Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: Natural Man by J.B. Lenoir

Given the relatively strict and limited structure that underlies the African-American genre known as the blues, it is nothing short of astonishing how versatile and fresh the blues can be.

It's simply a matter of educated sleuthing to uncover how blues has informed both jazz and rock and roll from the beginning of each.  Even a few symphonic works owe their inspiration to the blues or represent collaborations with an actual blues band.

 There are various blues traditions or schools.  Chicago Blues is particularly celebrated, particularly the post-war scene recorded by Chess Records and other labels.  Major artists  recorded in Chicago include Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.

All these musicians are worthy of study, but this week I wish to focus on a particular Chicago blues artist:  J.B. Lenoir. My brother brought home from his college radio station a reel-to-reel tape he had jam-packed with Chess classic albums.  And as I absorbed the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Shines , and Little Walter, I was especially taken with J.B. Lenoir.

Unlike the others, his voice was pitched quite high.  There was none of the gruffness or macho postures of the others.  A sensitive and highly expressive voice was backed with wailing saxophones in close harmony. His lyrics were loaded with experience and wisdom.  Mothers were urged to talk to their daughters, fathers with their sons, layoffs were commiserated over, marital reconciliations were ventured, and men were advised to allow their women a greater measure of freedom. 

Perhaps most significantly, Lenoir wrote songs about current events, like the Korean War and the Eisenhower Recession.  He also was an innovative guitarist, using outside-the-box techniques to accent his drummer's beat.  A tragic car accident cut short J.B. Lenoir's life.  Loyal friend, the British blues artist John Mayall, penned a musical eulogy.