Four-CD Collection Mines Gems from Chicago Blues Label
Seems like if a man had a Cadillac he wouldn’t have the blues. But for Chicago’s (by way of Mississippi) Narvel “Cadillac Baby” Eatmon, the blues are what made it possible to get a series of Cadillacs. From 1959 to 1989, Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records in Chicago was an indie label for blues, gospel, doo-wop, soul, and even a taste of hip-hop. Ultimately, Eatmon’s Cadillac Baby nightclub was more successful than his label, but he still managed to get some biggies — including James Cotton, Hound Dog Taylor, and Sleepy John Estes — to cut some impressive sides for him. Despite some regional successes, it was an uphill battle with big dogs like Chess in the marketplace soaking up most of the talent.
The sides and the company were about to pass into obscurity after Eatmon’s death in 1991 when Earwig label founder Michael Frank bought the label from Eatmon’s widow. Dusting off tapes that had been shelved for decades, Frank gave listeners a hint of what he had uncovered in 2002’s Meat & Gravy from Bea & Baby, a 50-cut set that included several releases from Sunnyland Slim, a couple of Hound Dog Taylor’s, and some from James Cotton, billed as “Jimmy” on a couple of cuts.
For Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection, Frank assembled 101 tracks in a 4-CD box set with a booklet containing a detailed history of Eatmon and his endeavors with the club and the label.
Taylor’s first single, released in 1960, “Baby Is Coming Home,” with “Take Five” on the flip side, showcases Taylor’s trademark kitchen table leg slide in all its greasy, rattly glory. He’s especially wiggly on this one, cranking out hip-shakin’, window-rattlin’ blues that lifts your spirits and makes you want to help him celebrate by stomping and hollering along. The vocals are a bit muffled, sounding like he has a bucket on his head, but even so, it’s still a killer track, making it hard to understand why the release attracted little attention at the time outside Chicago.
Cotton’s vocal on “One More Mile,” recorded before Cotton’s voice was ravaged by his mid-’90s battle with throat cancer, sounds like Bobby Blue Bland.
One of the rarest tracks on the compilation is a Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon tune, “Cadillac Baby, Come Pick Me Up,” one of only 14 tracks known to have been cut by the country blues duo, with Estes on guitar and vocals and Nixon on harp. The mid-’60s session had been lost for decades, and Frank didn’t know what he had until he recognized Cadillac Baby’s voice on the tape doing some response to Estes’ call-out to Cadillac Baby in the song.
Estes lives up to his sleepy nickname, sounding at times like he’s about to pass out and fall off his chair during the recording, voice trailing off ’til Nixon wakes him up with some sharp jabs from his harp. It’s rough, raw, and ragged, lurching back and forth across the aisle from gospel, with a churchy organ fading in and out, to back porch country blues.
Billed as 11-Year-Old Faith Taylor and the Sweet Teens, Taylor wrings her tweenie tonsils with some pre-teen angst, doo-wopping on “I Need Him to Love Me” and “I Love You Darling,” emulating the sound of girl group pioneers The Chantels, who hit big in 1958 with the doo-wop classic “Maybe.”
The hip-hop is provided on a couple of cuts by 3-D, aka Richard Davenport, a young artist that Frank was co-producing with Cadillac Baby, which brought them together. But both Davenport and Eatmon died, within a few months of each other, in 1991, which prompted Frank to buy the label.
Some of the gospel stuff is provided by relative unknowns who sound as good as their better known peers. On “Search Me Lord,” The Gloryaires’ sound recalls the Pilgrim Travelers’, with velvety smooth harmonies backing the scathing lead. Eddie Dean & The Biblical Aires let you know that heaven is not only a “Holy Place,” but one where you can jump around and holler like a scalded cat as well. Estes and Nixon turn up again, laying down some scruffy church on “Lay My Burdon Down” (sic) that sounds like both might have been dipping into the communion wine to get into the spirit.
This one’s good for dippin’ and perusing, soaking up the dusty goodies that lift your spirit and soothe your soul.