An American Original, This Music Born of Heartbreak But Full of Joy Is Ultimately Simple Yet Hard to Define
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Joe Louis Walker, a Verve recording artist and guitarist of the highest order, remains positive about the future of the blues. "The blues is expanding big-time. There's a million blues bands and half a million little blues labels," Walker enthuses. "To me a blues song is just like Shakespeare, and more than the songs, it's the people that play it. You see, the blues is synonymous with credibility. That's why so many rock stars want to be associated with the blues; they want the credibility."
That is not to say the blues is the exclusive domain of blacks. This music exults in the unification of human spirit and would be diminished, indeed, if a white cat like Kim Wilson, harmonica player and vocalist leader of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, were excluded.
Wilson, who records on Windham Hill, was inspired by a bluesman he calls his second father: Muddy Waters. "I picked up the harmonica one day," Kim recalls. "And after a year, I was playing with all my heroes. People like Eddie Taylor, John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins."
Plain-spoken, Wilson says, "I chose the blues because it had everything for me. It had the balls, it had the emotion, it had the musical expertise, the great lyrics. I felt that I was born to play it." A dead-up fan of Buddy Guy's Legends, he says, "I've always regretted that I didn't catch Chicago in its heyday. That was in the '60s and I was too young."
When you raise the subject of what's happening in the blues today, you discover in Wilson the fierce traditionalist who is among the keepers of the flame. "I see a lot of people attempting to capitalize on a bygone era and a commercialization of blues, using 'B' players in museum-like and pseudo-Disneyland kind of settings where people think they are hearing the real shit and they're not," the 47-year-old declares. "I put myself in a spot where I could play with all my heroes and, consequently, I'm deep on their side," Kim stresses. "All these kids want to do is play rock music and ride a tour bus. Now, I sound like an old fart, but I can see Muddy Waters saying the same thing 25 years ago. The problem is there's this pseudo-blues thing going on that has nothing to do with the blues. They think they're playing the blues, but they're not. You got to live it!"
A devotee of the late Chicago vocalist-guitarist Jimmy Rodgers, for whom he was a pall-bearer last fall, Wilson laments the changing of the guard. "All the 'A'-team guys, the guys that originated the Chicago style, are either gone or too old to play, except for a very few. "
Three men who have successfully walked the fine line on which love of the blues and business acumen coexist are Isaac Tigrett, Bruce Iglauer and Barry Dolins.
Isaac Tigrett, the 48-year-old founder of the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues, is a Southern Baptist turned Hindu, who was born in Chicago but raised in Jackson, Tennessee. "They're down there prayin' for me in Jackson right now," says Tigrett. "I come from a long line of Southern Baptist ministers, preachers and lawyers who think I'll burn in hell for the rest of eternity. I didn't live beneath the bible belt, I lived underneath the buckle. That's where I come from."
Suffocating at 16, he split. "Why do you think I got outta town? The place was driving me crazy," he says. Tigrett went to London to live with his father, where, he says, he "got plugged into the raging, wonderful London of the Sixties. All of a sudden there was a revolution going on and I became a Hendrix fanatic and followed him all over the place."
In 1971, Tigrett, 22 at the time, and partner Peter Morton opened the first of the now ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafes, in London's Hyde Park section. Named for the era's electronic music, it honors heroes of Tigrett, like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.
In 1992, Tigrett started the House of Blues in a small building in Cambridge's Harvard Square, just outside of Boston. With sister clubs in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Orlando, Florida, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and a new club set to open in March in Las Vegas, this highest of concept music venues has survived. Isaac says, "I knew I wanted to get into the live music business and I knew I wanted to elevate [public] consciousness of the great men and women of the blues who are not mainstream or known for their contributions. "
Located in Marina City, the Chicago House of Blues, with its 12 private boxes in a 2,000-seat concert hall, 300-seat restaurant, and hundreds of pieces of American folk art, has to be the grandest megastore-blues club. "That's my juke joint opera house for the blues," Tigrett says. "It was very exciting to build because blues is the original American opera. Chicago is probably the greatest living home of the blues."
More than 5,000 pieces of art are spread among all of the House of Blues venues. The collection, considered to be one of the largest of its kind, is described by Tigrett as "visual blues." "I primarily collect portraits of African-American artists from Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana. Most of these gentlemen are a dying breed; these people don't have galleries or agents," Tigrett notes. "They create because God put that gene in them that says, 'Express yourself.'"
Tigrett is not overly worried about the future of the art, however. "Every kid who is plays the guitar today anywhere in the world, or is learning the guitar, is playing 12-bar blues," Tigrett says. "That's how you learn to play the guitar. So the musicians pay great homage to the blues and its influence on [other] music."
