Author: Steve Cushing
Release date: Nov. 2019
The University of Illinois Press Review by Mark Baier
For over 40 years, Steve Cushing’s radio show, “Blues Before Sunrise” has been the gold standard for serious blues lovers. Never content to play the “hits,” such as they even existed, the comprehensive and all encompassing format of the program showcases every aspect and influence that characterizes “blues” as we now understand it. The weekly broadcast has become a staple of blues radio programing, now available far and wide via the internet; quite a difference from its roots as the weekend midnight to 5 a.m. program that was only available to the hard core Chicago listeners who knew where and when to find it on the FM dial. For years, before blues fests and the mainstream media “discovered” the blues, Cushing was digging deep and wide to uncover the history and majesty of the genre, mining gospel, jazz, country and blues artists that have long been forgotten, presenting music that would otherwise be unknown to modern ears. Cushing himself describes the show as “The Blues Heritage Showcase” with a mission to uncover and celebrate the many artists that have come to define the genre, no matter how obscure.
This commitment to blues discovery isn’t limited to music alone. Often the show will take a turn and present in-studio interviews with the artists making music and sometimes those who knew them. The stories included in these interviews provide detail and context into the time and the humanity that is often lost to antiquity. Cushing’s new book, Blues Before Sunrise: Interviews From The Chicago Scene, offers transcriptions of a couple dozen such interviews as they relate to the Chicago scene specifically. The book is structured into four sections.
“Talkin’ ’bout You” features interviews of artists and personalities talking at length about artists other than themselves. Particularly engaging are Howlin’ Wolf’s sax man Abb Locke’s recollections of legendary Chicago policeman “Two-Gun Pete” who was feared and respected in the community for his shoot first, ask questions later approach to law and order. A&R man Dick LaPalm offers a rare intimate look at the legendary Nat King Cole, for whom he served as an advisor and close friend until Cole’s untimely death in 1965. Also of note is Hound Dog Taylor’s rhythm player Brewer Phillips’ account of Memphis Minnie’s waning years and her struggles with poverty and obscurity.
“Amen Corner” contains interviews of artists who made religious recordings. The centerpiece of this section is Cushing’s extensive interview with Clarence Small, one of the members of Wings Over Jordan. This world famous black choir toured extensively from the ‘30s to the ‘50s and Small’s accounts of life on the road in the era of Jim Crow is particularly poignant.
The “Bronzeville” section presents conversations with artists and personalities from the famed, historic neighborhood on Chicago’s black South Side. The interview with Scotty Piper is singularly engaging, as Piper was the preeminent tailor in the area, making suits for everyone from Big Jack Johnson to Duke Ellington. The “Singing Tailor” Piper shares first hand stories of many of his famous clientele in very entertaining fashion.
“Short Order Chicago.” While most of the interviews in Blues Before Sunrise are in-depth and lengthy, these transcriptions are shorter and more pointed, something Cushing attributes to his then nascent interviewing skill. Many of these interviews are older ‘80s vintage of more well-known players in the Chicago scene. Included are conversations with Little Brother Montgomery, Robert Jr Lockwood and Roosevelt Sykes. It’s a window into a world that’s long gone, with plenty of significant details regarding the lineages of the songs and styles which shape the modern blues age. Little Brother’s recollections of the genesis of the classic song “44 Blues” is worth the price of admission alone.
When these interviews were originally aired, they were very often interspersed with songs relating to the material at hand. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t include a recording of the actual interviews as broadcast, along with the musical accompaniment. However the U of I press website does feature audio clips from 10 interviews with artists from the book and radio show (see link below).
Hearing a recording of Cushing’s interviews reminds readers just what a herculean task the transcription process was. The dialects and mannerisms of many of the artists require close careful listening, and these transcriptions clarify what could have been originally difficult to decipher.
Kudos to Steve Cushing for his lifetime commitment to the scholarship and advancement of blues music. In the annals of Chicago radio, it would be difficult to find a figure more responsible for introducing a deeper appreciation of the blues to a wider audience. Blues Before Sunrise: Interviews From The Chicago Scene is not a casual book about the Chicago blues scene but it is an indispensable one for hard-core fans and scholars.
For info, to listen to interviews or to buy the book click HERE