Friday, August 30, 2013

The Continuing Evolution of the Blues

Since I've been listening to the blues, I've noticed that some people like their blues in a very small compartment.  A lot of listeners like old style, with not a trace of modern influences at all....things like rock guitar, or funky backbeat, or electronic drums, or rap.  I'm sure that back in the 60's, when Earl Hooker threw in the wah wah pedal on one of his solos, several blues lovers stuck a clothes pin on their nose, cotton in their ears, and looked the other way.  Ditto with somebody like Chris Thomas King mixing hip-hop beats and rap into his brand of blues, or when Fat Possum Records started pairing R.L. Burnside with alternative rockers on his albums.

Okay....let me stop here and say on the record that there's a distinct possibility that I might have been one of those clothes pin wearers in the past.  Yes, at one time, I was a blues snob of the highest order.....turned my nose up at nearly everyone who I felt hadn't "paid their dues."  Oh sure, some people could try to play the blues, but they were only "interpreting" the blues.....imitating a real blues man.  Sigh.....youth is wasted on the young.  As a result, I missed out on a lot of great music that, fortunately, I have been able to go back and catch up with.  To this day, I'm still not sure why I fell into that trap, other than youthful ignorance.  After all, I had been drawn to these "authentic" blues artists by listening to the music of the artists that I no longer had any use for.

What brought me out of my snobbery?  I think I came out of my blues cocoon when I started writing reviews for Blues Bytes.  I was exposed to as many variations of the blues as imaginable, and guess what?  They were all worth listening to.  I finally realized that some people had a different vision of the blues from me, their own personal spin on what the blues were.  Their versions often mixed other genres into the music, not just rock or jazz or soul, but country or folk, African or Asian or European, and they made some mighty fine music.

It finally occurred to me a few years ago that for the blues to continue to be a vital music that people will continue to listen to and enjoy, musicians will have to take chances and make modifications to the sounds, words, and instrumentation....mixing in new touches with the traditional music, but in the process, making it appealing for the older fans and the newer fans. 

Somewhere and somehow, during this process, a wonderful thing fans (like yours truly some twenty-five years ago) go back and discover the artists who influenced their favorites....sometimes back to the 20's or 30's, and older fans discover some interesting new music that puts a hop in their step just when they think they've heard everything there is to hear with the blues.  Trust me, it happens.  It has happened to me at both ends of the spectrum.  

It was blues/rocker Dennis Jones who prompted me to write about this topic this week.  If you're not familiar with Jones (we've discussed him a couple of times over the years), you are missing out on one of the most original blues men currently in action.  He's influenced by Muddy and the Wolf, for sure, but he's also absorbed plenty of Luther Allison, SRV, and Jimi Hendrix, too, and he combines that with some excellent modern-themed songwriting.  This is the kind of music that I loved at first, fell away from when I became a "serious" listener,  but then returned to eventually with a greater appreciation.  On Wednesday of this week, he posted this on his Facebook page:

I've been holding back for years trying not to write this but I've had enough. Some people in this wonderful blues community think they own it. If it's not traditional it's not the blues. Well you don't own it, most of you don't want anything to change. You probably romanticize about the good old days and the music you heard then. When I first heard Muddy Waters' Electric Mud Album I wore it out. When I heard Jimmy Page playing Since I've Been Loving You and Johnny Winter playing Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo, Hendrix playing Red House I knew the blues was endless. I read all the Blues Nazi Blogs. There's no such thing as Blues Rock. Yes there is. So sick of hearing people changing the lyrics to The Thrill Is Gone and being hailed as a songwriter. When Muddy came up from the south and had Little Walter playing that mean ass brilliant harmonica over his songs. That was not tradition. I could go on with this but I think you get my point. Ever since Marshall's and the Les Paul guitar there has been Blues Rock, nothing you can do to change it. (........) I'm not trying to be the best, just trying to be me. Long live the blues. DJ

You know, I could have just posted Jones' remarks here, and left the rest of my drivel completely off.  He says it all right there.  The blues has NEVER stood still.  Somebody has ALWAYS been making modifications to the original product, whether it was an electric guitar, a harmonica, an accordion, a funky bass line, a Farfisa organ, or a fife and drum.  This has always gone on.  Like Dennis Jones says, "...the blues was endless."  It was here before us, it will be here after we're gone in some variation or another, for sure.

