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Agram Blues is Guido van Rijn’s blues label.
Label owner Guido van Rijn recalls: “I had been organizing concerts with black American blues artists since 1970. Martin van Olderen and I had started in small halls in my then hometown of Amstelveen in the Netherlands. When the concerts became larger we moved to Amsterdam and later to Groningen. In 1979 we were asked to organize a huge blues concert as the opening show for the then brand new concert hall Vredenburg in Utrecht. It was called the NBBO Jubileum Festival as we celebrated a decade of concerts organized by our Netherlands Blues and Boogie Organization. The next year the name was changed into Blues Estafette and Jaap Hindriks was hired to organize the legendary concerts that would last until 2004.”
Guido’s involvement with the music had also led to his setting up, with Bert Nuis, his own blues LP series. Nuis had come up with the label name: “the first syllable of gramophone preceded by the letter A, so that the brand would head most lists.” At the time, the early 1970s, there had been some good official blues reissues by Columbia/CBS, RCA (Victor & Bluebird) and MCA (Decca). As Origin/OJL slowed down, the unlicensed pre-war blues reissue scene was dominated by Yazoo in the United States and Roots in Austria who, between them, had the two most extensive catalogues, both primarily of anthologies (mostly using regional selection criteria) rather than single artist collections. Yazoo (which launched in 1968) was rightly celebrated for being able to use the very best copies of original 78s in existence, as well as the most advanced sound reproduction techniques. Roots (launched in 1967) LPs tended to be more rough and ready, but they offered the opportunity to fill gaps, to hear records you could not get anywhere else. Herwin and Mamlish in the US, with similar values to Yazoo, had smaller catalogues, as did all sorts of labels of varying production standards, on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, to anyone browsing through the pages of “Blues & Gospel Records,” it was apparent that the vast bulk of what had originally been issued on 78s, still remained unissued, even by some of the biggest names.
Guido van Rijn again: “Agram tried to fill the gaps by reissuing songs that had not been issued on Origin, Yazoo and Roots… In 1976 I asked Dave Moore to write a booklet on Barbecue Bob as I had gained permission to issue eighteen pristine un-reissued Columbia recordings from the Don Kent collection. The aim was to concentrate on one pre-war blues or gospel artist per LP and to focus on recordings that had not been reissued.”
Each album would feature a standard design, soon to be instantly recognisable to pre-war blues enthusiasts, stylish but unfussy, on a background of a different colour. This was one of several factors that distinguished Agram releases from so many other European pre-war blues reissue LPs, which too often favoured stark black and white covers with minimal decoration. In a sense, Agram’s stylish presentation seemed to be proclaiming a different set of values – as if to say: “We’re not just any old blues label.” The first release, by Barbecue Bob, featured a painting of its subject by Garry Bready, but most subsequent releases would use a photograph of the artist on the front.
Another characteristic of too many European reissues was the absence of any documentation. Some listeners may not have cared, but generally, I think blues fans like to know what they’re listening to. In the Agram Blues series, the liner notes – on the sleeve and on a full-sized booklet – would prove to be one of the very best features. For most they were written by Guido van Rijn himself together with his friends Hans Vergeer and Cor van Sliedregt. Their intention was to include everything that was known about the artist at the time, as well as any new information that was discovered in the process of the research required to produce the album. Guido was determined that the LPs would: “make the obscure artists come alive for the first time.” For this, new research was often required, and he now wryly observes how much more difficult this was in the days before the internet. A musicological analysis was also included, by van Sliedregt. Although all three are native Dutch speakers, the notes were always in English (the international language of blues fandom), and reading the notes, it would take a keen eye or ear to detect that it was not their first language. As an Agram customer, apart from anything else, it was refreshing to read notes written by people who were palpably enthusiastic about the music included, at a time when notes on so many Yazoo and other US reissues seemed to have got too bogged down in technical guitar data, of interest only to a small proportion of buyers (and not always reliable), or rather misanthropic assessment of the artists’ abilities.
A third key Agram feature was sound quality. As Guido explains: “We approached collectors, they recorded their 78s and sent them on tape… A network of collectors provided me with recordings and information. Most important of them was Roger Misiewicz from Canada, whose legendary collection was used for most Agram recordings. He recorded straight from his 78s and we cleaned the recordings up as best as we could. The Dutch John R.T. Davis, Harry Coster, was very helpful here. He could make a tick in a 78 disappear by playing the tape at high speed. By dragging the tape against the head, he could hear where the tick was, and then he applied some Tipp-ex on that spot and you could not hear the tick anymore because of the high speed. That was one of his many tricks, before the days of CEDAR etc.”
Written by Ray Templeton for Blues & Rhythm