In the world of popular music, game changers don’t come along very often, and when they do, they usually work their magic and remain locked into one segment of the business going forward. Few grasp the chance to explore and expand their talents across different platforms.
Corky Siegel is a major exception.
Born in Chicago in 1943 and self-depreciating, but recognized as one of the top harmonica players in the world today, he was a founding member of the legendary Siegel-Schwall Band, which played a key role in introducing the music to a new audience in the ’60s. Following closely on the heels of Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite, they were among the first wave of the new breed of bands that emerged after many first-generation artists were being rediscovered, helping to breathe new life into what was quickly becoming a dying art form.
Many blues lovers aren’t aware, however, that almost from the beginning, he’s been hard at work, entertaining different crowds, taking concepts that originated in the Mississippi Delta and Windy City and delivering them to high society by fronting a classical string quartet, Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues, and by working with symphonies around the globe.
But that only scratches the surface of his accomplishments. By his own admission, his career choices came about through luck and being in the right place at the right time. And, although he doesn’t say it, his warm, friendly and engaging personality and quick wit as well as a mind open to new challenges definitely helped.
His is a truly amazing, involved story.
“I’m an innocent victim of my good fortune,” Corky insists.
He was studying music at Roosevelt University in the Loop and playing tenor sax and piano when it all began. A native South Sider, Siegel grew up a short bus ride from where Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Junior Wells other harmonica giants plied their trade. But the only harp players he knew at the time were Bob Dylan and Bob Buchanan, both singer/guitarists who accompanied themselves in similar fashion on rack-held instruments.
At the time, Corky was working in a three-piece with a guitarist and drummer, covering Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry in small clubs when not in school. Buchanan — then with the New Christy Minstrels, a top act in the hootnanny era and later a tunesmith who wrote “Hickory Wind,” one of Gram Parsons’ biggest hits — was first to catch Siegel’s attention.
The sound was raw at best, but appealing enough to get Corky to pick up the instrument and start experimenting in his apartment. “On what may have been the very first day, a neighbor, Bill Nelson, walked down the hall and heard me,” Siegel recalls. “He was my age, 20 or so, someone I’d seen many times, but never spoke with. He knocks on the door, says: ‘Hey, you’re playing the harmonica — let me bring some albums over.'”
A few minutes later he returned with three LPs, Howlin’ Wolf’s Rocking Chair, a Jimmy Reed and a Muddy Waters. The discs made an instant impression.
“I quickly went out and bought copies for myself, the first records I ever bought,” Corky says. “I played them over and over and over and over, and was just dancing around the house — in ecstasy — listening to them.”
The sincere, uninhibited energy that these musicians projected through their songs affected Corky to his core.
A short while later, an encounter at Lyon & Healy, the venerable Loop music store, brought Siegel face-to-face with his first bluesman. Milton Boyland, a very tall, thin African-American, an acquaintance of Billy Boy Arnold, was hunting for a new guitar that day, and the two struck up an instant friendship in conversation. Jam sessions followed, Corky recalls with Boyland playing and singing like Lightnin’ Hopkins in a style that was similar but different than when he’d been grooving to on those records. Milton showed him blues licks on the piano. They talked of forming a band, but it never came to fruition.
Siegel and Jim Schwall, meanwhile, were members of the Roosevelt jazz band, a lineup that included two future jazz stars — saxophonist Bunky Green and keyboard player Willie Pickens — when they first met. “I’m at one end of the band playing sax, and Jim’s at the other playing guitar,” Corky recalls. “One day, we walk into the elevator, and he’s got a guitar strapped to his back, of course. And I asked: ‘Do you play blues?’
“He says: ‘Well-l-l, a little…not really. I play country, some bluegrass and some fingerpicking-type folk-blues.’
