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.

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