Various Artists: Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records – The Definitive Collection

Extraordinary catalog of a little-known late-50s Chicago label

In the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s, it must have been hard to make a dent. And if you were a local, nearly neighborhood-sized label swimming in the pond with Chess, Vee-Jay, Brunswick and Delmark, you were lucky not to get eaten. Chess did manage to take a few bites out of Narvel Eatmon and his short-lived Bea & Baby label, but Eatmon’s life-long fealty to the blues, and his hustle as an entrepreneur, created a small but important catalog of blues-centered singles. By the time of Eatmon’s passing in 1991, Bea & Baby and its subsidiaries had been dormant for many years, and fifteen years further on, Michael Frank, who’d befriended Eatmon and helped him develop licensing deals, bought the catalog from Eatmon’s widow. The “label” at that point consisted primarily of dead stock 45s, paperwork, and most critically, publishing rights, but not many master tapes. So a project was begun, and thirteen years later, delivers this extraordinary four-disc labor of love documenting Eatmon’s original labors of love.

Narvel Eatmon, better known in his adopted Chicago as Cadillac Baby, was a colorful man living in a colorful place at a colorful time. Eatmon developed his love of the blues as a child in his native Mississippi, but was drawn to Chicago in the mid-1940s by his musical passion. He quickly established himself as an impresario on the city’s South Side with Cadillac Baby’s Show Lounge, and his presentation of local and touring acts grew into the Bea & Baby record label. The label was most active in 1959 and 1960, recording both nationally known and local artists, and though several sides had the potential to break nationally, Eatmon’s lack of record industry background, and external pressures (which often seemed to include the machinations of Leonard Chess) undercut the label’s commercial success. Eatmon continued to issues a couple of sides a year into the mid-60s, and sporadically into the early ‘70s, but his dreams always seemed to remain bigger than his actual sales.

The label came to life in 1959 with Eddie Boyd’s “I’m Commin’ Home,” which together with its up-tempo flip “Thank You Baby,” garnered favorable, single sentence reviews in Cashbox. Both sides include the solid bottom end of Rob Carter’s bass and strong solos by saxophonist Ronald Wilson, the B-side also includes a piano playout from Boyd. Many of Bea & Baby’s singles featured the sort of eight-bar blues you’d expect of a Chicago record label, but early on Eatmon also produced jump blues, teen doo-wop and Latin-tinged numbers, and in later years he took to releasing gospel on his Miss subsidiary. The catalog also features several interesting oddities, including Clyde Lasley’s provocative “Santa Came Home Drunk.” the Daylighters’ vocal-overdubbed re-release of Eddie Boyd’s “Come Home,” and T. Valentine’s sui generis “Little Lu-Lu-Frog,” a single whose style seems to foreshadow the free-form freak outs of Red Krayola.

The label’s biggest hit, Bobby Saxton’s “Trying’ to Make a Livin’,” was licensed to Chess for reissue on their Checker subsidiary, but even with national distribution, it couldn’t lift the fortunes of Saxton or Bea & Baby. Cut while Saxton was fronting Earl Hooker’s band, the single features Hooker’s inimitable guitar, while the instrumental B-side includes fine playing from pianist Tall Paul Hankins, and sax players Ernest Cotton and Oett Mallard. Eatmon would tangle with Leonard Chess again when Tony Gideon’s “Wa Too Si” was reportedly spied in Chess’ pressing plant, scooped by the Vibrations’ “Watusi,” and bullied into being released on the Chess label as “Watcha Gonna Do.”

Disc two opens with Hound Dog Taylor’s first recording, “My Baby’s Coming Home,” waxed at the age of 43, a full decade before the Alligator label was launched to release his debut album. Taylor’s twangy slide is featured on both sides of the single, with the minimal lyrics of the uptempo flip leaving extra room for soloing. Eatmon continued to explore the boundaries of the blues with Little Mac’s doo-wop (with a harmonica solo!) B-side “Broken Heart,” Phil Sampson’s late-night croon “It’s So Hard,” Sampson’s eponymous jump tune with Singing Sam, Andre Williams’ New Orleans-influenced “I Still Love You,” Kirk Taylor’s string-lined “This World,” Tall Paul Hankins & The Hudson Brothers’ remarkable organ, guitar, bass and drum grooves on  “Joe’s House Rent Party,” and “Red Lips,” and the late-60s soul stylings of The Chances.

Had Eatmon been making a bigger commercial push for his label, one might think he was just throwing singles at the market to see what would stick, but the range and quality of the material suggests he was indulging his musical taste, rather than trying to triangulate hits. The results may not have been good for the label’s bottom line, but the records, A’s and B’s alike, harbor a sense of purpose that resounds with artistry and adventurousness over calculation. Eatmon describes his 1961 gospel releases as having been a market consideration, but the fervor of these sides indicates that whether or not they were going to be the ticket to commercial salvation, they were going to be infused with the artists’ faith.

The set’s 128-page hardcover book opens with an interview that Living Blues co-founder Jim O’Neal conducted with Eatmon in 1971. “Interview” might be a misleading description, since O’Neal seems to have asked “tell me how you got into the music business,” and Eatmon proceeds to tell his colorful life story with little more prompting or interruption. Eatmon also tells stories in audio tracks that are sprinkled throughout the set. O’Neal’s liners and Michael Frank’s producer’s notes are detailed and heartfelt, telling Eatmon’s colorful story as they also tell the stories of their relationships with Eatmon. Bill Dahl’s artist profiles and Robert M. Marovich’s gospel notes fill out a comprehensive view of the riches contained in these four discs. This revival of the Bea & Baby catalog was clearly a passion project for all concerned, and it’s sure to stir the passions of blues collectors everywhere. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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