Earwig owner Michael Robert Frank talks about his project “Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection”

"Blues music origins and the concept of a 'Bluesman" or "Blueswoman" originated within the folk tradition within local communities with a shared cultural, historical social, economic and political experience."

Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records:

Music, Wisdom & Life Experience

When you think of historic Chicago blues and R&B labels, Chess, Vee-Jay, Brunswick, and Delmark probably first come to mind. However, the city’s famous black music scene spawned many indie labels, and Bea & Baby Records ranks among the very best of them. Founded by the ever-colorful Chicago entrepreneur Narvel “Cadillac Baby” Eatmon, Bea & Baby Records — along with its subsidiaries and subsidiary labels Key, Keyhole, Miss and Ronald — put out an impressive selection of blues, gospel, doo-wop, soul, hip-hop, and comedy releases between 1959 and1989. Now, a comprehensive retrospective, “Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection,” is set for release August 16, 2019 by Chicago-based blues label Earwig Music Company. The project has long been a labor of love for Earwig owner Michael Robert Frank.

Frank first met Cadillac Baby in the early ’70s and when they met up again in the late ’80s, Cadillac Baby wanted to get back into music after being away from the business for over 15 years. Despite ailing health, “he was feisty and cantankerous, and still hustling,” according to Frank. “He was buying and selling used hubcaps, a few used tires, candy and sundries, and an occasional 45 record.” The two decided to co-produce a rising 17-year-old hip-hop singer, Richard Davenport (who went by the name 3D). Sadly, both Cadillac Baby and Davenport died as the project was about to launch; however, 3D’s two tunes is released on this collection.

“Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection” reveals that this small label featured big-time blues performers as well as up and coming R&B and gospel artists. Boogie-woogie piano wizard Sunnyland Slim, harmonica master James Cotton, and slide-guitar wizard Earl Hooker are all represented; you’ll also find Hound Dog Taylor’s first single, ‘Baby Is Coming Home’/’Take Five,’ as well as ‘Please Give Me A Chance’ and ‘I Still Love You,’ two suavely crooned tunes from R&B legend Andre Williams that were released on the rare Ronald label; and several previously unissued tracks by the fabled acoustic blues duo Sleepy John Estes & Hammie Nixon. This compilation also spotlights a number of well-regarded but lesser known blues musicians, such as Detroit Junior, Little Mack (a.k.a. Little Mac and St. Louis Mac) Simmons, Homesick James, Eddie Boyd, L.C. McKinley, and Bobby Saxton (the singer of Bea & Baby’s biggest hit, ‘Trying To Make A Living’), all who’ll be familiar to blues aficionados and welcome discoveries to others. You may recognize Andrew “Blue Blood” McMahon as Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime bassist, but this retrospective shares four of his hard-to-find Bea & Baby sides. Accompanying the glorious set of music is a 128-page book filled with lots of archival documents and photos. Living Blues Magazine co-founder and Blues Hall of Famer, Jim O’Neal, contributed the historical liner notes, while the gospel notes are done by gospel music historian and editor of the Journal of Gospel Music Robert Marovich. Blues expert Bill Dahl handled the track notes and Michael Robert Frank penned the producer’s notes.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues people and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I was early on in my life, and I continue to be, inspired and motivated to action, by the cultural creativity, strength of character, indomitable spirit, dedication and perseverance, courage, instrumental and verbal lyricism, individual self expression, wide range of emotions and experiences, music and art, and revolutionary nature of  the originators and early practitioners of traditional American music which emerged during the 1900s in the United States. I especially applaud those traditional torch bearers across the globe carrying on with a high level of skill and presentation combining these masterful traditions with their own creativity and talent while not losing sight of  these cultural origins, while holding them up to the light for the world to see and appreciate in the midst of societal turmoil, disinformation, cultural tradition dilution, and diminution. I decided early on to become one of these torchbearers, by facilitating new recordings, performances and historical re-issues of traditional as well as contemporary "Blues" music and "Blues-related" music such as jazz, gospel, and folk-tales rooted in African-American and other folk traditions, especially but not exclusively necessarily by African-American working musicians. I have been fortunate to have been on this path for all of my adult life, with many fine artists who

Shared their music, wisdom and life experience with me. This current project:

Earwig Music Company Presents Cadillac Baby's Bea & Baby Records Definitive Collection continues my over 45 year journey on this path and my mission to bring to the world the fabulous music and personal stories of these inspiring artists.

"The "Blues" is still considered a musical genre by many people in the music business and by a lot of musicians who say they "play the blues" or call themselves "blues musicians. However, Blues music is a powerful vehicle for expression of feelings about many things, and many genres and styles of American music are built on blues styles. This cultural, musical and artistic phenomenon accounts for the global popularity of blues-based music." (Photo: MIchael Frank)

What were the reasons that you started "Bea & Baby" project?

