Graded on a Curve:
Doctor Ross,
Memphis Breakdown

Charles Isaiah Ross, known to blues aficionados as Doctor Ross, and additionally as the Harmonica Boss, was born in Tunica, Mississippi. In the early ’50s, he cut his first sides at Memphis Recording Service, which was soon to be known as Sun Studio. Noted for his wild, primitive, one-man band style, Ross was often recorded with accompaniment, though this ultimately did little to streamline the raw exuberance of his approach. The man’s verve bodaciously flows across both sides of Memphis Breakdown, a tidy 14-track collection that corrals the highlights of Ross’ sessions for Sam Philips; it’s out now on vinyl and compact disc through ORG Music.

Spurred in large part by a youthful interest in Brit blues-rock, I developed into a full-blown teenage blues nut. It was the real uncut stuff I was digging: Muddy, Wolf, Elmore, Sonny Boy, Hooker, Lightnin’, and Little Walter, and the interest made me something of an ’80s anomaly. Although I was eventually seduced by punk and the underground rock of the era, by my senior year I was primed for another plunge into the blues, and Rounder’s series of Sun Records reissues, which included four tracks from Doctor Ross on Sun Records Harmonica Classics, delivered with undiluted gusto.

Ross’ initial November 1951 meeting with Philips yielded two songs that ended up on a Chess 78, credited to Doctor Ross and His Jump and Jive Boys, though the record’s only other participant was guitarist Wiley Galatin (Ross hadn’t yet added the acoustic to his arsenal); neither “Doctor Ross Boogie” nor it’s flip “Country Clown” is offered on Memphis Breakdown, but the mouth organ hypnosis of “That’s Alright (Goin’ Back South)” from the same session, is.

For a second Philips session the following year, Ross, now in one-man band mode, was augmented with the piano of Henry Hill and the washboard of Rueben Martin. It produced five songs, two of which are featured here. The instrumental “Left Job Boogie” exudes an incessant groove that can be connected to John Lee Hooker and the hill blues of R.L. Burnside, while the jug band flavored “Polly Put Your Kettle On” illuminates the pre-blues influences that lingered into the second half of the 20th century.

Emphasizing the lack of “star” hierarchy in Philips’ studio at this point, Hill gets a vocal on “That Ain’t Right.” It opens with a little boogie-woogie keyboard flash before settling into a groove that’s more than slightly infused with R&B, as Ross blows what sounds like an amplified harp. It’s a solid showing, but it took another trip to Sun in ’53 for the Doctor to land a single on the label. In terms of this album, the session was also his most bountiful.

His first Sun 78, pairing the unrestrained repetition of “Chicago Breakdown” and the again more R&B derived “Come Back Baby,” open and close Memphis Breakdown, reinforcing Ross as no one-trick pony. The third Sun encounter provides the album with four more selections. Having nixed Hill’s keys but keeping the zesty scrape of Martin’s board work, “Texas Hop” and “1953 Jump (Hambone Line)” (smartly placed here on opposing, non-chronological sides) do illustrate that Ross, like other bluesmen before and since, openly explored variations on themes and structures.

Sometimes it was his own, and at other times it was the work of others; “Terra Mae,” either subconsciously or deliberately, contains subtle similarities to Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” Perhaps the real nugget from the ’53 session is an early version of “Cat Squirrel,” a track he would return to after moving north, cutting it for the Fortune label.

But Ross’ work at Sun was far from over, as his July ’54 visit, with Martin’s washboard jettisoned for the added guitar of Tom Troy and the drums of Bobby Parker, produced his second and arguably best single for the label. As the titles of the talkative “Boogie Disease” (reminding me a little of Sun-era Junior Parker) and the cool instrumental “Jukebox Boogie” make clear, the man had something on his mind. Memphis Breakdown contains one more cut from this fourth and final Sun date in “Feel So Sad,” with the guitar nicely in the foreground and shades of Hooker underneath.

The only track here that presents Ross in truly solo mode is “Industrial Boogie,” which jumps forward to 1958 and north to Michigan as the A-side of a self-released single (on DIR Records). I’ve read a few places that Ross recorded an early version of “Industrial Boogie” during a fifth Sun session, but I don’t believe it. Along with the fact that nothing from this supposed encounter turns up in the exhaustive 8CD box Sun Records: The Blues Years 1950-1956, the opening lyric references Ross’ move to Flint, and there’s an even heavier vibe of Hooker, who was a noted Detroit resident.

Ross was prolific after the move. A few of his CD collections pack a bundle of stuff onto one disc for value purposes, but that’s not really the way to engage with this kinda stuff. Memphis Breakdown, which reissues a long scarce Japanese LP on P-Vine, gets it right. Just take it a side at a time, and then boogie, and if you so choose, break it on down.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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