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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Al Viola - A Musician's Musician

Al Viola passed away last Wednesday. He was a senior member of the skilled guild of studio musicians that powered so many records after World War II. Al could play pretty much anything on the guitar. He was Frank Sinatra's preferred guitarist. He also played on Marvin Gaye's records, and played lots of movie music, including the soundtracks for Blazing Saddles and The Godfather.

Here is a line from his New York Times' obit:

"His last performance was in late January at a jazz supper club in Sherman Oaks, California."

So he lived his 87 years, played his last gig, and died three weeks later. Not a bad exit for a man who dedicated his life to jazz guitar.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Charlie Musselwhite at the Old Town School of Folk Music

Photo by Rick Trankle/Alex Cuevas

Charlie Musselwhite visited Chicago this past weekend to headline at Buddy Guy's Legends on Saturday night. The local Chicago harmonica nerds, led by harmonica guru Joe Filisko, convinced him to stay over an extra day to visit with the Monday night Chicago Blues Harmonica class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. (that is Joe with Charlie in Rick Trankle's picture above). It was intense - the room is designed to hold 18-20 people, and we had over 50 wildly enthusiastic Musselwhite fans crammed into the classroom. It was a mixed crowd, ranging in age from 16 to 70, male and female (but mostly male), black and white (but mostly white).

Charlie is one of the living blues harmonica gods, up there with James Cotton and Kim Wilson. He is unique because he has "big ears" - yes, he is a blues guy, but he loves Brazilian music and Cuban music, and he has collaborated with musicians from those countries. "Every culture seems to have its music of lament," Charlie told us. "It's all blues to me."

Charlie is also the harp player that Tom Waits calls when he wants harmonica in a tune (check out Musselwhite's work on "Mule Variations"). And Charlie's songwriting seems to get stronger every year.

So I got to sit at Musselwhite's feet (literally - I was on the floor because all the chairs were full). He is a friendly, self-deprecating guy. There is a gentleness to his personality that is very appealing. He has a million stories, and he shared many with us. He also provided some equipment tips. He also shared an interesting fact - he said "I never had a plan, and I still don't. I have just been trying to have fun, and things have worked out. I have had some rough patches, but things have worked out OK with the harmonica."

Charlie's mother was the victim of a homicide in December 2005. The elderly woman was killed in Memphis by a 24-year old neighbor in an apparent home invasion/robbery. Charlie's wife, Henrietta, survived a shark attack in 2000 while vacationing in Maui. So Mr. Musselwhite has had his share of bad events.

He has long been a hero to me, and I know the rest of the folks at OTS last Monday felt the same. Charlie ended the evening by playing "Cristo Redemptor." Beautiful! Then he joined us at a local bar - he drank club soda, having sworn off alcohol 20 years ago. He loosened up - showed off his tattoos.

Photo By Rick Trankle/Alex Cuevas

Even though he is clean and sober these days, the man can still party.

Monday, February 19, 2007

More Great Musicians Crossing Over

I have been traveling and shoveling snow like a madman recently (today, the thaw finally arrived in Chicago). This has kept me away from the blog for a couple of weeks. We have lost a couple of wonderful musicians in the last week or so.

Jazz bassist Eldee Young died of a heart attack on February 12th. He was performing in Thailand, a country that he visited often in recent years. The picture above shows Eldee with Redd Holt - Redd is standing, Eldee is sitting. Eldee was 71 years old and as exuberent as ever.

Young was a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio during the days of Ramsey's cross-over hits - "The In Crowd","Hang On, Sloopy" and all the rest of those mid-60's soul/jazz records. Ramsey Lewis disbanded the trio in the latter part of the 1960's, Drummer Redd Holt and Eldee stayed together as Young-Holt Unlimited. Eldee and Redd had a big hit in 1968 - a funky instrumental called "Soulful Strut" that has been covered and sampled by a broad range of contemporary musicians (including the British teenage soul kid, Joss Stone). Here is a link to Eldee's obituary in the Chicago Tribune. Eldee was also a terrific singer, totally unheralded but very much a talent. His bass playing is up there with Ray Brown, in my opinion. He will be deeply missed.