Bruce Iglauer, the 51-year-old president and chief executive officer of Chicago's Alligator Records, has his own passionate perspective on the blues. Iglauer left his mailroom gig in 1971 to start Alligator, which has become the industry's largest independent blues label, with 10 to 12 albums released a year and a catalogue of more than 160 albums.
A self-described "naive white kid from the suburbs," Bruce says, "I grew up in Michigan, in Cincinnati and Wisconsin but I came to Chicago specifically for the blues. I had just graduated from college, I was 22. I never thought I was going to come here to stay forever. I got hooked very fast but I never thought this would be my whole life."
Iglauer started Alligator because "I was a fan then, I'm a fan now. I've gotten to know record artists who I've loved, admired, and whose music I am moved by. It's a hugely emotionally rewarding business."
Not a die-hard purist, Iglauer nevertheless bristles with annoyance at the superficial exploitation of blues, epitomized by its use as background music for product advertising. "Like jazz, it has been able to be adapted into the music and the popular culture vocabulary. At least the outside of it has," the record producer says. "It's frustrating to me how many television commercials I see now that use that little riff that people associate with a Muddy Waters record as shorthand for 'we're going to get gritty; we're going to get serious; we're going to get down with our own bad selves.' It's like holding up a sheepskin and saying, 'Here's a sheep.' It's very much the outside of what's going on."
Iglauer laments the way the music has been adulterated for popular consumption: "Blues has more and more been perceived as a simple structure on which you can do classy guitar solos. Blues, as a music, is first a music of rhythm and words, of tension and release. The great blues artists have not been great because they could whip out a terrific solo. In fact, many of the most popular blues records have no solos at all. It's singing from beginning to end. And it's always been about storytelling and the ability to create a catharsis in the listener."
Like Iglauer, Barry Dolins helps bring blues to the masses. He is the founder of the internationally renowned Chicago Blues Festival, an annual four-day panorama of blues styles and talent that runs the gamut from the famous to the unknown. Last year, performers on five stages drew a total audience of more than 700,000, making the extravaganza the largest blues event in the United States.
Dolins was an instructor at Chicago's Loyola University when he wrote a grant proposal for a series of six blues minifestivals, in 1984, during the administration of Harold Washington. The third festival, an outdoor event, turned out to be the precursor of the current blues spectacular. "I've been here ever since," the 49-year-old Dolins says.
Over the years, Dolins has presented such artists as Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Addressing the ongoing popularity of the blues, Barry says, "The late Mama Yancy told me 25 years ago that the blues is people letting their hair down and having a good time. That translates across all race, creeds and colors."
Dolins, deputy director of the mayor's Office of Special Events, points out that Chicago's heritage of recording has helped make the city the blues mecca. "This is the independent-record-label capital of the world, going all the way back to the 1920s up through the postwar era with companies like VeeJay and Chess."
"Even today," Dolins adds, "Alligator, Earwig and Blind Pig are centered here in Chicago. So, with the record companies and clubs located here, this is where the performers came to live." With more than two dozen blues clubs in Chicago, "there's a blues festival in Chicago every night of the year," he says.
But as the ranks of old bluesmen diminish, who will come up to keep that eternal festival alive? A new generation of artists is providing the energy that will generate the momentum necessary to sustain the music in the new century. Three such hot commodities are Keb' Mo', the 1996 Grammy winner, who records for Sony #550 Music/Okeh; Paul Delay, who records for Evidence Records; and Deborah Coleman, who records for Blind Pig Records.
Such talent needs fertile soil in which to blossom, which is why the endurance of the blues also depends on people like Lee Gray from Fort Adams, Mississippi ,who moved to Chicago in 1967 and, with her husband, opened Lee's Unleaded Blues Cocktail Lounge on the South Side. Lee started her club because, she says, "I enjoy entertaining. Lee's Unleaded gives a lot of local entertainers a chance to perform. It gives people a chance to come and sing, like Pat Scott, Little Al and 'Leroy Jones, The Junk Yard Dog.' "
It's clear that this magical, ethereal art form depends on so many talents and tender mercies for its survival, but the question remains: what is the blues? Well, one thing is for sure: the blues does not discriminate. There is magic and something authentic that reaches out and touches each and every one of us. As the late and great musician-philosopher Dexter Gordon once said to me, with emphasis, clarity, patience and finality, in answer to my myriad of musical questions, as we sat alone in the back of a nearly empty jet on a flight from Paris to Palma, Spain: "It's all the blues, T."
T. Brooks Shepard, a music producer and freelance writer, profiled Dizzy Gillespie in the May/June 1997 issue of Cigar Aficionado.