Chicago in the ’50s was overflowing with skilled bluesmen, vocal groups, gospel singers, not to mention the mom-and-pop labels eager to make a hit off the artists. There are the now-famous labels – Chess, Delmark, and Vee-Jay among them. But the Windy City was so teeming with talent (and entrepreneurial hucksters trying to launch their own careers) that small, independent labels were plentiful.
Earwig Music Company celebrates one such label in its ambitious new box set, Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection. It’s not too far-fetched to say the set is one of the most significant historical collections of the year. The beautifully designed 128-page hardcover book houses 4 CDs and essays galore, chronicling in words and music the story of Cadillac Baby (born Narvel Eatmon) and his Bea & Baby label.
Cadillac Baby was big-hearted and larger-than-life: a club owner, DJ, impresario, and entrepreneur with a passion for music and a wild side. For thirty years, from 1959-1989, his Bea & Baby label and its Key, Keyhole, Miss, and Ronald subsidiaries were home for the many styles of music that made up Chicago’s diverse scene – from blues and gospel to soul and doo-wop, hip-hop, and even comedy. Each and every style is represented among the 101 tracks on the new box set, some of which are newly unearthed finds from the vault. There are the famous – Hound Dog Taylor, Sleepy John Estes, James Cotton – alongside a wealth of obscure but just as talented artists like Lee Jackson, Little Mac and the Hipps, Eddie Boyd, Singing Sam, and Faith Taylor. Along the way, we also hear from Cadillac Baby himself, who tells his story by way of resurrected radio spots, a newly unearthed taped interview with Jim O’Neal, and Cadillac Baby’s own spoken word singles. All told, we become passengers on a journey through the Windy City and its somehow-forgotten music, with the gregarious, self-proclaimed “shifty hustler” as our guide.
The Bea & Baby label (which Cadillac named after himself and his wife) grew organically from his Show Lounge Club, his hotspot where bluesmen near and far performed. Cadillac had become friendly with many of the musicians, sometimes providing some with meals, a place to stay, and setting them up with jobs in town. It was that same spirit that inspired the label. Cadillac loved the blues, and he lived it, too. And with R&B making up a sizable chunk of music sales regionally and nationally, Cadillac had a shot at turning his love for music into a lucrative career.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemans! I’m your host who love you the most, Cadillac Baby!” So goes the exuberant introduction that opens the box set, culled from a 1971 session for a live album that was concocted in the studio. Our host’s lively remarks welcome us to a roster of musicians that he worked with, whose music is found within the four discs. Among the names is Eddie Boyd, who cut the first-ever Bea & Baby release and the first song on the box set, “I’m Commin’ [sic] Home.”
Eddie Boyd was no stranger to the Chicago blues scene when he cut his first Bea & Baby sides in June of 1959. He’d ping-ponged between Chicago labels, released the No. 1 R&B single “Five Long Years,” and released some minor hits on Chess. But after a contentious split with Chess over their business practices, Boyd migrated over to Bea & Baby. “I’m Commin’ Home” is a laid-back and swinging boogie-woogie tune that features an emotive vocal and growling sax solo. Though the track was a good choice to launch the label, it’s the Boyd-penned flip-side “Thank You, Baby” – with its gliding sax, twinkling piano line, and a fast-paced beat – that really gets the toe tapping.
Next up is L.C. McKinley, a gifted, jazz-influenced guitarist who’d backed up Boyd on “Five Long Years.” His two sides, “Nit Wit” and “Sharpest Man in Town,” show two sides of his playing. “Nit Wit” is a jaunty rocker recalling “Saturday Night Fish-Fry” while “Sharpest Man in Town” delivers the swagger with a slow groove and crunchy lead guitar line.
Along the way, we’re treated to the smooth doo-wop stylings of The Daylighters, whose bouncy cha-cha “You’re Breaking My Heart” and spooky, “Jailhouse Rock”-sounding Halloween novelty “Maad House Jump” are equally entertaining. (Their collaborations with Eddie Boyd, “Come On Home” and “Reap What You Sow” are featured elsewhere). There’s also the skilled-beyond-her-years vocals of 11-Year-Old Faith Taylor (as she was billed) and The Sweet Teens, who take a page from Frankie Lymon on the swaying ballad “I Need Him To Love Me” and the catchy, Latin-tinged “I Love You Darling.”