“We went right to his apartment after that,” Siegel remembers. “He plays for me, and it’s really, really great. I said: ‘I sorta want to play blues. Do you want to do it with me?’ He said: ‘Yeah…But I’ll have to play with a pick to get that sound…'”
They soon started learning material. “We didn’t sit and listen to the records — that was more about me because I didn’t want to have to study something to be able to play it,” Corky chuckles. “I wanted to play it right away. I’d listen one time and try to play it like I felt when I was dancing around the house.”
Their end result was a sound that would serve them well in a partnership that endured for decades — different than what was being played in clubs at the time, often note-for-note covers of tunes issued on records. And Schwall’s use of an amplified acoustic guitar set them apart in a world where electric guitars dominated.
What Siegel didn’t know at the time — and what few folks remember today — was that Schwall also had other talents. He was also working with Bloomfield, one of the most unique guitarists of the era, at the time — not on six-string, but as his harmonica player. Through his guidance, Corky learned blues harp basics, how to play crossover — or second position — and how to bend a reed. Then Jim took him to see the master, Butterfield, in action.
Five decades later, Corky’s faithfully using the same techniques today.
“I’m what I call a ‘pattern’ player,” he says. “I had to find my own way of doing it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have come out at all. In piano terms, it’s the way the fingers feel on the keys, not about the sound. It’s about the rhythm and the touch. I’m not thinking about the notes. The patterns just run into each other. It’s the dance. And it’s really fun.
“I totally failed in my pursuit of trying to play like the blues guys,” he laughs. “But as it turns out, when we started, Muddy and Wolf lo-o-oved the Siegel-Schwall Band. “They thought it was a different approach from what they were doing. We weren’t imitating. We were just trying to play.”
Corky and Jim worked up an act as a two-man band. “We had a set of music that had a little harmonica, but mostly guitar and piano, and both of us sang,” he says, and Siegel added occasional percussion by hitting a bass drum and hi-hat he situated underneath the keyboard.
Their good fortune began from the jump. They took their act to a coffeehouse in Hyde Park for the first time,. The crowd was sparse, but monumental. Two of the patrons approached after their set and announced: “We’re working on a play, and want you to work on it with us.”
The men were James Rado and Gerome Ragni, and the play was the original book and lyrics to what would become Hair. “It was going to be a play about capital punishment,” Siegel remembers. “We spent six months with them working on it, often at my parents’ when I was still living at home.”
The playwrights booked a theater and were getting ready to stage it when they were called away to New York.
Siegel and Schwall’s search for work eventually took them to Pepper’s Show Lounge at 43rd and Vincennes in the heart of what remains the black neighborhood on the South Side. It’s where Corky felt most comfortable after playing with his trio there often.
They entered without the slightest clue that it was one of the most important clubs to exist in the golden era of Chicago blues. “To me, it was just a bar,” Corky recalls. “And we were probably the only two white kids for miles around. We went in, and asked: ‘Can we play?'”
The man they were asking turned out to be the proprietor, Johnny Pepper, who operated the nightspot in three different locations for decades, booking the biggest names in the music to play on his small stage. After a brief audition, he hired them on the spot. “I’d like you here every Thursday night,” he said. “But I’m going to hire a bass player and drummer. I don’t want a two-man band.”
In the months that followed, Siegel and Schwall arrived early each week to discover who their rhythm section would be. To their amazement, that first night Howlin’ Wolf’s bass player and drummer sat behind them. Other nights, it was Muddy’s. Or Junior’s. Or Buddy Guy’s. “From nine at night till four in the morning, we’d be playing with the rhythm section from whatever band was in town but off that night,” Siegel recalls, “and we…we were just learning to play.”
But it gets even better!
“That first night, who comes to sit in with us? Wolf, Muddy, Junior, Buddy, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor,” Corky remembers. “Sometimes I’d play piano if a harp player was playing. Sometimes I’d play harp if a piano player on stage. And they all took us under their wing.”
The duo kept that gig for several months.
