Roosevelt Sykes ‘The Honeydripper’/’Face to Face with the blues’ (Vocalion) 4/5

UK jazz and classical re-issue specialists Vocalion have come up with a winner here in the blues idiom. This pairing of albums groups together two early 1960s albums that pianist-singer Roosevelt Sykes recorded at the Lansdowne studios under producer Dennis Preston who, elsewhere, produced some of the classic UK Columbia series of jazz albums. At the time of these recordings, Sykes was already a veteran of some thirty-five years in the music business, having recorded during the 1920s and 1930s which was a particularly fertile period for blues music. Indeed he recorded prolifically during the period 1934-1939. However, by the 1950s with the large-scale migration of African-Americans to the north and the resulting evolution in style from acoustic to electric blues, Sykes, along with others of his generation, had grown out of favour. As the 1960s emerged, however, a new generation was discovering the roots of the blues and Sykes once again found himself in demand. The songs on these two albums are largely originals and are always witty, with sometimes a sense of self-parody and still sound as fresh as the day that they were recorded. The first album features Phil Seamen on drums and Alexis Corner on selected tracks on guitar whereas on the second Sykes is accompanied solely by Don Lawson on drums. If anything, the second pairing works best and Lawson has a natural feeling for Sykes’ playing which makes their collective efforts all the more pleasurable. Numerous highlights includes the opener ‘Sweet old Chicago’. ‘Mistakes in life’ and the gospel-tinged standard’ So tired’. By the 1960s Roosevelt Sykes had settled in Chicago and recorded for a variety of prestigious labels including Decca, Delmark, Folkways and Prestige via its Bluesville off-shoot. The two albums contained within stand up well to these other recordings and the recording quality is excellent throughout. Sykes would return to the UK in 1965 and 1966, performing not only with Chris Barber’s jazz band, but also at the Folk Blues Festival package which grouped together legendary blues figures. Excellent original sleeve notes from Charles Fox and Alexis Korner are reproduced in the inner sleeve. At just under eighty minutes, this represents an outstanding value re-issue from Vocalion.

Tim Stenhouse