Monday, 15 June 2020

Cousin Joe from New Orleans

In May 1964, a group of African-American musicians on tour in England assembled on the rainy platform of Wilbraham Road railway station in south Manchester to perform blues and gospel songs to an audience of mostly white students seated in a temporary marquee across the tracks, transported there on a special steam train from Manchester Central for the Granada TV show Blues and Gospel Train, complete with "Wanted" posters on the ticket office and waiting room, chicken in coops on the piano, and a tethered goat tied to a post, as the producers mocked up the disused buildings as a southern US-style railroad halt.

The show is best known for the performance of gospel singer and virtuoso guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and rightly so, especially her opening and, prompted by the unseasonal Mancunian weather, apparently impromptu number Didn't It Rain, but the man who introduced her, and then helped her down from the horse drawn surrey with a fringe on top which bore here to the makeshift stage, the New Orleans blues pianist Pleasant "Cousin Joe" Joseph, isn't remembered as much it seems, despite his Chicken A La Blues being a hit with the youthful hipsters on the other side of the tracks.

I read Cousin Joe's autobiography Blues from New Orleans a few years ago, and have just picked up a 4 CD box set of his remastered records released by the British blues label JSP. Much of the material is in the West Coast R&B/jump blues genre very much in vogue with African-American record buyers throughout World War II and the post-war years, recorded in New York in the mid to late forties for the Los Angeles label Aladdin and New Jersey's Savoy Records, but there are also some slower numbers, including a few featuring jazzmen in the form of clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and some later ones recorded in the early fifties and produced by bandleader Dave Bartholomew in the legendary New Orleans studio of Cosimo Matassa.

Cousin Joe combined his musicianship with a wry sense of humour very much in need in these uncertain days. Get some in your soul now!

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