THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 7, 2005
By JON PARELES
Blind Arvella Gray
A Texan who became a street singer in Chicago, Blind Arvella Gray released his one album on a local label in 1972, and it has just been reissued on CD as "The Singing Drifter" (Conjuroo). It's a solo album, with Gray's hearty voice accompanied by lunging chords from a dobro slide guitar or simple handclaps. Born in 1906, Gray retained old songs with their irregular beats and variant lyrics. His repertory centered not on blues, but on vigorous gospel and casually startling work songs. "Arvella's Work Song," "Gander Dancing Song" and "John Henry" (in a version that also has the hero's wife driving steel) had survived since the building of the railroads; they're glimpses into an era of backbreaking work and steadfast endurance.
July 8, 2005
The Devoted Fan
As a teenager in the 70s, Cary Baker took it upon himself to find Blind Arvella Gray a record label. Now he's reissuing the late bluesman's only album.
Cary Baker first met Blind Arvella Gray almost 35 years ago, when he was a budding blues enthusiast attending high school in Wilmette. "I was 15 and one day my father took me down to Maxwell Street," he says. "There were a lot of street musicians playing at the time, but as soon as we happened upon Arvella, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was something about him that harkened back to field hollers and country blues, stuff you didn't hear even back then.”
Gray died in 1980, and Baker, now 49, is working as a music publicist in LA. But he still takes inspiration from that visit to Maxwell Street, and to inaugurate his new label, Conjuroo Recordings, he's reissuing Gray's lone album, The Singing Drifter, which has been out of print since a pressing of 1,000 copies sold out back in 1973. "It's pretty fitting," says Baker, "since he was the one who really fueled my passion for the blues."
Gray was born in Somerville, Texas, in 1906, but thanks to his penchant for embellishment, not much else about his life is known for certain. His real name was either James or Walter Dixon, and he claimed that in the 1920s he'd worked for a circus and driven a getaway car for Detroit's notorious Purple Gang, among other things. He lost his sight in the early 30s, but it's hard to be sure how -- sometimes he said he'd been hit with a shotgun blast during a botched grocery-store holdup, sometimes that he'd been wounded in a fight over a woman at a brothel. Apparently the incident, whatever it was, also cost him the first two fingers on his fret hand. "That's why he was able to play with a slide, but couldn't do intricate fingerpicking stuff," says Baker. "But whenever I asked him about how it had happened, he told the story differently every time."
Gray picked up the guitar sometime after he became blind, and by 1946 he was a fixture on Maxwell Street, often playing with his sister, who sang under several names, including Granny Clara Jenkinsbey. Baker returned to Maxwell Street three weeks after his first trip and made many more visits in the months to come. He discovered that Gray had barely been mentioned in the Chicago press. "So I did an interview, typed up the story, and sent it to the Reader," he says. Publisher Bob Roth accepted the piece for the paper's 11th issue, which came out on January 7, 1972. Peter Bogdanovich, who'd just directed The Last Picture Show, was on the cover. "I think [Roth] paid me 50 bucks," says Baker, "and that made me feel very rich at the time."
Gray had self-released three singles in the mid-60s and been featured on a few compilations, but at that point he hadn't put out an LP of his own and was willing to accept help from anyone who wanted to give it -- even a suburban teenager. Baker knew of a Wilmette label called Birch Records, owned by Dave Wylie, that specialized in prewar country artists, including veterans of WLS's National Barn Dance like Patsy Montana and Lulu Belle & Scotty. "So I rode my bike over there one day and asked him if he wanted to record Blind Arvella Gray," says Baker.
Wylie already knew about Gray -- he'd seen him perform at the University of Chicago's first folk festival in 1961, on a bill that included Elizabeth Cotton and the New Lost City Ramblers. "He was a nonprofessional in the company of professionals, and he acquitted himself very well," says Wylie. "He was not trained on the guitar, he just strummed it -- or as the New York Times noted in their review, he 'clanged savagely' on it. But by the time Cary approached me about him, he'd taken some lessons from [fellow street singer] Blind Jim Brewer and gotten a lot better."
