Blind Arvella Gray Played Chicago's Streets and Bob Dylan was a Fan...

The only album by Blind Arvella Gray, a nearly forgotten street singer who spent the latter part of his life performing folk, blues and gospel music at Chicago’s Maxwell Street flea market and at rapid-transit depots, will receive a deluxe reissue on August 2, 2005. The album, The Singing Drifter, was originally released in 1972 on vinyl and fewer than 1, 000 copies were sold. Unavailable for more than 30 years, the album will be released as a CD with full liner notes, extensive photography and three bonus tracks.

The reissue kicks off the new Conjuroo Recordings label, an indie record company headed by Cary Baker, president of the music publicity company called conqueroo based in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Conjuroo is marketed by Emergent Music Marketing and distributed through RED Distribution.

As a teenager in Chicago in the ’70s, Baker made several forays to Maxwell Street to watch Gray, and was even responsible for connecting the artist with label that released Drifter, the Wilmette, Ill.-based Birch Records. Until it recorded Gray, Birch had specialized in traditional country artists of the WLS Barndance lineage including Doc Hopkins and Patsy Montana.

Birch Records only released a handful of vinyl LPs, and had gone dormant by the inception of the CD. The Blind Arvella Gray album became a hot item, on collectors’ want lists for years. Finally, in 2004, Baker developed a strong desire to reissue the recording. It was not easy to find Birch Records founder David Wylie, who maintained no web site, nor even an email address.

To reissue the album, Baker set upon launching Conjuroo Records and enlisted the services of Grammy Award-winning art director Susan Archie of w0rld of aNarchie, who oversaw innovative packages for Revenant reissues by Charley Patton and Albert Ayler. Additionally, Wylie found three unreleased tracks, which have been added to the release.

Arvella Gray (real name James Dixon) was born in Texas in 1906 and was blinded in the ‘30s, possibly while holding up a bank, possibly in Peoria (he never told the story the same way twice). Arriving in Chicago in the ‘40s, he brought the music of the cotton fields and chain gangs to the industrial North, proving an unheralded missing link to the origins of American folk music, blues and gospel. His repertoire included many standards, such as the chain gang standard “John Henry” and the traditional country song “More Pretty Girls Than One, ” while touching on the gospel tradition with songs like “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There.” He accompanied himself on slide National Dobro — an instrument that was later sold on eBay. His fans included Bob Dylan, whose 1961 song “He Was a Friend of Mine” was said to have been borrowed from Gray.

Arvella Gray died in Chicago in 1981. “My father took me to the Maxwell Street flea market to show me where his Eastern European immigrant parents had shopped in the ‘30s and ‘40s, ” says Baker. “In the ensuing years, it had become a hotbed for blues artists including Muddy Waters and Big Walter Horton, whose music was heard under the din of CTA buses and flea market hawkers on bullhorns augmented by the aroma of Polish sausages and onions grilling nearby. By the time I visited, Gray was among a handful of surviving buskers who continued to hold forth on Sunday mornings. I was taken by the unique sound and authenticity of his music. In historical perspective, Gray’s wailing slide Dobro stands in a category with Hound Dog Taylor, R.L. Burnside or Junior Kimborough — wild, unruly and imperfect. This album quietly slipped between the cracks and it is my privilege and honor to turn a new generation on to this unforgettable street singer.”

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