Nice Guy, No Great Shakes

Blues Deluxe (Shrapnel)

Rick Derringer

By Jeff Kallman

You need a lot more than having once been associated with Johnny Winter to build real blues credentials.

In Rick Derringer's case, you need a rewrite of history. The first peep out of the pretty-faced Ohioan, after all, was at the front of the McCoys and the yelping voice of "Hang On, Sloopy," that classic exercise in what a garage band does when they want to crank out their own version of the all-time garage band hit, "Louie, Louie". (Well, not their own; "Hang On, Sloopy" was written by R&B legend Bert Berns and, in fact, had a life before the McCoys -- it showed up on the Yardbirds' first U.S. LP as "My Girl Sloopy".)

And it was what was left of Derringer's McCoys, (Derringer, brother Randy Z on drums, and bassist Randy Hobbs) who partnered with Winter for the Texan's laughable Johnny Winter And, a hard rock experiment which damn near shot Winter's own blues credentials into oblivion. And, while Winter went first into a harrowing battle with heroin addiction and then to a couple of more Derringer-abetted missteps (Still Alive and Well, Saints and Sinners) before returning to the blues, Derringer himself made a few workaday rock albums and actually got himself a hit single under his own name ("Rock and Roll, Hootchie Koo," a song he'd written originally for Johnny Winter And). But one goes only so far posing as a guitar-hero-lite-cum-matinee-idol -- as in, into near-oblivion, where Derringer seems to have spent the 80s.

This is Derringer's third effort, after that very long quiet season, for the independent Blues Bureau/Shrapnel label. I've not heard either Back to the Blues or Electra Blues, so I'm not the proper judge although, again, it takes a rewrite of history to accept Back to the Blues as a credible Derringer title. But Blues Deluxe is not going to make Derringer's case as a solid bluesman very persuasive. For one thing, he's got a song list which is two parts covers of two very non-blues songs he wrote for Winter, and ten parts staples in the diets of the British blues rockers of the mid-1960s. For another, he leans to a fare-thee-well on the Brits' arrangements, while constructing a sound which evokes a perfectly-rehearsed bar band aping Johnny Winter And, with guest lead guitarists.

He mimics both the Jeff Beck guitar style (and, in fairness, that isn't exactly easy) of the time and Rod Stewart's more unpolished howling on the title track, which first saw the fight of day as a sloppy-slick jam on Beck's Truth. He walks Eric Clapton's fretboard, covering Clapton's "Blues Power," and Derek and the Dominos' arrangement of "Key to the Highway." He tries to out-hotrod and out-yelp Johnny Winter on his remakes of two distinctly non-blues songs he wrote for Winter, "Funky Music" (from Johnny Winter And) and the title cut from Still Alive and Well. And, he spends almost ten minutes Xeroxing the nuances but missing the subtleties of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, while covering that band's "Something Inside Of Me" (written by third guitarist Danny Kirwan), devolving to mere noodling in the final couple of minutes.

Derringer, in other words, probably would have run tail if he'd ever heard a blues record cut before 1965. He calls his cover of a certain Freddie King classic "Hide Away 1962," but it isn't exactly the Texas Cannonball he's hearing, it's Clapton. Derringer seems to be trying out Clapton's version of the piece (on John Mayall's Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album), and it sounds as though he is not quite sure it suits him so well.

But Derringer never was renowned as an innovator or a trendsetter. He's still just a nice kid having himself a ball, and, with that, you have to figure that it could have been one hell of a lot worse. Then you come to the set closer, and it damn well comes close: It's "Checking On My Baby," the Sonny Boy Williamson classic, and it sounds as though he got hold of a bootleg of the early Van Halen having a whack at it. Even without a tenth of Eddie Van Halen's shred-mad fret-firing, Sonny Boy's estate should be able to sue for violation of the Eighth Amendment.