At the end of the day, it might just be a simple song for most.
But for Quintus McCormick, it was so much more than just a song. It was a beacon – almost divine intervention, if you will – because had the technology of the day been a little bit more on his side, McCormick might have passed over it completely.
Instead, it helped him to spread his wings and fly away from the comfortable nest that he’d been residing in.
“I was trying to find “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” on a cassette tape (Albert King’s I’ll Play The Blues For You) and I never could find it. The tape player would always stop on the wrong song and that song was “Little Brother (Make a Way).” And after about 10 tries or so, I finally let that song play. And the story that song told was about the man did this and the man did that and about you having to take things on and find your own way,” McCormick recently said. “I thought that was so strong and some kind of powerful. It was like that song was specifically for me … from that point on, I knew I had to get out on my own.”
And so after years spent in the service of cats like James Cotton, Otis Clay, A.C. Reed and Lefty Dizz, McCormick heeded the words of advice sung by the late, great Albert King and indeed did go his own way. That’s a path that the multi-talented guitarist/vocalist/songwriter still travels today, having established himself as one of Chicago’s must-hear bluesmen over the course of the past two decades.
But just because you are established, that doesn’t mean that everything will always fall into place on a regular basis, as McCormick explains.
“We’ve been looking for an agent and I’ve been diligently looking for one this year,” he said. “(It’s not a good thing) when people see the albums, but they don’t hear us (live). And for us, it’s way past time to be seen by the rest of the blues world, where they can relate the artist they saw with the album they see in the stores. That helps the band, but that also helps the clubs and the towns that the band comes to … it works out for everybody.”
It’s important for a working musician to have both sides of the coin in their favor. They really need to have fresh product on the shelves in order to get out and tour behind it, but they also have to get out and tour in order to raise awareness (not to mention, sales) of their newest album. McCormick seems to be right on the edge of that coin currently, with a round of some severe health issues a couple of years ago not helping his musical predicament, either.
“I got sick and was in intensive care in November, 2013. Because of that, I was off work for awhile,” he said. “And as I started getting back into the swing of things, Delmark had set up some new policy that if the band was not currently working around the city, then they were not going to produce another CD on them, because album sales are kind of low. So because of my health, we weren’t working at the time.”
Despite that setback, McCormick has a stack full of new compositions in his hands, just begging to be laid down to tape in the studio.
“Well, I figure that there will be somebody out there that wants to do an album on us. I’m ready to go … got the songs in shape and everything,” he said.
Songwriting has never been an issue for McCormick. He’s composed his very own songs for years now and would rather take the requisite time and effort required to craft his own tunes, as opposed to just hitting the studio and cranking out versions of songs that have already been recorded to death.
“That’s most definitely important to me. For one, (cover songs) a bunch of those songs have been heard and played 30,000 times or more. People have to put new blues music into the fold,” he said. “Or else, we won’t have any blues. The only thing we’ll have is like museum pieces that people have seen over and over and over. I try to write because I want to create songs that will stand the test of time … it’s part of our heritage and my culture to sing and play and write this music and I want to add new things to it. That’s real important to me as an artist.”
However, circumstances sometimes dictate a more flexible approach than the one that is initially favored. In McCormick’s case, that means time constraints.
“We were rushed on this last CD (2012’s Still Called the Blues (Delmark Records)), because there’s no way I would have dropped seven originals (for covers). In the beginning, I was told that the studio was wide-open October 1. But we were scheduled to do Lucerne (Blues Festival in Switzerland) in November, so I had to get my mind off writing and get ready for my first trip over to Europe,” he said. “We really wanted our focus (at that time) to be on the festival and our performance over in Europe.”
And according to McCormick, the energy spent on getting ready for the prestigious Lucerne Blues Festival paid off, big-time.
“The show was really good … it was hot, hot, hot. It was one of those nights when everybody in the band was just on fire … it was just clicking, just hitting from me to the drummer to the keyboard player to the bass player,” he said. “That fire just spread throughout the time we were on stage. That 70 minutes we did was just awesome. They didn’t know what hit them. I felt sorry for the young lady that came on behind us, because she had to wait a little bit for the audience to calm down after we left the stage.”
McCormick’s music owes as much to Jackson, Mississippi as it does to Chi-town and the blending of the two different regions has meshed into something that has been labeled as ‘Chicago soul/blues.’ His tunes do have urban vibes and themes to them, but they’re swaddled in the rich, warm and smokey textures of the deep south at the same time.