Peggy Gilbert was a true pioneer. As a young girl, she decided she wanted to be a jazz saxophonist. This was not a carrer path for women that was actively encouraged in the 1920's and 1930's. She persevered, played, and led various "All-Girl" jazz bands for many decades - she was still an active player after she reached the age of 90!. Peggy died from complications associated with hip replacement surgery. She was 102 years old. Here is a link to the LA Times obituary. Peggy fought the good fight and broke ground for women in jazz.

I am sad that these two slipped away before I could shake their hands and express my respect for them.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Chord On Blues Tries to Rise From The Dead

I noted in early January that Chord-On Blues, the huge, beautiful club in St. Charlse, IL, shut its doors. Here is a letter that the manager of the club circulated recently:

A Letter to Our Loyal Patrons
The Best Blues Fans in the Country

As most of you know by now, Chord On Blues closed it’s doors on Friday January 5th. After celebrating our 10th Birthday on New Years Eve, it became brutally clear that we could no longer afford to absorb the losses we were incurring. Not even for one more day. So, we closed the doors saying that we were going to step back and regroup. In the interim, many of you have sent e-mails of support and encouragement. I can tell you that those letters have been THE single most moving experience in ten years of business and rocked me to my core. So … after 30 days of “regrouping” we have decided a couple of things. 1) 30 days is not enough time to restructure a 10 year old business. 2) Not having the nation’s finest blues musicians on our stage is too much to bear. So … we need a band aid or a bridge to what will eventually be our future. To that end I’m happy to announce a few shows that we hope will help bridge the gap.

On Saturday February 10th we’re pleased to announce that we will be able to honor our contract with Chris Duarte. Over the past 6 years or so, C.O.B. has become a Chicagoland home for Chris and his tour depended on this gig. I hope you can all come down and get your blues groove on with one of the most dynamic guitarists in the country.

And then … From Friday February 23rd to Sunday February 25th, we’ll throw a three day Blues Festival, tentatively titled, The Chord On Blues Winter Fest 07 / One More For The Road or Never Say Die! The lineup consists of all the bands from January that I had to cancel. This is my way of trying to get that money back in their pocket. Money they sorely need. If you were ever going to support a show here at C.O.B. this is the show. It’s going to be one hell of a party and will help keep these talented and humble musicians working.

As for our future plans … We’re going to do at least one show a month. They will be hard to market as the dates will revolve around the artist’s tour so the dates will fluctuate between the beginning, middle and end of the month. The only way you will know about them is through e-blasts to our e-mail list and our web site. PLEASE sign up for our e-mail list. We do not share it with anybody … EVER! My hope is that by reducing the amount of shows we do each month, we can fill the room up and give these bluesmen and women the crowds they deserve. We will certainly continue to bring in the artists that you have supported in large numbers. People like Lonnie and Ronnie Brooks, Tab Benoit, Walter Trout, Tinsley Ellis, Coco Montoya etc.

Our show in March is Hamilton Loomis on Friday March 16th. He was here last fall and played to a half full house. I’m bringing him back because it’s one of the best shows we’ve had in here. Trust me on this one and never mind the fact that he’s not a house hold name. Ham is great and he has the chops and stage craft to make himself one of the most popular acts in the blues biz.

For a month now I’ve been trying to find the words to write this letter and convey to all of you how much your support over the years has meant. Many bluesmen who have counted on us for their Chicago play have now lost another venue, as many have closed throughout the country. I don’t want to add my name to that list. Not after 10 years. I’m hoping this band aid will in fact be a bridge to a new and improved version of Chord On Blues. As always I invite your comments so please feel free to call or drop me an e-mail.

