A Piano Man’s Odyssey
Like any musical genre, blues has its share of legendary and well-known artists who are frequently mentioned in any discussion about the past and the present. But, again like other genres, there have been thousands of musicians who toiled in relative obscurity over the years, supporting the “star” performers with solid backing, traveling thousands of miles for long stretches on the road, and often receiving minimal pay for their efforts. Yet, despite the sacrifices, musicians continue to pursue the siren call of their musical vision.
In this short work, Carl Snyder recounts his life’s journey over a career that spans more than five decades. Growing up with a piano in his home in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Snyder’s father gave him lessons, hoping his son would develop into a prodigy. But Snyder had little interest in practicing Mozart, or anything else, at least until he heard records by Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry on the radio. He was playing trombone in the school band but would hurry home to try out new sounds on the piano, until his father forbid him from banging away on the Steinway, afraid his son would knock it out of tune.
Joining his first band at seventeen, Snyder played in different musical configurations through high school and into college, also expanding his musical universe by listening to Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, and Memphis Slim in addition to the more complex work of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. But his career was interrupted when he received his college degree and moved to State University of Iowa for graduate courses. The money ran end and he ended up back home, working for a local paper. Hi life changed forever when he was hired for a writer’s position with Playboy Magazine, which took Snyder and his bride to Chicago. His Editor quickly realized the new hire’s passion for music and assigned Snyder to write reviews on recordings submitted to the magazine.
With his wife by his side, Snyder hits the clubs to take in the wealth of music that Chicago had to offer in the latter part of the 1960s, catching acts like Magic Sam, Bobby Blue Bland, and Otis Rush plus other sounds like Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar. Snyder secures a keyboard and works his way into the local scene, first with a quartet billed as the Chicago T.N.T.’s. Soon he is playing gigs backing Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and Johnny Dollar. After meeting Harold Ramis, the keyboardist ends up as part of the band at the legendary Second City Theatre.
From there, Snyder chronicles his career that moves to California for a stint at the ill-fated Earth magazine, then a return to Chicago for another stint with Playboy while starting reviving a musical partnership with singer Dan Noland, with Snyder playing guitar. Eventually the phone starts ringing as word spreads about Snyder’s talent. He works with guitarist Joe Kelley, Aron and Larry Burton, and Melvin Taylor before getting a call from Jimmy Johnson, leading to a lengthy stretch as a member of the band that traveled far and wide, with Snyder appearing on several of the guitarist’s releases on Delmark Records.
Snyder’s recollections are delivered in an easy-going manner that keeps readers engaged, and doesn’t spare some of the pitfalls, drudgery, and lack of recognition that is typical of a working musician’s life. Even though he goes on to work and record with other stellar Chicago blues artists like Lefty Dizz, Son Seals, Junior Wells, and Otis Rush, most blues fans would be stumped at the mention of his name. That will change once you wrap yourself up in his stories that guide you through his career highlights, bringing to life the people that have made his journey so special. Thanks to Carl Snyder for taking us back to a time when musical giants did indeed walk the streets of Chicago, and for his contributions to the art form.