Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The blues take hold over time

This statue on Beale Street in Memphis,
depicts W. C. Handy, known as the
father of the blues.


Although I love the blues today, it didn't happen overnight.

As a teenager in the 1960s I was all about rock music. I wanted to hear Jimi Hendrix, the Animals and the Byrds. I liked Creedence Clearwater Revival, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and Bob Seger. I couldn't wait for the next hit from the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Who.

Yes, I heard the occasional single from the great bluesman Jimmy Reed, like "Big Boss Man" and "Bright Lights Big City." B. B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone," made people take notice of the blues in 1970.

With the new decade, I wanted to discover the roots of rock 'n' roll.

To start, I bought a Howlin' Wolf album with a stark black and white cover. In large letters, the jacket said: "This is Howlin' Wolf's new album. He doesn't like it. He didn't like his electric guitar at first either."

For a picture of the Wolf, born Chester Burnett, you had to look at the flip side. That's where the song titles were listed, such as "Spoonful," "Smokestack Lightnin'," "Red Rooster" and so many others. Every track was a classic.

Chess Records in Chicago issued a series of double LPs called "Blues Masters," featuring rare and previously unreleased tracks from their extensive archives. I purchased a set by Sonny Boy Williamson and another by McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters.

I discovered that the Rolling Stones took their name from a song Waters recorded in 1950. "Rollin' Stone" is three minutes and five seconds of pure blues. Other gems on the record were "Hoochie Coochie Man," "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and "Got My Mojo Working ."

I became aware that the classic "One Way Out," as performed by popular southern rockers the Allman Brothers, was actually written by Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon.

Money was short in those days, so I didn't go to many concerts. I always thought it was more important to collect the records. Afterall, concerts end in a few hours, but you can always play your records.

When I was finally able to afford to go to concerts, I went to those which featured the acts I liked as a teen. I saw the Rolling Stones, the Who, Grateful Dead and Bob Seger. Although the Beatles were disbanded, I witnessed performances by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. I was delighted to attend a concert by John Fogerty, the man behind CCR. I got backstage to meet Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals. I attended a show by Pink Floyd, one of rock's greatest bands.

As my wife Sue and I were busy checking out some of rock's biggest names, we also slipped in a trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. There we saw the internationally-known bluesman John Lee Hooker, famous for "Boom Boom." He looked quite small, seated on a folding chair, but his guitar-playing and vocals were undeniably huge. Robert Cray, the blues-rocker known for "Smoking Gun," and the Radiators were on the same bill.

On Sept. 27, 1990 the Record Rack, Bay College and WGLQ co-sponsored a concert by guitar ace Jimmy Johnson, bringing Chicago-style blues north to the Upper Peninsula. Johnson's performance was awe-inspiring.

For a 13-month period beginning in 2000, U. P. blues enthusiasts were treated to dozens of extraordinary shows when the Shuffleaires, composed of Escanaba native Jim "Smiley" Lewis, "Big" Al Ek and Mary "Queen Bee" Corbett played around the area. Fans were challenged to guess the origins of the group's cover songs. Sue and I were hooked, attending nearly every show.

The Island Resort and Casino in Harris booked the Fabulous Thunderbirds with Kim Wilson and Kid Ramos in 2000 and the incredible guitar wizard Kenny Wayne Shepherd the following year.

In late May 2001, Sue and I made a pilgrimage to fabled Beale Street in Memphis to stand before a statue of W. C. Handy, known as "Father of the Blues."

But, it wasn't until August, 2001 that I went to my first major blues festival. Local residents Al Mokszycke and Gary Ethier had been attending the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth for years and finally persuaded Sue and me to join them. It was a fantastic weekend and we saw many noteworthy blues artists, including Marcia Ball, Candye Kane, Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, Calvin Owens and his Blues Orchestra, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, the Lamont Cranston Band, and many others.

Sue and I won't forget April 23, 2003. That's when we saw one of the world's greatest bluesmen-- B. B. King-- in Sault Ste. Marie. King amazed us with his singing and guitar playing, although he never did both at once.

By 2004, the Marquette Area Blues Society began hosting an annual festival over Labor Day weekend. Sue and I have attended every one. Performers have included Lonnie Brooks, L'il Ed and the Blues Imperials, Tinsley Ellis, Saffire, Bettye LaVette, Watermelon Slim & the Workers and Tab Benoit, to name a few.

When acoustic blues master John Hammond played at Kaufman Auditorium in Marquette on April 17, 2004, we were able to add another name of the list outstanding bluesmen we've seen.

George Thorogood put on a terrific performance at the Island Resort and casino on May 28, 2005, showing us just why he's at the top of his game.

We saw blues legend Buddy Guy and up-and-comer Jonny Lang on a twin bill at Oneida Casino in Green Bay on Aug. 25, 2005. As Guy walked through the crowd playing his guitar, fans patted his bald head, giving their approval to one of the masters of the blues.

Sue and I couldn't resist visiting the historic Calumet Theatre on June 6, 2008 for a captivating concert by slide guitarist Johnny Winter. His incredible talent was still intact, despite his health problems.

During this decade, Sue and I have seen many great women blues players including Janiva Magness, Rory Block, Ana Popovic, Erin Jaimes, Shemekia Copeland, Sue Foley and Deborah Coleman.

We've seen promising young players like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang and Anthony Gomes.

And, we've seen some of the giants of the genre such as B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Johnny Winter and John Lee Hooker.

Actually, we've seen so many blues performers, we can't remember them all.

After attending all those blues shows, I've learned to appreciate the blues community, fans and performers alike.

Blues fans are an accepting and tolerant lot and welcome all interested persons into their community.

The blues family is a diverse one and although there are many types of blues, the music is indeed a universal language.

When I first discovered rock 'n' roll, I didn't realize my favorite sounds could be traced to the blues. In fact, musicologists will tell you all modern music owes a debt to the blues.

Sue and I have met many like-minded friends with a common bond in the blues who consider the music to be a sanctuary.

Don't get me wrong, I still like vintage rock 'n' roll, but new music just doesn't cut it for me anymore.

In fact, the blues might be the last bastion of cool for those music fans, like me, who started out liking rock 'n' roll all those years ago.

Although I love the blues today, it didn't happen overnight.

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