Chicago welcomes the “Queen of the Blues”

Shemekia Copeland will perform at City Winery on December 20. Photo via Chicago Magazine.

CBE Artist Board Member Shemekia Copeland will perform at City Winery on December 20, 2015. Photo via Chicago Magazine.

You could say that Shemekia Copeland was born to the blues. Born in New York in 1979, she was encouraged to sing at an early age by her father, bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland. She even wound up on stage at Harlem’s Cotton Club with her father at just eight years old.

At 15 she began singing in earnest, joining her father on tour at 16 and earning rave reviews for her opening sets. A few years later, at 18, Copeland recorded her first album, Turn the Heat Up. Upon its release in 1998, critics raved about the debut effort and audiences took note of a significant new talent on the blues scene. Today her vocal style, combining elements of the blues, soul, and roots rock and roll, has won Copeland a legion of devoted fans.

Copeland has performed thousands of shows around the world, including opening for the Rolling Stones, and has worked with some of the biggest stars in music, including Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and James Cotton.

Earlier this year Copeland released her eighth album, Outskirts of Love, which this month earned the singer her third Grammy nomination when it was included on the short list for Best Blues Album. Outskirts of Love marks Copeland’s return to Alligator Records (for whom she recorded four records earlier in her career) and combines new material with Copeland’s interpretation of songs first recorded by artists like Solomon Burke, ZZ Top, Jesse Winchester, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Copeland’s late father. The United Kingdom’s The Blues Magazine honored Outskirts of Love as its album of the year. Watch her perform the new record’s title track:

In an interview with NPR, Copeland suggested that her experiences traveling the world have made her a different performer than she was when she first started, and those experiences informed some of the messages she sought to express with her new album.

Copeland also appears on another record nominated for a Grammy this year as Best Blues Album, the various artists compilation Muddy Waters 100.

Known to many as the reigning “Queen of the Blues,” Copeland will be bringing her mix of blues, soul, and roots music to Chicago’s City Winery on December 20 for the sold-out Shemekia Copeland’s Holiday Party. (Get on the ticket wait list.)

The CBE Artist Board is meant to span generations and cultures to reinforce the blues’ universal appeal and relevance. The considerable contributions Copeland has made to blues music at a still young age—as well as her family connection to the music—makes her a perfect bridge between musical generations and a natural member of the CBE Artist Board.

Newport 1960: When blues hit the mainstream

As far as music goes, 1960 fell in the midst of transition: the first euphoric shots of rock and roll had given way to something of a lull. Elvis was in the army, Little Richard had rejected rock and roll for the holy scripture, and Buddy Holly and other promising artists had died a year earlier. The music on the charts was tepid: on July 2, 1960, the Billboard Hot 100 was led by Connie Francis and her song “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”

The blues were also in transition: artists such as B.B. King had appeared regularly on rhythm and blues charts in the early to mid 1950s, but by 1960 they had been replaced by smoother soul and R&B acts. Leading blues artists were still burning up the clubs every night, but the hit-making years seemed in the past. Dinah Washington’s “Rocking Good Way” topped the Billboard R&B charts in July 1960.

And so it may have continued for the blues if it weren’t for George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. The annual event, held in a wealthy enclave in Rhode Island, might seem like a strange place for the blues. Since 1954, the festival had been a prime destination for tastemakers, jazz aficionados, and college students seeking to soak up the sounds of top jazz musicians. It would also serve as the template for festivals that would follow: use the headliners to sell tickets while introducing the assembled crowd to up-and-coming artists or those outside the mainstream. (Bill Graham, who ran the Fillmore and Fillmore East, was especially adept at assembling such lineups.)

In 1960, Wein decided to take the lineup in a different direction, a move that would effectively bring blues into the mainstream. Among the likes of Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie, Wein threw in a few curveballs. Ray Charles, in support of Horace Silver on July 3, injected a little extra grit and grease into the proceedings. And on the Fourth of July, the Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey were supported by the blues. But not just any blues; it was the deep blues, up from the Delta by way of Chicago, courtesy of Muddy Waters, with a little help from John Lee Hooker.

