Joe Hill Louis was a one-man band, pure and simple. It's what he did, singing while playing guitar, adding in harmonica runs and keeping 4/4 time on a hi-hat and bass drum, all at once. It's a rare thing, one-man bands. A few names come to mind, like Doctor Ross
, Jesse Fuller
, and Duster Bennett
, but it's a short list. An experienced street musician, Louis took what he did seriously, and always dressed impeccably, but he had a rough spark in him, too, and his street corner sets were frequently fascinating. The recording studio was another matter. Louis only knew how to do things the way he knew how to do things, and recording a man who insisted on recording everything at once, from vocals to guitar to crude 4/4 kick drum rhythms, was a difficult task. This two-disc set, which includes sides Louis cut for Meteor, Sun, and a host of other labels between 1949 and 1954, shows the results, which are mixed. The earliest tracks had Louis playing acoustic guitar, and with the harmonica and one-man drum kit going along, too, it all sounds sort of washed out, and songs like "Train Ticket" sound like nothing so much as generic blues with lyrics to match. But then Louis got an electric guitar, and things picked up, and songs like "Come Back Baby" had a Jimmy Reed
-like feel, laconic and shuffling, but with a little jug band kick, too, and it was all delivered looser than the tie rods on an old car, and live as all get out because, well, Louis couldn't record any other way. He developed, at his best, a raw, almost rock & roll boogie sound on sides like "Blue in the Morning," the almost Excello-sounding "Good Morning Little Angel," "Gotta Go Baby," and the bayou-tinged "Going Down to Louisiana." When other musicians are present on these tracks, which is only occasionally, it widens the palette a little bit, and the addition of a piano accompanist on "Eyesight to the Blind," for instance, seems stark and startling after all the one-man band stuff, while the instrumental "Jack Pot" comes off like a ragged, jazzy, and joyous after-hours jam session. Asked about Louis once, Sam Phillips
said Louis was "a loner but not lonesome." Of course not...he was a one-man band.