Cincinnati enjoys a reputation as a city with a rich and colorful musical history, exemplified by the influential reach of Syd Nathan’s roster at King Records, a label that attracted and embraced every conceivable style of music and musician. And there’s a case to be made that King’s diversity was simply a reflection of the city’s broad creative scope — then, now and perpetually, it’s been difficult to hang a signature genre tag on Cincinnati’s sound.
There aren’t many Cincinnatians who understand the area’s musical timeline much better than Darren Blase, co-owner of the city’s premiere record store, Shake It Records. Blase has long championed the King story; he did his thesis at UC on King Records and ultimately turned that mountain of information into a book and a screenplay, both of which remain undeservedly shelved. But like any curious student of history, Blase has never been content to concentrate on just the King legacy, wanting to connect the dots to see how it all related to his own firsthand Punk Rock experience in the ’80s. Equally important, he has always been eager to look to the city’s musical heritage before King Records, to discover the roots of Cincinnati’s unique musical culture.
Blase and his brother/business partner Jim have long used their Shake It label as a vehicle to spotlight the incredible wealth of talent in the current local and regional scene, but their latest release time travels back to the early part of the 20th century to reveal Cincinnati’s amazing contributions to pre-World War II Blues with the double vinyl gem Play It Like You Did Back to George Street.
As Blues historian Steve Tracy notes in his thorough liner notes for George Street, Cincinnati in the ’20s and ’30s didn’t necessarily exhibit a distinctive Blues identity like Chicago, New York or Memphis, but the artists that comprised the Cincinnati scene were a spirited and talented group that could have successfully infiltrated any Blues community in the country.
Representing a specific period in Cincinnati musical history, from 1924 to 1936, George Street serves as evidence of the assertion that the city’s Blues profile was anything but nondescript. George Street’s ancient recordings (of varying but ultimately listenable quality) are filled with fascinating local references (“Court Street Blues,” “I’m Going to Cincinnati,” “Sixth Street Moan,” “Newport Blues,” “Cincinnati Underworld Woman”) and a host of area artists with a firm grip on the qualities that make for great Folk and Ragtime-tinted Blues.
The collection takes its title from “Mama Let Me Lay On You,” where Walter Coleman exhorts his uncredited guitarist to reach for the passion and fire that typified performances on the long-forgotten street that was once the home to the city’s red light district and its attendant nightclubs; a good many of the lyrics to the songs on the George Street collection live up to that bawdy history.
Coleman is a pervasive presence on George Street, primarily because he assumes so many recorded identities (Kid Cole, Kid Coley, Bob Coleman, Sweet Papa Tadpole, Walter Cole), but the album also shows off the obvious skills of Sam Jones (who also went by the name Stovepipe No. 1) and Jesse James (whose four songs on George Street represent his entire recorded legacy).
George Street also offers a pair of talented jug bands. Coleman leads the Cincinnati Jug Band — “George Street Stomp” is a particular favorite – while Jones takes the helm with the King David Jug Band, typified by the rollicking “What That Tastes Like Gravy.”
Play It Like Did Back at George Street, enticingly subtitled Music From Ohio Volume 1 and beautifully illustrated by renowned local underground cartoonist Justin Green, is clearly aimed at a specific Blues aficionado. If Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan are your Blues ideals, then this album will hold little interest for you. But if you’re fascinated by the sound of scratchy old 78s and the magic that erupts from the horn when the needle is dropped on a groove that dates to a time when flappers were the rage, George Street is your early Christmas present.
Remaining copies of the initial pressing of Play It Like You Did at George Street (which went on sale for Record Store Day's Black Friday event) are available from Shake It Records (online here and at the store in Northside) only as a double vinyl album (for now), but the release comes with a download card for digital playback. The label is rolling out the record nationally in the next few weeks. To sample a trio of tracks from the release, click here.