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Ralph Willis Vol. 2 1951-1953

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Album Review

East coast bluesman Ralph Willis originated in Alabama, spent a lot of time wood-shedding in North Carolina with musicians who were essentially satellites of Blind Boy Fuller, and spent nearly a decade making records in New York City. Volume two of his (nearly) complete works as compiled and reissued by Document in 1994 covers the home stretch of his recording career (1950-1953) with 17 selections originally released on the Jubilee, Signature, Prestige, and King labels. Willis sounded better than ever with guitarist Brownie McGhee, blues harpist Sonny Terry and bassists Dumas Ransom and Gary Mapp. While the bitchy "Income Tax Blues," "I Got a Letter" (a remake of "Just a Note"), a tasty update of the old-time melody "Salty Dog," and a fine, moody cover of Luke Jordan's "Church Bell Blues" are beautiful examples of his seasoned approach to the music, what really leaves a strong impression here is the unmistakable presence of something that would soon be widely imitated and mass marketed as rock & roll. "Bed Tick Blues" (which is about a stuffed mattress rather than a parasite, as some might assume) has the requisite beat, while the second take of "Tell Me Pretty Baby" rocks at a healthy clip and employs reverb most effectively. Willis' four King recordings (beginning with "Gonna Hop on Down the Line") are even stronger and indicate that he was solidly ahead of emerging trends in popular music. The early death of Ralph Willis in 1957 robbed him of what would almost certainly have been unprecedented success with younger audiences, and deprived posterity of the pleasure of hearing what he would have sounded like had he lived past middle age. Document rounded out this excellent collection with eight titles by singer and guitarist Leroy Dallas, Willis' exact contemporary who hailed from Mobile, AL, grew up in Memphis, and befriended Brownie McGhee in Maryville, TN. Dallas was originally a washboard player who toured the southeastern United States with guitarist James McMillan and also worked with Frank Edwards and George Bedford, professionally known as Georgia Slim. Dallas moved to Chicago in 1941 and settled in Brooklyn in 1943, working in food service and as a stevedore, a truck driver and a porter. In 1949, Brownie McGhee did him a favor by instigating a recording date for the Sittin' in With label; on this session, McGhee played guitar and Wilbert Ellis worked the piano. Although Dallas was a sincere and expressive vocalist, he was unable to make it into another production studio until January 1962 when blues historian Pete Welding recorded him performing "Sweet Man Blues" and "She Caught the M&O." These turned out to be the final recordings of a little-known individual who like Ralph Willis is mainly cross-referenced today as another talented acquaintance of Brownie McGhee's.


Born: 1910 in Alabama

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '40s, '50s

Ralph "Bama" Willis was an outstanding Piedmont-style blues singer and guitarist, so named as he was born and raised in Alabama. He was not heard from until the late '30s, when he was known to have relocated to North Carolina and to work in the circle of musicians centering around Blind Boy Fuller, although Willis did not record with Fuller. By the time Ralph Willis did make it into studio, for the tiny, New York-based Regis label in 1944, his assimilation of Fuller's sound and style was already...
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Ralph Willis Vol. 2 1951-1953, Ralph Willis
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