Chicago "Field Recordings" Continue to Excite the Senses

When we think of "field recordings" we often think of Alan Lomax trudging through the South with a tape recorder, setting up shop wherever he found the music.

This set produced by blues historian Samuel Charters and first issued in 1966 is sort of a "field recording" except that the recordings took place at RCA's old lakeside studios, December of 1965. It's a "field recording" in the sense that Charters' goal was to document what was happening in the small clubs dotting the South side of Chicago.

Charters wasn't interested in producing full albums by any of the artists. A selection of tunes would do, that would add up to a vital documentation of what was then happening in Chicago, minus, of course, some of the biggest names in Chicago blues like Muddy Waters, who was signed to Chess.

But that was okay too because Charters was more interested in what the younger, less well-known musicians were doing—not that even the most popular ones like Muddy Waters were known at the time to white kids unless they lived in the U.K.

That was just a sad fact of life: thanks to UK enthusiasts like Alexis Korner the blues was better known among young white musicians there than in America. Korner introduced the music to Brian Jones and Jimmy Page, among others.

The Stones probably did more to introduce this music to the white American audience than any individual or group, but so did the Chicago-based Butterfield Blues Band made up of young white musicians and a black rhythm section, veterans of Howlin' Wolf's band.

This three record set, originally issued as three separate albums, is the result of Charters' pioneering work that winter and it created a surprise sensation as much because of when it was released as what was in the grooves.

The blues was breaking big in America and none of these groups were well known outside of Chicago back then except to a few serious fans. Given who's here, that's hard to believe today, but it's true.

The Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band, The Otis Rush Band, J.B. Hutto and his Hawks, Otis Spann's South Side Piano, Walter Horton, "Memphis" Charlie Musselwhite and the others were mostly young unknowns when they signed with Charters and Vanguard for very little money, but once these records were released all of that changed. < Jimi Hendrix owned the set as did, of course, thousands of others who treasured the raw power and purity of purpose of these mostly club musicians, though some like Willie Dixon and some of the others were better known and were veterans of many recording sessions

The recordings are simple, direct and in some ways primitive. The "stereo" is like that of the early Beatles albums. Charters recorded everything live, putting the vocals on one track and everything else on the other so that in the final mix down to mono a good blend could be achieved. But, because of a great deal of leakage among the microphones and a careful kiss of reverb, there's little of the hard left/right found on those early Beatles records.

Whatever is less than realistic about the stereo spread is more than made up for by the utter transparency and directness of the recorded sound. There's next to nothing between the microphones and the tape recorder and that results in an open window onto the live performance in the room.

This is the root of all that is rock'n'roll and it has an unbeatable power, purity and purpose not to be missed.

The 3 LP set costs $100 but it's well-mastered from tape copies by Ray Staff at Air Mastering, beautifully pressed at Pallas and the package includes a nicely presented 25 page full-sized booklet with annotation and photos all in a cloth-bound box.

Highly recommended!

lionelag's picture

entertaining bits of homage/outright thievery connected with this album.

Cue up Otis Rush's version of I Can't Quit You Baby, found on this collection.   Then take a listen to Led Zeppelin's take of it on Zep I, which was recorded four years later.  Guitar playing sound familiar?

Prancing Horse's picture

Dylan rewrote dozens of old folk songs with new lyrics.

Martin's picture

Great set, I picked this up shortly after it came out.

The first thing you notice in comparison to the original is the bass. Ray Staff put the bass back in. Plus it's clearer and more immediate all round.

It's news to me that it was done from a copy of the tapes. I thought they got the originals to master???  

It's also true and strikes you when listening to them, there is very little between you and the band. Very immediate, lifelike and real.

Michael Fremer's picture

Many reissue labels do this and I for one don't have a problem. Many of our treasured old originals from the 50s and 60s were sourced from "production masters" and not actual masters....

vince's picture

Thanks for the review.  After listening to Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones, Live at The Checkerboard Lounge I was primed for more of the same.  And then it appeared.  Acoustic Sounds is a little bit richer and I can't wait to play it!

Martin's picture

When buying reissue vinyl, where there is any doubt, I try and find out what the sources were. Here I was a little concerned that like Sundazed they were using 96/24 files. Not that I mind too much when properly done, but it's still a factor. So I emailed pure pleasure to ask them. This was the response.


Dear Martin,
Mastered from the original Isabel tapes and I was present as I am for most sessions.
Good listening.

Kind regards,


Tony Hickmott
Pure Pleasure Records Limited
156 B Waldegrave Road
TW11 8NA

Production master or original, I don't know. I do know they sound very good.

Really good customer service too.

I had a problem with one of the LPs, a blob of vinyl. They replaced it immediately.

Pure Pleasure records: Very highly recommended.

Prancing Horse's picture

This album got me hooked on electric blues when I was 14. I took it out form local library and made a cassette copy!

I had written off the blues as outdated..

When I heard the tracks on this album I was ripped a new asshole. Stellar and one of the best blues compilations ever.

dailyville's picture

Relevant to the 3 Vanguard Blues LP reissues: I bought these 3 albums decades ago & Yes, they do have a great "rough & raw" sound to them; the only way to go with Chicago small combo Blues, in my humble opinion. I would also highly recommend another Chicago Blues album from roughly the same time period (1964), a little-known LP by a lesser-known Chicago artist: Robert Nighthawk "Live on Maxwell St." on Rounder records. (the Rounder CD of the album comes with an extended 13 minute interview with Nighthawk done by Mike Bloomfield).

Not only recorded Live, but "out-on-the-street & down-in-the-alley" Live!; this is one of the "realest" Live LPs you will ever hear. Maxwell is one of my personal favorites & there is about him a foreboding, a sense of real, personal "doom & gloom". Evidently he never really cared about making it and unfortunately he didn't; just having his one & only hit "Sweet Black Angel" (not the Stones song with the same title) in 1949 on Aristocrat / Chess.

Cybermynd's picture

Picked up an original Volume 2 ( I think. Vanguard VSD-79217?) and was very pleased to see it mentioned here. Loved it from the first play. It was in a lot of 30 very clean Blues albums at the local thrift store. We pay 10 cents a pop for records and although it pays to go there every morning it's a wonderful resource. In the last three years I have acumulated about 2000 albums for a grand total of $200. No, I'm not telling where it is...

gigihan11's picture

I received the 3 LP set as a gift from my best friend, he knows that I live blues and wanted to surprise me with a gift he knew I wanted. I listen to these songs when I am preparing food in the kitchen, recently I read some recipes on Gluten Free Blog and decided to give it a try.

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