Chicago Blues: A Living History - the Inside Story...
There’s a long tradition of Blues in Chicago…but life on Earth is short. That was part of the motivation behind the birth of Chicago Blues: A Living History. How, while they’re all still alive and well and living in Chicago, could we not get these guys—five of the greatest Chicago-Blues artists today—together on stage and in the studio, where they can lay down the classics with uncanny authority and deep personal connection? How, while their tales about Sonny Boy, Wolf, Muddy and Junior are still vivid in their memories, can we not get these guys together backstage and on the tour bus to let loose and get the whole group laughing with joy?
Billy Boy Arnold. John Primer. Billy Branch. Lurrie Bell. Carlos Johnson. Between ’em, the five principal performers in this remarkable assemblage have been tangled up in the blues from the ’40s to this day. Billy Boy got his first harmonica lesson from John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson at age 12 in 1948. He, of course, went on to team with Bo Diddley (“Bo Diddley,” “I’m a Man,”…) and record solo classics like “I Wish You Would” that helped ignite the British blues boom. The Yardbirds and David Bowie introduced that tune to much of England—and prompted countless Americans to discover and embrace the music that had been right here in their own backyard for decades, immensely influencing rock and pop all along: Chicago Blues.
The real tangling in this particular blues story begins in the ’70s and ’80s, when the other four Chicago Blues: A Living History bandleaders’ lives and careers begin to intertwine. John Primer joins Muddy Waters’ band and tours with Willie Dixon—who also hires a young Billy Branch to replace Carey Bell. Carey’s son Lurrie later joins Branch in Sons of Blues and plays guitar for Koko Taylor, who also eventually drafts Carlos Johnson to play for her. Carlos also plays for Junior Wells, one of Branch’s direct mentors.
And it goes on like this…these current leading lights of Chicago blues plugged into many towering legends of the city and came away with a glow you can’t contrive, and now they are the great bandleaders of the Windy City. That kind of energy, you might say, can’t be spontaneously created. And to help keep it from getting destroyed, lost in the sands of time, producer/guitarist/longtime Chicagoan Larry Skoller conceived and produced Chicago Blues: A Living History.
Billy Boy, John, Billy, Lurrie and Carlos all were quick to acknowledge what a good idea this union was. But it wasn’t until after the tape started rolling at JoyRide Studio on Chicago’s West Side that everyone realized how good. Backed mightily by Billy Flynn, Matthew Skoller, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, Felton Crews and Johnny Iguana (all of whom have vast stage and studio experience in Chicago blues), the men at the microphones couldn’t help but conjure the spirits of Sonny Boy and Tampa Red, of Big Bill and Little Walter, of Jimmy Reed and Elmore James. Even more significantly, everyone involved got the chance to impress the others—and all who’d hear the album—with his own unique, distinctive, commanding voice.
Generations of Chicago Blues were being summoned by generations of Chicago bluesmen. For the first time on record, the men who played with the original Chicago-blues pioneers were gathered together with the artists who bridged the gap between those early icons and today’s scene, all in honor of the past, appreciation of the present and hope for the future of Chicago Blues. There’d been nothing else like this—and critics, musicians and music historians quickly hailed what they heard as the most crucial tribute of our time to Chicago Blues. Even as history was being presented, it was being made. Worldwide acclaim poured in, as did a 2010 Grammy nomination, two Blues Awards nominations and multiple international awards. Even more exciting was the band’s onstage electricity and chemistry. As dazzled crowds from the Chicago Blues Festival to the North Sea Jazz Festival can attest, no other blues group on the planet brings such a thrilling mix of pedigree and playfulness to the stage.
When it came time to follow their self-titled first release with another 2-CD set, Chicago Blues: A Living History—The (R)evolution Continues, the special-guest list threatened to overflow. Volume one had featured the angelic-voiced cousin of Magic Sam, Mike Avery; volume two would also feature Mike, plus incendiary performances by Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Magic Slim, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Zora Young. Taking us from Billy Boy’s tribute to Sonny Boy, the piano-powered boogie-woogie "She Don’t Love Me That Way" (1941), to Ronnie’s torch-carrying "Make These Blues Survive" (1998), the band once again digs into more than half a century of the Chicago-blues sound they’ve been immersed in all their lives.
The new 2-CD set comes out in France on January 28, 2011 and in the U.S. and the rest of Europe in June 2011. The Chicago Blues: A Living History tours roll on, from Chicago to Europe to the Middle East and back—because everyone in this band realizes that history is alive. Right here. Right now.
“A tremendous project…a joy to listen to.”
—Living Blues Magazine
“No stone is left unturned in bringing these musicians together.”
—All Music Guide
“An essential link between past legends and present practitioners…will make you want to sing or dance or nod your head or howl at the moon (or maybe all of those at once).”
—Blues Review magazine