Idiosyncratic, original and unique - Skip James' 1931 set
An all-time blues classic - these rarest of recordings fully restored and remastered
I have written elsewhere on this site about the poor quality of recordings emanating from the Paramount Records company in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where it seemed no corner could not be cut, technically, and no expense not saved in the production of desperately inferior pressings of some of the finest blues ever cut.
In the case of Skip James, whose sole visit to the Paramount recording studio in Grafton, Wisconsin in the February of 1931 resulted in his entire recorded output prior to the mid-1960s, the blues-lover is even less well served, as James's nine records sold appallingly badly - it's now estimated by one well-regarded discography that only around thirty copies exist in total of his entire Paramount output, with many of the discs having only one or two known copies (see below).
The net result of this is that, despite numerous reissues of this short canon over recent years, the original source material ain't getting any better. There's no collector quietly sitting on a collection of mint pressings ready to spring a surprise on the blues music world. Nobody has a copy of, for example, What Am I To Do (the most badly pressed and damaged of the set) which lacks the blasts of distortion every time James plays a loud piano chord - and it's distortion of the destructive kind, which obliterates permanently the music from which it derived.
Thus it is to the audio restoration engineers such as myself to try to make the best of what we do have, taking a variety of different approaches to the same set of originals. My approach is two-fold, in a way which is perhaps unique in this field. First of all, as most of us do, I aim to reduce as much as possible the shortcomings of the medium - in this case those appalling disc surfaces, with their clicks, crackles, hiss, rumble and distortion. Secondly, and this is what differentiates the XR remastering process from others, I aim also to address the shortcomings in the equipment used to make those recordings - the poor quality microphones and accompanying studio equipment which did such a poor job of reproducing the sound of Skip James even before it reached the disc master.
Using sophisticated computer analysis and tonal modelling of both these early recordings, and those much better quality discs he cut in the 1960s, we're able to get a good idea of what went wrong first time round, and where best to adjust the tonal response of the older recordings to get closer to a realistic sound, undoing as much as possible the tonal deficiencies of the original recording equipment.
Finally, because this has the side-effect of exacerbating aspects of the surface noise problems already discussed, there's then an extended period of fine-tuning, balancing, compromise and fixing in which I try to preserve the tonal improvements whilst keeping the newly-revealed surface noises to a minimum. It's a careful balancing act, and requires one to accept that some of these tracks can never sound as good as one would like.
What I have achieved, however, is what I believe is a major renovation and restoration which allows us to assess these recordings in a new light - and marvel at just how good Skip James was. It's an incredible set, rightly regarded as one of the most important of the early blues recordings, and well worth spending the huge amount of studio time in remastering that was required to produce this album.
- Cherry Ball Blues (L-748-2)
Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues (L-752-2)
2 known copies
- 22-20 Blues (L-765-1)
If You Haven't Any Hay Get On Down The Road (L-766-1)
between 5 and 10 known copies
- Illinois Blues (L-749-1)
Yola My Blues Away (L-753-1)
2 known copies
- How Long "Buck" (L-761-1)
Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues (L-763-1)
2, maybe 3 known copies
- Devil Got My Woman (L-746-1)
Cypress Grove Blues (L-747-2)
8 known copies
- I'm So Glad (L-759-1)
Special Rider Blues (L-760-2)
2 known copies
- Four O'Clock Blues (L-750-1)
Hard-Luck Child (L-751-2)
4 known copies
- Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader (L-754-1)
Be Ready When He Comes (L-755-2)
3 known copies
- Drunken Spree ((L-758-2)
What Am I To Do (L-764-1)
1 known copy