Perhaps the biggest problem with the first five volumes of Rhino Records’ projected 15-part blues series is its overall title. Blues Masters: The Essential Blues Collection carries a heavy burden indeed. With all the competing reissues and historical packages currently coming from every last major, independent, bootleg, and import label, trumpeting your goods as ”the” anything is risky enough. But these compilations seem tailor-made for second-guessing by novices and nitpickers alike.
Out of these five collections, only Volume 5: Jump Blues Classics, a nonstop barrage of boogie-woogie wigouts from R&B’s 1948-57 heyday, lives up to its billing. Filled with old friends (Joe Turner’s ”Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” Wynonie Harris’ ”Good Rockin’ Tonight”) and new surprises (Ann Cole’s original version of ”Got My Mo-Jo Working,” Ruth Brown’s ”Hello Little Boy”), it’s a complete delight.
But the hoy hoy halts there. Volume 4: Harmonica Classics ignores anything recorded in the first half of the century. Volume 3: Texas Blues, which includes Big Mama Thornton’s ”Hound Dog,” tries to make a full-blown case for Lone Star blues — and plays mostly like a T-Bone Walker tribute album. And the juxtaposition of vocal sophisticates like Dinah Washington and Big Joe Turner with raw-edged guitar wailers like Pee Wee Crayton and Otis Rush on Volume 1: Urban Blues seems disturbingly random.
At least the compiler of Volume 2: Postwar Chicago, laden with Chess men like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter, has the honesty to address its limitations. After wishing he had ”50 tracks” instead of just 18, Dick Shurman confesses in his liner notes that ”the inevitable slights are many.” That’s hardly the stuff of which ”essential” collections are made.
Urban Blues: C-
Postwar Chicago Blues: B-
Texas Blues: C+
Harmonica Classics: C-
Jump Blues Classics: A