Chicago is, historically, the hub of the blues. It won that status in the years following World War II, when black Americans moved to where jobs had been created to sustain the pace war had established. Its steel mills and car factories made it a key industrial centre, and the live circuit of venues that grew up offering entertainment to the working man and woman gave the blues its chance to thrive.
The Cobra label was founded on Chicago’s West Side in 1956 by Eli Toscano. As a record-shop owner he had his finger on the pulse of what was selling, and a triumvirate of late-Fifties signings, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy (who appeared on sister label Artistic), fired a warning shot across the bows of established Chicago labels Chess and Vee-Jay.
The arrival of the mass-produced solid-bodied electric guitar in 1950 in the shape of Fender’s Telecaster rewrote the rulebook, and country blues became an urban, electric music. There were those who still preferred hollow-bodied ‘jazz’ instruments like the Gibson 335, but even these emerged from the factory with pickups fitted. So much of what we hear here is the first flush of amplified electric blues.
Rush, who hailed from Mississippi, was Cobra’s first recording artist, and ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ (a Number 6 R&B-chart hit) would remain a benchmark not only for him but the so-called ‘West Side Sound’. This was based on guitar virtuosity and clusters of squealing notes doing battle with impassioned vocals, the result leaving ‘traditional’ blues sounding somewhat passé. He played a right-handed guitar upside-down, which may well have contributed to his distinctive sound.
One of Rush’s other selections here, ‘Three Times A Fool’ sees him backed by the Willie Dixon Orchestra. The signing of bass-player, songwriter and bandleader Dixon, who had done so much in so many capacities to put Chess Records on the map, was a masterstroke. Label owner Toscano deferred to his A&R chief and Dixon, who had left Chess after a financial dispute, showed he knew exactly what was wanted. The raw, distorted sound of the Cobra discs reflects technical limitations of the recording process but, in retrospect, adds to the excitement.
Rush, whose single-note runs were very different from the traditional blues chording style, failed to surpass the impact of his eight Cobra singles, though he remained active into the current millennium before suffering a stroke in 2004.
Fellow Mississippian Magic Sam (real name Sam Maghett) is best remembered for debut single ‘All Your Love’, the first of four on Cobra, that showcase his crisp, confident guitar style. His career faltered in 1959 when he was inducted into the US Army, deserted and served six months in prison, but he would rehabilitate himself in the Sixties before dying too young in 1969.
Two names that jump out as Betty Everett and Ike Turner. Betty was a youngster making her first venture into the recording studio; hits like ‘The Shoop Shoop Song’ and ‘You’re No Good’ were still in her future, but the potential is audible. Ike Turner, by contrast, was already a seasoned veteran; his ‘Walking Down The Aisle’/’Box Top’ was to be Cobra’s last single in 1959.
Walter ‘Shakey’ Horton, who once taught Little Walter the rudiments of his craft, ranks alongside his pupil as one of the harmonica greats to emerge from Chicago’s postwar scene. He would wield his instrument on stage with Johnny Shines, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Otis Rush, while in the Sixties his sweet and languid style found a home in the bands of Johnny Young and Howlin’ Wolf. We sample two recordings under his own name, ‘Have A Good Time’ and ‘Need My Baby’.
Mississippi-born Little Willie Foster was one of Walter Horton’s pupils. He came to Chicago in 1941, already playing guitar and piano, and performed on Maxwell Street, and in a band with Homesick James, Floyd Jones and Moody Jones. ‘Crying The Blues’/’Little Girl’, his only Cobra single, reflected both his emotional singing style and his wailing, swooping harmonica. Shortly after its release he was shot and semi-paralysed – and, while his health improved, he sang only rarely in public thereafter.
Singer Clarence Jolly migrated to the Windy City from Florida with Guitar Shorty (David Kearney), and both feature here. Chicago-born pianist Harold Burrage had to wait until 1965 for his first and only national hit, the soul song ‘Got To Find A Way’, but died he following year, still only in his thirties. ‘Betty Jean’, one side of his fifth and last Cobra single, featured Otis Rush on guitar.
Cobra’s sound may have had an impact, but its shelf life was to be brief. Willie Dixon returned to Chess after the label encountered financial problems and folded in 1959; Eli Toscano died in 1967. The influence of Cobra Records, however, was far in excess of its 34-single output. The evidence is here.