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.
Earwig ended up purchasing Cadillac Baby’s labels from his widow because Frank was “concerned the Bea & Baby’s varied catalog and Cadillac Baby’s history might be lost or merely a footnote in music history.” On his journey to uncover and share Cadillac Baby’s captivating story and musical legacy, Frank says that he “started thinking that a box set of the entire label’s music catalog, not just the blues recordings was the right way to go.”
“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.
Arelean Brown, whose ’70s funky novelty tunes ‘Impeach Me Baby’ and ‘I’m A Streaker Baby’ brought her notoriety, also gets showcased here with two early soulful songs (‘I Love My Man’ and ‘Hello Baby’) and T. Valentine, who developed a cult following through his off-kilter blues releases on Norton Records, is represented by his first single, ‘Little Lu-Lu Frog/Teen-Age Jump.’
Then there are the acts so obscure that even super blues fans might not be aware of them. Faith Taylor & the Sweet Teens contribute a pair of lovely doo-wop songs, but little was heard about the 11-year-old (as she is billed) after she hit her teens. Hailing from the Miss label are a two-part instrumental 45, ‘Joe’s House Rent Party’ by veteran Chicago organist Tall Paul Hankins and the silky vocal ensemble Kirk Taylor and the Velvets (not the Underground kind). A couple tracks are so mysterious that they are credited to “Unknown Blues Band and Vocalist” and “Unknown Actors.” They were on the tape reel with the rediscovered session of Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon.
Bea & Baby Records’ broad musical scope is exemplified on the fourth CD, which ranges from 3D’s two hip-hop songs to the closing tracks — ten gospel numbers performed by Eddie Dean & the Biblical Aires, The Gloryaires, The Norfolk Singers, The Pilgrim Harmonizers, and Rev. Samuel Patterson. And in between are some comedy bits! Cadillac Baby, like many of his fellow indie label owners, had a broad taste in popular music and entertainment.
Perhaps this anthology’s most unique tracks are the ones by Cadillac Baby himself, definitely a one-of-a-kind character. He shows up a half-dozen times over the four CDs, sharing his wisdom on topics like spiritual records, how he got into the music business, and his own legend. An entrepreneur on Chicago’s notorious South Side, he owned a variety of businesses. Prominent among his ventures was Cadillac Baby’s Show Lounge, a major blues club from the mid ’50s into the ’60s. Ever the showman, he was known to drive a Cadillac on stage in this club. He also owned a popular neighborhood candy store, which served as his record label’s base of operations.
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.