Waters’ set has become the stuff of legend. The band, featuring Otis Spann on piano and James Cotton on harp, was in top form. For an audience that was used to jazz musicians playing evocatively, Muddy Waters and his band raised the energy to an unprecedented level, gobsmacking an audience of (mostly white) East Coast music intelligentsia that didn’t quite know what was coming. To end the set, Waters played two versions of “Got My Mojo Working,” all while using his inimitable showmanship to engage the assembled crowd in ways jazz players wouldn’t or couldn’t.

After John Lee Hooker played his set, Langston Hughes came onstage to debut a poem he’d written about the day, “Goodbye Newport Blues.” Otis Spann sang the lyrics in an impromptu performance. In all, the show ended up serving as a coronation, bringing the Chicago blues to a whole new audience for the first time.

A recording of the set, Muddy Waters at Newport 1960, released by Chess, was important for a couple of reasons: it was the first live blues album to gain wide release. And it traveled well, reaching across the Atlantic to England, where the next wave of rock and roll bands were in their formative stages, still assimilating American music and distilling it into another form. American blues would soon replace the skiffle craze in England as the new touchstone, inspiring bands like the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, and the Rolling Stones, among others. Their subsequent recordings would usher in a second golden age of the blues.

By the time Muddy Waters made his triumphant return to Newport in 1965, the Stones were mainstays on the charts, and the world was in the process of learning about the power of Chicago blues.

So this Thanksgiving, when you’re listening to Howlin’ Wolf or Elmore James, give thanks to George Wein for his part in championing the blues.

Navy Pier: Part of Chicago’s rich cultural history and its future

A historic photo of Navy Pier via http://netschcampus.uic.edu/.

Jutting 3,300 feet from the Chicago shoreline into Lake Michigan, Navy Pier is a major city landmark as well as an important part of the city’s history and its future.

The pier had its start in renowned architect Daniel Burnham’s plan for Chicago. Built for $4.5 million, Navy Pier opened as Municipal Pier in 1916, originally designed both as a shipping pier and a recreation facility. Over the years it has evolved into an entertainment and exposition facility, and today it ranks as one of the top 50 tourist attractions in the world and the top such attraction in the Midwest, drawing nearly 9 million visitors each year.

In its earliest days, the pier was a popular local gathering spot—particularly in the days before air conditioning when summer visitors could take advantage of cool lake breezes. The pier’s attractions included theaters, a dance hall, picnicking spaces, and a playground.

In 1927 the pier was renamed Navy Pier in honor of Navy personnel who served during World War I. While its freight and passenger use declined during the 1930s, it remained a popular cultural and recreational site despite the Great Depression.

With the onset of World War II, the pier was closed to the public from August 1941 until 1946 as the Navy pressed it into service as a training facility. For example, naval aviators trained using a pair of converted aircraft carriers docked at Navy Pier. Some 15,000 Navy pilots did carrier training at Navy Pier, including one who would become president of the United States, George H.W. Bush. Today as many as 200 WWII–era Navy aircraft rest on the bottom of Lake Michigan, the legacy of training accidents.

The next phase for Navy Pier was to serve as a Chicago branch campus for the University of Illinois, offering a two-year undergraduate program, particularly for returning veterans. During this period the pier continued to host a variety of public events including festivals and major trade shows and exhibitions.

With the University of Illinois moving its Chicago branch from the pier to its current Circle Campus just west of downtown in 1965, Navy Pier fell into a period of decline and disuse. In 1976, however, the pier’s Grand Ballroom was renovated as part of Chicago’s observance of the U.S. bicentennial, and the pier again began to be used for special events including ChicagoFest, Chicago’s top outdoor music festival from 1978 to 1982. The festival drew millions of visitors for music, food, and other entertainment. The blues was no stranger to Navy Pier during that period, with many blues greats gracing the stages of ChicagoFest.

