Maurice John Vaughn

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Few themes are more dominant in the folklore and lyric imagery of the blues than that of the road. To early southern blues artists the road represented a highway to freedom, a way out of oppression and bondage, a possible path to a mythic promised land. But the road was also a dangerous pathway fraught with peril. A man might take to the road to follow his dream only to end up wandering, desperate and alone, with no place to call home. He might find himself stranded at a demon-haunted crossroads at midnight; he might run afoul of savage Dixie justice and wind up on a prison road gang with iron shackles around his legs, breaking rocks and shoveling gravel under the relentless southern sun; he might die in a ditch beside some forsaken backwoods dirt road, desolate and alone.

Through the years, as the blues have become more urban, the "road" has transmogrified into the "street," but it's no less alluring and no less dangerous. Street life is the life of the player, the mack, the hipster; the street is where the women are fine, the music is hot and sexy, and the sweet times are to be had. But the street is also where death lurks in alleys and crack houses; it's where young men fight and die, where young women are ravaged and ruined. It's where the blues life --soulful, passionate, laden with dues and danger-- is lived to its fullest and most uncompromising intensity.

Maurice John Vaughn, who was born and raised on Chicago's south side and now lives across the state line in Indiana, is a mild-mannered family man; he's not a veteran of the street, and he's never toiled or trod alongside a dusty southern road. But as a blues poet he understands and feels deeply the images and passions these symbols represent.

The roads Maurice has traveled have been thoroughfares of artistic and personal growth, and they've had their share of twists, curves, and unexpected new directions along the way. A multi-instrumentalist since high school, Maurice kicked off his professional career playing saxophone in R&B and disco aggregations; he worked venues in and around Chicago, ranging from local dance clubs to suburban country clubs and restaurants. By the mid-70s he'd expanded into the blues, and he began to concentrate on developing his fretboard chops. He played in bands led by local blues celebrities like guitarists Smilin' Bobby and Johnny Dollar, as well as the late keyboardist Professor Eddie Lusk. Eventually he went on the road with guitarist Phil Guy, brother of the legendary Buddy.

It wasn't long before the record companies came calling, but for a while they were mainly interested in Maurice as a sideman. He appeared on disks by the likes of saxophonist A.C. Reed (on Alligator) and vocalist Zora Young (on Parsifal, out of Belgium). Unwilling to continue to let others call the shots, Maurice produced a record on himself which he called Generic Blues Album, an intentionally ironic title, since he's always been an aggressive innovator who mixes and melds the diverse influences of his musical background. He issued the disk on his own Reecy label; in 1988, after giving him a slot on their New Bluebloods compilation, the Alligator label picked up Generic Blues Album and added it to their catalogue. Maurice followed up with In The Shadow Of The City, also on Alligator, in 1993; the road to international blues recognition was rapidly opening.

But Maurice has never been satisfied with cruising easily along one highway. Since the early '90s he's worked as A&R (Artist and Repertoire) man for Appaloosa Records, producing critically-acclaimed albums for artists like Shirley Johnson, Maxine Carr and B.J Emery. He's also continually in demand as a sideman and in-studio musical director; especially notable were his contributions to a pair of Blue Suit recordings featuring the Chicago-based keyboard legend, Detroit Junior. These activities have meant steady work for Maurice, and they've helped him hone his reputation for versatility, professionalism, and class. But they've also meant that his own recorded output has not been as prolific as it might have been. The disk you're holding in your hands is his first full-length feature outing since In the Shadow Of The City.

It's been worth the wait. The full spectrum of Maurice's versatility is on display here, from the straight-ahead Chicago shuffle of the opening track featuring his shimmering tone and supple melodicism on guitar, buttressed by country-fried harmonica punctuations from Fred Brousse to the grinding funk of "Two Can Play" and "Lady In The Box." Check out how Maurice melds serious-minded lyrics to rollicking, N'Awlins-flavored rhythmic and melodic exuberance on "Mama Believed In Me." Immerse yourself in his richly-textured horn charts, which combine the boogity-shoe soulfulness of classic funk aggregations like Tower of Power with a breezy, good-time effervescence reminiscent of Chicago and other 60s-era pop-horn groups.

As always, Maurice refuses to be pigeonholed or typecast: "Midnight Hour," the Wilson Pickett classic, gives him the opportunity to strut his hard-soul chops as both a vocalist and a bandleader. The sensual, loping blues, "I Don't Care," features Maurice's grits-and-gravy vocals along with the barrelhouse-laden pianistics of Detroit Junior, whose solo evokes the inflections and influence of Junior's contemporaries like the late Sunnyland Slim and the still-vital Pinetop Perkins. On the title tune, the story of a wounded but still determined man ready to once again take on the perils of life, love, and uncharted territory, Maurice's probing tenor solo ripples and explores through the melody line like a searching soul.

Perhaps the most revealing, however, is "Talking To Each Other." Set in a hot-rocking juke on the backstreets of some unnamed city, it finds everyone from locals from the ''hood to bright-eyed tourists from out of town even out of the country coming together to laugh, dance, and celebrate. As Maurice's multi-lingual narrative makes clear, the blues communicates in a universal language that's the modern-day artistic equivalent of speaking in tongues. No doubt some of those people talking and laughing together traveled some pretty tough, even dangerous, roads to get to that place but as Maurice knows well, sometimes it's exactly that kind of journey, along that kind of road, that leads to safety, sanctuary, and new freedom.