2. I m a Busy Man Robert Stroger
3. Bob is Back in Town Robert Stroger
4. Don t You Lie to Me Albert King
5. Indigo Bunting Samuel B. Burckhardt
6. Just a Bad Boy Eddie Taylor
7. Something Strange Robert Stroger
8. Stranded in St. Louis H. Parker Jr.
9. Blind Man Blues Robert Stroger
10. I Gotta Move Robert Stroger
11. Jazz Man Blues Robert Stroger
12. Key to the Highway W. Broonzy, C. Segar
Bob is Back in Town
Liner Notes by Justin O’Brien, Contributor to Living Blues
Bob is back in town—but just to rest a bit.
“I’m as busy now as I’ve ever been,” says Bob Stroger, veteran Chicago-based bassist who anchored the bands of Otis Rush in the 1970s and ’80s, and Sunnyland Slim in the ’80s and ’90s, and Mississippi Heat following that. He’s an in-demand sessionman and internationally touring musician, and now a bandleader in his own right. He’s always on the move.
Bob is also one of the best dressed and nicest guys on the blues scene. Mellow is his middle name. In fact I’ve always called Bob ‘the world’s most contented bass player.’ It’s a joy watching him play, rocking in rhythm, smiling blissfully and benevolently, his long fingers stepping out the bass line on the beat. A few years back he took up singing and songwriting as well, and he’s tackled both endeavors in classic Bob Stroger style.
The blues has its shouters, pleaders, growlers and howlers. The laid-back crooners and balladeers sometimes get short shrift. They’re the singers who smoothly and intimately state their case—with a whole lot less drama, but certainly no less feeling. As producer and saxophonist Sam Burckhardt says, “There are many ways to tell a story.” Take for example the songs of Junior Parker, Willie Mabon, Percy Mayfield, Charles Brown and Arthur Prysock.
And now check out Bob Stroger singing his original numbers like the laid-back, swamp-tinged I’m a Busy Man, the haunting Something Strange, the brilliantly-relaxed You Got to Move, and the Louis Jordan-style Jazz Man Blues. Furthermore, enjoy his achingly near-whispered take of Big Bill Broonzy’s classic Key to the Highway, precise, yet casually flowing rendition of Tampa Red’s Don’t You Lie to Me and his assured version of Junior Parker’s What Goes On in the Dark, which Bob makes his own in a tight production. I think you’ll agree that subtle and suave is no less credible or effective than loud and cathartic.
“I just try to sing songs that fit my personality and my feel,” says Bob. “When I’m singin, it’s just like me carryin on a conversation. It’s a part of my life. Some of it is parts of my life.”
Counterpoint to Bob’s confident smooth vocals and impeccable timekeeping on the bass is Steve Freund’s precision guitar support throughout. Freund sets the rhythm accompaniment for each number and lays down some lovely picking on the loping Busy Man, Eddie Taylor-inspired leads on Bad Boy, and fat-toned swing on Jazz Man Blues. Add to that Kenny Barker’s atmospheric keyboard contributions and Sam’s buoyant and lyrical solos and tastefully charted horn support (listen to the lush way the horns well up on Stranded in St. Louis and Bob is Back in Town) and you hold in your hand a fully-realized recording.
My 21 year old son, Liam, accompanying me to this session, was awed as these professionals nailed each number. “How do they know what to do?” he asked, “How do they make it sound so good?”
“Well that’s feelin one another,” explains Bob, “See when you’re musicians and you know the limitations, once you get up there and start to playin, you kind of play what fit this guy and you know how far you can push him out on a limb. So it just come from experience.”
Bob certainly knows his session-mates, and the listener can easily sense the musical kinship between them. On drums is the versatile Kenny Smith (check out his slick stick work on Something Strange, Jazz Man Blues and Loan Me Train Fare), son of good friend and former Muddy Waters alum Willie Smith, who also appears here on his original instrument, the harmonica. On organ and piano is Kenny Barker, 25 year veteran with the band of the late, great Willie Kent, one of Bob’s oldest musician friends. Singing backup is Dietra Farr, another dear friend and former Mississippi Heat member. And his former Sunnyland Slim Big Four bandmembers Sam Burckhardt and Steve Freund complete the unit in a happy reunion.
“I wanted to get the family back to do somethin for Sunnyland. Because Sunnyland, for ten years, tried to get me to sing. So I’m doin it for him. I got Steve and Sam, and all we’re missin is [the late soulful singer and drummer] Robert Covington.”
Sunnyland and his Big Four held the Sunday night slot at Chicago’s B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted for 15 years.
“Those days I will always treasure,” says Bob. “Them were some of the better days of my musical career, comin up there on Sundays and seein the people. It was somethin we all looked forward to. It wasn’t just goin up there for the bucks, you know,we all gathered as a family.”
“Music can be really hard. I try to make it a family affair. Back in the olden days, we wasn’t just musicians comin’ to a gig, we were personal friends. And once you do that, you feel one another better. It just makes things a lot easier. I tell all the new musicians out there, you got to be a family or it’ll get really hard out there on the road.”
Music started as a family affair for Bob after coming to Chicago from Hayti, Missouri by way of St. Louis. Bob began playing after driving his brother-in-law, guitarist Johnny Ferguson, to gigs with J.B. Hutto in the 1950s. He first played on a homemade instrument that he calls “the plank.” Hanging off the neck was a little tobacco pouch in which he kept his thumb pick.
“Oh yeah!” remembers Bob, “If I left my pouch at home, I couldn’t play!
“Originally it started out as a guitar. But I think Elmore [James] made a bass out of it. We couldn’t afford no bass. And Elmore gave it to us so we could mess around with it. I played that doggone thing for years.”
“Willie Kent was singin, my brother [John] was on drums, then we had Willie Hudson on guitar. That was the tobacco sack days.”
Jimmie Lee Robinson had shown him how to tune the strings down an octave to mimic the sound of a bass, and then brothers Hip and Jug Linkchain suggested that he and Willie Hudson learn from watching others to break them of playing identical patterns.
He learned quickly: bassist James Green showed him how to use just thumb and fingers and to play open notes in his runs. Then Bob played with Rufus Foreman’s jazz ensemble for a time before returning to the blues with Eddie King. Before long he became a member of perhaps Otis Rush’s tightest gigging band and his career was well-established.
“I love what I do,” says Bob. “And when it gets so this music business gets to be a job, that’s when I retire. This is my life. This is fun to me. I tell everybody I work with: we’re goin up to have fun. If people see you havin fun, they’ll have fun. But if you come there makin this thing look like a job, it goin be a job!”
Bob is back in town and he’s working, but it’s no job.
Catch him while you can! And why not make it a family affair?
Bob Stroger vocals, bass on all tracks
and where present
Sam Burckhardt tenor sax, back-up vocals on tracks 3, 4
Steve Freund guitar, back-up vocals on tracks 3, 4
Kenny Barker piano, organ on tracks 7, 9
Kenny Smith drums, back-up vocals on tracks 3, 4
Willie Smith harmonica on track 6
Deitra Farr back-up vocals on tracks 3, 4
Juli Wood baritone sax on tracks 1, 3, 7, 8, 9
Chuck Parrish trumpet on tracks 1, 3, 7, 8, 9
Cover photo Eileen Ryan
Graphic design Sarah Drake
Producers Sam Burckhardt and Bob Stroger
Executive Producer Aart de Geus
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Steve Wagner
Recorded at Riverside Studios in Chicago on March 12 and 13, 2006
Arrangements by Sam
Airway Records AR 4762
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