The other good thing about the blues is that even though the music continues to move forward, there's still plenty of respect and reverence for the artists that came before....that inspired today's blues men.  Sure, you get that in other genres, but in the blues, many of the pioneers are still making new recordings that ALL blues fans want to get their hands on.  There's still that respect for the tradition, because not only is the blues endless, it's also timeless.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ten Essential Discs - Greatest Hits Electric Blues Edition

This week, Friday Blues Fix begins the first of a series called Ten Essential Discs.  Periodically, we will take a look at ten albums that should be in every new blues fans' collection.  There are a few guidelines that we will follow in order to avoid complicating this and future lists too much.

1)  Single disc sets only.....after all, if you're a new blues fan, there's a chance that a) you just want a sample of each artists at first, to avoid being overwhelmed, and b) you may not have the funds available for those massive double disc, triple-disc, humongous box set collections.

2)  Each artist appears only one time per broaden the blues palate, so to speak.  We may eventually get to the point where we list ten essential discs from one particular artist in the future, but we ain't there right now.

Okay....two guidelines.....simple enough, right?  Here we go with Ten Essential "Greatest Hits" Electric Blues discs that should be in every blues fans collection.  Today's list will be devoted solely to individual artists.  Keep in mind that this is one man's opinion of Ten Essentials.  Your mileage may vary and if it does, I'd love to see what your Ten Essentials are.

B.B. King - Greatest Hits (MCA):  There are tons of B.B. King collections in print right now, but nearly all of them are multiple-disc sets, and are all worthwhile.  This set, released fifteen years ago, in August of 1998, gives a pretty well-rounded look at the King of the Blues' career from the early/mid 60's onward, basically from the Live at the Regal set (hopefully, a future FBF subject), to the mid 90's, culminating in his duet with Bono of U2.  Most of the songs here will be familiar to even neophytes ("The Thrill Is Gone," "Sweet Little Angel," "When Love Comes To Town," "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss"), but this is just the tip of the iceberg for B.B. King's career....there is so much more that is NOT here, such as his wonderful recordings from the 50's and even his later recordings from '97 on, where he shrugged off all the crossover ideas and just decided to focus on the low-down, dirty blues again.  However, if I were starting out my collection as a new blues fan, this would be my first stop for B.B. King.....a single disc that basically lets you know what all the fuss is about.

Muddy Waters - His Best:  1947 to 1955 (MCA/Chess):  If I had to pick only one Muddy Waters CD to own (a decision I will never have to make, thank goodness), it would be this one.  This set features twenty of his best tracks, spanning his first eight years with Chess.  The quality and talent of the artists featured here with Waters is just staggering....Otis Spann, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Dixon, Fred Below....a regular Hall of Fame of the Blues in itself.  Nearly all of Waters' most famous songs are here...."I Can't Be Satisfied," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Rollin' Stone," "Baby Please Don't Go," "Hoochie Coochie Man" (though in an alternate version), "I'm Ready," "Mannish Boy," and "Trouble No More," to name just a few.  You can't go wrong with this disc.

Elmore James - The Sky Is Crying:  The History of Elmore James (Rhino):  It's not hard to find collections of Elmore James' music, but this set from Rhino, released in 1993, is the place to start because it features songs from nearly every label James recorded for, and it also presents a pretty diverse range of his guitar work.  Though he will always be identified by his signature slide guitar riff from "Dust My Broom," there was so much more to his style, as can be heard on songs like "Sunnyland," "Hawaiian Boogie," "It Hurts Me Too," and the title track, simply one of the greatest slow blues tracks ever.  As you listen to this disc, you will be amazed at how many of these songs you've heard other blues artists cover, but for the most part, Elmore James' versions outshine them all.

Luther Allison - Where Have You Been?  Live in Montreux 1976 - 1994 (Ruf):  Every blues fan needs some Luther Allison in their collection, and the best way to hear and truly appreciate Allson's talents would be to hear him perform live.  This set, which was actually released by Ruf before Allison's death in 1997, captures a dozen of his finest performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival.  Allison does mostly covers on this collection, and many of them are familiar tunes, but he puts so much into the performances, both on guitar and vocally, that he seems to make then his own.  The disc is nearly eighty minutes of Allison in his element, playing his music for his adoring fans.  You can't get much better than that.  Man, do I miss him.