A major renovation project that began in 1994 saw the pier reopen in July 1995 with restaurants, shops, a ballroom, exhibition facilities, and various year-round attractions and entertainments. Among the cultural institutions drawn to the renovated Navy Pier was Chicago’s Shakespeare Repertory Theater, which opened its new Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier in 1999. The 525-seat theater is modeled after London’s Swan Theatre and includes an English pub and great views of the lakefront.

In 2011, Navy Pier, Inc. (NPI), the not-for-profit established to maintain Navy Pier as a historic landmark and oversee its redevelopment, unveiled The Centennial Vision, a redevelopment framework aimed at recasting Navy Pier as a world-class attraction. In 2013 NPI unveiled details of the design for a bolder, greener, more contemporary pier for the facility’s second century.

For nearly 100 years Navy Pier has played an important—if varied—part in Chicago’s cultural history.  The commitment to its latest renovation seem to ensure that it will continue to play such a part in the future, making it a perfect home for the Chicago Blues Experience museum and complex.

Billy Branch—Ambassador of the Blues

Billy Branch has been playing the blues for more than 40 years. During that time, he has appeared on more than 150 recordings, including 12 albums under his own name. His performances on Harp Attack, an all-star effort with Carey Bell, James Cotton, and Junior Wells, solidified his reputation among a generation of harmonica players as the heir apparent and standard bearer for Chicago’s storied tradition. A fixture on the international blues circuit, Branch regularly headlines blues festivals with Sons of Blues, the legendary band he cofounded in the 1970s with Lurrie Bell (son of Carey Bell) and Freddie Dixon (son of Willie Dixon).

Check out Sons of Blues ripping through “I’m Ready” from the 1994 American Music Festival.

Branch’s excellence has been widely recognized. Among his accolades, he has received three Grammys, an Emmy, and countless other awards.

So if all Billy Branch had done over the past four decades was play incendiary harp, he would rightly be counted among today’s blues luminaries. But wait, there’s more. In 1978, he cofounded “Blues in the Schools,” a program that introduces youth to the blues music and its history. Each student receives a blues harmonica and lessons on how to play it as well as assignments to write and perform blues songs. Since that time, Brach himself has led sessions throughout Chicago Public Schools and the surrounding area, and some graduates of Blues in the Schools have gone on to become professional musicians. As Branch was quick to point out in an interview with Chicago Blues Guide, “We want the kids to understand the significance and the relevance of blues and develop an appreciation for it.”

That sentiment is what makes the program so important. Blues is a people’s music, passed down from generation to generation. It’s in these ways that the personal stories and events are kept alive. (Listen to Howlin’ Wolf sing “The Natchez Burning” for a quick lesson on an event that likely didn’t make it into the history books.) Any music takes on added resonance with audiences when they understand the circumstances that shaped its sound and subject matter, and the blues is no different.

Proving the universal appeal of the blues, Branch has taken Blues in the Schools around the world, conducting workshops for students in Asia, Europe, and Central and South America. For many members of the younger generations around the globe, Billy Branch was their first exposure to the blues. The further blues gets from to Mississippi Delta or Chess Records, the more vital such efforts will be in keeping this music alive.

It’s why Branch could be found recently conducting a Blues in the Schools residency in Traverse City, Michigan, prior to heading to Switzerland to headline the Lucerne Blues Festival. Thanks to Branch’s efforts, the blues will remain alive and well for years to come.

Branch’s musical and educational accomplishments make him an ideal member of CBE’s Artist Board. One of CBE’s major components is the Chicago Blues Experience Foundation, an initiative dedicated to blues education. Financed by a percentage of the CBE’s profits, the CBEF aims to celebrate, preserve, educate, and create access to all aspects of blues culture through educational programming, music appreciation, community outreach, and assistance to blues musicians and their families.

