BARTHOLOMEW'S RHYTHM AND BLUES CRUISE

Various Artists
The Genius of Dave Bartholomew
(EMI)

Smiley Lewis
The Best of Smiley Lewis: I Hear You Knocking
(EMI)

One listen is all it takes to understand why New Orleans music dominated the R&B charts in the mid-Fifties. With its steady backbeat, wailing sax breaks and bluesy vocals, it was an irresistible, upbeat sound that made you want to drink, dance and do your baby right (or wrong). It was also one of the critical bridges between the big bands and rock n' roll. Some musicians are meant to play. Others are cut out to be songwriters. Rarest of all is the born producer. A singer, trumpet player and songwriter of some repute, Dave Bartholomew is best known as the maestro who presided over the flowering of New Orleans R&B.

The Genius of Dave Bartholomew, a double-CD reissue, collects much of what made Bartholomew king. Along with hits like Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" and Earl King's "Trick Bag," there are lots of tasty nuggets like unknown Little Sonny Jones' rockin' take of Bartholomew's "I Got Booted." This collection is also varied enough to show how Bartholomew worked. "Blue Monday," for example, will forever be associated with Fats Domino and Fats' rousing version of the song. Here, on an earlier version by Smiley Lewis, the shadings and arrangement are different. When the tune didn't hit for Smiley, Bartholomew retooled it for Fats.

The other thing this collection illustrates is how Bartholomew could make his distinctive R&B style fit nearly any performer. Like the once-legendary Muscle Shoals and Memphis "treatments," Bartholomew's method could give any artist a New Orleans sound. Even established artists like Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker came out of those sessions sounding like they'd been born to it.

Of all the performers on the Bartholomew set, none was more talented than Smiley Lewis. But when it comes to hard-luck stories, few are meaner than Smiley's. Arguably the most powerful blues shouter of them all, Lewis was renowned for his ability to sing over a full band without a microphone. He's also known for making the first (and still the best) recording of "I Hear You Knocking," a tune that has been recycled by everyone from Gail Storm to Dave Edmunds.

But while Earl King, Fats Domino and others broke nationally, Smiley could never make that final step. Unable to get a break while he was alive, Lewis and his music sank into oblivion after his death in 1966. Until now, French reissues that lacked any liner notes or session information were the only way to hear boogie-woogie pianists Tuts Washington and Huey Smith accompanying Smiley's big, booming tenor. Happily, the beautifully produced I Hear You Knocking settles Smiley's account. Filled with 24 raw n' rockin' classics like "Ain't Gonna Do It," "Down the Road" and "One Night" (a tune Elvis Presley later declawed), it provides two-dozen reasons that Lewis is one of the last of the undiscovered masters.--Robert Baird

Etta James
Rocks the House
(Chess/MCA)

Soul music doesn't get any wilder or any funkier than this howling live set from the woman who put the low blows into the term "blues belter." Originally released in 1963 and reissued in 1987, this new CD adds three unissued tracks to what is already a treasure. Driven by a frenzied crowd, James powers her growling way through a set of classics that includes Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" and Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." If Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, then Etta James is the Wicked Witch. And after one listen to this, it's not hard to figure out which one would be more fun to spend a sweaty night in a juke joint with.--Baird Lunachicks

Binge and Purge
(Safe House)

The Lunachicks' latest album is everything you'd expect from a bunch of New York "riot girls" reared on the Ramones. The delicately titled Binge and Purge is choked with blunt power chords and a snotty attitude reminiscent of midday traffic jams in Manhattan. At its best, the Lunachicks' sound brings to mind bands like the Dickies and the Dictators--old-timey punk acts with sound and fury and the definite hint of twinkles in both eyes.

The Lunachicks were spawned in the mid-Eighties. Singer Theo, along with guitarist Gina and bassist Squid, ran into each other as students at New York's High School for the Performing Arts, the school featured in the movie Fame. The decidedly punked-out co-eds hit it off, formed a band and went on to become a recurring nightmare on the fringes of the New York music scene.

That dream continues with Binge and Purge. The Lunachicks prove themselves capable of bludgeoning senses and sensibilities with efforts like the gender-specific "Plugg": "What a drag to be on the rag," Theo screams, with background vocals ranting, "What a drag/What a drag/What a fucking drag." Later, on the CD's title cut, Theo loudly muses on the bulimic lifestyle: "Ruptured my esophagus/But I'm still a hippopotamus," she bellows.

We're not talkin' Sylvia Plath here.
But what the Lunachicks lack in subtle word play is made up for in unabashed aggression and pure, punk bravado: The guitars crunch, the bass kicks and drummer Becky Wreck never lets up. (Ms. Wreck, by the way, was a regular on the old Howard Stern TV show. She was always showing up as a rather surly contestant on Stern's "Lesbian Love Connection" bits.)

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