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Since its inception in the Deep South around the turn of the 19th century, the blues has expanded its reach to all corners of the globe, transcending cultural barriers and unifying us all under one common tongue. It’s a language with universal appeal, celebrated on every continent and embraced by all walks of life—welcome to No Border Blues.
Like so many Americans who rediscovered our rich musical heritage courtesy of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream and the Yardbirds, the Japanese are also indebted to this cultural phenomenon. The British Invasion encouraged a whole new generation of music lovers to dive in and explore the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, which for many savvy listeners carved a path straight to the blues. Fusanosuke Kondo, Ryuichiro “Weeping Harp” Senoh, Mitsuyoshi Azuma and Takashi “Hotoke” Nagai are just a few of the pioneering Japanese musicians in the 1970s who fell under the beguiling spell of American bluesmen like Otis Rush, Little Walter, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and B.B. King.
In 1971, “The King of the Blues” himself embarked on his first tour of Japan to wildly receptive audiences. B.B. King’s Japanese tour is cited as being the first by any American blues artist. His album Live in Japan recorded at Tokyo’s Sankei Hall is a living testament to the success of that endeavor, which undoubtably opened the door for many of his peers. Some who followed in his footsteps include: Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Robert Lockwood Jr., The Aces, Eddie Taylor, Phillip Walker, Lowell Fulson, Albert Collins, John Littlejohn and Carey Bell.
It was in the Kansai region (Kyoto and Osaka), which lies in the south-central area of the main island Honshu, where the flames of Japan’s impending blues boom were first stoked. Emerging on the local scene in the early seventies were bands such as Yukadan—an illustrious acoustic blues ensemble formed in 1970 by acclaimed vocalist Atsuki Kimura and bottleneck guitarist Kantaro Uchida (they backed touring blues legends Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon and Muddy Waters); and the Blues House Blues Band—a Buddy Guy & Junior Wells-inspired Chicago blues combo featuring vocalist/harmonica player Nishimura Nyudow and founded by guitarist Yoichiro Hatta in 1972.
At the center of this thriving Kansai blues movement was the popular West Road Blues Band fronted by vocalist Takashi “Hotoke” Nagai. Established in 1972, West Road held the esteemed honor of opening for B.B. King in Osaka in September of their inaugural year. In 1975, the band released two albums including their debut Blues Power and the double LP Live in Kyoto. The group disbanded in 1977 and although they would reunite in the future, their place in the annals of Japanese blues history was assuredly secured.
Members of West Road remained active in the ensuing years. Shinji Shiotsugu (who tragically passed away at the age of 57 in 2008) and June Yamagishi are both highly revered blues guitarists with recordings issued under their names, and singer Takashi Nagai, in particular, has become quite the blues historian—hosting his own radio show, producing albums, writing books and publishing essays, in addition to touring and recording for over a decade now with his current band, Blues.the-Butcher-590213.
Born in Osaka on June 17, 1949, Weeping Harp Senoh is considered the Godfather of blues harmonica in Japan. In 1972, Senoh shared the privilege as opening act for B.B. King with the West Road Blues Band and three years later appeared on West Road’s album Blues Power. He formed an early incarnation of Roller Coaster (the name derived from Little Walter’s renowned instrumental) with drummer Yoshiki Yamazaki in 1974, and released his legendary solo debut Messin’ Around on Victor in 1976. Exemplifying the absolute cream of the Kansai blues scene, the album enlisted members from Break Down, West Road and Yukadan, including noted guitarists Fusanosuke Kondo, Yoichiro Hatta, Shinji Shiotsugu and Kantaro Uchida.
A revitalized Roller Coaster—featuring Weeping Harp Senoh, guitarists Mitsuyoshi Azuma and Hitoshi Koide, bassist Masaaki Komachi and original drummer Yoshiki Yamazaki—recorded their debut That’s Nothing New at Club Jirokichi in Tokyo on April 22, 1984. Devoted to preserving the traditional Chicago blues sound, this venerated band released four additional albums under that historic lineup, adding pianist Shio Hayasaki (Swinging Boppers) to their ranks in 1987. Though members have changed over the years (Senoh left in ’98), Roller Coaster remains an active force on the Tokyo blues scene. On December 17, 2017, founding member Ryuichiro Senoh unfortunately passed away due to stomach cancer.
Unquestionably, one of Japan’s finest blues vocalists is guitarist Fusanosuke Kondo. Born on May 4, 1951 in Aichi, a prefecture located in the Chūbu area of central Japan, Kondo made the determination to become a blues singer in 1968. He was invited to form Break Down in 1976 with former Blues House Blues Band guitarist Yoichiro Hatta and other members of his group which dissolved in 1974. Break Down’s first album, simply entitled Live, is a Japanese blues classic. The band was active for 10 years, mainly in Kyoto, and left behind four albums, plus the live recording Blues Interactions backing one of their biggest idols, Otis Rush. Kondo has remained a dominant presence in Japan playing many different genres throughout his long, successful career. Recently, he returned to his roots for a trilogy of albums beginning in 2010 entitled 1968, commemorating the year he decided to become a blues singer.
Mitsuyoshi Azuma is another highly regarded name beloved by blues fans all over Japan. Born in Tokyo on February 29, 1956, Azuma immersed himself in practicing blues guitar after witnessing a concert by B.B. King at 15 years old. In May 1975, he attended a Roller Coaster show at Club Jirokichi where he was invited to sit in. That led to him joining Weeping Harp Senoh’s band and participating on his second album Boogie Time in 1977. Around this time Azuma also began playing jump blues and R&B in Blue Heaven with vocalist Takashi Nagai (following the demise of West Road). When Phillip Walker came to Japan in 1979, Azuma was presented with the opportunity to perform with the legendary Gulf Coast bluesman and his band featuring George “Harmonica” Smith for the recording of the album, The Blues Show! Live at Pit Inn.
Formed with his college schoolmates in 1979, Mitsuyoshi Azuma and the Swinging Boppers was initially conceived only for the purpose of staging a memorial concert upon graduation—however, the band has endured. Produced by Takashi Nagai, the 1983 debut album Swing Back with the Swinging Boppers heralded the arrival of Japan’s number one big band showcasing Azuma’s passion for 1940s-1950s jump blues and his predilection for slashing Texas-style guitar performed in the manner of his heroes, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Albert Collins. Over the years Azuma has expanded his talents beyond the bandstand to encompass producing, engineering and mixing albums, as well as occasionally writing liner notes and publishing a regular column in Japan’s only blues magazine, Blues & Soul Records. In 2019, the Swinging Boppers released their eighth album Scheduled by the Budget on Sony Music.
These forefathers are the pillars of the Japanese blues scene that exists today. Their passion and early pioneering efforts laid the foundation for new generations of aspiring blues musicians to follow—many of whom you’ll discover right here for yourself as you listen to this CD! May you enjoy your travels to the “Land of the Rising Sun” this time around on what hopefully turns out to be the first of many expeditions in exploring No Border Blues.
— Jeff Scott Fleenor