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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Carey Bell's Obituary

From today's Chicago Tribune:

Carey Bell: 1936 - 2007
Master of blues harmonica

Mississippi-born musician who came to Chicago in 1950s worked with legends such as the Hortons, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon
By Trevor Jensen
Tribune staff reporter

May 8, 2007

Carey Bell, a Mississippi-born master of the blues harmonica who put a funky twist on lessons learned from legends such as Little Walter and Big Walter Horton, died of heart failure Sunday, May 6, according to Alligator Records.

Mr. Bell, 70, who had diabetes, had been in Kindred Hospital Chicago North for several days before his death, said Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator, which recorded several of Mr. Bell's albums.

Mr. Bell was a bridge between the post World War II era musicians who created Chicago-style blues and the players of today, Iglauer said. Arriving in Chicago in September 1956 with his godfather, pianist Lovie Lee, Mr. Bell already was an accomplished harmonica player and immersed himself in the local blues scene. He picked up fresh licks from seminal players such as Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, whom he first saw at the Club Zanzibar on Chicago's West Side.

While playing within a traditional blues style, Mr. Bell's harmonica blew a "whooping flutter and a rapid upper register skitter," that pushed the instrument into fresh territory, said David Whiteis, author of "Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories."

"Carey took the sounds and tone that was invented by the great players of the '40s and '50s and added a funkier rhythm [and] staccato lines," Iglauer said "He had a huge tone."

As a young player, Mr. Bell was taught to always complete one note before moving on to the next, Iglauer said. To that end, his playing was filled with long, sustained notes that bent and quivered.

"He had his own very individual, very personal style," said Chicago bluesman Billy Branch, who cites Mr. Bell as his main influence. "Carey's pretty much his own, I mean very unique."

Seeking more work in the 1960s, Mr. Bell took up the bass guitar and played with David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Eddie Taylor and Big Walter, according to a biography provided by Alligator. Back on the harp, he recorded for Chicago's Delmark Records, toured and recorded with Muddy Waters and was chosen by Willie Dixon to play with his Chicago Blues All-Stars in the 1970s.

Mr. Bell's virtuosity came through most clearly on the chromatic harmonica, although he was no less adept with the standard blues harp. "I asked him once, 'What do you play when you solo?'" Branch said. "He said, 'You play anything that fits.'"

In 1972 Mr. Bell recorded an album with Big Walter Horton that was Alligator's second release. In 1990 he played on "Harp Attack!" with James Cotton, Junior Wells and Branch. He recorded "Second Nature" in 2004 with his son Lurrie, an accomplished guitarist.

In 1998 Mr. Bell won a W.C. Handy Award for traditional blues male artist of the year.

Mr. Bell was born Carey Bell Harrington in Macon, Miss. He wanted to play saxophone as a boy but family finances limited him to a harmonica. By 13, he was playing paid gigs with his godfather, and at 19 he was off to Chicago, according to Alligator.

Mr. Bell had a low-key stage presence and his playing was more subtle than that of contemporaries such as James Cotton, Whiteis said. He was missing his left front tooth and couldn't play with a false tooth, Iglauer said. So he always appeared onstage with a gap in his grin. "I've hardly ever seen a musician get as much joy out of playing music," Iglauer said.

"He was funny, he'd crack on you," Branch said. "I'd see him and he'd say, 'When you going to learn to play that damn thing?' or, 'You ready to get your head cut" -- getting your "head cut" being musician's lingo for getting blown offstage.

Branch brought his harmonica when he visited Mr. Bell in the hospital Friday night. Mr. Bell was drowsy but perked up when he heard the music, Branch said.

"I did one of his signature licks, and he looked straight at me, like to say, 'You're stealing my stuff again,'" Branch said.

Mr. Bell was married at least twice and is survived by 10 children, Iglauer said. Further family information was not available.

Services were being arranged.

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