Freddy King - Hideaway:  The Best of Freddy King (Rhino):  There are several great Freddy King collections out there, but this one puts the primary focus on his outstanding work for King Records in the 60's.  While King did do some standout work for Leon Russell's Shelter Records in the early 70's (and a couple of tracks are included), this is where every new Freddy King fan should get started.  There's a fairly equal mix of instrumental tunes (like the title track, "Remington Ride," "San Ho Zay" and "The Stumble") and vocal classics, too (like "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," "I'm Tore Down," "Going Down," and "You Got To Love Her With Feeling").  Freddy King often gets lost in the shuffle among great blues guitarists, but this disc gives blues fans a great sampler of just what he was capable of doing.

Albert King - King of the Blues Guitar (Atlantic):  This was a tough choice, because King recorded some excellent tunes for several labels over his lifetime, before and after his tenure with Stax Records.  However, this set contains the entire track list of his finest record ever, Born Under A Bad Sign, plus a few other Stax singles never available on an album before.  It's mighty hard to go wrong with that sort of musical content.  You will want to hear more of King after you hear this set, but this is definitely the place to start.  This single disc captures the essence of Albert King better than any other.

John Lee Hooker - The Definitive Collection (Hip-O):  How in the world do you track down a single disc collection of Hooker's greatest sides???  He recorded hundreds of songs, maybe thousands, for just an infinite list of record labels over the years.  Hip-O's effort from 2006 comes about as close as possible, with recordings from Modern that he did in the 40's, going through his Vee Jay and Chess recordings of the 50's, his tracks for ABC-Bluesway and Impulse, all the way to his session with Canned Heat and his later tracks from his late 80's "comeback" that featured Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt.  It's really hard to pin everything that Hooker did on one disc (like most of the artists listed here), because he was so prolific for so long, but this set comes pretty close.

Little Walter - His Best (MCA/Chess):  Quite simply, Little Walter is the place for blues fans to start their harmonica blues collection.  He redefined the role of the harmonica in the blues, making it a lead instrument in the tradition of a saxophone.  Some of his instrumentals from the early 50's are still inspiring harmonica players today.  Seriously, it's impossible to find a modern harmonica player today that wasn't influenced by Little Walter.  It didn't hurt one bit that he was as good a singer as most of the R&B singers of his era.  Unfortunately, bad habits and a hot temper helped cut his career short, but it's amazing to imagine just how much more he would have redefined the harmonica had he remained on top of his game like he is on these recordings.  This set collects all of his essential recordings and should be a part of any blues lover's collection.

Buddy Guy - Buddy's Blues (MCA/Chess):  Here's the dilemma when trying to find a single disc of Buddy Guy's finest moments spanning his career.......there's no such thing.  The best effort was from Rhino in the early 90's, but it doesn't cover his work from the last 20 years.  Most of his recordings for earlier labels are spotty....a mix of the outstanding, the pretty good, and the forgettable, so single label compilations are a mixed bag.  Even the Chess recordings are sort of inconsistent, because at times they tried to package him as a hit-maker during part of the 60's, with varying degrees of success.  However, most of his best work is from the Chess label, and this set captures his finest moment with the label.  Now, realize that most of this is prior to the Hendrixian sound fuzz and feedback transition that he is so noted for today, but this is my Top Ten and this is the Buddy Guy that I'm partial to.  As stated above......your mileage may vary.

T-Bone Walker - The Very Best of T-Bone Walker (Rhino):  Again, there's not been a collection that captures every era of Walker's career, but this 2000 collection picks the highlights from 1945-1957, easily the most creative portion of his recording career.  More than anyone else on this list, Walker's blues were colored heavily by jazz and, again like most others on this list, he's certainly inspired his share of later guitarist in multiple genres.....blues, jazz, rock, and even the occasional country guitarist as well.

There you have it.....Ten Essential "Greatest Hits" collections from ten electric blues giants.  For newcomers, it's a great jumping-off point.  For experienced listeners, it's a great way to get most of your favorite artists' best songs on a single disc.  We will revisit this topic at a later date, so in the meantime, go, seek out, and purchase these collections if you don't have them already.  You can thank me later.

