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Labour of love

I have long believed that a part of you dies in winter and doesn’t come back to life until you feel the sun on your face and a mid-westerly breeze in the air.

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

I have long believed that a part of you dies in winter and doesn’t come back to life until you feel the sun on your face and a mid-westerly breeze in the air.

I have long believed that a part of you dies in winter and doesn’t come back to life until you feel the sun on your face and a mid-westerly breeze in the air. We must take comfort where we find it in these dark days and I have recently discovered a splendid pick-me-up that might just get you through the next couple of months with a spring in your step.

An admirable fellow called Nick Duckett has been labouring for several years now on a remarkable project — to tell the history of American rhythm and blues music, tracing its roots in the Twenties and Thirties and working right through to the arrival of rock’n’roll and the birth of soul in the mid-Fifties.

You begin with an extraordinary spiritual holler accompanied by wild percussion that clearly has its roots deep in African soil and end, 12 discs later, with the music of Ray Charles and James Brown.

The History of Rhythm and Blues comes in three box sets, each comprising four CDs, with every track and artist annotated in detail in the richly informative, splendidly illustrated booklets that come with each set. This is a labour of love, and a work of genuine scholarship, but it is also hugely entertaining. I have been listening to almost nothing else for the past fortnight but still feel I am only scratching the surface of a wonderfully rich treasure trove.

Duckett bravely tries to define rhythm and blues, describing it as ‘the accidental synthesis of jazz, gospel, blues, ragtime, country, pop and Latin into a definable form of black popular music which would influence all popular music from the 1950s to the present day’. His selections take a historical perspective, each four-CD set covering a separate period — 1925 to 1942, 1942 to 1952, and 1952 to 1957. The aim is to demonstrate the breadth of new forms that arose from the fusion of the various styles, with the music ranging from the spiritual to the low-down and dirty, from the joyous to the depths of pain.

The early discs show the blues evolving from the rural spirituals and blues of the Deep South to the urban sounds of the cities as the workers moved from the southern plantations to the factories in the north to find work. There’s another disc featuring piano boogie-woogie, ragtime and jazz, a third of urban blues and gospel and a fourth on swing and jive. And that’s just the first set.

Throughout, famous names — Sonny Boy Williamson, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Little Richard — and familiar songs are mixed with the rare and unexpected, but what makes these sets so special is that they aren’t a dry and dusty exercise in musical archaeology.

Every number seems to have earned its place, and the series is particularly fascinating on the way gospel music has helped shape so much secular music, and how frequently motifs and rhythms once deployed in the service of God were also used for secular numbers about love, sex and loss. Duckett says he adores gospel and feels its influence on modern music has long been understated and undervalued. One of his great discoveries was ‘The Lord’s Gospel’ by an obscure singer from Carolina, Mary Deloatch. As soon as it starts, you hear the unmistakeable rock’n’roll rhythm. But this song in praise of God was recorded four years before Chuck Berry or Little Richard hit the charts.

Duckett, who has compiled these marvellous sets with the help of a friend and fellow R&B fanatic Stewart Tippett, has put out these amazing selections on his own label, Rhythm and Blues Records, and ploughed through a huge amount of material to make his choices. ‘The key thing for me is that my discs should always be listenable. Stewart and I live with the songs for a while, listening and enjoying them before they are mastered. I try to balance the well-known and important records with lesser-known items which may be equally relevant to the story. One of the beauties of the job is that I am constantly digging up gems I have never heard before.’

It seems remarkable to me that this superbly researched and executed project should have come from what is essentially a cottage industry rather than a major record label, but that seems symptomatic of the laziness of the music industry these days. It is constantly chasing the quick buck and the next big thing rather than creating work of lasting value. So God bless Nick Duckett for brightening this bleak winter…and roll on 2013 when volume four of his wonderful History of Rhythm and Blues will be released.

The box sets are available from at £49.50 for all three and from Amazon for around £56. Sets can also be purchased individually.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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