I started the Bea & Baby Records project for several reasons:

I was and am a big fan of the quality and diversity of the music which Cadillac Baby produced and released, a big fan of the musicians who made it and of the producers and label owners who made it available to the public. I love the personalities and personal stories of the unique people who made blues, early doo wop and r&b, soul, gospel, comedy and early hip hop. I appreciate their struggles in pursuing their creative self expression, and consider them cultural revolutionaries in some ways, because generally making a living as an artist requires stepping outside the boundaries of society to a certain degree. Early on I wanted to share my passion for this music with other fans. Those are the main motivations still for me to keep putting out music on my Earwig Music Company record label. Cadillac Baby's passion for the music and the musicians and his determination and persistence resonated with me as a fan first, and then as I started my label in 1979 and as I grew the label.

In my early teen years (1962-65) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I listened on the radio and in concerts to vocal groups more than to blues, so when I finally heard the Daylighters and Faith Taylor and the Sweet Teens on Bea & Baby Records, their styles were very familiar to me. I was already a record collector, mostly lps, when I read about Cadillac Baby in Living Blues Magazine, 2 years before I moved to Chicago in 1972, and I knew about some of the blues musicians before meeting and hearing many of them in Chicago in the 1970s. I moved to Chicago in June 1972, expressly for the purpose of getting to know the musicians I had read about and collected on lps and 45s for so many years. I met Cadillac Baby in 1974 but actually got to know him well in from 1988-1991.

In 1988 he wanted to keep his recorded legacy alive and also to get back into the record business. I wanted to help him accomplish that at some level. In 1989 he and I met 17 year old hip hop rapper Richard Davenport, who called himself 3D, and went into a business partnership as co-producers to record him , because we believed in Richard's talent and also saw an opportunity as Chicago hip hop started to become locally popular and stating to see radio action outside Chicago. We did this even though neither of us knew much about hip hop or how to promote it. Cadillac baby was mostly of the record business, except for selling a few 45s he still had small stocks of, and was buying and selling used hub caps and other items, and sundries like snacks, soda pop and candy in a small South side storefront.

When I started to hang around him in 1988, I had released 9 recordings on Earwig. As Cadillac Baby had done, I diversified, mainly due to my personal interests and also due to wanting to help musicians whose talent I believed in. So I recorded Mississippi blues by the Jelly Roll Kings and by the Chicago band I called Old Friends - Honeyboy Edwards, Sunnyland Slim, Walter Horton, Floyd Jones and Kansas City Red, solo country blues by Jim Brewer, jazz by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania jazz and blues singer Tiny Irvin and pianist/bandleader Carl Arter, storytelling by Jackie Torrence from North Carolina and Bobby Norfolk from Saint Louis (both of whom loved the blues). When Cadillac baby started, right away he diversified his recording catalog. Cadillac Baby's 1959-1960 first recordings included the blues of Eddie Boyd, L.C. McKinley and Little Mac, and the teen vocal groups the Daylighters and Little Faith Taylor and the Sweet Teens.

I think with the release of this book and 4 cd box set, I will pass his musical legacy onto music and music history fans of multiple generations.  

What characterizes Bea & Baby Records in comparison with other labels?

Bea & Baby Records is that Cadillac Baby, whose real name was Narvel Eatmon, like many label owners, was a fan of the music and the musicians, who saw an opportunity to help them while creating a business for himself by getting the music out to a mass audience. He, like many of us who have founded and run record labels, was very passionate about the music, and not easily daunted or discouraged with the ups and downs of the record business, the music business in general, or the sometimes volatile of the musicians. He also primarily learned the music business as he was doing it, not after he learned what all was involved. He was an entrepreneur. Cadillac Baby also had an ear and eye for musical talent in various musical styles and an interest in more than one style of music. So he recorded Chicago urban blues and country blues, r&b and doo wop, gospel, and in 1989 - with me as co-producer, hip hop. Like many other label owners, he invested his own money and took financial risks on various acts, hoping to make a profit and keep making more records. He also found out the hard way that more records do not sell well than do, and that bigger labels will sometimes try to squelch your activities yet he persevered against all odds. Cadillac Baby competed with the major Chicago independents Chess Records, Vee Jay Records, Brunswick Records, and also with many smaller independent labels of the time. Before he started his record label, he started a nightclub to make money and to help musicians. His recording activities grew out of his club activities. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he found out that radio disc jockeys would not play a lot of 45s by the same label, so he started multiple labels in order to get air play and distribution. The Bea and Baby Records story includes Cadillac Baby's subsidiary labels Key, Keyhole, Miss and Ronald Records, as well as Cadillac Baby's relationships with musicians who had their own master recordings he could license or simply make deals to release (sometimes called vanity deals), and with record distributors across the United States and internationally to a small degree. 

