Thursday, December 26, 2013

Chess Records: Many Rivers To Cross

Although Jimmy Cliff wrote and recorded his magnum opus “Many Rivers to Cross” in 1969, his version failed to make a dent in the US and UK charts; however, today, his rendition is the one for which most people are familiar. Within a year of Cliff’s release, James Milton Campbell (AKA Little Milton) recorded probably one of the first covers of the tune.

Little Milton came to the stable of Chess recording artists first as an independent record label owner of Bobbin Records which was distributed by Chess subsidiary Checker Records. He later translated back as an artist for Checker where he released a number of singles including his version of “Many Rivers to Cross.”

This recording is perfect for a Thursday Repeats and Threepeats selection, as Little Milton’s version of this song was reissued as a single in 1976. The occasion was the release of All Platinum Records’ Chess Blues Master Series. Not only was this series a shot in the arm for the label, it brought back a number of Chess artists to public light in the mid 1970s.

Besides Little Milton, the series included Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lowell Fulson, J.B. Lenoir, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Jimmy Rogers. Each album had a unique cover by the same artist and they really make a nice collection. Unfortunately being a starving college student, I had to wait until the albums were cut out and I only got three of the series – one being Little Milton’s collection.

More of a soul and R&B artist rather than a strict bluesman, I found Little Milton’s inclusion in the series a refreshing alternative. I was not familiar with Milton’s recordings before this as he had limited Top 40 airplay. Only two other artists had greater success with the song than Little Milton and Jimmy Cliff: Nilsson recorded the tune in 1974 and his version peaked at #109 and Annie Lennox charted at #80 in 2008.

Although many others have recorded the “Many Rivers to Cross,” I prefer Little Milton’s soulful rendition of this classic. Incidentally neither issue of Milton's recording charted.

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