Somewhere in that timeline, they met up with the folks from Hair again in Manhattan when they were in town to play. The playwrights told them they were still working on the project, but that the plot had changed to be about the hippie movement in San Francisco. “They wanted us to write the music,” Corky says. “But we turned it down because we were on the road ourselves.”
Rado and Ragni, along with Galt MacDermot, who wrote the final score, eventually played several of their tunes for Siegel and Schwall when they revisited Chicago prior to the play’s debut off-Broadway. When it did, Siegel was in town and in the audience.
Siegel-Schwall moved their act to the North Side to Big John’s on Wells Street after winning an audition to take over a spot vacated by Butterfield when he signed with Elektra Records and was heading out on the road. Along with Mother Blues, a few blocks south, it was one of the first clubs in the more affluent neighborhoods north of the Loop and east of the West Side, where the music flourished.
The duo played both venues regularly, expanding to a four-piece band and making the music, Corky says, “outrageously simple because I was still learning and wanted to sound good.”
They soon caught the ear of Vanguard Records, which assigned Samuel Charters, the legendary early blues historian, to produce the first of what would be four highly successful LPs for label. A dozen more albums followed on the Wooden Nickel/RCA and Alligator imprints.
A Classical Collaboration
It was at Big John’s that Corky’s future path changed once again. “This fella comes in night after night,” he recalls. “Obviously, he’s a big fan. He shows up early and stays all night every night six nights a week. Finally, one night, he comes up to me and says: ‘Corky, I would like your band to jam with my band.’
“‘Who’s your band?’ I asked. He says: ‘The Chicago Symphony.'”
The gentleman turned out to be Seiji Ozawa, one of the most highly decorated and innovative classical music conductors of the 20th Century. Before moving to the U.S., he led top symphonies in his native Japan and eventually served as musical director of orchestras in the Windy City, Toronto, San Francisco, Boston and Austria.
A lesser man might have declined the offer, considering how far out of left field it might have seemed. Not Corky.
After additional conversations, he, Ozawa and jazz trombonist/avant garde composer William Russo began meeting in the club, tossing around ideas. “Seiji wanted to bring the blues element to classical music,” Siegel remembers. Both he and Russo wondered how they were going to do it.
My answer was that we should make sure that we make sure we offer everyone (listeners) something to not like,” Corky laughs. “That was the first rule.”
They discussed Charles Ives, who composed “Music For Two Marching Bands” in which the two units simultaneously played different songs in different keys. “‘Let’s start there,’ I said. “‘John Cage (another experimental composer) and Charles Ives opened the door for us to do it. Ives’ vision was for us to have the orchestra play something very classical in one time and rhythm and have the blues band play straight-ahead blues, and just have them play together.'”
That idea was still simmering in 1967 when Siegel-Schwall temporarily relocated to San Francisco at the height the Summer Of Love, where they were managed by The Family Dog, the organization headed by Big Brother And The Holding Company founder Chet Helms.
“Now we’re in the absolute middle of the whole hippie scene — the Avalon and the Fillmore,” Corky remembers, “and being a San Francisco favorite…from nothing!”
Janus Joplin, Steve Miller and Joni Mitchell all served as their opening acts, and Jim and Corky teamed to produce Joni’s original demo tape. The first time Joplin played Chicago with Big Brother, Siegel picked her up at the airport. A few weeks later, he did the same for Jefferson Airplane.
Back in Chicago, Russo and Siegel completed their work, giving birth to “Three Pieces For Blues Band And Symphony Orchestra.” It debuted at the Ravinia Festival, juxtaposing the Siegel-Schwall Band with Ozawa’s ensemble in an arrangement that provided rigid structure for the classical musicians but allowed the bluesmen space to improvise.
“If you listen to it, you’ll see that, other than the intro, that’s exactly what happens,” Corky says. “It’s Siegel-Schwall playing a shuffle and the symphony playing melodic symphonic lines, then a blues ostinato (repeating phrase, usually in the same pitch) with a classical melody. Then a classical ostinato with a blues melody — three really interesting ways of approaching this juxtaposition.