Why did you think that Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records continues to generate such a devoted following?

There are small but dedicated groups of fans who love the various styles of music which was released by Bea & Baby Records. Some fans love one niche, like Chicago blues, doo wop, 1960s r&b and soul, or gospel. Then there are fans of the music but who also love the history and the personal stories of the creators and the producers. Major and bigger independent labels release decisions are driven more by money than by historical preservation, so even those with deep vaults of recordings, do not release them. Only due to the YouTube platform availability to fans to post deep catalog music of any style they love, and efforts by labels like Earwig Music, Delmark,  Ace and Bear Family, can fans find the older releases, whether commercially successful in their heyday or not. The story of Cadillac Baby and Bea and Baby Records still resonates with fans because it is a story of a small time record entrepreneur going up against the big labels, driven by passion and determination. By putting out this deluxe box set in a hard back box with lots of artist photos, liner notes anbd tracks not found elsewhere, I hope to energize the fan base and to expand it.   

Are there any memories from the late great Narvel “Cadillac Baby” Eatmon which you’d like to share with us?

I remember his deep passion for the music, his belief in its entertainment and cultural value, and his eye and ear for business opportunities. Even in his last years before his ill health slowed him down until he had to go into a nursing home, he had an indomitable spirit. I remember watching him make deals on whatever he had to sell, whether hub caps or 45s, so that he could survive another day. I also remember that he had a toughness about him, a combination of grit, wit and don't quit.  

If you could change one thing in the 'Blues world' and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That would be that festivals and talent buyers especially, and to a lesser degree music organizations, publications and folks who say they love the blues, would dig deeper and be more proactive to hire, publicize, pay tribute to, celebrate and present to the public at large, more of the lesser known blues and other African American musicians and history makers.

(Photo: Earwig's Logo)

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the famous Maxwell Street?

Maxwell Street Jimmy once was drunk at the Clarksdale Sunflower River Blues Festival, playing in front of the old Carnegie Library. This was at a time when I had recorded him and also booked him a few gigs. He started saying disrespectful things about me over the microphone. Then he got into that delta groove that had the trance like feel of hill country blues but was delta style not hill country, and into his deep vocals with a Howlin' Wolf imitation thrown in occasionally. I felt very angry at his behavior and comments but let it go when he got his groove on. Jimmy could be a clown and a jerk but also a very friendly guy who could play some simple yet deep and affecting Delta blues.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in the blues circuits?

From Honeyboy Edwards and Kansas City Red (Arthur Lee Stevenson) I learned to play my music from my heart in my own style, and not worry about whether the audience likes it or not. I also learned from them and other blues elders like Sunnyland Slim, that learning their licks, their tone, their styles, were the building blocks of expressing my own voice, that the world does not need another B.B King Little Walter, Otis Spann, etc. but needs musicians who can match or exceed their chops without cloning them. I also watched the elders always listening for licks they could steal and incorporate into their own playbook. Honeyboy used to say that "you can never get everything off the neck" of a guitar, all the music was there but in a lifetime of playing he would never find it all. But he kept reaching for it. I also learned that they respected a lot of musicians for their talent, but they held no one up on a pedestal as musical heros ot otherwise. They had confidence in their own ability and expected musicians in their bands to adhere to a high standard of behavior and musicianship, especially on the bandstand. Yet offstage, they could be very down-to-earth and supportive of younger musicians serious about learning their styles of music. Many of the elders I knew very well, Honeyboy Edwards, Sunnyland Slim, Floyd Jones, Kansas City Red, Jim Brewer, Lester Davenport, Louisiana Red, Willie Kent, all did not hold onto grudges or hurts a long time or get in the way of playing music with someone they respected as a musician. I also learned by seeing how some musicians did not pay their musicians fairly or for example, stiffed someone like a booking agent or manager or record label they got cds from, the negative impact that had on their reputation and on getting other people to help them in their musical careers. Some musicians and others in the music business or in other avenues of life, did not give a damn about anyone's interest but their own. Success in business and life depends a lot on treating other people well, developing, nurturing and maintaining relationships, and on occasion doing something in someone else's best interest not just one's own. A classic negative example is a band or solo musician who does not play all out when only a few folks or even no-one except venue staff show up for a gig. Another one is a venue owner who developed a reputation for not paying the agreed-on amount to acts in his club, and went out of business after word got out among touring musicians and then the public. 

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?                        (Photo: Michael Frank & HoneyBoy Edwards)

Blues is music rooted in African music and the African-American experience in the United States from the earliest days of slavery until today. Blues music origins and the concept of a 'Bluesman" or "Blueswoman" originated within the folk tradition within local communities with a shared cultural, historical social, economic and political experience. The way the notes are shaped, phrased, instrumentally played and sung is a musical style which originated within this shared folk experience.

