Jimmy Witherspoon ‘Hard Working Man’ 4CD box set (Proper) 4/5

Jimmy WitherspoonThe art of blues shouting is sadly a dying one and one of its greatest ever practitioners, the late Jimmy Witherspoon, is showcased here, on a one hundred song overview that begins in the late 1940s and takes us through the early 1960s at which time he was about to sign and record pared down jazz dates with one of premier jazz labels, Prestige. Witherspoon was born in Arkansas in 1923, but headed to California to make his name and after a stint in the army during World War II, returned to the West coast joining his mother in San Francisco. His big break came when, during a weekend singing gig, the band leader and pianist Jay McShann heard Witherspoon perform and offered him the lead singer position in his band. Thus Jimmy Witherspoon was part of a collective that performed in the Kansas City jump blues style and this was ideally suited to the singer’s voice. He recorded his first album for the Modern label in 1950, but this contract lasted for just three years and he frequently changed labels throughout his career.

The box set focuses primarily on the 1950s period and this witnessed major changes in the popularity of particular types of music. Whereas R & B was initially extremely popular during the early period of the decade, by 1955/56 with the emergence of rock and roll, it began hitherto to be seen as somewhat passé and Witherspoon was astute enough to realise this and adapt his style to other genres, jazz in particular. Of all the CDs contained herein, and all four have their individual moments and highlights, it is the final one that catches Witherspoon at his absolute peak with fine musicians to accompany and excellent recording sound. For someone who is regarded above all as a blues singer, his jazz credentials were impeccable and improbably he was aided and abetted in this respect on a 1954 Chicago session, ‘When the lights go out’, by some of the Chess studio musicians who were regarded as the top blues instrumentalists in the city. These included the stunning rhythm section of Lafayette Leake, Willie Dixon and Fred Below. Proof, if any were required, that quality musicians could adapt to other genres with ease. What stands out in the mid-late 1950s sessions is the maturity of the voice and delivery of Witherspoon, never hurried and at once emotive and melancholic when needed as on the 1956 New York date ‘How long blues’. An all-star billing from 1958 in L.A. included trumpeter Gerald Wilson (soon to form his own big band with whom Witherspoon would also perform), tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards and pianist Hampton Hawes. Eight numbers featuring this stellar line-up are included with the melodic ‘Wee baby blues’ a highlight alongside the adult themed ‘When I’ve been drinking’. A 1959 live date in Monterrey was a classic and it is a pity that only one number is included here with tenorists Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster excelling alongside the singer on ‘No rollin’ blues’. One of Witherspoon’s most memorable interpretations invokes a genuine party atmosphere on the uptempo ‘There’s good rockin’ tonight’. When more commercial avenues were opened to him, as on the 1961 larger orchestral big band plus strings sessions, taking a leaf out of the Dinah Washington sides from the same period, Witherspoon still stood out with a magnificent interpretation of ‘The Masquerade is over’, a song that George Benson would later cover to critical acclaim. Elsewhere some of Jimmy Witherspoon’s most endearing interpretations are aired, not least the song with which he will be forever remembered, ‘Ain’t nobody’s business’. While he was not the first singer to interpret this all-time classic, his rendition is now regarded as the definitive one and we have it here in its full two part version.

As ever with Proper box sets, detailed information on the individual sessions and an informative overview of his career was beyond the period covered. Barring the excellent 1960s sessions for Prestige, this is a fine place to start your Jimmy Witherspoon collection and even with a very generous timing on offer, you will definitely not want to end here once you have become attuned to his voice.

Tim Stenhouse