Wylie agreed to finance and release an album, and in late September '72 he and Baker drove Gray to a studio in Harvey. "We pulled an all-nighter, with Arvella recording from about eight until three or four in the morning," says Baker. Gray laid down 15 tracks, both originals and adaptations of traditional material, and 11 ended up on The Singing Drifter -- including "John Henry," which he'd made his signature tune. "He'd play that song all day -- sometimes that's all he'd play, no matter when you caught up with him," says Baker, laughing. "He played it so much that a lot of people actually thought his name was John Henry."
Baker kept in touch with Gray sporadically through the 70s, once booking him at a coffeehouse while at college in De Kalb. "But he really didn't play a lot of stage gigs," says Baker. "He was a true street singer." In fact Gray became a minor tourist attraction late in his life. "There were always a bunch of Europeans, fans from England, Sweden, from all over, watching him," says Baker. "They would interview him and photograph him all the time."
Wylie approached Gray in 1980 about reissuing The Singing Drifter, but Gray thought his playing had improved and persuaded Wylie that they should record a new album instead. The organizers of the University of Chicago Folk Festival also contacted Gray that year about performing at a reunion show to celebrate the fest's upcoming 20th anniversary. But Gray fell ill and died before either project could come to fruition. Baker wrote his obituary for Living Blues magazine.
In 1984, Baker moved to Los Angeles and went to work for IRS Records. In the mid-90s he founded the PR company Baker/Northrop, and last year he moved on to start a new firm called Conqueroo. Wylie, who was working for the Marshall Field's books department, stopped releasing new material on Birch in the early 80s, though he continued to re-press old titles and license them to reissue labels like Bear Family; he retired from Field's in 2003. Meanwhile Gray's scant recorded output became increasingly hard to find -- only six of his songs had ever been released on CD, including two on the 1999 sound track disc for a 1964 Maxwell Street documentary called And This Is Free -- and by 2000, copies of his LP were fetching more than $100 apiece when they turned up on eBay. "One day last fall I thought, You know, no one has ever reissued The Singing Drifter, and someone really should," says Baker. "I should. But I didn't have a label. But I've worked in the record business 21 years and knew enough people to get one started." To get Gray's album out on CD, he and his wife, Sharon Bell, launched Conjuroo Recordings last month.
Wylie owned the rights to the music, but Baker secured them with a brief phone call. To assemble the reissue, the two used the acetate reference discs from the 1972 session -- the master tapes, which Wylie had given to Gray, were lost after he died. They decided to drop one instrumental from the LP version and add the four tracks, mostly gospel standards, that'd been left off the original pressing. Both men contributed liner notes and remembrances of Gray.
The disc is already available through www.conjuroo.com, and it'll be in stores in early August. For Baker it's the culmination of a long relationship with Gray and his music. "He became like my project," he says. "I knew he had his limitations -- his playing was anything but slick. But there was something just wondrously pure about what he did, and that's always stayed with me."
July 7. 2005
CD replays Windy City's bluesy Maxwell Street
By Chris Morris
LOS ANGELES -- Neophyte record label operator Cary Baker returned to his hometown of Chicago last week and found that the city's fabled seat of the blues had vanished.
"The corner of Maxwell Street and Halsted Avenue is a Jamba Juice," Baker says. "It was very depressing. ... To see Jamba Juice on the corner where I used to buy Polish sausage was a mindblower for me."
For decades, the swarming weekend open-air market on Maxwell Street southwest of Chicago's Loop was an outdoor stage for dozens of local blues and gospel musicians. However, by the turn of this century, the neighborhood that bluesmen called "Jewtown" (because of its largely Polish-Jewish makeup) had been knocked down to accommodate the expansion of the University of Illinois' Chicago Circle campus.
Baker -- a longtime L.A. music publicist who runs his own firm, Conqueroo -- is reclaiming Maxwell Street's storied, vanished roots, and his own roots as well, with the first release on his Emergent/RED-distributed label Conjuroo. On Aug. 2, the label will issue "The Singing Drifter," the lone album by itinerant singer-guitarist Blind Arvella Gray. The album supplies a savory picture of what it was like on Maxwell Street on a typical windy Sunday afternoon.