Keith Richards—A true champion of Chicago blues

To mark the release of Crosseyed Heart, Keith Richards’ first solo album in 23 years, the guitarist seems to be everywhere: doing interviews to promote the album; appearing at the Apollo Theater to honor singer Merry Clayton as part of A Great Night in Harlem, a concert put on by the Jazz Foundation of America; and gracing the cover of a recent issue of Rolling Stone. Richards also stars in Under the Influence, a documentary by Academy Award–winning director Morgan Neville that examines the musicians and performers that shaped Richards’ playing and chronicles the sessions that produced the album.

The film shines a light on Chicago blues, with CBE Artist Board Member Richards discussing the impact his first visit to the city with the Rolling Stones on their 1964 U.S. tour had on him and the band. The Stones booked time at Chess Studios and recorded 14 songs in two days, including a cover of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now.” It was also during the band’s time at Chess that Richards met Muddy Waters. According to Richards as recounted in Rocks Off: 50 tracks that tell the story of the Rolling Stones:

“We walked into Chess Studios and there’s this guy in black overalls painting the ceiling. And it’s Muddy Waters and he’s got whitewash streaming down his face and he’s on top of a ladder. Marshall Chess says ‘Oh, we never had him painting.’ But Marshall was a boy then, he was working in the basement. And also Bill Wyman tells me he actually remembers Muddy Waters taking our amplifiers from the car into the studio. Whether he was being a nice guy or he wasn’t selling records then, I know what the Chess brothers were bloody well like—if you want to stay on the payroll get to work.”

Under the Influence also follows Richards to Buddy Guy’s Legends, a prime destination for modern Chicago blues, where he drinks a little moonshine and catches up with Buddy Guy over a game of pool. Later, on a visit to Muddy Waters’ home on the South Side, Richards recounts a party he attended there that raged all night. While standing in front of the home, Richards laments the fact that Chicago isn’t doing more to honor its rich heritage of the blues—an oversight that CBE is finally set to remedy.

Keith Richards and the Stones have always been quick to shine a light on their musical heroes, including featuring them as opening acts on tours. For example, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were the opener on the Stones’ 1970 European tour, no doubt bringing Chicago blues to a wider global audience. Their reverence for their blues heroes might be best illustrated by the story behind their first appearance on Shindig in 1965. Although the Stones were booked as the featured artist, they insisted that Howlin’ Wolf not only appear but open the show as Richards and his bandmates sat on the stage at the foot of the master. Take a look at this clip from the show for a stunning demonstration of worlds colliding and unsuspecting teen music fans getting a serious, firsthand dose of Chicago blues:

(Look close to catch a young Billy Preston on piano as part of the Shindig house band.)

It’s fitting, then, that Richards kicks off Crosseyed Heart with the title track, a slow blues that demonstrates how much the guitarist has absorbed from his musical heroes. In this excerpt, Richards talks about his deep connection to the blues, a tribute to its continued relevance:

Chicago living legends: Carl Weathersby

The history of the blues is one of a music passed down from one musician to another over successive generations. The core of the music remains the same, but each new generation brings a unique voice. Even the most legendary figures such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King learned their craft at the feet of local masters and traveling musicians before putting their own stamp on the genre. This tradition of apprenticeship has helped to forge generation after generation of blues musicians. Carl Weathersby is a singer and guitarist who exemplifies the best of modern blues, and his story mirrors the biographies of so many blues players who came before him.

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1953, Weathersby made his way north in the early 1960s with his family to settle in East Chicago, Indiana. After picking up the guitar in his teens, he had an encounter that made an indelible impression and launched him down the well-traveled blues road. Upon learning Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw,” Weathersby played it for a family friend who gave him some unexpected feedback. The man, a mechanic named Albert, listened and responded, “Man, that ain’t the way that song goes; that ain’t the way I played it.” The mechanic—Albert King himself—showed Weathersby the “right” way to play the song, and Weathersby took the lesson to heart.

After serving in Vietnam and working in a steel mill, as a police office, and as a prison guard, Weathersby was invited to join King’s band as the rhythm guitarist, a position he held from 1979 to 1982.* Weathersby then went on to join Billy Branch’s Sons of Blues, and over the next 15 years, his soulful vocals and guitar helped to define the group’s sound. Below, watch a live performance from Germany in 1995 that features Weathersby tearing it up on “If Heartaches Were Nickels.”

