Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman once said of Josh White, “Josh was his own man in a time before it became fashionable.” Indeed, White (1914-1969) had a remarkable career. He recorded blues, gospel and folk on so-called “race records” in the 1920s and 1930s before moving on to headline at New York’s Café Society, and appearing on radio, in motion pictures and in four Broadway productions. He played stages around the world, singing before royalty. Yet the career of the pioneering African-American troubadour and friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt was very nearly derailed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Job opportunities dried up for the blacklisted artist, and he retreated to London in 1950. Five years later, however, he was tapped by Jac Holzman to join Elektra Records, and he recorded both the label’s final 10-inch album and first 12-inch one. That 12-inch LP, Josh at Midnight, has just been reissued and remastered on vinyl by Ramseur Records under the supervision of original producer Holzman and engineers Bruce Botnick and Bernie Grundman.
White’s Elektra debut in 1955 had been The Story of John Henry, interspersing the story of John Henry with songs from White’s storied past. (White had played the role of Blind Lemon in the short-lived 1940 Broadway musical John Henry.) Holzman, unafraid of any political ramifications, then brought White into the studio with bassist Al Hall and vocalist Sam Gary to craft Josh at Midnight. Holzman’s gamble paid off as Josh at Midnight became one of the best-sellers in the Elektra catalogue.
Ramseur’s reissue brings this deeply-felt mélange of blues, folk, gospel and jazz back into the public consciousness. On Josh at Midnight, White brought all of his experiences to such traditional melodies as “St. James Infirmary,” “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” He also revisited “One Meat Ball,” the Depression-era song adapted by Hy Zaret (of “Unchained Melody” fame) which White had made the first million-selling record by an African-American artist with his 1944 recording on Asch Records. The intimate, often haunting Josh at Midnight remains powerfully accessible; though a deeply soulful artist, White had honed his delivery and interpretation on the cabaret circuit and (much to the chagrin of his purist folk fans) was just as comfortable with Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” as with traditional gospel or blues. White’s Elektra recordings have been criticized in some quarters for a slick sound, but the sound of Josh at Midnight is that of an older artist singing honestly , directly and piercingly in his a sophisticated voice of experience and intelligence.
White went on to record five more Elektra albums through 1962, but Josh at Midnight remains the most beloved. Ramseur’s 180-gram vinyl edition, remastered by Bernie Grundman with vivid clarity and a warmth and intimacy befitting the spare arrangements, is available now at the links below!
- James Infirmary
- Raise a Rukus [sic]
- Scandalize My Name
- Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed
- Jelly, Jelly!
- One Meat Ball
- Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho
- Don’t Lie Buddy
- Number Twelve Train
- Takin’ Names