Gray -- who was blinded and lost two fingers in a mysterious 1930 shooting -- was a familiar figure on Maxwell Street during the '60s and '70s. He can be heard in his element on "And This Is Maxwell Street," Rooster Blues' 2000 soundtrack companion to director Mike Shea's fine, hard-to-find 1964 documentary about the market, "And This Is Free."
Baker, who began frequenting the street in 1969 as a teenage blues fanatic from the suburbs, recalls, "I took a shine to Arvella because you could actually stop and talk to him." He began his writing career with a spec story about Gray that the Chicago Reader ran on its cover.
Gray had been recorded only sparingly, and in 1972 Baker took the notion of an album to Dave Wylie, who ran the indie imprint Birch Records. "He had never released a blues record before," Baker says, "but I didn't know anybody else who would be interested."
"The Singing Drifter" was cut in one nightlong session at a Harvey, Ill., studio. Gray appears solo, accompanying himself on his steel-bodied National guitar. It's a bracing, rough-hewn collection, ranging from Gray's trademark seven-minute interpretation of the traditional "John Henry" to several gospel numbers bearing the stamp of the musician's Texas predecessor Blind Willie Johnson.
In a flash last year, Baker decided he would reissue Gray's album. He tracked down the elusive Wylie to secure the rights and will reissue the set with four unreleased tracks. It's a lovely homage to Gray, who died in 1980 at 74.
Conjuroo won't limit itself to blues-related releases; Baker says, "I'm looking at early new wave (records) from Chicago." But he clearly sees the Gray project as a salute to a historic part of his hometown that has disappeared forever.
"(Mayor Richard M.) Daley and the current regime in Chicago, who are so careful to preserve other things, really blew it with Maxwell Street," Baker says. "It would have been nice even if they'd turned it into (something like Memphis') Beale Street. ... It could have been great if they'd turned it into a blues monument."
Consider Gray's album that monument instead.
BLIND ARVELLA GRAY
The Singing Drifter [CONJUROO]
Chicago street bluesman’s only LP finally available on CD
Blind Arvella Gray (born James Dixon in 1906) was a street musician who often performed his gospel and blues at the open-air market on Maxwell Street in Chicago. He recorded a handful of 45s in the ‘60s, and his only LP was released in 1972 on Birch Records, at the encouragement of a young fan named Cary Baker. Now, 25 years after his death, his LP is seeing a CD reissue on Baker’s brand new label, Conjuroo.
The Singing Drifter is a collection of traditional gospel numbers (“Take My Hand Precious Lord”), original songs (“Those Old Fashioned Alley Blues”) and a few a capella tracks steadied by Gray’s sparse clapping. But it’s the rolling melodies of Gray’s dobro that capture his essence: as he punctuates instrumental verses of “When The Saints Go Marching In” with a jubilant “Hallelujah!,” it’s easy to imagine the crowds that must’ve clustered around him on that Chicago street, ears inclined.
NASHVILLE CITY PAPER
By Ron Wynn
July 28, 2005
Blind Arvella Gray
The Singing Drifter
Despite countless stories and tales that have been told over the years about the legendary Chicago street musician Blind Arvella Gray, only a handful of people ever heard his lone 1972 Birch Records album. But thankfully it's now been reissued in immaculate fashion, complete with four bonus tracks. Gray performed work songs, spirituals, folk pieces and bawdy blues with fervor and flair, his guitar work alternately poignant, explosive, and unorthodox. >From the anguished laments of "Standing by the Bedside of A Neighbor" and "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again" to the compelling narratives of "John Henry" and the humorous edges of "There's More Pretty Girls Than One" and "Gander Dancing Song," the music of Blind Arvella Gray is one of the year's most revealing and satisfying discoveries.