In 1996, Weathersby left Sons of Blues to step out on his own. His first solo album, Don’t Lay Your Blues on Me, was released on Evidence Records and subsequently nominated for a W.C. Handy Award for blues album of the year. He followed with six more solo efforts, including 2011’s Leaving Mood with fellow Chicago artist Toronzo Cannon. A mainstay of Chicago’s blues clubs—he’s a regular headliner at Kingston Mines—Weathersby also still plays festivals throughout the country.

Listening to Weathersby, you can hear the full sweep of the blues, from its roots in the Delta to electric blues to rhythm & blues and soul influences. And with a direct connection to the blues masters, Carl Weathersby is the real deal—authentic and steeped in the blues tradition. That’s no accident. As he told the Bay City Times in 2011, “I’ve been taught by people like Johnny Littlejohn, Eddie Taylor, Robert Jr. Lockwood, you know…All these guys created the (music) we’re doing and I’ve been taught by them what to do.”

Catch Carl Weathersby live in Chicago every Wednesday at Kingston Mines.

 

*Weathersby wasn’t the only Chicago musician to play with King. The late Chicago legend Son Seals, whose stinging guitar had echoes of King’s style, played drums for King for several years, including on the acclaimed Live Wire/Blues Power album.

Toronzo Cannon proves that blues, neckties, and overalls can coexist

Each week, Chicago Blues Experience brings you the latest news on blues artists, venues, and events around Chicago.

Blues news

Chicago Blues Experience artist board member Gary Clark Jr. sat down with Premier Guitar to talk about his new album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. Read about his childhood certainty that he’d be a blues musician and how many instruments he plays on the album (hint: almost all of them).

On the heels of the release of her eighth album, Chicago Blues Experience artist board member Shemekia Copeland dropped by NPR to play a few tunes and talk about the album as well as growing up performing alongside her famous father. On the new album, Copeland puts her own spin on one of her father’s tracks, “Devil’s Hand.” Copeland’s first album was released on the storied Chicago label Alligator Records in 1998.

This weekend’s spotlight shows

…at Blue Chicago: Maurice John Vauhn Blues Band with Shirley Johnson (Friday and Saturday); Mz Peachez Blues Band

…at Buddy Guy’s Legends: Mike Wheeler with Chicago Blues Angels (Friday); Carlos Johnson with Randy Johnson (Saturday); Sheryl Youngblood (Sunday)

…at Chicago B.L.U.E.S. Bar: Demetria Taylor Blues Band (Friday); Toronzo Cannon and the Cannonball Express (Saturday); Ronnie Hicks and Masheen Co. (Sunday)

Here’s a taste of what to expect from Toronzo Cannon—tie and overalls included.

…at Kingston Mines: Billy Branch and Vance Kelly (Friday and Saturday); Claudette Miller and Linsey Alexander (Sunday) [Special note: Sunday blues jam with Linsey Alexander (Sunday 6–9:30pm)]

Get out and hear some blues this weekend!

Historic venues: The Checkerboard Lounge

If blues is a people’s music, then the best blues clubs are often located in neighborhoods. The Checkerboard Lounge, originally located at 423 E. 43rd St, definitely qualified on that count.

From 1972, when it was opened by Buddy Guy, until its closing in 2003, the Checkerboard maintained a welcoming vibe, with a host of regulars, performers, and larger-than-life characters. Anyone who had the good fortune to have set foot in the Checkerboard can marvel at to how many legendary musicians were jammed onto that tiny stage—as well as what the experience must have been for the audience.

