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"TOMMY BANKHEAD WAS ALREADY A STAR WHEN I GOT TO ST. LOUIS"--Albert King
Tommy Bankhead is one hard-workin’ blues man. He’s been working hard since he arrived in St. Louis from Lake Cormorant Mississippi in 1949. He wasn’t even twenty years old and Bankhead had already played with soon-to-be blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, Joe Willie Wilkins, and Joe Hill Louis.
By the mid 1950’s Tommy and his band, The Landrockers, had become a fixture in St. Louis clubs and the full range of bars, jook joints and roadhouses just across the Mississippi River in Illinois. He ran revues at hip Black nightspots like the Hotel Harlem, and the Morocco Lounge in segregated St. Louis. The music scene in town was boiling over. Bubbling in that cauldron were the urban blues of Little Milton and Albert King. Chuck Berry and Ike Turner were spiking the mix with rhythm and soul, fermenting the brew that would become Rock & Roll. Bankhead’s stature was such that whenever Ike was called away from his steady gig at Slick’s Lakeside Club in Eagle Park, IL. to tour he and the Landrockers sat in for Turner.
As the mid ‘60’s rolled out Ike, Chuck, Milton and Albert all moved on. Tommy Bankhead with his new band, The Blues Eldorados, was still King of the Bars in St. Louis. Bankhead stayed home and raised a family during the week and holy Hell on the weekends. A Bankhead gig at your neighborhood tavern was a guaranteed good time blues party.
And so it went: year after year, decade after decade, club after club. Tommy Bankhead kept working, digging deeper and deeper into himself and the Blues. Tommy’s sound became more and more original and unique;supplanting technique with style, style with craft, and finally, craft with art. Between 1960 and 1990 you could walk into a bar almost any night of the week and find Tommy Bankhead and the Blues Eldorados rockin’ the men, sweatin’ the women and jumpin’ the joint.
This record was cut in the mid-eighties by the best version of that band. It features a polished set songs, Tommy perfected in all those nights in Miss B’s, Hogan’s Hole, Chappies Lounge, The Dynaflo Club, The Tiki, Tubby’s Red Room, The Moonlight Lounge, Sadie’s Personality Bar and a thousand nameless and long forgotten dives strung along both sides of the big muddy river from backwoods Mississippi to the South Side of Chicago.
Tommy’s original compositions are the highlight of this, his only album, but his covers of other people’s tunes showcase his strong blues personality as well. The songs Tommy chose to cover for the record date are not the usual suspects. He opens with a searing version of Jo-L Carter’s "Please, Mr. Foreman". ("Please Mr. Foreman/slow down your assembly line/ I don’t mind workin’/ but I do mind dyin"). Tommy was visiting friends in West Memphis Arkasas in the early 1950’s. He heard Joe-L perform "Please Mr. Foreman" and immediately added it to his repertoire. Those lucky enough to own Carter’s incredibly hard to find single of this one, have to agree that Bankhead takes the song two steps deeper into the fire than even Carter’s fine version.
L.A. Ben Wells ("The L.A. stands for Lola Alabama") Blues Eldorados’ drummer for more than twenty years, quit high school in 1956 to go on the road with Big Jay McNeely. That’s where he learned Big J’s hit "There is Something on Your Mind". Ben brought this tune to the Bankhead band in the late ‘60’s. It became a staple of their live set immediately. Tommy’s voice is set against a swelling horn section as he cries and moans his way through this R&B heartbreaker.
This band could raise some musk in a bar room. That’s what happens when Bankhead turns his sinewy bassist Lonnie Brown loose on "Making Love is Good for You." Brook Benton would barely recognize this erotically charged version of his hit. It’s the kind of bump and grind dance tune that turned out many a tavern.
Few blues singers have the nerve, never mind the vocal chops, to attempt a Howlin’ Wolf song. Bankhead, who played guitar on Wolf’s historic recording of "Moanin’ at Midnight", pulls it off with funky grace. Bankhead molds "How Many More Years" into a resonant and vibrant tribute to the Wolf. The performance evolves into a series of call and response improvisations between Bankhead’s voice and Oliver Sain’s piano. Tommy flat out sings his ass off on this one.
The pivot point of this record is Tommy’s stunning reading of "Cummins Prison Farm." It’s a traditional blues that Bankhead has completely reworked. Tommy abandoned the band for this one and set his solo unaccompanied voice against the melancholy wail of Keith Doder’s harmonica. This sorrowful blues aria is a potent, intensely personal performance of a powerful piece of music.
Bankhead’s four original songs run the stylistic gamut from jiving swing to hard blues. They showcase Doder’s juicy harmonica as he plays off Tommy’s vocals and stinging guitar lines. "Ooh! Baby!" Is a hard swinging jump blues. You can jitterbug to it or just soak in this feel good song about a feel bad woman ("I work hard and bring you all my dough/ You give it to the man next door.").
Doder’s huge tone and throbbing rhythm could dominate a tune if he wasn’t so tasteful. He does a controlled slow burn on the imploring "Don’t Take My Picture Off Your Wall." Tommy’s steamy vocal exposes the raw nerve running through this extraordinarily well-written song.
"Nothing Like a Good Woman" is another slow simmering blues. The band closes around it like a fist. Every one here is in the pocket. The Eldorados take the tempo up a notch for the bouncing "Down With the Blues." Once again, the rocking tempo creates a natural antidote to the sad situation the song describes.
This record is not perfect. It was recorded on a limited budget and in some haste. Its strength is that it’s so real. This is a fine Blues singer and musician fronting a band burnished in the fire of live performance. These musicians have since gone their own ways to do battle with their own demons. Hard working Tommy Bankhead’s health began to fail in the early ‘90’s and he performs only on a limited basis nowadays. These recordings chronicle his talents when they were their ripest.
Only 1000 copies of Tommy Bankhead and the Blues Eldoados’ LP were ever pressed. Most of those were sold off the bandstand at their endless stream of gigs in the dark heart of the American Midwest. That was back in 1985. It was the last time this record was avaailabe. The original record has become a collector’s item that sells at a premium to blues aficionados on the infrequent occasion when it shows up on a rare record auction list.
Vintage Vinyl has pressed a limited edition CD of this long unavailable gem. We’re offering them on this website at a special price of $11.99. When they’re gone, they’re gone.