RELEASE DATE: November 2009

Blues Mann

By Ross Altman, Ph.D.

Steve_mann_Straight_Life_cover.jpgBanjo player Fred Sokolow brought a blues guitarist friend to the Ash Grove one night in 1967 to see Steve Mann. As Steve launched into a Blind Lemon Jefferson tune, 99 Years Blues, Fred noticed his friend unbutton the top button of his shirt. By the time Steve finished the song, 2 and ½ minutes later, Fred's friend had pulled out a handkerchief and started to daub some beads of sweat that had formed on his forehead.

Steve then turned his attention to a Ray Charles classic Drown In My Own Tears, and miraculously recreated on six strings Charles' 88 keys piano accompaniment, complete with his jazz chords. Fred's guitarist friend's underarms were starting to pour sweat all over his new cotton twill shirt, leaving massive stains that were starting to overwhelm his neat tie in the middle.

Six minutes later Fred's guitar-playing friend leaned over and asked for another handkerchief. He then took his tie off and unbuttoned the rest of his shirt, mopping up the sweat stains that were beginning to converge just above his belt. Then Steve Mann began his opening dazzling finger-picking intro to Pallet On Your Floor, when Fred's friend asked the Ash Grove waitress if she could bring him a towel.

She got back just in time for him to get the towel in place, protecting his lap from further embarrassment, as Steve began to navigate the peaks and valleys of Robert Johnson's Walking Blues. By the time Steve got to Blind Willie Johnson's version of Titanic, Fred noticed his friend's eyebrows starting to twitch, and his throat muscles starting to constrict. His friend then leaned over and in a hoarse, strained, barely audible croaking whisper said, "It's getting kind of warm in here, isn't it?"

"Not for us banjo players," replied Fred.

That same year, in 1967, Steve's mentor Dick Rosmini got him in the studio to record his first-and it turned out, only-studio album.

Forty-two years later Janet Smith of Bella Roma Music in Berkeley has re-released that one-of-a-kind masterpiece on CD, thus allowing an entirely new generation of young guitarists to sweat profusely, as they come to realize that the standards for their chosen instrument are not just higher than they had previously thought possible, they are on an entirely different planet.

For Steve Mann didn't just rewrite the book on blues guitar, he re-invented the printing press. To appreciate the significance of what Steve Mann accomplished just listen to the opening chord on the second song of this breakthrough album-Cocaine, a traditional song he arranged. You won't recognize it from any blues record you have heard before-not from Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, or Big Bill Broonzy. Why? He sings it like the blues and plays it like the blues, up to a point. But that opening chord is a jazz chord, and makes the song. To follow the road Steve Mann took to get to that chord you have to go back to the early piano recordings of Ray Charles and, later on, Mose Allison, who were both major influences on Steve Mann's music.

Before Steve there were jazz guitarists and blues guitarists, and never the twain did meet. Jazz guitarists were known for their amazing chords and chord structures, while blues guitarists were known for their amazing picking patterns, built around very basic chord patterns, often just the proverbial three.

Steve created what you might call the double whopper, by adding jazz chord structures to blues finger-style pattern picking. He copied no guitarist, since he was the first to fuse these disparate styles into one; rather he copied piano players like Ray Charles and Mose Allison (whose song If You Live is included on this record), recreating on six and twelve-string guitars what they had an entire keyboard to work with. It was and remains an amazing feat, and is still thrilling to hear for the first time. And yet Steve would have been the first to tell you he was not the first guitarist to have been inspired by a pianist.

You have to go back to "The King of the Twelve-String Guitar," Huddie Ledbetter, to reach the gateway to the Nile. Leadbelly's famous "walking bass" runs were patterned, he told John and Alan Lomax in his 1935 Library of Congress recordings (commercially released on Elektra Records) by listening to the barrelhouse stride piano players in Shreveport, Louisiana's red-light district. Indeed it was the boogie woogie piano players with whom he played in his formative years who inspired Leadbelly's signature tuning of his Stella 12-string guitar a full two steps below standard pitch, so he could play in the D chords he favored while staying in the key of Bb the piano player liked.

And not just the piano player; in Leadbelly's Last Sessions-released on Folkways and now available on Smithsonian Folkways, he recounted how he also accompanied Victor Hictor on the Bb clarinet. To illustrate he played Dancing With Tears In My Eyes on the 12-string, capturing the bass runs of the piano and the tenor of the clarinet with his voice.

Steve Mann was Morton Stanley to Leadbelly's Dr. David Livingstone. Together they discovered the Nile-what Steve Mann added to the bass line of the piano was the brilliant clarity of the treble strings, which Leadbelly largely ignored.

