Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Releases: Arthur Gunter's Excello Singles, 1954-61

Very few people remember bluesman Arthur Gunter today, and chances are that those who have heard of him have gotten to know his name via Elvis Presley. Indeed, Gunter wrote "Baby Let's Play House," which became one of Presley's earliest hits, but before Elvis got around to recording it, the song had already charted for its composer, who cut it for the Nashville-based Excello label in 1954. Besides the fact that it's an exciting, powerful title,  the song became a national hit partly because it was picked up and distributed by Chess Records, making it more widely available. Gunter spent the next several years attempting to recapture the excitement created by this song, but even though he made fine recordings such as "She's Mine All Mine" or "Honey Babe," none of his subsequent discs made the same impact. In fact, if Gunter is so obscure today, it's to a certain extent because his music hasn't been readily available on CD. A 1995 compilation of his Excello cuts has been out of print for a long time, but fortunately, the British label Jasmine Records has just issued Baby Let's Play House: The Complete Excello Singles, which gathers both sides of the 12 singles that Gunter made for the Nashville-based imprint between 1954 and 1961. These 24 tracks constitute the bulk of his recorded legacy, and often show the influence of great blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Slim Harpo, and another of Elvis's favorites, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

Born in 1926 precisely in Nashville, TN, Gunter began his career singing gospel in a family group, along with his brother Al Gunter, who would play guitar on many of Arthur's recordings for Excello. By 1954, when he signed his first record contract, Gunter was well known in the vibrant African-American music scene that, though sometimes neglected by critics, has always existed in the Music City, a location primarily associated with country music. On his first session for Excello (a label owned by the legendary impresario Ernie Young) Gunter cut his classic "Baby Let's Play House," which rose to number 12 on the R&B charts. The track epitomizes the Gunter sound, with its raw guitar and exciting vocals, and like many of the songs recorded by Gunter, was his own composition. Several more sessions followed in the next few years, without a great deal of success, although Gunter remained popular on the jukeboxes throughout the south. In 1958, his brother Al died tragically in the course of a barroom brawl, and it took Gunter two years to enter a recording studio again. By the time he resumed his career, in 1960, he was trying to cut slightly more commercial sides, including ballads like "Who Will Ever Move Me from You," and attempting to cash in on the new vogue for rock'n'roll that he'd helped usher in with "Baby Let's Play House." This never worked out, however, so Excello ended up dropping him in 1961, and five years later Gunter moved to Pontiac, MI, performing only occasionally. Gunter always regretted never having had the chance to shake Elvis's hand, but Presley's recording of "Baby Let's Play House" did provide the bluesman with some healthy royalty checks. By the time of his death, following a bout of pneumonia in 1976, when he was barely 49, Gunter was living comfortably in Michigan and had won $50,000 on the Michigan Lottery three years before. A unique bluesman, hopefully Arthur Gunter will finally come out of his current obscurity with the help of this very welcome Jasmine Records release.

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