LAST MONTH, WE CHECKED OUT A PAIR OF EIGHT-BAR FORMS THAT POP UP frequently in the blues idiom under the titles “Trouble in Mind” and “Key to the Highway.” Taking it a step further, this time we’ll look at a much larger form that incorporates a different variant of the eight-bar blues as a twice-repeated A section, and adds another eight-bar form as the B section. With the reprise of the A section after the B, or “bridge,” we have a total of 32 bars for one complete chorus of the form. The 32-bar AABA form is one of the most common constructions used in songwriting, and there are several examples in the blues genre. The framework for this month’s lesson is a J.D. Miller song made famous by Louisiana blues artist Leslie Johnson, a.k.a. Lazy Lester. In the mid 1950s, a chance meeting with Lightnin’ Slim enroute to a recording session led to several classic recordings of the pair, as well as Lester’s own solo recordings for the Excello label. In 1959 he had a hit with “I Hear You Knockin’” (not to be confused with the Dave Bartholomew/Earl King song of the same name), a truncated blues form with a bridge that has been covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Dwight Yoakam.
The original version was recorded with only guitar, drums, and harmonica/vocals, so the best reference point for playing this tune on bass is the 1981 T-Birds version from their classic album Butt Rockin’ [Chrysalis/Benchmark], featuring the always-in-the-pocket bass playing of Keith Ferguson. We looked at Ferguson back in March ’14, but since then, author Detlef Schmidt has written an excellent book about this cornerstone player, Keith Ferguson—Texas Blues Bass, a must-read for fans of blues, bass, or any combination of the two. True to form, Ferguson approaches this tune (Ex. 1) with the natural flow and rhythmic drive that cemented his standing as one of the pillars of blues bass, using a boogie pattern on the I chord, and laying into the root for the IV and V chords. (On the Dwight Yoakam version, bassist Taras Prodaniuk sticks to shuffling on the root throughout the entire form.) The T-Birds follow Lazy Lester’s arrangement of AABA for the vocals, followed by two A sections for the signature harmonica line, back to the vocals for the B and final A sections, followed by a reprise of the harmonica line over the A section. The T-Birds repeat this twice (the original fades out during the first A section). Ferguson’s line is a study in priorities, and one of his is clearly laying it down—way down. He plays through this example without touching the D or G string.
In a performance situation, this form offers a couple of possibilities when it comes time to open it up for solos. Like the recording, solos can take place over the two eight-bar A sections, with vocals coming back at the B section. It would also be possible that one person might solo over the entire 32-bar form, or perhaps split it down the middle with another soloist. A third possibility is to forgo the extended form and simply blow over a 12-bar blues.
Many years ago, I had the chance to back up legendary blues artist Robert “Jr.” Lockwood, and he imparted to me this bit of genuine blues wisdom regarding form: “The difference between blues and jazz is simple. If the song doesn’t have a bridge, it’s blues. If it has a bridge, then it’s jazz.” By his definition, that would make this example “jazz,” although it is performed with the classic Texas shuffle feel. While the logic behind his statement seemed fuzzy to me, I was not about to argue the point with a man who was taught to play by Robert Johnson. Over the years, I have thought long and hard on his statement, and I’ve concluded that it must make sense—one way or the other.
Ed Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.