the bluebird sound

Although session bands have been major contributors to the success of various musicians, they have rarely received their due recognition. Would songs like the Beachboys’ “Good Vibrations” or the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” have become big hits without the backing of Phil Spector’s unique “wall of sound”  (reverberating instruments in the studio which constantly threatened to drown out the vocals) recording technique? Would such songs as the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” have become famous without the contribution of the rhythm section of the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals Alabama? The best documentary film of 2014 called “20 Feet from Stardom” starred backup singers Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer who were on many recordings, but did not get the credit they so richly deserved.     

So what about the blues? Less of a “problem” since many traditional blues players went solo, with their only accompaniment being a guitar, piano or harmonica. When it came to blues recordings, the Great Depression literally ended those Roaring 20s boom years. After the stock market crash of 1929, many record companies folded their race labels and either stopped or dramatically curtailed regional race recording. Rich varieties of down-home blues, including freewheeling blues ensembles such as the jug bands, were neglected on record. “The artists who did record, for example, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, and Memphis Minnie, were established hit-makers who could be counted on for smooth performances and tight songwriting,” states the Encyclopedia of the Blues.

In the blues genre, Bluebird Records became one of the first companies to create a unique background sound, still referred to as “the Bluebird Sound.” Bluebird is a sub-label of RCA Victor Records originally created in 1932 to counter the American Record Company in the “three records for a dollar” market. Along with ARC’s Perfect Records, Melotone Records and Romeo Records, and the independent US Decca label, Bluebird became one of the best-selling “cheap” labels of the 1930s and early 1940s and its 78 RPM vinyl records. Frank Sinatra’s first solo recordings were released on the Bluebird label in 1942.

The first records by Bluebird, primarily in the jazz and blues genres, were released in 1932. Notable Bluebird artists included Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Tampa Red. The first three, along with Washboard Sam, would make up the Bluebird session band that would ultimately be responsible for the “Bluebird Sound” that would go on to be a major influence on Rhythm and Blues and early Rock ‘N’ Roll, claims The unique sound also became the prototype for the electric Chicago blues, which followed a decade or so later.

Robert Clifford Brown, a.k.a. Washboard Sam (1910-66) probably was not the greatest player of that original Bluebird session quartet, but he was certainly interesting in his own way. “The washboard was the rhythm instrument of choice for street musicians playing the Blues in the early days, but Washboard Sam took it into the studio and made himself a strong career as a session musician in Chicago. He also had a great voice and a talent for songwriting that saw him record more than 160 tracks as a solo artist. Sam was a great showman and bandleader too, and he could pack out big theaters with fans of his good-time music,” explains One of Sam’s greatest hits was the 1939 recording of “Digging My Potatoes,” whose lyrics go like this:

“They’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
They’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
I don’t eat no cabbage sprouts, bring me thoughts to head
Supposed to call the wagon, if I find him in my bed

You know they’ve been diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
Now she powdered her face, wet her wavy hair
Caught a taxicab, she’s out across town somewhere

You know she’s diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind
Said my vine’s all green, potatoes solid red
Never found a bruised one, till I caught them in my bed

You know they’re diggin’ my potatoes, trampin’ on my vine
I have a special plan, restin’ on my mind.”

As WWII ended with Japan’s surrender in mid-summer of 1945, the blues had already moved on. Electric blues in Chicago had displaced the 1930s-style bluebird sound. Singers like Washboard Sam suddenly found themselves without an audience. Sam gave up singing the blues and became a policeman. However, Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Tampa Red carried on and so did Bluebird Records, but not like before. Revival attempts in the 1950s and the 1970s have led to the Victor Talking Machine Company finally supporting the label for future projects, to honor its legacy in the music recording industry.

Washboard Sam plays “Diggin’ My Potatoes”

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