Image via http://condor.depaul.edu/blackmet/

Image via http://condor.depaul.edu/blackmet/

Part of what made the Checkerboard unique was its location in the heart of the Bronzeville, an African-American neighborhood steeped in rich cultural history. Many of the 500,000 blacks who came to Chicago as part of the Great Migration settled in Bronzeville, making 43rd St. the center of a vibrant scene. Muddy Waters’ home on 4339 S. Lake Park Ave., where he lived from 1954 to 1974, was less than a mile from the Checkerboard Lounge.

The event that put the Checkerboard Lounge on the international map for the blues was a visit by the Rolling Stones in 1981 after a concert in Chicago. The evening, captured on “Live from the Checkerboard,” features Muddy Waters and his band running through a generous set list of hits with the help of his adoring Brit acolytes.

Although Buddy Guy sold his interest in the club in 1985, the Checkerboard continued to host a steady slate of blues stalwarts such as Lefty Dizz. Leading blues musicians, including Buddy’s late brother Phil Guy, would regularly sit in, treating the assembled crowd to an endless string of blues standards. In the 1990s, Vance Kelly held down the regular Thursday night slot, and in any given week, the room would be packed with an audience that mixed neighborhood regulars, University of Chicago students who benefited from the liberal entry policy, and blues enthusiasts from across the city. Frequently, the front door would swing open to reveal a group of tourists from Europe or Asia who had made the pilgrimage to witness the world-famous Checkerboard for themselves.

More important, the Checkerboard functioned as a proving ground for young musicians intent on breaking into the blues scene. There they could see masters up close and, on a good night, have a chance to sit in for a few tunes. Far beyond the Stones’ visit, that is the legacy of the Checkerboard Lounge: a launching pad for a new generation of blues musicians who are currently carrying the banner and torching Chicago blues clubs on a nightly basis.

The Checkerboard would reopen in Hyde Park in 2005, but it couldn’t recreate the same vibe in a more upscale neighborhood and closed for good in September 2015. The club was one of a kind and is sorely missed.

Catch Aaron Neville at City Winery

Each week, Chicago Blues Experience brings you the latest news on blues artists, venues, and events around Chicago.

Featured event: Aaron Neville at City Winery

See Chicago Blues Experience board member Aaron Neville at City Winery in Chicago on Monday, October 12 and Tuesday, October 13. The Neville family has become synonymous with New Orleans’ rich musical heritage. Aaron enjoyed his first chart success in 1966 with the classic “Tell It Like It Is,” which hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. He went on to be a founding member (along with brothers Art, Charles, and Cyril) of The Neville Brothers band, which released a series of acclaimed albums in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, including the Daniel Lanois-produced “Yellow Moon.” Watch Aaron sing the title cut below.

Aaron has also enjoyed a hugely successful solo career. His latest release, My True Story, sees the iconic singer revisit classic doo wop hits that shaped his musical style. Get tickets for his upcoming Chicago shows at www.citywinery.com/chicago/catalogsearch/result/?q=neville.

This weekend’s spotlight shows…

…at Arcada Theater: See the legendary Buddy Guy tomorrow, October 8, at Arcada Theater in St. Charles, Illinois. Tickets are available at www.oshows.com/#!upcoming-shows/crb6.

…at Kingston Mines [full schedule]: Nellie Tiger Travis and Joanna Connor (Friday and Saturday); Claudette Miller and Linsey Alexander (Sunday).

Catch the Sunday blues jam with Linsey Alexander on Sunday, 6–9:30pm.

…at Chicago B.L.U.E.S. Bar [full schedule]: Carl Weathersby (Friday); Mike Wheeler (Saturday); Joe Barr and the Soul Purpose Band (Sunday)

Here’s a taste of Mike Wheeler taking on the Sam Cooke classic “Somebody Have Mercy.”

Get out and hear some Chicago blues this weekend!

In other news

The Daily Beast offers the lowdown on Chicago Blues Experience board member Gary Clark Jr.’s new video for the track Shake. He’s on tour now promoting his new album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim—and he’ll be in Chicago at the Riviera Theater on April 1. If you just can’t wait, see him on Ellen on October 19, Late Night With Seth Meyers on October 29, and Austin City Limits on PBS on October 31.