To me there is an inherent contradiction and irony of attitude in people who claim to love the blues but are ultra conservative or prejudiced in their thinking about cultural, ethnic and social diversity and equality. The concept of "no black, no white, just blues" ignores the continuing economic, social, cultural and political oppression and disparity which exists globally. Many people today who play blues styles or blues-influenced music would like to minimize or discount or forget the elements and shared experiences of African-Americans which led to the creation and perpetuation of "the Blues". In my view, this widely shared view is akin to someone saying "I love Gypsy music" but then disparaging Roma or buying into negative stereotypes about Gypsies (Roma).

The music as currently as currently being recorded, played on radio and on streaming services, as currently played live, and as currently recognized by many folks who consider themselves fans, continues to get further from its African-American roots. A lot of this is not surprising, considering that there are not very many current musicians who have or had a direct connection to the originators of  "the Blues", so the audiences get less exposure to the roots to the point where they do not know what the true roots of the music are or care. Many people want contemporary lyrics and musical approaches, and commercial companies which provide entertainment for the masses have not seen the roots blues as commercial enough. Rap, hip hop, contemporary r&b, contemporary music called Americana or modern country music are examples.

To carry on a truly traditional style of music over a long time across generations and in the midst of societal forces and changes, requires a deep commitment to musical preservation, perpetuation and dissemination, and a solid community of like-minded folk with access to resources not just commitment and dedication to the cause. Musicians playing traditional folk music are in the minority at the International Folk Alliance Conference, African-American musicians playing traditional blues songs and styles are in the minority at Blues Festivals and blues challenge competitions, and traditional country musicians can rarely be heard or seen on country radio. This is to be expected as times and tastes change, but the effect is that younger audiences and the public at large has less exposure to the roots sources of the music and its originators. Glimmers of hope are tradition torch bearers younger musicians like Don Flemons, Rhiannon Giddons, Jerron Paxton, and elder master teachers like Andy Cohen, Guy Davis, Phil Wiggins and others.

One positive phenomenon on the one hand is YouTube and to a lesser agree streaming and internet radio, in so far as those fans who seek traditional music and history about it can find well known and very obscure music for free on the internet. The downside is that the advent of streaming music practically free has hurt the pocketbooks of songwriters, musicians and record labels, as people expect the music for free and also do not have to go out to see it live.         

People of non-African-American origin may have life experiences, such as economic or social or cultural oppression, similar to African-Americans, which may lead them to choose blues music as their music of choice as a musician or as a fan. This may account for the emergence of Native American or Indigenous musicians playing blues music and also creating their own cultural variations based on their shared "folk or communal" experience.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?                          (Michael Frank / Photo by Aigars Lapsa)

The "Blues" is still considered a musical genre by many people in the music business and by a lot of musicians who say they "play the blues" or call themselves "blues musicians. However,

Blues music is a powerful vehicle for expression of feelings about many things, and many genres and styles of American music are built on blues styles. This cultural, musical and artistic phenomenon accounts for the global popularity of blues-based music. I do not see Blues as an artistic movement, though it is a music played by choice by a fairly large number of musicians, and has a sizeable global fan base, because it touches on universal emotions and on universal aspects of relationships.

From another perspective, "Blues" is also a state of mind and a contemporary experience, in so far as playing or listening to this style of music can be both emotionally cathartic and uplifting at the same time for the musician and for the audience. And it takes serious commitment as a musician to focus on playing blues-based music when other styles and genres are more commercially viable.

Blues as the average person thinks of it and hears it or experiences it in performance, is continuing to be diluted and further from its African-American origins. It is a continuing cycle of disparity of opportunity. As talent buyers and the audience become less familiar with recorded and live Blues as it was originated and developed in the 1900s, as mass media play less and less of this music, fewer talent buyers seek out true roots musicians and the elders, and the audiences become less and less familiar with who these folks are. It is a vicious cycle.

I want all readers of my responses to this Question and Answer Session, to understand that: I do not disparage the large number of folks who make the commitment to their craft of writing, recording and performing music locally or on tour. Being a musician is a choice which requires a lot of sacrifice and commitment over a long time. It is a lifestyle and vocational choice. My comments are to reflect on the current state of the blues as I see it. The "Blues" and being a "BluesMan" or BluesWoman" emanate from cultural, economic, political, racial and social, communally experienced context. Many outstanding musicians of diverse backgrounds and life experiences playing great music in a blues or blues influenced style deserve recognition and success. I applaud their commitment, perseverance and talent. I want the originators and those carrying the torch of tradition and history to be remembered, hired on the big stages, and honored during their lifetimes. And I want the world at large to know, understand, and appreciate these history makers, torch bearers and traditionalists. Even while "the times they are a changin".

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