- It’s always good to remember that, without the blues, there is no popular music. A new compilation, Everybody Knows I’m Here, has a special take on that. It pays tribute to some of the biggest names in blues and the label, Chess Records, where they spent much of their careers. It’s not just any covers record, however: each cut taps the talents of a person of colour, from down under, and in doing so has produced a truly diverse and vibrant celebration of the sound.
The legacy of the blues is, in many ways, the biggest story in American music: hugely important to the country that is the United States, a vital expression of people of colour and -between an oppressed people and a mighty nation- giving voice to a tumultuous and uneasy relationship. It’s perhaps the defining proof that great hardship produces great music, a praxis that’s still being played out today. Within blues music, Chess Records is an institution: home to some of the style’s greatest musicians, like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Some of that uneasy relationship was played out in microcosm during Chess’ original, twenty-five year history. The Chicago label was actually founded by two Polish immigrant businessmen Leonard and Phil Chess (or Czyż) and the history of Chess' relationship with its artists isn’t without its controversies. Their brusque business instincts notwithstanding, the brothers are acknowledged to have been instrumental in bringing some of the most significant black American voices to a wide audience.
Chess Records kicked off in 1950, putting it at a crossroads in musical history, in many ways already looking back on the blues and looking forward, not just to rock’n’roll, but soul and the stirrings of a more modern r’n’b as well. That’s reflected in the wide-ranging sound of this new compilation, Everybody Knows I’m Here. The title is -I think- a slight misquote of the words of the Muddy Waters classic, Hoochie Coochie Man. “I’m him” becomes “I’m here”, which, if I had to guess, is a hint about the wide remit of this collection. At any rate, you can hear Yirrmal pealing out a tenor impression of the standard, doing some call-and-response with some really sick blues guitar.
There’s so much more here, however. Check out the beguilingly ambiguous first single: in the hands of Imbi, Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy -once a cleverly camouflaged jab about civil rights- is transformed into an equally powerful ode to gender fluidity and passionate freedom. It’s seductive, soulful, eerie and thundering all at the same time. Elsewhere you’ll also hear oldschool hiphop from Downsyde, Flewnt & Hearts, soulful doo-wop from Nasty Mars & Fatai and rock’n’roll from Caiti Baker.
What you might expect to have been the most rock’n’roll number on the record is Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode. Instead famed didj player William Barton makes from it something even more transformative than what Imbi managed, which is saying something. Over seven minutes, first nations’ music is fused with ambient, blues and the roaring echoes of rock’n’roll into a true accomplishment. Actually there’s not really any bum notes here and the surprises keep coming. The last single I heard was a team up between highly-rated rapper Dobby and soul-rockers Jackie Brown Jr. Starting slow and easy, don’t be fooled: when it hit its climactic bars my mouth was hanging a little bit open.
Everybody Knows I’m Here comes a little late for Chess’ seventieth (that was 2020 I think?) and I know less about it than I might: I have no idea who Chester Records are (probably not Polish immigrant businessmen?). While I’m asking, what super-ambitious producer there envisioned this project and where did they find the truly spectacular session musicians popping up in support of the many stars on this record? Well, in the end all of that is made irrelevant. That's because this tribute is a tour-de-force, speaking to the power of people of colour, across many generations, the all-encompassing sound they invented and its continuing, essential legacy in the music of today.
- Chris Cobcroft.