What remains so remarkable about Steve Mann's playing are the brilliant bass runs he incorporated into an arrangement that has already dazzled you with its highly punctuated progressions on the top strings high up the neck. That-and the jazz vocabulary he transformed into an instrument of the blues. Steve Mann, more than any other guitarist I can think of, played the guitar with both hands, and fingers that had the maneuverability of a contortionist.

Just look at one picture in the CD booklet for Straight Life (also available on his web site), the original studio album plus two bonus tracks, Brother Can You Spare a Dime and The Letter. It's worth a thousand words, and shows what he calls his "Ray Charles E Chord." Take a friendly word of advice from your intrepid reviewer, and don't try this at home, not unless you are near an ER. You will see Steve's elongated pinkie crawling underneath his ring finger-which is holding down the second string on the third fret-all the way up to the fifth fret to grab the first string-all the while his first two fingers are taking care of business on the first aSteve_mann_Straight_Life_cover_bak.jpgnd second frets.

No wonder Fred Sokolow's guitarist friend was sweating buckets while gasping for air.

This album is brilliantly produced by Steve's mentor Dick Rosmini, who also plays bass. The tracks are fleshed out with John Horton on drums, and beautiful blues harmonica backing by the now legendary Taj Mahal. Taj also plays banjo on several songs, including a "rockadelic" Steve Mann original, Elephant Song, which is unlike anything else on the record. It captures the "long strange trip" of the 60s as well as any song I can think of, and in the context of this blues collection, it stands out as a comic masterpiece.

Speaking of long strange trips, particular credit is due John Lyon, who rescued the master tape originally from which this CD was made from oblivion more than thirty years ago in 1976-when it had what Lyon describes as a near death experience. The original company Custom Fidelity Records changed hands, and the new owners proceeded to unceremoniously discard a whole shelf full of old masters. John Lyon retrieved Straight Life from the palette before it could be fork lifted out to the dumpster. He kept it "cool and dry" for more than thirty years, when Janet Smith offered him the chance to put it back into circulation.

Nor was this the first time a Steve Mann recording has been livingly preserved for decades by friends and fellow musicians who felt an obligation to history to hang onto them. Pedal steel guitarist (and one-time student of Mann's) Mike Perlowin hung onto a 7-inch reel-to-reel live recording of Steve Mann (made by someone unknown in 1967). Perlowin's prized possession was the source for the limited release (only 500 copies were pressed) of the album Steve Mann: Live at the Ash Grove. That album came out in 1970 and became Janet Smith's second release of Steve's original LPs, on her Bella Roma Music label. Alive and Picking-derived from a number of old tapes similarly preserved by fellow blues guitarist Stefan Grossman-was the first in the series.

Grossman felt an additional burden to help keep Steve's music alive, since it was an errant, misleading liner note from one of his old albums that fueled the persistent rumor that Steve Mann had died-another casualty of the 60s. It turned out-like the rumors of Mark Twain's death-to be greatly exaggerated. Thus the title Alive and Picking was chosen by Janet Smith to put an end to those rumors once and for all.

Sadly and ironically, Steve Mann did not live to see the release of this third album in Janet's series-Straight Life-that was in fact his first album. He passed away last September 9, just as this CD was going into production.

This whole amazing journey of Steve Mann back from the brink of extinction into the pantheon of seminal folk blues guitarists puts me in mind of Ray Bradbury's now classic tale of literary archeology Fahrenheit 451. In this book, named for the temperature at which paper burns, a small community of devout readers each becomes committed to memorizing an entire book they have been ordered by the state to destroy.

Thus one of them becomes David Copperfield, another Crime and Punishment, another Moby Dick, and so on. Their job is to hold onto their assigned book in memory so that it can be reconstructed long after the fires have gone out and the book burnings are history. Bradbury's readers thus save civilization from the onslaught of the barbarians at the gate, and create a fictional bulwark against the very real book burnings of the Nazi regime in Germany, and book banning of lesser impulses towards totalitarianism, including the banning of countless classics right here in the good old USA.

Like Bradbury's heroes, Steve Mann's dedicated friends have rescued him from the funeral pyre and restored his legacy. Thanks to Janet Smith, and John Lyon and Mike Perlowin and Rick Smith and Stefan Grossman and Ash Grove founder Ed Pearl, we now have a great opportunity to revel in the almost lost blues guitar mastery of one of America's most original and inspiring musical artists. It took a village, but together they raised a Mann.

Steve Mann's web site is

There is also an unofficial Steve Mann website:

Steve was also in an incarnation of the Frank Zappa band, The Mothers. An interesting blog can be found here:

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at