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Finally, a compilation of R&B that's done right

`Blowing the Fuse,' a 16-volume series, is a complete look at the genre's evolution.

October 03, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

Bear Family Records' "Blowing the Fuse," a 16-volume series of CDs devoted to the evolution of rhythm and blues, is such a brilliant concept that it's a wonder it took all these years for someone to put it together -- or at least put it together right.

Countless albums and boxed sets have been devoted to R&B hits from the 1940s and 1950s, but most have been very limited, usually focusing on the same three or four dozen recordings that were most popular during rock's infancy.

"Blowing the Fuse" stands apart because of its completeness.

Though the volumes are sold individually, it's inviting to think of the series as a boxed set that offers the 450 or so hits from R&B's first golden age, 1945 to 1960. Each disc contains 28 or so tunes from one of those years, along with lively liner notes.

Almost all important rock pioneers, from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan, have spoken about the excitement they felt as teens tuning in to R&B stations and hearing music filled with a passion and character rarely found on mainstream pop radio. This set lets you put yourself in those artists' place and imagine what it was like to hear that music for the first time -- and marvel at how exciting so much of it still sounds.

The 1955 volume alone includes such landmark figures as Ray Charles, Johnny Ace, Little Richard and Fats Domino. Equally compelling, however, is music in the series from artists who aren't such household names, including Faye Adams, the Crows, the Chords and the Clovers.


Various Artists

"Blowing the Fuse" series

(Bear Family)

The back story: "Rhythm and Blues" was the term that Billboard magazine began using in the late '40s for the sales chart formerly called "race music." The musical styles on the chart were so diverse initially (big band and pop to boogie, jazz, gospel and blues) that the only main unifying factor was that it was music made by African Americans.

By 1951, however, R&B music began asserting a more distinctive edge, a mixture of blues, gospel and a strong, defiant beat that felt suddenly more youthful, more urgent, more sensual. Presley was 16 that year, just three years away from stepping into the Sun Records studio in Memphis and recording Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right Mama."

And two tracks on the 1951 collection were major moments in the journey from R&B to rock: Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," the boogie-based masterpiece that was also recorded at Sun Records, and the Dominoes' slyly suggestive "Sixty Minute Man."

Among the highlights of the 1952 volume: Elmore James' "Dust My Broom," with its unforgettable slide guitar lines; Tiny Bradshaw's "The Train Kept A-Rollin'," the blueprint for sizzling later recordings by numerous rock acts, and Lloyd Price's super-charged "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," also recorded by Presley.

My favorite from the 1953 volume is Faye Adams' "Shake a Hand," a gospel-flavored tune about rallying against despair. It spent nearly three months at No. 1 on Billboard's R&B chart. Adams' vocal has an urgent insistence and the arrangement is blessed with a rollicking piano and sweet, silky guitar. Dylan was only 10 when the record came out, but he sang "Shake a Hand" at several concerts in the mid-'80s. It was probably the only time I was glad to see Dylan sing someone else's material. But I had loved the song ever since hearing it myself as a teenager in the '50s.

Other highlights of the 1953 package include the Orioles' gospel-accented "Crying in the Chapel" and Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters' "Money Honey," both of which were also recorded by Presley.

It's not the songwriting on the key selections from the 1954 edition that was a model for a new generation of musicians but simply the liberating spirit of the music itself in the Crows' "Gee," the Chords' "Sh-Boom" and the Charms' "Hearts of Stone."

There are lots of wonderful moments contained in later volumes of "Fuse," but they were no longer part of the underground sound of R&B. By 1955, several of the R&B artists themselves, notably Chuck Berry with "Maybellene" and Bo Diddley with "Bo Diddley," were being played on mainstream pop stations. The revolution was complete.

Information on "Blowing the Fuse," which was superbly produced by Dave "Daddy Cool" Booth, can be obtained through or


Further listening

Many of the rock pioneers also speak of having spent hours as teens listening to Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Snow on country stations. So Bear Family could complete the birth-of-rock portrait by doing a parallel series devoted to the country music hits of the same period. The word from the German label: The idea is under consideration.


Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues with special attention to artists or albums deserving of greater attention than they received originally

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