Bea & Baby’s first hit-maker Bobby Saxton is represented by “Trying To Make A Living,” a galloping blues rocker with electrifying guitar work by Earl Hooker and an incendiary vocal. The track resonated with audiences and became Bea & Baby’s best-selling record. Eventually, the record was picked up by the Checker label to reach audiences across the nation. One listener was Koko Taylor, whose faithful 1975 cover became one of her signature songs. Despite the success of the track, Saxton never recorded another track for Bea & Baby or any other label. The B-side to “Trying To Make a Living” was an Earl Hooker instrumental called “Dynamite,” which shows off the renowned player’s fiery licks and the creative picking techniques he became known for. Unlike collaborator Saxton, Earl Hooker was an in-demand player who cut records for CJ prior to meeting up with Cadillac Baby. He went on to do sessions for the Chief and Age labels before recording for Blue Thumb with Ike Turner and cutting sides for ABC-Bluesway and Arhoolie.
Another Bea & Baby favorite is Little Mack Simmons, a friend of James Cotton (whose Bea & Baby sides also feature on the box) and a relative of master harpist Little Walter. Simmons cut many tracks for Bea & Baby under many names, including St. Louis Mac and Little Mac (with and without The Hipps.) A wonderfully emotive singer and harp player, Simmons led the house band at Cadillac’s Lounge and cut his first recordings for the C.J. label in 1959 before moving to Bea & Baby the following year. His first A-side was “Times Are Getting Tougher,” a raucous walking-bass blues co-written by Cadillac Baby and Ted Daniel. With a searing solo by guitarist Eddie King Milton, a yearning vocal and piano fills from Detroit Junior that evoke Johnnie Johnson, it’s a wonder how “Times Are Getting Tougher” wasn’t picked up outside Chicago. Other Little Mac tracks that appear on here are his doo-wop ballad “Broken Heart,” a slow blues jam called “You Mistreated Me,” the jaunty boogie “I’m Your Fool,” and renditions of the blues classics “Trouble No More,” “The Sky is Crying,” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.”
Other highlights from the set include early recordings by slide guitarist extraordinaire Hound Dog Taylor, swinging piano blues from Sunnyland Slim, oddball soul by the eccentric performer Thurmon “T.” Valentine, lost doo-wop gems like Kirk Taylor and The Velvets’ “Your Love,” a foray into rap by 3D (produced by Earwig label head Michael Robert Frank), a bawdy holiday cut called “Santa Came Home Drunk,” classic spirituals by unknown gospel ensembles, comedy sides that were never issued, and a clutch of unreleased sessions by Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon. Further Estes-Nixon sessions are included on a download card with the box set, adding ten additional unheard tracks to the already all-encompassing box.
As if the eclectic collection of music wasn’t enough, Earwig has gone the extra mile by presenting it all inside a meticulously researched 128-page hardbound book. The book is packed with rare photographs, memorabilia, scans of contracts, and calssic album and single art from the Bea & Baby Archives. There’s a detailed discography, essays about each artist by Bill Dahl and Robert M. Marovich, a message from compilation producer Michael Robert Frank, and engaging, comprehensive liner notes by Jim O’Neal that draw on his 1971 interview with Cadillac Baby himself.
In all, Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection is a box set you didn’t know you needed but will no doubt love to have in your collection – a tribute to one of the wildest characters in Chicago’s music scene and all the music he helped put on the map, all lovingly presented with input from colleagues, fans, and historians, with rare photographs, interviews, and, of course, fantastic music through and through. No longer will you have to dig through crates to find the best of Bea & Baby. It’s all here (and then some!) in Earwig’s latest box set.
Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection is available now from Earwig Music Company. You can order your copy at your favorite brick and mortar shop, or with these Amazon links: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada