Big Maceo Merriweather ‘Chicago Piano volumes 1 & 2 (sold separately) (Fabulous) 4/5 and 5/5

big-maceoBig Maceo Merriweather to give him his full name was an Atlanta, Georgia born blues pianist who was part of the large-scale migration of African-Americans from the southern states to the north. In the case of Maceo’s family, as a child he learnt to play the piano and aged fifteen his family moved closer to the major city of Atlanta before finally moving to Detroit in 1924. Maceo rapidly followed them in hot pursuit and established himself via the ‘house party network’ of musicians. It was actually Maceo’s wife who encouraged him strongly to move to Chicago in order to record and its was during this period that the pianist made friends with other significant blues musicians, most notably Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red. The two volumes contained herein are crammed with the 45 juke box hits that Maceo and associates recorded for the Bluebird and Victor labels and as such are priceless historical documents of the evolution of the blues piano and extremely well preserved on CD when one considers they are over sixty-five years old. Moreover, at a bargain price, they are simply unbeatable value and worthy of a place in any serious blues collection, and indeed any music fan who likes their piano virtuoso. If the first volume concentrates on the early hits such as ‘Worry life blues’, the second is slightly stronger as Maceo matured and felt more comfortable in the company of fellow musicians. By far the strongest piece is a sensational instrumental gem in ‘Chicago Breakdown’ that oozes class. One can hear the influence of Big Maceo in a number such as ‘Big man blues’ on Ray Charles’ later ‘I got a woman’ which borrows from the former’s riff even if the underlying vibe of the song has a New Orleans tinge to it. Of particular note is the wonderfully deft brush work from Melvin Draper.

Given that Big Maceo was a far from prolific performer of his own music on record, this cohesive and complementary series of recordings must count as definitive examples of his craft and a first port of call for anyone seeking to acquire some sides of Big Maceo’s music. Sadly, serious illness befell the pianist in 1946 when he suffered a stroke and this resulted in his left hand being paralysed. Irrespective, Maceo struggled on, but ultimately passed away on February 26 of that year in his adopted abode of Chicago.

Tim Stenhouse