“It’s completely mathematical with eight different ostinatos, four of each. That’s what I did, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
An overnight sensation, the work drew comparisons to the creativity of Miles Davis and Leonard Bernstein, and led to the bluesmen touring the country to perform it with other orchestras.
Ozawa was conducting the San Francisco Symphony when the work was captured for disc by European classical imprint Deutsche Grammophon. Released in 1973, it became one of the most successful albums the label ever produced, with the classical/blues composition on the A side backed with Ozawa’s cover of a Bernstein symphony. It hit No. 21 on Billboard‘s jazz chart, and has enjoyed subsequent success with multiple reissues through the years.
Corky has divided his time among blues, classical and world music ever since. When Siegel-Schwall broke up for the first time in 1974, he launched a solo career that continues today. And like Pepper’s, his first gig — opening for Muddy for five nights at the Quiet Knight in Chicago — proved memorable, too.
“I had three accidents leading up to this concert,” he says, breaking all of the ribs on one side of his body and bruising his heart after being run over by a horse, breaking the tip of a pinky playing softball and cutting his head open in a skiing mishap in quick succession. He arrived to play looking like a bluesman, his head bandaged, his finger in a cast and barely able to breathe.
During that era, Siegel also spent time on the road with Bob Hope, learning a lesson from the comic genius that still holds weight today.
“I was being managed for a while by a promoter who was one of Hope’s friends,” Corky remembers. He set up a six-day tour for Hope, and got the comedian’s approval to bring Corky along to open the show.
“The limousine rides were pretty wild,” Siegel remembers. “On one in particular, I said: ‘Bob, I have a question…something that’s really been bothering me: I hear professional performers saying all the time: “You must read, you must know your audience.” I get it that a comedian should know if there are children in the crowd so he won’t tell jokes that’ll be offensive. But other than that, it doesn’t make sense to me.
“‘I’m not sure what I like,’ I continued. ‘How am I going to look at an audience and try to figure out what they like?’
“He said: ‘Let me tell you a story. I was on my way to a performance and an hour late because of a flight. I showed up, and the audience applauds. I start telling my jokes. There’s a couple of giggles here, a couple of laughs there, but I’m bombing completely. So I cut my show short, take my bow and the audience applauds.”
On the ride to his hotel, it finally dawned him that he’d been giving a special performance — for an audience full of mutes — and that he wasn’t getting laughs simply because the crowd was unable to speak.
“‘Corky,’ he said, ‘don’t ever try to read your audience!'”
Ever since that ride, Siegel has used fearlessness as a tool to do what feels right.
He released three solo albums during that period. But he and Schwall — who went on to earn a PhD, taught music for many years at the University Of Wisconsin and is currently pursuing his love of nature — continued working together, most recently in March 2016.
All the while, Siegel was becoming more and more in demand to write for orchestras around the globe. First came a request from the San Francisco Symphony in 1975. “I’d never written anything before except songs and arrangements,” he says. “Even though I told them that, they insisted. I figured ‘I don’t have to live in San Francisco, so I did it.
“It debuted in front of 6,000 people at the Civic Auditorium, and there I was performing with Arthur Fielder conducting. They loved it.
“Then I got commissions from the National Symphony in Washington and the Grant Park Symphony in Chicago. I kept getting requests and turning them down. They didn’t realize I’m not really a composer and that it takes me a really long time to do it.”
But the work continued. Another collaboration with Russo in 1979 resulted in “Street Music, A Blues Concerto,” earning the Grand Prix Du Disque from the French government and honors as a Recording Of Special Merit from Stereo Review. And additional compositions have been choreographed and performed by international ballet companies, used in Olympic skating competitions and major movies.
