Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
JOHN & SYLVIA EMBRY
By Steve Jones
Singer/bassist Queen Sylvia Embry and her guitarist husband John Embry were staples on Chicago’s blues scene in the ‘70s performing on both South and North Sides. This CD, now retitled Troubles, was originally released by Razor Records in 1979.
That same year, Razor issued the 45 “I Love the Woman/Johnny’s Bounce” and later released the original version of this album which was then entitled After Work. John “Guitar” Embry and his ex-wife Queen Sylvia Embry remained friends and recorded this album on January 19, 1979, just 35 years ago; it was also during the perilous blizzard of 1979. Like many sessions at Chess studios, the After Work studio session was recorded live to give the disc a more authentic sound. The original album did not include the single’s sides as the recording levels had not been properly set and the sound was more focused on John’s playing. Half of the ten tracks were originals and the other half a mix of superb covers. The two sides from the 45 have been added to this re-release along with five other cuts featuring John and Sylvia. The result is a meaty 17 track CD; After Work had only 10 cuts.
John Embry was a superb blues guitar player. He passed away in 1987, and only left us a small recorded legacy. Schooled by the likes of Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Taylor and influenced by Buddy Guy, Albert King and Sammy Lawhorn, he was also befriended by Jimmy Reed who became his best friend. Reed would stay with Embry every time he was in town. Queen Sylvia passed in 1992 before her 51st birthday. She was best known as the vocalist and bass player for Lefty Dizz and the Shock Treatment and also worked extensively with Jimmy Dawkins. On the brink of huge success, cancer robbed her of her life and blues fans of a truly great artist. Her recordings on Razor on L&R/Evidence have also been released on Arhoolie, Alligator, L+R, EPM and Leric/Delmark.
The album opens to their tune “Wonder Why” with Sylvia testifying in a style that hints a bit at her gospel background. John offers up a huge and stinging guitar solo here that is superb. The title track follows, a slow blues original by the Embrys. John’s guitar rings out loud and clear as he plays with great support and a long solo as Sylvia testifies to us with power and poise. The first cover is next, “Lie to Me,” which swings nicely. “I’m Hurtin’” is pure Chicago blues, penned by Sylvia and with the former couple delivering the goods. John offers up another immense solo here. “I Found A Love” is a slow Wilson Pickett ballad on which the Embrys turn the heat up; drummer Woody Williams also shares the lead vocals. It’s a great cover with the two vocalists belting some soaring, soulful harmonies, singing back and forth divinely. Jimmy Reed’s “Goin’ to New York” follows; this is where the sequencing changes from the original album. Williams backs Sylvia here again and it’s a great ride to the Big Apple with them. Reed’s version is more laid back; Sylvia belts it out big time and John offers his immense guitar to the piece.
“Mustang Sally” follows, again with Williams in support. Being that it was 1979 the “No Mustang Sally Rule” was not yet in effect, but even if it was, these guys would get a pass as they deliver a really fine rendition. Williams starts it off soulfully as John provides a bouncing guitar line. Sylvia comes in for the chorus and blows things away and then John offers up another burning solo. Williams and the Queen finish by singing the chorus together, over and over, to close it out.
The next five tracks are the add-on cuts. “Gonna Find My Baby” is soulful and the big guitar solo sound is sweet and even a little out of tune, but very cool. “Early Time Blues” is similar, with stinging vocals and guitar. “Razor Sharp” is a beautiful and driving instrumental with John showing us what he could do. He really laid it all out here. “Keep Your Hands Off Her” brings Williams back for vocal support. Recorded live, the audio quality of this one is lacking but the emotion in their playing makes up for it on this Roosevelt Sykes cut. “Blues This Morning” is more sweet, straight up stuff that also is live. John delivers another giant solo on this cut.
For track 13, Delmark returns to the original release with the re-sequenced “After Work” title track from the original album. It is a thoughtful piece with John opening with an almost tender approach; he maintains that feel throughout the instrumental. Another live cut; they come from a session at the Bold One Lounge. “Worry Worry” follows with Riler Robinson offering up the vocals and some guitar for a nice twist. “62nd Street Luau” concludes the live stuff and the songs from the original album. It’s a very short and soulful instrumental with a bit of a Hawaiian flare inside of some Chicago blues.
Taken from the 45 record, the final two cuts are the A and B sides that were previously released alone. No tape of these songs remains. “I Love the Woman” begins with a ringing guitar intro and John on vocals. It’s a nice change of pace with this single obviously focusing on John. The final number, “Johnny’s Bounce,” is a cool cut but suffers a little from some surface noise from the 45. The guitar work is really special, though, and we see what a great loss his early death delivered to Chicago’s music scene.
Delmark once again has given us a special piece of history to appreciate and savor note by note and song by song. Kudos to Bob Koester and his team for restoring this body of work and providing the recordings to us to enjoy. I urge you to pick this one up as it offers the only glimpses on CD that is out there of this great duo and their bands. The recording on vinyl is long out of print but this Delmark offering is now here and belongs in your collection of great Chicago blues!
For info, visit: www.delmark.com
Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois in Byron/Rockford, which earned the 2013 Keepin’ The Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis.