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Posts Tagged ‘Buddy Guy’

(Above: B.B. King and Buddy Guy jam on “Rock Me Baby” with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan at a recent Crossroads Festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few in the sold-out crowd that greeted B.B. King, the 84-year-old King of the Blues, at the Midland theater on Friday night expected the energy and vitality of King’s essential “Live at the Regal” album, released 45 years ago. It is also likely few expected the extensive banter that filled King’s 90 minutes onstage.

King’s set opened with a 10-minute vamp that allowed everyone in his eight-piece backing band the chance to solo. Once King took the stage, he proved he still had the chops and voice fans love. His excellent reading of the blues warhorse “Key to the Highway” melded nicely into King’s own “Blues Man.”

Another classic, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” was driven by a military cadence on the snare drum. When coupled with King’s four-piece horn arrangement, the song recalled a New Orleans funeral march. The band followed that number with a song King recorded with U2 back in the ‘80s. In their most upbeat performance of the night, the King and his band lit into “When Love Comes To Town” with surprising energy. Sadly, it was not to last.

From there King’s set was as much a monologue as it was a musical dialogue. Here are some of his best one-liners:
•    “You can look at me and tell I ain’t no Michael Phelps. I don’t smoke.”
•    After hitting a bum note on Lucille, his guitar: “I know I shouldn’t have let her go to the liquor store.”
•    After the audience response didn’t meet expectations: “I think you’re teasing me. You sound like Tiger Woods.”

As King’s chitchat neared the 20-minute mark, fans started to grow restless. Some shouted song requests; others just yelled “play something.” King apologized for not being able to play one of the requests, then continued rambling about Viagra and instructing men how to set the mood by playing Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind.”

After a bizarre musical riff on ED medications, King finally gave the crowd another song in the form of “Rock Me Baby.” The aborted performance led into King’s signature number, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Even then, King littered the song with asides and shout-outs to the sound men and lighting crew. When the throng realized they weren’t going to get another full performance, they started leaving en masse.

No one can fault King for growing old. He’s lived a rich life and brought joy to millions of people around the globe. Perhaps King feels he needs to stay onstage for so long to justify his high ticket price. If this is the case, he may be better off knocking a couple bucks off the ticket and cutting half of his horn section. (The quartet was only onstage half the time anyway.) While King’s onstage generosity is commendable, fans might be more appreciative of a shorter set loaded with music than the current drawn-out arrangement.

It would be unfair to label Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy the evening’s “opening act.” Guy just happened to go onstage first.

Listening to Guy is like hearing the history of electric blues on shuffle. Backed by a tight four-piece band, the 73-year-old guitarist tore through a 65-minute tribute to his heroes and contemporaries.

Guy teased out an abstract solo over the familiar opening chords of “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a setting that was more Thelonious Monk than Muddy Waters, and took particular delight in delivering the song’s more racy lyrics. Guy’s tribute to his late friend and collaborator Junior Wells on “Hoodoo Man” was another high point.

The night’s signature moment started with Guy playing so quietly one could hear his amp buzzing over the P.A. As “Drowning on Dry Land” progressed, Guy eased his way off-stage and into the crowd. He nailed a long solo while walking nearly two-thirds of the way up the floor, and finished it plopped down in a surprised fan’s seat.

Before leaving the stage, Guy paid tribute to his friend and inspiration, B.B. King. Growing up in Louisiana, Guy said, there were no music shops, just stores that happened to have instruments in one corner. Before King’s records came out, inventory was priced to move. But after “Three O’Clock Blues,” guitars were suddenly harder to come by.

B.B. King setlist: I Need You So, Let the Good Times Roll, Key to the Highway>Blues Man, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, When Love Comes To Town, You Are My Sunshine, “ED Medication Blues,” Rock Me Baby, The Thrill Is Gone.

Buddy Guy setlist: Nobody Understands Me But My Guitar, Muddy Waters medley: Hoochie Coochie Man/She’s 19 Years Old/Love Her With A Feeling, Hoodoo Man, Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In, Drowning On Dry Land, Close to You, Boom Boom, Strange Brew, Voodoo Chile, Sunshine of Your Love.

Keep reading:

Review: Buddy Guy (2008)

Review: Buddy and Bettye at Roots N Blues N BBQ Fest 2008

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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derek_trucks_band

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitarist Derek Trucks was 12 years old when Bob Dylan asked him onstage during a show to play “Highway 61 Revisited.”

For Trucks, it was just another gig. The look on his dad’s face, however, told a different story.

“I knew who Dylan was because my dad was a massive fan, but it didn’t hit me then like it would have now or even 10 years ago,” Trucks said. “But even though I didn’t realize the significance, I could see it in my dad’s eyes that this was life-changing.”

Trucks and his father were both right. Playing with Dylan was just another encounter for the prodigy who would go on to play with Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and numerous others. But it also opened the door to other possibilities.

Trucks, who turns 30 in June, now helms his own eponymous group (performing Friday at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge) and also plays in the Allman Brothers Band. He returned Dylan’s favor with his supercharged blues cover of Dylan’s “Down in the Flood,” which opens his sixth and newest studio album, “Already Free.”

“I try to pick covers with some connection to the band,” Trucks said. “Part of that is Dylan is such a good songwriter with a great amount of tunes, but on top of that I figured after Katrina and the flooding in Iowa, the title and the lyrics were just a great metaphor for all that.”

Trucks didn’t go into the studio planning on cutting a record. Finding himself with downtime at his Jacksonville, Fla., home – atypical for a man who averages 300 shows a year – and a recently completed home studio called Swamp Raga Studio, Trucks and his band decided to lay down some tracks just to see how the room felt.

“The first day we wrote and ” Trucks said. “The next thing we recorded (the song) ‘Already Free,’ knew there were a dozen, then two dozen songs. We started calling people from (wife and blues guitarist) Susan (Tedeschi)’s band, Doyle (Bramhall II), Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, to come in.”

The resulting release has a laid-back yet focused organic vibe that inhabits the best of the Allman Brothers’ Capricorn albums.

“It’s the most natural record I’ve done,” Trucks said. “It was very comfortable recording, and I think you can feel it. We captured tunes hours after they were written. There’s a freshness that comes across when songs are captured so quickly.”

Unsurprisingly, Trucks wanted to translate that urgency to the road as quickly as possible. The Derek Trucks Band tour kicked off last week.

For someone who has seemingly played with everyone, Trucks had the opportunity to encounter another legend and influence last year.

When you record two John Coltrane numbers on your debut album, and the opportunity to play with Coltrane’s longtime pianist McCoy Tyner arises, you don’t say no.

Still, Trucks was intimidated. Especially when he walked into the studio and saw bass player Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Those guys are legends in their own right, but McCoy is on his own level,” Trucks said. “He was such a sweet guy. He really made it feel comfortable.”

Trucks entered the studio with a list of four songs he hoped to play with the trio, but as the last guitarist on the session, some of his choices had already been recorded.

“My first choice of song was ‘Contemplations,’ but (jazz guitarist Bill) Frisell had already recorded it,” Trucks said.

The two-day session yielded collaborations with Trucks, Frisell, Bela Fleck, Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Trucks was the only “rock” guitarist invited, but he works well on his two featured cuts, “Slapback Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Trucks’ presence in the company of such eclectic legends is unsurprising given the range of covers his band performs – everything from Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Delta bluesman Son House – and the diversity of the band playing them, which contains a four-decade age span.

Trucks said his innate musical curiosity has not only expanded his palate but has also given him a level of comfort playing with nearly anyone.

“It started at such a young age. I was always around musicians, so I’d try to pick their brains and see what influenced their music,” Trucks said. “A huge part of being able to stay on the road and on top of the game is to keep finding inspiration. You keep finding different things that turn you on, things that tweak different parts of the brain. In the long run you’re a better musician for it.”

Trucks hopes that same level of comfort and curiosity extends to his home Swamp Raga Studio.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Willie (Nelson) in Maui, and anywhere he is has a clubhouse vibe. I can see that communal feeling. Wherever you are with him – on his bus, in his home – he makes sure everybody is absolutely comfortable,” Trucks said. “That’s kind of what it’s (Swamp Raga) starting to turn into in the month and a half we’ve gotten into it.”

Swamp Raga is not only musician-friendly but environmentally friendly as well.

“The beauty of building from scratch is that you can think about stuff ahead of time,” Trucks said. “When I figured the electric bill would be double, not only was that a financial hit, but psychologically I started feeling guilty because of all the energy we’d be using. We went out of our way to be conscious of that. We made it a point to do everything as efficiently as possible.”

To that end, Trucks and Tedeschi installed 26 solar panels on the studio and their home. And in the months when the family is out on tour, the local utility company pays them for the energy their panels generate.

“Sometimes our bill comes in right around zero,” Trucks said. “By doing the right thing it actually works out better in the end.”

Despite such 21st century enterprises, Trucks believes his band and his music are a throwback to a time where wooden instruments were hand-crafted and stepping onstage meant being ready to cut some heads.

“When you get on stage, you have to bring it,” Trucks said. “I get a sense from new music that the idea is to outsmart your audience or be so ultra-hip you can pull one over on them.

“With a band like ours, we try to represent a more honest music. We’re musicians representing our craft first and then trying to connect with people.”

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The last time The Daily Record watched a complete Grammy Awards show, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” won Album of the Year. This year, though, we got suckered in by the promise of seeing Radiohead. (Have they won a Grammy? Wikipedia says yes.) This presented the perfect opportunity to do one of those running diaries like Bill Simmons does for ESPN. We not may be as successful, but the official wife of The Daily Record was glad her husband’s snarky comments were bypassing her ears and going straight online, where she could ignore them more easily. Enjoy!

7:00 U2’s new song sounds like Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

7:02 The lyrics to their new song “Get On Your Boots” appear on a large video screen behind the band. I wonder if this is what all the presenters will see on their Teleprompters.

7:09 Whitney Houston comes out to present the award for “Best R&B Album.” Forget Botox – cocaine must be the secret to a younger looking face.

7:10 Seriously, Houston looks like she has been stored in the freezer next to Ted Williams for the last 10 years.

7:12 The Rock is as good a comedian as he is an actor.

7:17 Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban paying tribute to Al Green is like Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney giving props to Barack Obama.

7:21 First commercial break. High-powered bloggers use this time to make snarky comments about commercials too. Unfortunately, The Daily Record has no corporate sponsorship. We’ll use this time to do glamorous things like take out the trash and recycling, pull stuff together for work tomorrow.

7:26 For a second, I thought Chris Martin was Paul McCartney sitting at his Magical Mystery Tour piano.

7:28 Let the haters hate; Jay-Z is still great.

7:29 How come Coldplay get to play two songs? I wonder if Joe Satriani will come out. Probably not.

7:30 Coldplay’s Beatles motif is reinforced with their Sgt. Pepper jackets.

7:33 Although representatives insist that all Grammy performers will not perform to a backing track like Bruce Springsteen did at last week’s Super Bowl, you have to be suspicious. It’s not like the music industry is a bastion of integrity.

7:34 Why does “country” singer Carrie Underwood rock harder than “rock stars” Coldplay?

7:35 I have no idea what Carrie is singing. I think it’s something about how long it took to get her legs waxed. Damn them’s some shiny gams!

7:36 Carrie’s guitar player looks like Lita Ford’s daughter.

7:38 Why does Sheryl Crow, 46, look younger than LeAnn Rimes, 26?

7:39 Congratulations, you’ve won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. We will now honor you with a 15 second black and white video clip. Why not let the recipients perform?

7:48 Hey, Coldplay just acknowledged my Sgt. Pepper’s joke!

7:49 Man, Kid Rock really, really likes Bob Seger.

7:58 Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are performing together for the first time, but they won’t let the guys playing acoustic guitars and bass onstage with them.

7:59 It’s really bugging me that they won’t let the band perform onstage. What were they told? “OK, here’s the deal. You four will sing backing vocals, provide rhythm support, fine, you’ll carry the whole thing – but we don’t actually want anyone to see you do it.” Was there not enough crawlspace under the stage to stuff them in there?

8:02 A seated Tylor Swift just said “If you’re 19, or even older, it’s still a thrill to stand on the Grammy stage.” Man, she is going to have a long time to be depressed.

8:03 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss just won AWARD. But even better news is that they’re working on a new album together.

8:05 This is why we don’t need a Whitney Houston comeback. Jennifer Hudson is both more talented and a more substantive person.

8:15 What the? Stevie Wonder is jamming with the Jonas Brothers. Half the audience is wondering who the old dude is and everyone else is wondering what he’s doing playing with them. Thing is, it doesn’t sound half bad. Then again, I’m a sucker for Stevie’s vocoder trick.

8:16 Any excuse to hear “Superstition” is a good thing. I’ll never buy a Jonas Brothers album, but I thank them for this moment.

8:17 Seriously, you know your songs kick butt when Disney-sponsored tweener heart-throbs can’t screw them up. Not even Celine Dion could ruin this moment.

8:19 I hear Blink 182’s next album is going to be a tribute to Def Leppard.

8:20 Do Coldplay have to mention the Beatles every time they take the podium? Pretty soon Ringo will be onstage with them refusing to sign autographs.

8:27 Don’t forget, Craig Ferguson writes all his own material.

8:29 Am I the last person on Earth to be hearing “I Kissed A Girl” for the first time right now?

8:30 Why is Katy Perry dancing in Carmen Miranda’s headdress? This segment must be sponsored by Chiquita.

8:31 Am I the only person on Earth to feel like he hasn’t missed anything by not hearing “I Kissed A Girl” until now?

8:32 I don’t know the song Kanye West is doing with Estelle, but “808s and Heartbreaks” is really growing on me.

8:33 Kanye is taking this ’80s fixation a bit too far. Next year he’s going to come out wearing a Huxtable sweater.

8:41 I don’t care how long he keeps wearing it, that earring is never going to look natural on Morgan Freeman.

8:45 Sean “Puffy” Combs, Natalie Cole and Herbie Hancock are on hand to present “Record of the Year.” One of these things is not like the other (in a good way).

8:46 Natalie Cole’s dress looks like a last-minute compromise from the outfit Lil Kim wore on the MTV awards a few years back.

8:47 Plant and Krauss just won again. Robert Plant might have the most successful post-supergroup career of all time. OK, maybe Paul McCartney – but Plant’s taken more chances.

8:53 They just gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dean Martin. I guess we now know why they don’t have these winners perform, but why’d the take him so long for Martin to get this award? He’s been dead for awhile, but he certainly had the sales and popularity when he was alive. Maybe next year they’ll finally get around to honoring Bing Crosby.

8:54 I’m not sure why M.I.A. had to secede the stage so quickly. How cool would it have been if Mick Jones and Paul Simonon came out to do “Paper Planes” with her?

8:55 Kanye, Jay-Z, T.I. and Lil Wayne’s performance together is being called a “historic hip hop summit.” The tour kicks off next month in Yalta.

8:57 M.I.A.’s polka-dot pregnancy outfit is sponsored by Buddy Guy’s guitar.

9:00 I can’t believe I’ve sat through two hours of this show … and still have 90 minutes to go.

9:01 If I were going to have Dave Grohl drum with Paul McCartney I’d give him something a little meatier than “I Saw Her Standing There.” Maybe “Band on the Run” or “Helter Skelter.” I’m just saying.

9:10 Feed just went out as John Mayer was accepting an award. I guess my TV isn’t much of a fan either.

9:11 Jay Mohr and LL Cool J is one of the most awkward pairings of the night. Then again, Jay Morh and anyone is an awkward arrangement.

9:15 Sugarland and Adele aren’t really performing “together for the first time” as promised, but “one right after another.” Eh.

9:17 Oh, here’s Sugarland. She added that one essential line at the end of the song.

9:23 Gwyenth Paltrow is wearing a mirror ball. Dance party!

9:24 Radiohead is performing with the USC Marching Trojans. Man, first those guys get to play with Fleetwood Mac and now they’re backing up Radiohead. I wonder which was more rewarding.

9:25 Someday, future generations will worship Radiohead like we celebrate the Beatles.

9:27 Is it still Radiohead when it’s just Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood? Survey says, who cares? Radiohead in any form is better than anything else we’ve seen tonight.

9:28 OK, better than everything except Carrie Underwood’s legs – but I’m still not buying her album.

9:30 If you are still reading this, you are officially my new best friend. Please leave a comment to receive a special prize.

9:34 Justin Timberlake is performing in a coat and scarf. How did he know snow was in our forecast?

9:35 The stocking cap on T.I.’s head looks like a reservoir tip.

9:36 I don’t think switching back and forth between two distinct songs should count as collaboration. It’s more like a musical debate where the listener always loses.

9:38 Recording Academy president Neil Portnow rejected the traditional tirade against music piracy to talk about MusiCares and promote a Secretary of the Arts cabinet position.

9: 42 Portnow is done, but I’m kinda bummed he didn’t bring up piracy. I had a great line to use when he did: “Recording Academy president Neil Portnow is still talking about music piracy. This guy is slower than Rapidshare.”

9:44 Not even Smokey Robinsons sings the Four Tops as well as Levi Stubbs. Rest in peace, Levi.

9:45 It would be cool if the producers rounded up the remaining Funk Brothers as backing musicians for this Four Tops tribute.

9:52 Neil Diamond is singing “Sweet Caroline” and millions of Red Sox fans are crying because their season hasn’t started yet. Pitchers and catchers report in less than a week, boys.

9:54 Am I the only one that finds it kind of sad that Diamond’s expansive catalog has been reduced to just one song? And that “Sweet Caroline” is that song? It’s like if people only remembered Bob Dylan for “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).”

9:59 Paying tribute to Bo Diddley are Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Mayer and Keith Urban (because you know if any two performers have influenced Urban’s style and career its Al Green and Bo Diddley). Best rhythm in rock and roll.

10:00 I make that joke earlier about Buddy Guy’s guitar and he shows up here playing a gold top Les Paul. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him rock a since his days on Vanguard.

10:08 Allen Toussaint is supposed to appear with Lil Wayne with Robin Thicke. I bet those two would be surprised to learn that Toussaint has written more hits than both of them combined.

10:10 I wonder why the producers haven’t rolled out one of those “for the first time ever” duets between Thicke and Timberlake? Probably because no one could tell them apart.

10:11 Allen Toussaint with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Terence Blanchard falls just short of topping Radiohead for best musical moment of the night – but it’s close. No American city makes more consistently fun music than New Orleans (although a case could be made for Memphis).

10:14 Will.I.Am just congratulated Obama. Who could have seen that coming? Next year, Will.I.Am will receive a record number of Grammy nominations for his album “Obamania: Songs About Barack Obama, Because I Love Barack Obama by Will.I.Am (for Barack Obama).”

10:24 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss are performing with T-Bone Burnett. Krauss’ hair keeps blowing back. Now I know why Justin Timberlake was wearing a coat and scar earlier.

10:25 I love “Raising Sand” as much as the next person, but that album came out in 2007. Why are the Grammys acting like it’s a new release?

10:26 The Grammys operate on such a loopy nomination calendar that a band’s previous and forthcoming albums can both be eligible at the same time.

10:27 The producers rightly made a big deal of T-Bone being on stage, but there was no mention of Buddy Miller holding down rhythm guitar. Therefore, I’d like to take this moment to give Buddy props for being a spectacular musician.

10:28 Album of the Year goes to “Raising Sand.” If it wasn’t going to be “In Rainbows” this is where it should have gone. (Seriously, does anyone else find it odd that both of these albums were released 16 months ago?)

10:30 Robert Plant started his career in 1968. You can fill a matchbook with a list of all tonight’s performers and honorees we’ll still be talking about 40 years from now.

10:32 Stevie Wonder is playing us home. See you in seven years, Grammys!

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Above: Buddy Guy preaches the blues via Cream, Hooker and Hendrix.

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Buddy Guy isn’t mentioned in the film “Cadillac Records” but he made a strong case for his inclusion among the Chess label’s pantheon of greats Friday night at the Uptown Theater.

After a brief introduction by his four-piece band, Guy walked onto the stage and straight into a guitar solo. When he finally tired of pulling notes from his cream-colored Stratocaster, Guy walked to the mic and began to sing. Rattling off the names of his mentors and influences – Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon – he passionately cried “they’re the ones who made the blues, tell me who’s going to fill those shoes?” It was a reverent, but rhetorical question.

Guy has no trouble whipping a crowd into a frenzy, but he can silence them just as easily by placing a finger to his lips. He stayed in a quiet mode for most of the evening, dripping a spare, creeping version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The classic Waters number was propelled by Guy’s expressive singing and the familiar bass line while a sprinkling of piano and smattering of guitar solos were drizzled over the top. That number worked its way into two more Waters’ tunes, “Love Her With A Feeling” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”

While his playing was still fiery, Guy was content to smolder for an evening. With the drums gently clicking like metronome, band played so subtly they were easily overwhelmed by conversation when the audience grew restless. The steady flow of bodies to the beer stands said the crowd wasn’t expecting so much restraint.

Likewise, Guy probably wasn’t expecting such an empty house. The Uptown’s balcony was closed off and while the floor was basically full, there were still plenty of vacant seats.

Opening act Tom Hambridge, who also produced Guy’s latest album, hopped onstage to lend vocal support to “Skin Deep.” Guy’s journey as the child of Louisiana sharecroppers to witnessing his fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama claim the presidency gives his song for racial equality extra poignancy. The soul ballad ended with the audience singing along. Bolstered by a Hammond organ, the song wasn’t quite gospel, but it felt a lot like church.

A tribute to Albert King opened with one of the mellowest readings of “I’m Going Down” of all time. The song heated up, though, when Guy jumped offstage and slowly made his way through the assembly. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, Guy devastated “Drowning On Dry Land.” Walking into the foyer, Guy unleashed the most blistering solo of the night with few witnesses around. With his guitarist and bass player swaying to a synchronized two-step on stage, Guy sauntered back into the theater and plopped down in one of its seats without missing a note. Guy’s six-string field trip ended with a passionate performance of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”

The second half of the show was essentially a mega medley of Guy’s blues heroes. Rotating from John Lee Hooker to Little Walter to Cream to a dialed-down cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” Guy switched songs so often it was almost like their was a penalty for playing a number all the way through. He found a wah wah peddle and the volume switch for “Voodoo Child” and channeled James Brown for a stellar snippet of “I Go Crazy.” After nearly 90 minutes onstage, Guy closed with a bit of “Kansas City.”

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etta
Above: No, it’s not Beyonce. The wonderful Etta James during her Chess period.

By Joel Francis

As the 1960s dawned on Chess Records, label founders Leonard and Phil were at the peak of their powers. Thanks to the proselytizing of the British Invasion bands, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and other blues artists were performing for the largest crowds of their careers. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had helped formed rock and roll, and the label had branched into more genres, including R&B, comedy, jazz and gospel.

But Leonard and Phil were still looking for new ways to stay on top of the trends and build their roster. One of their biggest signings of the decade was an immediate success. The other took more than three decades to reach his commercial potential, but stands today as the greatest living link to Chess and Chicago blues.

Etta James was born in Los Angeles to an unwed, 14-year-old mother. She was discovered at age 14 by bandleader Johnny Otis, and recorded with him for Modern Records in the late 1950s. She signed to Chess in 1960 and converted Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” into an R&B hit. Her breakthrough came the following year with “At Last.” The gorgeous soul ballad was a bit of a departure for the label – guitars and harmonicas were replaced by a lush string orchestra. From the gritty soul of “In the Basement” and “Tell Mama” to the heartache of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” James’ versatile voice found success for the rest of the decade.

Buddy Guy showed up in Chicago in 1957 and quickly fell under the wing of Muddy Waters. Although he was known for his anarchic guitar playing onstage, the Chess brothers reigned him in on record. Primarily a session guitarist, solo singles like “The First Time I Met the Blues” barely hinted at the flamboyant style that influenced Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Guy didn’t find true success until his 1991 comeback album “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” on the Silvertone label.

With the exception of Berry, who briefly recorded for Mercury in the mid-’60s before returning to Chess, and Dixon, who took a short-lived job at Vee-Jay, all of Chess’ major artists stayed with the label until its sale. By the end of the ’60s, Leonard and Phil had been looking for a way to get out of the record business and into television. When GRT made an offer of $6.5 million for all of the label’s properties, they accepted. Less than a year after selling their label, Leonard Chess was dead. Just 52 years old, the elder brother had died of a heart attack in his car less than two blocks from the Chess headquarters. He had been on his way to a meeting at WVON.

A little over twenty years after opening the Mocambo Lounge, Leonard and Phil Chess’ dream of striking it rich had come true several times over. With Leonard no longer alive, it was up to Phil and Marshall, Leonard’s son, to appease the worries from their biggest stars that the brothers had made unreasonable profits off their artists.

While many of the Chess stars were also very well off, other artists showed less financial responsibility and had very little to show for their success. In the 1970s, several Chess artists, including Waters, Wolf and Dixon sued for back royalty payments. All the lawsuits were settled confidentially out of court; the issue is still debated today. Bo Diddley was especially bitter about his treatment, telling Rolling Stone in the 1987, “My records are sold all over the world and I ain’t got a f—ing dime.” While we’ll likely never know the truth, cases of labels withholding royalties from artists are still common today. Leonard and Phil probably felt they took good care of their artists, but they also made sure to take great care of themselves at the same time.

Nearly 40 years after its sale, the legacy of Chess Records continues to burn bright. From bloozy biker bars and hole-in-the-wall BBQ juke joints to stadium tours by the Rolling Stones and samples used by rappers Nas and Chuck D, there are few corners of the English-speaking world where the impact of Chess’ artists isn’t felt. In 1977 NASA gave the label celestial influence when they placed a copy Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” inside the Voyager space probe.

In 1964 the Rolling Stones, hot on their first tour of America, made a pilgrimage to the Chess building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. Decades later, Dixon’s widow purchased the property, which serves as a Chess museum and headquarters for Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. Each year, tourists and musicians alike visit the building to pay homage to the Chess masters and stand in the space where so many incredible songs were captured.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and Chicago Blues
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll

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By Joel Francis

Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy is to the electric guitar what a match is to kerosene.

The 68-year-old blues legend lit into opening number “Best Damn Fool” like a house afire and closed out the Roots ‘n Blues ‘n BBQ Festival Saturday night in Columbia, Mo. with 90 minutes of barn-burning blues that skimmed through the encyclopedia of the genre.

After starting with a cut from his new album, “Skin Deep,” Guy tore through his classic “Hoodoo Man.” The song culminated with a guitar duel between Guy and his backing guitarist, who was more than capable of holding his own. After whipping the song into a frenzy, Guy put a finger to his lips and hushed both the crowd and his band. In whisper silence he noodled into “Love Her With a Feeling,” which merged with “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”

Guy’s mind is as frenetic as his fingers. He rarely plays a song all the way through, opting to mine the most joyous parts, then skip along to the next number that races through is brain. He treated the audience to a nearly two full minutes of his signature number “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” before remembering he played Peggy Lee’s “Fever” at his last gig in Columbia 15 years ago and gave them all of that instead. No one seemed to mind.

“Boom Boom,” a tribute to John Lee Hooker, suddenly inspired “Strange Brew” and a shout-out to Eric Clapton and Cream. Guy hopped offstage and wandered through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd a block deep and half a block wide to deliver “Drowning on Dry Land” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”

Like a woman plied with one drink too many, Guy was able to coax things from his guitar beyond its natural limits. Armed with a cream-colored Fender Stratocaster instead of his trademark polka dot model, Guy hopped on a wah wah peddle to riff over the intro of Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child” before launching into Muddy Water’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”

The night ended with “Out in the Woods,” a boast about taming wild beasts. It was a great closing number, but also slightly redundant – at this point, Guy no longer had to prove how bad he was.

Bettye LaVette

In a perfect world, Bettye LaVette would be enjoying the same kind of success Tina Turner receives today.

After 47 years in the business and five years into her renaissance, LaVette’s raspy voice – no doubt enhanced by years of working smoky dives – is informed and enhanced by the pain and frustration of her wilderness years.

Her performance of early songs like “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man,” “Let Me Down Easy” and “Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)” hint at the career that could have been. But Lavette is not bitter. She can deliver a line like “I’ve been bruised, hurt and cheated on/ but still they couldn’t break me” (from “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven”) with both honesty and a smile.

Clad in a sleeveless black shirt and tight black pants, LaVette swayed and strutted across the stage channeling every note from her band, completely invested in every lyric. She added a swagger to her reading of “Joy” that songwriter Lucinda Williams could only dream of. Likewise, she added a level of sensuality to Leonard Cohen’s “You Don’t Know Me At All” unheard in the original. The sashay of her hips to a sizzling guitar solo said more than any of the verses.

Two years ago, LaVette put on a breathtaking performance at the Folly Theater in Kansas City. She was even better in the open air in Columbia and her band was the difference. For the earlier date, LaVette was backed by musicians who, like her, had been catapulted from juke joints to concert halls. Unlike her, they were not ready for the spotlight. Her new, four-piece band was tighter, funkier and able to keep up. They added a wash of psychedelic soul to “Sleep to Dream” and a superb gospel feel to “Choices.”

LaVette closed her 75-minute set with a riveting a cappella performance of a Sinead O’Connor song that summed up her life today: “I have all that I requested/And I do not want what I haven’t got.”

Doyle Bramhall

Drummer Doyle Bramhall grew up playing with the Vaughan brothers, so it makes sense that his Texas blues oscillate between the smooth strut of Jimmie and the rough and rocky bluster of  Stevie Ray. Unfortunately, there’s not much in between.

His five-piece band could turn it up when needed, like on a spirited cover of “Keep A Knockin’,” but for the most part they were content to keep the meat in the smoker instead of taking it out and slathering on the sauce.

Bramhall’s hour-plus set ran through songs from his solo catalog like “Top Rank Boxing” and “Cryin'” and a couple numbers he wrote with Stevie Ray. Predictably, “Change It” and “The House Is A Rockin’,” which closed the set, drew the greatest cheers.

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