Chicago Blues: A Living History is a tribute to the past, present and future of the Chicago Blues. It pays homage to its creators, its rich history, its current practitioners, and its singular place in the (r)evolution of 20th century American music. With this album, we give witness to the history of the genre in its most quintessential form as the artists performing on this recording are four of the greatest living traditionalists of this music. Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch and Lurrie Bell are the bridge between the originators of the genre and the Chicago Blues of today--each of them has a foot in a generation of Chicago Blues history right up to present day; through them the Chicago Blues remains a living tradition.
Because we cannot know whether these artists will be the last direct link in the chain of this tradition, if there will be others to carry it on, this recording is a timely and needed document. Had it not been for these four artists this unusual opportunity would not have been possible. The moment had to be seized.
This is not an anthology or a compilation of what came before. With this CD, history is being made at the same time it is being presented. It is not a retro recording, rather it is intended to be the opposite. Although the music was recorded on analog tape and close attention was paid to room sounds and mic-ing techniques that were being used during the various periods of the original recordings, it is neither a celebration of old techniques and old technologies nor an anthropologic or archival attempt to photocopy the music that came before. That would be antithetical to the tradition and the spirit in which it was originally created. Importantly, I did not want the constraints inherent in the concept of this project to undermine the fully realized styles that each of these performers possess. On the contrary, we chose the songs together, and they understood that they had the freedom to make each song their own.
This CD is in no way intended to be a complete or comprehensive history of the Chicago Blues. Because of the nature of this project and the rich history of the music, it was simply impossible to pay tribute to all the artists who had a hand in shaping the genre. This was perhaps the toughest and most frustrating aspect of producing this recording. My choice of artists to be represented here as the significant sound originators of the music was based on their overall contribution as sound innovators, and on the extent to which their contributions influenced what followed. In making the choices I did, I was forced to leave out many other important figures in the music who also left indelible marks on the sound. Nonetheless, this recording, on two discs, allows the listener to hear the evolution of the Chicago Blues sound in chronological order from the 1940s to the present as interpreted by four Chicago bluesmen that have inherited this tradition.
Another tough decision I had to make was not to include any women blues artists in this tribute. Although there were female blues artists who surely had an impact on the Chicago Blues sound in the history of the music, and who were great stylists, there were no female blues artists, given the concept of this project, who could be considered a sound innovator or originator. Just as the period of blues in the 1920s and 30s was dominated by female classic blues singers who were the innovators of that era, the innovators of the Chicago Blues from 1940 to the present have been male artists.
Disc 1 begins with John Lee Williamson's ''My Little Machine'' from 1940; the original was considered the first blues recording using drums that led to the full ensemble sound. It then traces the piano-dominated 40s through the latter part of the decade, where Muddy Waters' popularity helped to set the stage for the electric guitar to replace the piano as the dominant lead instrument. Disc 1 continues with the early 1950s evolving electric ensemble sound including Chicago's explosive electric harmonica style.
Disc 2 picks up in the classic and fertile mid-50s period as the Chicago Blues was flourishing. It continues on into the 1960s as the so-called postwar Chicago sound gave way to a more modern electric style. It continues with examples from the 1970s, 80s and 90s showing the influence the newer, more popular forms of music had on the Chicago sound. These examples show how the more contemporary forms of music that the Chicago Blues spawned have come back to influence today's artists. Perhaps more than anyone, special guest Carlos Johnson demonstrates this influence and represents the contemporary Chicago Blues artist of the new millennium. As the generations pass and the new Chicago Blues players are more and more removed from the originators and direct inheritors of the music, it will be this sort of recycling and infusing of new sounds from the here and now that will determine the path the tradition will take.
When I brought the idea of the CD to each artist, not one question was asked; they all wanted to be a part of it. This recording is a true labor of love by everyone involved. The passion, spirit and commitment these musicians have brought to Chicago Blues: A Living History are testimony to their unrelenting dedication to the music and its legacy. Past fathers, present sons and daughters will pave the way for the next generation of Chicago Blues in whatever form it takes.
Larry Skoller, Producer