“Seiji used to say to me: ‘You must pursue this juxtaposition between blues and classical. It’s important to the world. It’s important to music,'” Siegel reflects. “Honestly, I was touring with Siegel-Schwall and making records. The idea of spending a lot of time pursuing it wasn’t a motivator for me.
“However, even though I didn’t pursue it, it pursued me.”
In 1983, he started writing the material for what has become his enduring project, Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues. “I fell in love with the juxtaposition,” he says. The idea of working with a string quartet proved very appealing, very healing.
“This was at a time when musicians were using a lot of synthesized sounds,” he notes, “and I was just driven to wanting real sounds. I was also thinking: No more bass and drums because they’re in everything.
“But a string quartet, that was different. Nice natural, wooden sounds. And tabla (Indian drums similar to bongos), which are nice, wooden and very ornamentative.”
The idea also proved appealing for financial reasons, too. “It was also something I could travel with,” Corky says. With symphonies, he had to rely on being hired by distant orchestras to perform. “With Chamber Blues, I could rehearse in my home. If I had a headache, I could lay my head on the floor and listen to the string quartet,” he jokes. “How soothing. That’s what I wanted to be around. I was incredibly, wildly inspired. It changed my life dramatically.”
The concept premiered in 1987 in Colorado in Boulder for the Chautaugua Foundation and at the Denver Zoo, then debuted it in the Midwest a year later. “I adored it, but thought people were going to hate it,” he recalls. “But the critics were rabid. They absolutely loved it. I was really surprised.”
The blues community back home in Chicago also embraced the idea. In the years that have followed, Alligator Records has released three Chamber Blues CDs, and Corky’s current lineup includes longtime Siegel-Schwall bassist Rollo Radford as well as Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame drummer Sam Lay, who’s worked with everyone from Little Walter and Magic Sam to Butterfield and Dylan. And their most recent project, the CD Different Voices, was recently tabbed with a Downbeat editor’s pick honor.
“We’re the only chamber orchestra ever to record three albums for an all-blues label,” Corky chuckles. “And Siegel-Schwall’s the only blues band to record two for an all-classical label!”
Since 1999, he’s also toured occasionally with Dr. L. Subramaniam, India’s foremost Eastern classical violinist, delivering licks in an ensemble that’s truly global in nature. The lineup usually includes members of Subramaniam’s own talented family and extensive percussion, and has featured Hubert Laws, Ernie Watts, Larry Coryell and others in varying alignments.
“I’m not doing anything different,” Corky insists. “I’m still dancing and just doing what I’ve always done, trying to find ways of fitting in. Whenever someone asks me what I play, I still tell them it’s blues. At the same time, I don’t really want to favor the blues. I want to honor every form of music.
“It’s really profound. The musical elements — the pitch, the rhythm, the melodies and harmonies — that’s what’s really carrying us away. It’s not a particular form of music. But blues does have a step up on other forms because of folks like Wolf who threw every fiber of his being into his performance.”
The difference goes beyond the Dixon adage that blues is the root, everything else is the fruit — a statement that’s true of all American music, Siegel insists. “It’s technical, and subtle: In classical, jazz and other music, the idea is to get your personality out of the way because you want the music to speak for itself.
“In heavy metal, you know how people are going to be on stage, how they’re going to perform, what they’re going to look like and wear. In jazz, there’s a school of thought that you’ve gotta be cool, get out of the way of the music and let it speak.
“However, thankfully, there are exceptions in all forms of music where people are just going to express themselves like blues players — immersing themselves into the performance no matter what happens.
“Blues is on the pedestal. It’s the example of the way it should be for all forms of music.”
As you’re reading this interview, Siegel is about to head to India for another tour with Subramaniam. You can learn more about Corky and see his musical catalog of blues and all beyond, by visiting his website. While you’re there, be sure to check out his blog, which contains more details about the Summer Of Love, his highly humorous but insightful “One-Page Book On The Music Business” and much, much more.
Check out Corky’s website at: www.corkymusic.com