Graded on a Curve: Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection

As evidenced by the threads he’s sporting in the cover photo above, Narvel Eatmon, better known as Cadillac Baby, was a colorful character. Having made the trip from Mississippi to Chicago, by the 1950s he was a smooth operator who ran his own club; by decade’s end he was trying his hand at releasing records. Commercially, the results were modestly successful at best, but the contents of the 4CD + 128pg hardback book Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection documents a layer of the Windy City’s blues experience that ran alongside the dominant sound of Chess and fortifies the years between Cobra Records and the Delmark label. It’s out August 16 through Earwig Music Company.

Some of the names included in this set are obscure, but there is a high number of contributors who will be immediately familiar to blues fans; right off the bat, or more accurately immediately after the opening track “Welcome to Cadillac Baby’s Show Lounge,” which comes from Bea & Baby’s sole LP, 1971’s Colossal Blues (marketed as a live recording but obviously concocted from studio-originated songs and “club atmosphere”), there’s Eddie Boyd, he of 1951 R&B chart #1 “Five Long Years.”

Across the four discs, he’s followed by such notables as Earl Hooker, Hound Dog Taylor (making his recording debut), James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Homesick James, and in contrast to the prevailing currents of electricity, the acoustic folk-blues styling of Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, the duo offered up via four cuts, all previously unreleased.

And to clarify, Bea & Baby wasn’t strictly about the blues. There are dips into R&B, courtesy of the sprightly pop-tinged gal group action of The Chances, deep smooth crooner Phil Sampson, and the late Andre Williams even making an appearance, though the doo-wop-tinged work of the Daylighters is a bit more prevalent through their own stuff and overdubbed onto a revamped Eddie Boyd single in hopes of increased market appeal. But 11 Year Old Faith Evans & the Sweet Teens, with their symphonic heart tug A-side backed with up-tempo doo-wop nugget nearly steal the non-blues show.

There’s also some solid organ groove via Tall Paul Hawkins & the Hudson Brothers, a couple raw (but not “blue”) stabs at comedy from Clyde Lasley, a few Christmas tunes (Lasley also figures in “Santa Came Home Drunk”), two cuts from noted eccentric T. Valentine (“Little Lu-Lu Frog” is like Frogman Henry fronting The Champs), a big helping of early ’60s gospel harmony rounding out disc four, and even a previously unissued ’80s single by Chicago rapper 3D (real name Richard Davenport), his mildly Slick Rick-like tracks an aged Cadillac Baby’s final stab at releasing a record.

But Earwig’s mission here is as much an illumination of Eatmon’s life as it is the recordings he ushered into the annals of the blues (and R&B). Along with photos and the perspective of the set’s producer Michael Robert Frank, (who was a longtime associate of Cadillac Baby including producing 3D’s two songs), there is a reprint of an article from the autumn 1971 issue (No. 6) of Living Blues magazine that put Eatmon’s life in the spotlight, beginning with Mississippi origins and wrapping up with selling candy and soda to Chicago residents at the time of the piece’s original publication.

The Living Blues text is essentially a transcription of a tape recording of Cadillac Baby telling his life story that was made by Jim O’Neal, who provides the historical liner notes to this collection. That tape and later autobiographical recordings of Eatmon have survived and are interspersed throughout the four CDs to further amplify a personality that was larger-than-life but once in danger of being forgotten.

Succinctly, Narvel “Cadillac Baby” Eatmon carried the attitude of a hustler while operating as a legit businessman (his lounge even had a float in a parade that occurred yearly in Chicago from 1950-’60) and a family man (Bea is the nickname of his wife Bertha). One of The Definitive Collection’s strongpoints is that it humanizes but doesn’t idolize the man; his self-promotion-sheer braggadocio isn’t soft-pedaled (if anything, it’s put under a magnifying glass in the midday sun), and there are a handful of negative statements from musicians.

Some of the music here was previously issued by European labels (like Red Lightnin’), but the majority has been out of print for a long time on either side of the Atlantic, or unreleased, which transforms this roundup by Earwig into a trove of worthy material. And I’ll note that while there isn’t an abundance of groundbreaking and mind-blowing selections here, the 101 tracks still accumulate substantial heft, a circumstance that can be attributed in part to those running Bea & Baby, but is certainly just as much due to the baseline professionalism of the musicians.

This is to be expected with guys like Boyd, Sunnyland Slim and Cotton, though it’s also true of the debut 45 by Detroit Junior, “Money Tree” b/w “So Unhappy” and Bobby Saxton’s “Trying to Make a Living,” which was one side of a split single with Earl Hooker’s “Dynamite.” Detroit Junior went on to amass a fairly extensive discography while, with the exception of a duet with Minnie Thomas for the Mark IV label in ’62, Saxton’s track for Bea & Baby was his only recording.

What they share was eventual national distribution by Chess; neither became a chart hit, though they are amongst Bea & Baby’s biggest commercial successes. However, the label’s biggest overall achievement is in how it maintained a fairly high level of quality across its lifespan (to be accurate, in the ’70s-’80s the operations were intermittent).

If there is little broken ground or few fried synapses, there are numerous enlightening entries for blues lovers, none more so than the Hound Dog Taylor tracks. Like on his Chess stuff, he’s nowhere as fried as later with the Houserockers, but the cuts surely do drive home just deeply Elmore James impacted him. Elsewhere, L.C. McKinley’s two numbers sound like they could’ve came from the vaults of Imperial (or maybe even Specialty), and the 1970 recordings by Willie Williams are vibrant and robust with the help of guitarist Eddie Taylor, harp-man Carey Bell, and pianist Sunnyland Slim.

Like the aforementioned professionalism, there are a plenty of expected turns, like Earl Hooker’s track being a groover. But the expected never falters into the humdrum. Lovers of the blues will find the exquisitely designed Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection to be an experience rife with the familiar, but through flair and passion, interesting throughout.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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