Various Artists, Blues-A-Rama (Black Top Records)

Record labels, particularly the indies, have invariably had their “sound.” Think of some of the great ones—Chess, Motown, Blue Note—and it’s simple to “hear” what each stood for in the musical arena. It wasn’t just a style of music—blues, soul, jazz—but the production values and overall goals. As important as the artists themselves, often those usually nameless players known as studio musicians also played a significant part in the creation of “that” sound.

In Louisiana, we can count on Floyd Soileau’s Swallow or Maison de Soul records for rootsy Cajun zydeco music, or one of George Buck’s labels such as GHB for pure traditional jazz. When it comes to the blues and rhythm and blues from the Louisiana/Texas region, Black Top has been one of the most prolific. It is the label that finally (at last, at long last) put the great Earl King on album—and then did it again. Black Top has also been extremely important in giving the career of Snooks Eaglin a rejuvenation, releasing two fine, fine discs.

In celebration of the label’s tenth anniversary, Black Top has released Blues-A-Rama, a compilation of material from various artists off eight releases in its catalog (and one never-before-released track from King). Black Top’s sound is well-represented here, with its sparkling clean production, strong-spirited instrumentalists (who are seldom just used as backup), and accent on unique vocalists. Some of the artists used might not be too familiar to a large audience (Carol, Fran and Clarence Holliman, for instance), but they do share the thread of the Black Top sound, a modern yet deeply blues/swing groove. This sampler could certainly help in making gratifying investments in other Black Top material.

This release offers some unusual twists and turns as well, getting jazzy one minute, changing to sophisticated blues from Joe “Guitar” Hughes, and then offering a rawer edge with James “Thunderbird” Davis. There’s even a cut from the Nevilles, “Woman’s Gotta Have It” (from Neville-ization), and Buckwheat Zydeco.

Blues-A-Rama is just the thing for those who have yet to taste the flavor of Black Top or who haven’t gotten beyond the excellent Earl King and Snooks’ Eaglin discs (cut from both bluesmen included here). An opportunity for discovery.