Blind Arvella Gray
The Singing Drifter - Conjuroo
By Steve Rosen
The amazing-chilling, really-thing about listening to this reissue of an obscure 1972 LP by a now-forgotten Chicago street singer is to realize just how ancient-sounding a bluesman he was even then. Playing a National steel dobro with a metal slide, and singing old folk and work tunes and gospel with a choked, emotional urgency, the 60-ish Gray already was a relic of another time in a Chicago long turned on by the Chess label's electrified blues and Paul Butterfield's blues-rock. The mysterious Gray played at Chicago's famous Maxwell Street open-air market and died in 1980. To hear him today singing "John Henry" or "Take Your Burden to the World" is to hear Whitman's long-ago, pre-pop culture America singing...and realize the only genuine remnants left are on archival recordings like this.
Blind Arvella Gray
The Singing Drifter (Conjuroo)
Published August 26, 2005
Bad luck is all that separates the late Blind Arvella Gray, a seminal '60s Chicago street singer and dobro player, from more frequently recorded contemporaries. Born in Somerville, Texas, Gray lost his vision and parts of two of his fingers in a mysterious incident involving shotgun-propelled birdshot, but it never affected his ability. The solo performances on this 1972 release--created for posterity, although it basically disappeared until now--are often breathtaking. The clear-voiced Gray may have sung the most poignant version ever of "John Henry," and from "Take Your Burden to the Lord" to "There's More Pretty Girls Than One," you can hear gospel dissolve into blues.
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
August 25, 2005 edition
By Buddy Blue
Blind Arvella Gray, "The Singing Drifter" (Conjuroo)
Gray was an obscure, sightless, physically-hindered (missing two fingers on his fretting hand!) street singer/storyteller who recorded one limited-release album in 1972 and died a few years later. Reissued for the first time, this collection of extremely raw but infectiously joyous blues and spirituals, performed solo, serves as a testament to the best elements of the human spirit and personal fortitude. Gray wasn't a great guitar player by any means (no surprise there) and a very imperfect singer, but if his music doesn't leave you inspired and grinning like an idiot, you've got a hole in yer soul.
THE ONION – THE A.V. CLUB
Music In Brief
August 30th, 2005
A regional superstar thanks to his ubiquitous presence on Chicago's Maxwell Street, Blind Arvella Gray influenced many and entertained more, but left only a handful of singles, a compilation appearance, and a single album, 1972's The Singing Drifter (Conjuroo). It's been impossible to find for years, but a new CD corrects that while confirming Gray's talent as a charismatic performer, particularly on a hypnotic, sprawling rendition of "John Henry." And he did it all sightless, with missing fingers, and playing a dobro that doubled as a weapon against those who would rob a blind man...
AN HONEST TUNE
Irrespective of his moniker, Blind Arvella Gray spent his 74 years on earth quite colorfully. A cotton picker, a circus laborer, a gang chauffeur, possibly a bank robber, maybe the proprietor of a whorehouse, Gray (born Walter Dixon in Texas)lost his eyes in a gunfight over a woman. All that led up to his becoming an enthralling entertainer, working the blues on Chicago’s Maxwell Street and other open-air spots. September 22nd, 1972 marks the day Gray was given the opportunity to record his one and only album. This reissue of The Singing Drifter is 30 long years overdue. Hear hope and excitement amid hard times in “Gander Dancing Song,” just his voice and a handclap. Often, Gray rakes a dobro, his voice matching the tension in the hard notes. “John Henry,” just one example, is a work song full of pride, the knowing blues, though, palpable. Mostly traditional, but unrivaled in execution, these are enduring performances. Gray passed 25 years ago. Help bring him out of total obscurity and enjoy some exemplary solo blues in the process. (conjuroo.com)
-- Tom Clarke
ROCK & RAP CONFIDENTIAL
The Singing Drifter, Blind Arvella Gray (Conjuroo) - CD reissue (plus four tracks) of the only album the blind street singer ever made. Gray, 66 years old when this material was recorded in 1972, came from Texas, landed in Chicago, and played National Steel guitar as well as singing a cappella. His seven minute "John Henry" is one of the legendary street singer recordings, but his material came from everywhere: gospel is the core of this set but he also does work songs, blues, and country. Solid notes by Cary Baker, who played a major role in getting the album made and who started Conjuroo partly to ensure that Gray's music became available again.
Available now Blind Arvella Gray's CD, remastered with four previously unreleased tracks, photos and extensive liner notes.
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