Chief Schabuttie Gilliame
Snakes Crawls At Night
Random Chance RCB-17

Chief Schabuttie Gilliame is an African-born bluesman from the Phoenix, Arizona area who performed in Arizona and California. Born in Egypt in 1925, he first learned the blues in Arkansas and Louisiana before moving to Arizona in the mid-1970s. His deep-throated, gravelly bass vocals render him reminiscent of Howlin' Wolf, and the Chief is an accomplished, original blues songwriter as well.

Here, on Random Chance's CD, Snakes Crawls At Night, recorded in 2000-2002, the Chief performs ten of his original blues backed by four distinguished electric band ensembles, giving the listener a double treat: not only in the excellent blues of Chief Schabuttie Gilliame and the bands backing him, but also in providing a most interesting exercise in blues redux--what would the great Howlin' Wolf have sounded like backed by differing blues bands that played other styles than his classic West Side Chicago band sound of guitar, sax and piano? Snakes Crawls At Night provides a tantalizing case study of that.

The four different band ensembles here provide four differing blues backdrops for testing out that above hypothesis. There are two cuts featuring the West Side Chicago approach of slashing guitar led by Johnny Rapp; another gutbucket electric guitar approach that features Detroit's Louisiana Red; a paradigm South Side Chicago harmonica-powered approach on four cuts, where harpman Bob Corritore joins with guitarists Rusty Zinn and Kid Ramos; and an urbane approach on three cuts, where the lacy, jazz-inflected elegance of guitarist Junior Watson interacts with the sax of Baron Shul. Matt Bishop or Tim Mahon provide piano on the first three ensembles, aided by Kirk "Eli" Fletcher, Johnny Rapp, or Buddy Reed on rhythm guitar, and Mario Moreno or Paul Thomas on bass, with drumming chores handled variously by Richard Innes, Paul Fasulo, and Howlin' Wolf band veteran Chico Chism. Watson's rhythm section consists of Teddy Morgan, rhythm guitar, Vance Ehlers, bass, and Jimmy Mulleniux, drums.

Chief Schabuttie Gilliame's ten original songs have a delightful primitiveness to them, a down-home emotiveness where expression is paramount, even if this means deviating from strict rhyme schemes, and where the emotive power is further accentuated by multiple repeats of certain resonant lines. Gilliame comes up with two strikingly original, gritty metaphors for depicting bad love: "You're like that damn dog on a haystack" in "Too Many Years," and "Snakes crawl at night, yeaah, snakes crawl at night!" from "Snakes Crawls At Night." He adapts lyrics from Muddy Waters and incorporates them into "Sugar Daddy," and does the same thing with Jimmy Reed on "Willie Brown Blues," where he seeks help from Louisiana hoodoo to find a way to keep his naive "country girl" from falling under the spell of city slicker Willie Brown. "No More Doggin'," "Big Legged Emma" and "Lowdown Dirty Shame" display the Chief using multiple repetition to great emotive effect.

All ten tracks on the CD are longish, running from a little under four minutes to over six, and none disappoint or seem overlong. "Happy With You Baby" partakes the most of Howlin' Wolf, with Chief's vocals, the West Side ensemble work, and the song done all coming together to sound most like the Wolf himself would've sounded, on a song he himself could've written. "Come To Me Baby" renders paradigm Howlin' Wolf in a South Side blues ensemble setting, while the Mississippi Delta-riffing "Sugar Daddy" sounds very much as Wolf might've sounded if he were backed by the Muddy Waters Blues Band (most unlikely occurrences, given both the personal rivalry of Wolf and Waters, and the deep ongoing rivalry between the West Side blues and the South Side blues). On these latter two cuts, and also on "No More Doggin'" and "Snakes Crawls At Night," Bob Corritore's harp is masterfully done, most resembling the typically South Side amplified harp style of Big Walter Horton, with licks taken also from Little Walter. On the two West Side numbers, "Happy With You Baby" and "Willie Brown Blues," lead guitarist Johnny Rapp gives strong solos that would've done honor to Hubert Sumlin, the seminal guitarist and Chicago blues pioneer in Howlin' Wolf's bands for thirty years. "Lie To Me," with Louisiana Red adding fuzz and reverb tones to his guitar, along with "No More Doggin'," are straight-ahead rockers that show affinity with blues' famous musical child, rock 'n' roll.

Turning now to the more urbane offerings of Junior Watson and his ensemble, we have "Too Many Years," stylistically reminiscent of blues sophisticate Charles Brown, with Watson's guitar playing a key role. Watson shares that role with the equally important work of Baron Shul's sax on their other two tracks. "Big Legged Emma" features Gilliame's elemental blues lines over instrumental work partaking of early Fifties R&B and rock 'n' roll, demonstrating affinities with both Joe Turner and Bill Haley and the Comets. And the last cut, "Lowdown Dirty Shame," features the Chief in an elemental blues lament over a blues-jazz instrumental approach. In these latter two, Baron Shul's two distinctive ways of using his sax chops are crucial in shaping and molding each song into their respective modes.

But Chief Schabuttie Gilliame's Snakes Crawls at Night is more than just a Howlin' Wolf "What if..." redux, much more--it's also the creative expression of an original bluesman in his own right, backed by some really fine musicians producing solid and creative music. Snakes Crawls at Night thus stands fully on its own two feet, not simply propped up by its intriguing Howlin' Wolf connection.

George Fish can be reached at .