Chicago has long been known for many things, with the blues being at the forefront. Labels such as Chess and Brunswick come from the Windy City and great artists such as Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy have ties there as well. It wasn't just the larger labels producing great blues and R&B music though. Chicago had a plethora of talent and was a hotbed for many independent labels as well.
One of these labels was Bea & Baby Records, led by the larger than life Narvel "Cadillac Baby" Eatmon. From 1959 to 1989, Eatmon's label released a number of classic blues, R&B, doo-wop, soul, comedy and even hip hop sides. Now the best of those recordings are collected in a lovingly assembled four-disc box set Cadillac Baby's Bea & Baby Records -- The Definitive Collection.
The project came about via the involvement of Earwig Music's owner Michael Robert Frank. Frank first met Eatmon in the early 1970s and then again in the late 1980s. Eatmon was itching to get back into the music business and the pair co-produced recordings by 17-year-old hip hop prodigy Richard "3D" Davenport. The recordings never saw release initially as Davenport was murdered and Eatmon passed away, but they are included here and show that Frank and Eatmon were right about 3D, as he had a real talent and edge about him.
The collection spans four discs and includes material from all of Eatmon's labels -- Bea & Baby, Key, Keyhole, and Miss and Ronald. While it is mostly a blues box, it is not limited to just the blues. The discs are organized somewhat chronologically and include several Eatmon interview tracks that tell his and his label's fascinating story as only Eatmon could. Disc one leads off with "Welcome to Cadillac Baby's Show Lounge," where Eatmon sets the tone for things to come, announcing the artists with the zest of a carnival barker while making it seem as if the listener was about to hear the greatest music ever recorded.
While Eatmon may have sometimes been prone to hyperbole, the box does feature a killer selection of sides. There are familiar blues names such as Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton along perhaps less well-known artists such as Detroit Junior. All of the artists hold their own and demonstrate Eatmon's uncanny ear for talent. Eddie Boyd proves that from the outset with "I'm Commin' Home," a laid back blues track with a strong vocal and a slinky sax solo. 11 Year Old Faith Taylor & The Sweet Teens check in with some heart-wrenching doo-wop on "I Need Him To Love Me." Taylor's powerful voice betrays her young age and, sadly, she was done with show business by her mid teens. Still, she is represented here.
There are tracks that show the label had a humorous side as well. "Santa Claus Came Home Drunk," by Clyde Lasley and the Cadillac Baby Specials, is not your typical Christmas song by any means. There are also a number of gospel tracks, particularly on disc four, including an emotional version of "Search Me Lord" by The Gloryaires. Also included are a number of previously unreleased tracks by Sleepy John Estes & Hammie Nixon. Nixon delivers a killer vocal and some great blues harmonica on "Worry My Mind." These tracks help showcase the massive amount of talent that came through the door sat Bea & Baby during its time as an active label.
The box includes a 128-page book filled with archival photos and extensive liner notes on the artists by Bill Dahl. Also included is a pretty comprehensive list of session notes, with recording dates and players listed (when known). The sound quality varies throughout, but is generally excellent, and the box makes a wonderful time capsule of an exciting era in Chicago music.
Sadly, labels such as Bea & Baby and colorful promoters such as Cadillac Baby seem to be relegated mostly to the past. Cadillac Baby's Bea & Baby Records looks back at a time when that wasn't the case and, in fact, there were numerous labels such as Bea & baby, all in competition with each other. That competition led to some great music and a treat for the fans.