Thanks for your support, Sincerely Steve Chapman

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

RIP - Terry Lee McMillan, Harmonica Player and Percussionist

I am not a huge country music fan, but I appreciate the skill and professionalism of country music cats. Terry Lee McMillan was an excellent harmonica man - and he recorded with Ray Charles !! Here is his obit from the Country Music Television web site:

Ace harmonica player and percussionist Terry Lee McMillan died Friday (Feb. 2) at his home in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., following a long illness. He was 53. A spokesman for the funeral home handling the services said the family has declined to specify the exact cause of death.

McMillan was born Oct. 12, 1953, in Lexington, N.C., and began his professional music career in the early 1970s. Early on, he toured as a member of Eddy Raven's band. In 1975, he went on the road with Chet Atkins. After stints backing Jeannie C. Riley and Jerry Reed, McMillan turned his attention to playing recording sessions. Although a gifted drummer and percussionist, he gained his reputation in the studio for his distinctive harmonica style. He won the Academy of Country Music's musician of the year award in its specialty instrument category for four consecutive years beginning in 1993.

In the early 1980s, McMillan signed with RCA Records as a solo act, but his tenure at the label was short-lived. His only charted single, "Love Is a Full Time Thing," peaked at No. 85 in 1982.

McMillan's earliest recording sessions were with Mickey Newbury, Steve Young, Elvis Presley, Marshall Chapman, Ray Charles and J J. Cale. He subsequently performed on TV specials with Neil Young, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and Chet Atkins among others. Intermittently, he returned to the road with such artists as Larry Carlton, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Michael McDonald. McMillan's harmonica work is prominently featured on Brooks' 1993 hit, "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)."

After his family's house was destroyed in a 1992 house fire, McMillan became a devout Christian and focused extensively on inspirational music. In 1993, he released his first album, I've Got a Feeling, on Step One Records. He also released an album for Giant Records, Somebody's Comin', in 1997. In the years that followed, he became a frequent guest on Christian television programs.

"In 1993," according to Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, "[McMillan] was chosen ... to be a member of [a band] that performed at President Clinton's Arkansas inaugural ball. The rest of the band was Michael McDonald, Bruce Hornsby, Kenny Loggins, Carole King and Judy Collins. [McMillan] played a standout version of 'Amazing Grace' on the harmonica."

He is survived by his wife, three children, a stepchild, two grandchildren, his father and a brother.

Funeral services will be held Wednesday (Feb. 7) at Atchley Funeral Home in Sevierville, Tenn. Burial will be in Smoky Mountain Memory Gardens.

RIP, Terry. Its sad that you died so young.

Monday, February 05, 2007


So the Bears got whipped in the Super Bowl and it is nine below zero in Chicago this morning. The sun is out, but everything feels gloomy.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Cold, The Bears, The End of the World

The wind is stiff this evening, making a frigid night damn near unbearable. It will be worse tomorrow and miserable all week as the low teperatures hit negative territory. Chicago is facing its coldest weekend in ten years. Naturally, this cold snap hits when the Bears are in the Super Bowl. I am not interested in going to any Super Bowl parties in this miserable cold; I am sure I am not the only one with this attitude. The Mystery Band has a gig tomorrow night; I have a feeling that I will be playing to an empty house.

I am a Bears fan, but I have a hard time watching them play. Football is stressful. Every game is important and the agony of defeat offsets the thrill of victory for me. I am going to try to watch the Super Bowl, but if the Bears start doing poorly, I probably will have to turn it off.

It is ironic on this extremely cold weekend that the UN's report on global warming was released, and boy, was it depressing! Maybe world governments will get together and try to slow down the big warm-up. I wouldn't bet on it. And I wouldn't bet on human ability to change the weather trend. Yes, the world will end. Or, said more correctly, humans will probably become extinct. The timeframe for our extinction is too lengthy for the average schmo to panic. And besides, the Big Game is on this weekend.

Go Bears.