Friday, August 16, 2013

My Favorite Things - The New Bluebloods (Part 2)

Picking up where we left off with last week's post, we will look at what was Side Two of The New Bluebloods, looking at each song and the performers then and now.  On compilations of this type, which aim to showcase "the next big thing" in their respective musical genres, it's always interesting to see how accurate things turned out to be.....who actually did hit it big and who didn't for whatever reasons.  Last week saw a couple of groups who have done pretty well for themselves (The Kinsey Report and the Sons of Blues/Chi-Town Hustlers), one who has struggled (Dion Payton), and a couple whose careers were cut short due to tragedy (Valerie Wellington and Professor Eddie Lusk).

First up today is John Watkins.  I have to say right now that Watkins' selection, "Chained To Your Love," was my favorite song on the album.  I really liked his soulful vocal on this slow burner and his guitar work was just perfect.  Of course, it doesn't hurt a bit that he's backed by Jimmy Johnson, his uncle.  At the time, Watkins was a member of Johnson's band, so the rest of the backing band is Johnson's as well and they provide great support.

Watkins released his own recording in the early 80's for the French Blue Phoenix label (Here I Am) and I heard some of the selections on a Johnson disc from around the same time.  That was all the music that I heard from him, but it was enough to make you want to hear more.  Besides working with his uncle, Watkins also worked James Cotton with Willie Dixon off and on until Dixon's death in the early 90's.  Soon after, Watkins dropped off the Chicago scene and relocated to Detroit and still performs from time to time.  I recently located him on Facebook and he reported that he is doing fine and that he does have some music up on YouTube, so check him out there.

Michael Coleman was 30 when The New Bluebloods was released, but the guitarist was backing singer Johnny Christian at 11 and later backed James Cotton for seven years.  He also played guitar on Syl Johnson's hit, "Ms. Fine Brown Frame," in 1982.  His track, the somewhat controversial "Woman Loves A Woman," was a remake of a song he had produced for singer Jerry Tyrone.

Coleman enjoyed a measure of success in the 90's and early part of the 2000's, recording two albums for Delmark and several for European labels including Wolf and Black and Blue Records, but he began having some health problems....diabetes related to his excessive weight.  He lost 150 pounds and restarted his career.  He's also battled kidney failure and requires dialysis.  Recently, Coleman underwent heart surgery, but has recovered sufficiently to start back performing in the Chicago area.  You can't keep a good blues man down.

Maurice John Vaughn started playing in Chicago as a teenager in the  late 60's with several R&B bands, playing saxophone.  He also played guitar and keyboards, plus he was an excellent singer.  Phil Guy took notice in the late 70's and recruited him for his band, and he later recorded with Phil and his brother Buddy for JSP in the UK.  Vaughn also played behind Son Seals, Luther Allison, Valerie Wellington, Junior Wells, and A.C. Reed, with whom he recorded I Got Money for Blue Phoenix in the mid 80's.

Prior to recording "Nothin' Left To Believe In" for The New Bluebloods, Vaughn released the innovative Generic Blues Album on his own label, Reecy.  The album covered was done in the design used in the 80's for generic products sold in stores and Vaughn sold it from the bandstand almost exclusively until Alligator reissued it a few years later.  Vaughn later recorded a follow-up for the label, and then a disc for Blue Suit Records in 2001.  He also worked A&R and as a producer for Appaloosa Records in the 90's and also played behind Detroit Junior for most of the decade.  He is still active in the Chicago area, fronting his own band these days.

Guitarist Melvin Taylor was born in Jackson, MS, but moved with his family to Chicago when he was three.  He strapped on his first guitar at age six, learning to play from his uncle, so you could probably say that he was a prodigy.  He learned to play guitar listening to records by B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and Albert King.  Over time, he was also influenced by jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery and George Benson, and soon was acknowledged as one of the most technically proficient guitarists in the blues.

Taylor had actually released two albums before The New Bluebloods, both on the French label Isabel (these discs and most of the other French releases mentioned are now available stateside, courtesy of Evidence Records).  His contribution was "Depression Blues," on which he gives quite a guitar clinic.  Taylor has enjoyed a fairly successful recording career, releasing four subsequent albums on Evidence to go with his two early 80's reissues.  After an eight year absence from the studio, he has released two albums, including a double CD set, on the Eleven East label.  He also continues to be in demand as a live performer.

