You know that famous Keith Richards story about how when the Stones first arrived at legendary Chess Studios in Chicago in 1964, Muddy Waters was in black overalls, on a ladder painting the ceiling with whitewash streaming down his face?
“Bulls**t!” said Marshall Chess at a panel discussion following the July 26 screening of Born In Chicago at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in Lincoln Center.
Chess, who narrates the film, is the son and nephew of brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, the founders of Chess Records–the Chicago-based independent record label that first recorded such classic blues and early rock ‘n’ roll artists as Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and employed the younger Chess for many years before he headed Rolling Stones Records. He cut off moderator Bob Merlis halfway through a question he was no doubt used to hearing.
“Keith Richards hallucinated Muddy Waters painting the walls at Chess,” Chess bellowed. Merlis, a veteran music business press agent who has served on the board of the Blues Foundation and co-owns Memphis International Records, seemed to side with Chess in noting that Waters was always a most sharp-dressed man, but it wasn’t enough for Chess.
“Buddy Guy said it was bull!” he roared, then suggested Richards’ memory was clouded by Jack Daniels before acknowledging that “Keith and I have agreed to disagree.” Panelist Corky Siegel, the pianist/harmonica player of the historic Siegel-Schwall Band who had opened the evening with his band’s blues harp classic “Hey, Billie Jean,” diplomatically calmed the situation by sensibly stating, “Muddy painted the town!”
The screening of the acclaimed documentary about the story of middle class white kids who learned to play and live the blues directly from its most legendary Chicago practitioners was a presentation of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sound + Vision series. It was also attended by Born In Chicago star musicians/post-screening panelists Siegel and Barry Goldberg.
After Merlis observed that the late guitar ace Mike Bloomfield, who served in the Paul Butterfield Band as well as with Goldberg in the seminal blues-rock band Electric Flag (Bloomfield and Goldberg also were in the band that famously backed Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival), was the veritable “Ground Zero” of Born In Chicago, Goldberg, who co-produced the documentary and corralled many of the hard-to-get participants, expressed his gratitude to Bloomfield for introducing him to “two really wonderful people”—Dylan and his wife Gail, the latter 42 years ago.
But Goldberg also credited both the white Born In Chicago players and their English counterparts, the latter notably including fellow film participants Eric Burdon and Keith Richards, who went on to greater commercial success than the Chicago players.
“It used to bother me,” Goldberg said, noting that English players like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page are better known than Bloomfield. “They had an image and look, and we just played. Then I met Nicky Hopkins and Mick Taylor and Eric Burdon and they were true soul brothers, with [the same] void inside them that the blues filled.”
The English blues-derived musicians “arrived at the same conclusion,” Goldberg acknowledged: “Blues is the most transcendent music you can play with an electrified combo. They deserve their recognition, because they played so good.”
As for the Chicago blues’ founding fathers, Merlis observed that on stage, Howlin’ Wolf was “frightening—in a good way.” Siegel, who was especially close to Wolf, added, “He was a giant man who put every single bit of love and energy into every single thing he did. He didn’t teach any licks, but I learned about giving everything–100 percent, every cell in your body, completely.”
Director John Anderson, who was also on the panel, noted that at the mention of Wolf, his longtime guitarist (and now deceased) Hubert Sumlin’s eyes lit up, same with rocker Jack White’s—White suitably serving as one of today’s generation of top musicians who was influenced by both the older Chicago blues greats and their white protégés. Noted Chess, “I thought Wolf was a gentle giant when he wasn’t on stage: shaking hands with him was like putting your hand in a baseball glove!”
Merlis related how he had just learned that when he went to see Wolf perform at famed Greenwich Village club Café Au Go Go when he was a college student at Columbia, the Siegel-Schwall Band had opened.
Siegel and Goldberg, Merlis added, had sat in with the house band at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar the night before, a “déjà vu all over again” moment where the pair, now white blues veterans, were performing at a predominantly black music club.
“It takes guts to go into the Southside [Chicago] clubs,” said Anderson of Goldberg’s and Siegel’s formative Chicago blues exploits, “and [it takes something more] to make them [the Chicago blues] your own.”
Anderson said that distribution plans for Born In Chicago are now “in formulation,” with a concert CD from a recent performance by the Chicago Blues Reunion band, made up of Goldberg, Siegel, Sam Lay, Nick Gravenites and Harvey Mandel (and also featuring Born In Chicago participants Burdon, Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop) also being prepared for release.
Born In Chicago actually started out as a Chicago Blues Reunion concert film, then “just kept going,” said Anderson.
Chicago Blues Reunion gigs now represent “a reaffirmation of the blues and playing together,” said Goldberg. Referring to Born In Chicago, he added, “I hope this allows us to play more.”
[The Examiner has written liner notes on several Corky Siegel-related CDs.]
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