," from Sugar Blue, who blends blues harp with a variety of other influences, including rock, jazz, and R&B; and "Ace in the Hole," from Elvin Bishop, whose tongue-in-cheek lyrics and country stylings are enlivened by his blistering guitar work.

Blind Pig's recent output includes: Coco Montoya's "Gotta Mind to Travel," the debut album from a singer-guitarist known for his work with Albert Collins and John Mayall; vocalist E.C. Scott's "Come Get Your Love," a collection of blues and R&B songs with a contemporary feel; "Feelin' Good," the latest album from Jimmy Rogers, the last living member of the original Muddy Waters band; and Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers' "Wild Night Out," a powerhouse live album from the former guitarist for the blues band the Nighthawks.

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Verve Records has also recently gotten into the blues scene, with new releases from such Texas bluesmen as multi-instrumentalist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown ("The Man"), the soulful singer/pianist Charles Brown ("These Blues"), and singer/guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland ("Catch Up With the Blues"). Other Verve artists include Chicago's master harp player James Cotton ("Living the Blues") and young New Orleans singer/guitarist Larry Garner ("You Need to Live a Little").

Telarc, a label that mainly deals with classical music, is also starting to get into blues. Their current release is Chicago harpist Junior Wells's "Everybody's Gettin' Some," featuring guest turns by artists like Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana.

With this profusion of recordings devoted to the blues so readily available, there's no reason for anybody to feel happy ever again.

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