The last artists featured on The New Bluebloods turned out to be the most successful.  Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials stopped by the studio, intending to record one track for the anthology, but ended up recorded over 30 songs that night and have been with the label ever since, racking up eight big recordings over the past 26 years.  Ed Williams and his band were one of the most popular bands in the Windy City during the mid 80's.  Williams was a nephew of slide guitar master J. B. Hutto and sounded a lot like him on guitar and vocals, but he also owed a lot to the styles of Elmore James (what slide guitarist doesn't) and Hound Dog Taylor.  Lil' Ed and band combined for a raw and raucous style with Williams sliding around and sometimes riding on people's shoulders while playing.

Their track was a great one to close the disc, "Young Thing," an energetic exuberant good-time tune that makes you happy even though it didn't work out for Lil' Ed and his lady.  Ten of the tracks recorded on that night ended up comprising their Alligator debut, Roughhousin', and as mentioned, the band has gone on to release seven more albums of their wild and crazy music.  Their sound doesn't vary from disc to disc that much, but much like the late Magic Slim, you can start listening to Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials in the middle and work your way out both ways.

So there you have it....a summary of one of the better Chicago Blues anthology sets in the past 25 years.  Like most new talent releases, you have some that met with success, some that struggled or faded from the scene, some whose lives were tragically cut short, and some that have showed resilience and fought their way back after overcoming adversity....not too different from life itself when you think about it.  If you're a blues fan, you're probably familiar with some of these artists, but you owe it to yourself to go back and pick up on the ones that you might have missed.  They're all well worth hearing.

Friday, August 9, 2013

My Favorite Things - The New Bluebloods (Part 1)

For a budding blues fan in the mid 1980's, Alligator Records was an absolutely indispensable source for good music....certainly to this budding blues fan.  The first blues recording I ever owned was from Alligator (Showdown!), and the label's Genuine Houserockin' Music series of budget samplers constantly opened my ears to new, at least for me, blues artists (Lonnie Mack, Lonnie Brooks, Hound Dog Taylor, Fenton Robinson, Son Seals, etc....) to check out.

For newer blues fans, it may be hard to believe that in the 80's, there were very few blues labels out least there were very few that had any sort of presence in mainstream record stores.  By the time, I came on board, Alligator had pretty decent distribution in most of the stores that I frequented, which were of the mall record store variety for the most part.

The mall was where I ended up finding another great Alligator release in the summer of 1987.  The New Bluebloods was subtitled "The Next Generation of Chicago Blues."  Up until this point, the only really young blues artist I had heard was Robert Cray, so the prospect of other younger blues artists sort of excited me.  I looked at the back cover of the album and, nope, didn't know a single one of these artists.  Nevertheless, I decided to buy it and see what it was about.  It turned out to be a great decision, as we will hear over the next couple of weeks.

The first track was from a band called the Kinsey Report.  Based in Gary, Indiana at the time, the band was fronted by guitarist/singer Donald Kinsey, who started out backing Albert King as a teenager, before leaving the blues to first form a hard rock band (White Lightnin') in the mid 70's.  He eventually was drawn to reggae music, backing Bob Marley in the late 70's and Peter Tosh in the 80's, laying down a great guitar solo on Tosh's funky version of "Johnny B. Goode."  In the mid 80's, Kinsey returned to the blues, where he joined guitarist Ron Prince and two other Kinsey brothers, drummer Kenneth and bass player Ralph, backing their father, respected bluesman Big Daddy Kinsey, appearing with him on the Rooster Blues release, Bad Situation, in 1984.

The Kinsey Report
Donald Kinsey's serpentine guitar work is the highlight of the band's contribution to the set, "Corner of the Blanket," and the band was so well-received that Alligator soon signed them to the label, where they recorded two albums in the late 80's, and returned for a later release in the late 90's after a short stint with Pointblank Records.  Kinsey and his brothers still perform today, though Prince went off on his own in the early 90's, joining James Cotton's band, and later forming his own band, Hard Time.

Next up was Valerie Wellington, a powerhouse singer who moved from opera to the blues in her early 20's.  She recorded a fine disc for Rooster Blues in 1984 (Million Dollar $ecret).  Wellington also worked as an actress, playing blues singers Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey in various stage productions.  In fact, many TV watchers might have seen Wellington on a WGN commercial promoting the Windy City in the mid/late 80's.  She also played Big Maybelle in the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic, Great Balls of Fire, in 1989, performing "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

Valerie Wellington
For this release, Wellington performed the old Ray Charles song from his Atlantic days, "A Fool For You."  This was really a good song for Wellington to wrap her robust vocals around.  She really knocks it out of the park, bringing to mind those great female blues singers back in the 30's and 40's with her roaring performance.  Wellington continued to perform in the states and abroad, but sadly, she died suddenly at age 33 after suffering a cerebral aneurysm, her powerful voice stilled much too early.

