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Uni. Of Illinois Press (BK084)

Featuring interviews with Freddie King, James Cotton, Big Maceo, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Albert Collins, Juke Boy Bonner, Louise Johnson, Fontella Bass, Big Boy Warren, Johnny Otis, Roy Brown, Louis Myers, Snooky Pryor, Jimmy Thomas and more

Frank Zappa famously once quipped that rock journalism tends to be written by people who can’t write about people who can’t play for people who can’t read. Thankfully, as a general rule, the standard of writing concerning blues music over the years has been of a higher standard than this. The words of blues historians, journalists, commentators and critics have typically been ‘held up to the light’ to test for a much higher level of academic rigour, robust research and sober contextualisation than most of rock and pop music has been subjected to.

Much of the credit for this can be given to Blues Unlimited, an iconic blues music magazine that pioneered an approach to blues writing that in many ways established the benchmark for other magazines and periodicals to subsequently follow.

Starting in 1963 from the unlikely base of Bexhill-On-Sea in East Sussex, the founding editors of Blues Unlimited, Simon Napier and Mike Ledbitter (soon joined by friend and fellow-enthusiast, John Broven) were among the first to create a forum where blues was presented and championed as a musical form in its own right, rather than as a rather minor and historically stunted variant of jazz. The boys from Bexhill were part of a growing movement that took their concept of the blues from an appreciation of the post war rhythm & blues and rock and roll booms as much as the pre-war country blues and, as such, were looking to present a broader picture of the vibrant and contemporary scene that was evidently emerging.

These 450 pages superbly package a whole host of articles re-produced as first published (with short but exemplary new introductions to contextualise each article), written by some of the best writers engaged by the magazine during its twenty-five years or so of operation – from Mike Ledbitter and John Broven’s own articles through to other contributors who subsequently helped make the magazine what it became (such as Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe, Cilla Huggins, Norbert Hess, Steve Tracy and others).

Ultimately though it is the musicians featured, and their stories they tell, that engage the reader the most. Coming from a time before magazine articles were overly and overtly arranged by managers, PR types and record labels just to plug the latest album or tour, there is a refreshing amount of openness and enthusiasm on show from almost all musicians featured, helping to project a real and interesting insight into the life and times of the featured bluesmen and women.

With loads of archives pictures, a brief but illuminating overview of the ownership and management of the magazine across the years and a nice foreword from Tony Russell, this is must-have slice of blues history.

The only slight grumble is that it is quite a price for what is effectively a collection of previously extant material, nicely compiled though it is. Still, if you compare the price to be paid against all the hours to be spent pouring over the contents, it doesn’t seem such a bad price after all!

Review Date: January 2016

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