Dion Payton
Singer/guitarist Dion Payton was born in Greenville, MS in 1950, but got his start recording with a few gospel groups on Chess Records and later touring with Albert King, Millie Jackson, and O.V. Wright.  When he backed Lonnie Brooks on Brooks' Alligator album, Hot Shot, the label noticed him and lined him up for this album.  He recorded this track, "All Your Affection Is Gone," with his band, the 43rd Street Blues Band, which included Joanna Connor on guitar.

To date, that's the only recording currently available that Payton has done as a solo artist.  He's battled some personal problems over the years and was supposed to record for Pointblank Records in the 90's, but that didn't work out, which is a shame because he's a great guitarist and singer.  "All Your Affection Is Gone" was covered by Michael Burks on his I Smell Smoke CD and by Carl Weathersby on Weathersby's debut release, Don't Lay Your Blues On Me.  Payton still performs occasionally at Kingston Mines in Chicago, but is one of those blues artists who deserves to be heard more than he is.  Hopefully, he can get it together enough to make another run.  It would be a nice story if it were to happen.

The Sons of Blues/Chi-Town Hustlers
The Sons of Blues & Chi-Town Hustlers were both well-established Chicago bands in the early 80's when Hustlers founder J.W. Williams and S.O.B.'s harp man Billy Branch decided to join forces and renamed themselves The Sons of Blues/Chi-Town Hustlers.  The consolidated band released an album in 1984 called Romancing the Blues Stone on Red Beans Records and then appeared on The New Bluebloods, with the smoldering track, "The Only Thing That Saved Me."

The group included Williams, who sang and played bass, Branch on harmonica, Carl Weathersby on guitar, and Moses Rutues, Jr. on drums.  All are still active on the Chicago scene today, still performing in various incarnations of each band from time to time.

Gloria Hardiman & Prof. Eddie Lusk
Last up this week is a track from the Professor's Blues Review Featuring Gloria Hardiman, which featured "Professor" Eddie Lusk, whose churchy keyboards were the band's signature sound, and former gospel belter Hardiman, who had previously performed with Andrae Crouch and James Cleveland.  Lusk was an in-demand session player who appeared on recordings by Jimmy Johnson, Phil Guy, Koko Taylor, Syl Johnson, and Sunnyland Slim, and was also a big part of the Chicago gospel scene.  Their selection was Jeannie Cheatham's "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On."

The group was pretty popular, touring throughout the states pretty regularly.  Lusk eventually recorded a complete album for Delmark in 1989 (one of the label's first "new" recordings), with Karen Carroll replacing Hardiman.  Unfortunately, Lusk was diagnosed with colon cancer, brought on by AIDS, and committed suicide by jumping into the Chicago River in August of 1992.  Hardiman left Chicago, moving to Iowa, but is still active.

More on The New Bluebloods next week, when we look at the performers on Side Two.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Mercurial Son - The Music of Lurrie Bell

Back in the late 70's, Lurrie Bell was on the fast track to becoming the next big thing in the blues.  The young guitarist had already spent several years backing several Chicago blues legends, formed his own band, which even earned a coveted spot on one of the decade's finest anthology series.  Within ten years, however, he was beset by personal issues, setting his performing and recording career back over a decade, and nearly costing him his life in the process.  Lurrie Bell's story is one of high hopes, deep frustrations, and staggering setbacks, but also one of strong faith, determination, perseverance, and, hopefully, success.

Lurrie Bell was born on December 13, 1958, in Chicago.  His father was Windy City harmonica legend Carey Bell.  Bell taught himself to play at age five, teaching himself the Jimmy Reed "lump-d-lump."  When he was seven, Bell left Chicago to live with his grandparents in Mississippi and Alabama, where he played guitar in church and absorbed the tradition in gospel music, both instrumentally and vocally.

In his teens, he movedback in Chicago, playing with Eddy Clearwater, Big Walter Horton, and one of his guitar heroes, Eddie Taylor.  He was also in Willie Dixon's band.  By the mid 70's, he had started a four-year gig as part of Koko Taylor's Blues Machine.  He even recorded in his late teens, appearing on his dad's Heartaches and Pain and Eddie C. Campbell's classic King of the Jungle.

The Sons of Blues Band (L to R), Lurrie Bell, Freddie Dixon, Billy Branch
Also during this time, he was a founding member of the Sons of Blues Band with Billy Branch and Freddie Dixon (Willie's son).  The band recorded three tracks on the wonderful Alligator anthology series, Living Chicago Blues.  In addition, Bell also played with his father, recording Son of a Gun for Rooster Blues Records with him and also a pair of albums for JSP Records in the UK.  By the mid 80's, young Lurrie had proven himself to be a talented guitarist, passionate vocalist, and was capable of playing multiple blues styles with ease.

It was around this time that the wheels began falling off for Lurrie Bell, as he began a long battle with depression and drug and alcohol abuse, even ending up homeless for a time.  Naturally his recording output and his performing career suffered mightily during this time, since he was unable to perform on a regular basis.  He was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.

By the mid 90's, he began to resurface, cutting four wonderful discs for Delmark Records in a five year span between 1995 and 1999.  The best of these was his first for Delmark, the incredibly intense and diverse Mercurial Son, which mixes the blues with rock & roll and R&B.  Bell played and sang as if he had something to prove, and maybe he did.  Mercurial Son stands as one of the best blues albums of the late 90's and proved that Bell was back.

Playing a major factor in Bell's return to form was photographer Susan Greenberg, who Bell met while she worked as a waitress at Rosa's Lounge.  Greenberg helped him get his life back together, making sure he saw the right doctors and took his medication.  They eventually became life partners, first having twin babies who died from premature birth in 2002, then having a daughter, Aria, in 2005.

Bell continued to perform and record, including a CD for Alligator and a CD/DVD for Delmark with his father, who had been battling health problems for some time.  Just before their daughter's first birthday, Greenberg was diagnosed with lymphoma, which later proved to be terminal.  Greenberg died in January, 2007, after a valiant struggle.  Five months later, Carey Bell passed away at age 70.

Over a five year period, Lurrie Bell had lost two children, his wife and his father.  The old Lurrie Bell might have folded like a stack of cards after all these tragedies, but the new Lurrie Bell threw himself into his music.  His next release was on his own record label, Aria B.G, in 2007.  Let's Talk About Love found Bell in excellent form, sounding fantastic in a varied set of blues, mostly cover tunes, but all revitalized by Bell's fiery guitar work and incredibly soulful vocals.

Lurrie Bell with Billy Branch
In 2009, Bell teamed with Branch, John Primer, and Billy Boy Arnold for the Chicago Blues:  A Living History set, where the three of them recreated classic blues tunes dating back to the 40's from the Windy City.  Bell also appeared on the 2011 sequel, with Arnold, Primer, Branch, Lonnie Brooks, Magic Slim, and Buddy Guy.

In 2012, his second release on Aria B.G., The Devil Ain't Got No Music, was released.  This acoustic set mixed traditional blues with the gospel music that Bell grew up playing in Mississippi and Alabama churches, and Bell filled it with an almost tangible intensity, backed by guest stars like Joe Louis Walker, Branch, Mike Avery, and Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith.  A marvelous release, it received the French Prix du Blues Award for Best Blues Recording of 2012.

2013 finds Bell reunited with Delmark Records, where he just released Blues In My Soul, an outstanding set of Chicago blues covers with several dynamite Bell originals mixed in for good measure.  Produced by Dick Shurman and featuring Bell's working band, it ranks with Bell's best work, and is required listening for fans of old school Chicago blues.

It isn't very often that a blues artist, or really anybody else, is able to overcome personal obstacles of the magnitude that Lurrie Bell has battled for most of his life, but he has persevered through strong faith and determination and has begun to receive some of that acclaim that was predicted for him back when he was a teen prodigy.

Here's a couple of other recommended releases from Lurrie Bell.  By all means, don't limit yourself to the ones mentioned here.  Everything he's released is worth having.

Young Man's Blues - The Best of The JSP Sessions 1989-90 (JSP):  This was a turbulent period in Bell's life, but these are some inspired performances, some of which feature his brothers (Steve, Tyson, and James) in support.

Blues Had A Baby (Delmark):  All of Bell's Delmark releases are worth a listen, but this one really stands out to me.  An amazing set of covers that were culled from three different sessions, Bell is in really great form on this disc with some powerfully intense vocals and guitar work.