“We do play the blues, but Bob (Koester) has said, ‘Some of your blues sound soulful, even songs that only have three chords in them.’ You know, songs like “Fifty/Fifty” or “I’m Alright Now” (both from 2009’s Hey Jodie! (Delmark)), that’s the blues, but that’s also soul, too. I just can’t help that … I just write what comes to me,” he said. “It seems like most blues artists these days either go towards rock or towards soul, and that’s whether the songs are covers or originals. Well, we go towards soul. But you know, I was born and raised in Detroit, so maybe that’s (soul) just way down deep in me and it keeps coming out. I mean, the music has to go someplace, and for me, that someplace is the soul side of the tracks.”
As it turns out, McCormick’s first recordings easily could have came out on a record label that was long-known as the gold standard in soul/blues – the mighty Malaco Records.
“In about 1995, Tommy (Couch) Jr., and I had discussions at length about me recording for them. He was like a kid in a candy store when he heard some of my songs. But he also mentioned that there were several good labels here (in Chicago),” McCormick said. “So he told me to go and check out some of the labels here at home and see what I could do about getting a deal.”
McCormick was prepared, having basically already recorded a complete disc, meaning all he was missing was a record label and the distribution powers that it brought to the table. That’s where Delmark Records comes in.
“They took a chance on me and we went and re-recorded it,” said McCormick.
One of McCormick’s biggest hits off that first album for Delmark was the title track, “Hey Jodie! (Take Good Care of My Baby)” And like so many of his other compositions, this tune is largely based on real life happenings.
“It’s got stuff in it that a lot of other blues songs don’t have. It’s got this guy that’s fed-up with going to jail and having the law involved, but he’s not fed-up with his woman; he loves her. Jodie knows what this lady is puttin’ out and he ain’t about to let her go,” he said. “And he says, ‘Let’s just be playas about this; just take good care of my baby when I’m gone. You would want the same thing out of me.’ That’s a true story, man. It’s stuff that can and has happened in someone’s life and times.”
While the lyrics and the scenario of the song came relatively quickly and easily for McCormick, getting it all down on tape was another matter entirely.
“Man, they made me cut that thing three times and I started getting upset. I thought, ‘What is wrong with these people?’ Then it dawned on me,” he said. “They wanted it cut three different times to see what kind of a vibe each take had. They were looking for a certain vibe that they didn’t get on the first one, but might have on the second or third one. We did it until they said we got it. Then after that, we cut about 12 others, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Then we took a break.”
Originally from the Motor City of Detroit – where he listened to plenty of rock-n-roll while growing up – McCormick relocated to Chicago back in 1978. No familiar surroundings and no familiar faces staring back at McCormick – who has been playing music since he was 4 – didn’t faze him one little bit upon his arrival in the Windy City.
“I just kind of always felt at home on the stage … but I really didn’t know anybody (in Chicago), so no matter what I did, I had to pay my way through,” he said. “I started out doing little singing contests with me and an acoustic guitar.”
He didn’t just enter ‘little singing contests,’ he started winning them, along with the bounty that was attached.
“You’d get up there and sing a song that was popular at the time and if you won, you got $100. Well, I won. And then I went on to a couple of other places and won there, too,” he said. “I think the last contest I won was at the Horizon West. I sang “Give Me the Night.” And after that, I said, ‘That’s it. No more singing contests. I’ve got to get me a band together.’”
Once classes started back up at Harold Washington College, McCormick hooked up with some like-minded members in the music department and started playing anywhere they could, anytime they could.
“It kind of just blew up from there and grew. We started doing concerts in the school and even though we didn’t have a keyboard player at that time, we had a fat horn section that wouldn’t quit,” he said. “We’d do concerts in the basement and charge 50 cents for T-shirts and then we started doing a few things outside the school; and then we started working every Sunday night.”
While he was beginning to find solid footing in the musical community in Chicago at that time, McCormick really wasn’t playing the blues back in those days. His combo was mainly playing the current pop and soul hits of the day.
“We’d play pop and stuff like Maze and some Steely Dan. I do like like pop music with good songs. I mean, I was in love with Michael McDonald’s singing and the way that Donald Fagen could write a song. I liked all that stuff,” he said.
His immersion into the blues would come with a visit to a club not far from where he was living.
“Buddy Guy’s (Legends) was on Wabash and 8th and I stayed at 8th and State, so I would go down there all the time. The managers and all the cats around there really got me tuned into the blues,” he said. “I knew nothing about the artists or the history of the blues at that time. Nothing.”
Hanging out around Legend’s ended up paying dividends for McCormick as he was about to hook up with a legend that rivals the stature of Buddy Guy, only maybe not as quickly as he would have liked.
“(James) Cotton was needing a guitar player and they told me about it. And I was like, ‘Sure, I’d love to play with him, but I need to graduate, first.’ I was still in college and hadn’t finished my finals yet. Well, this particular week, they (Cotton’s band) were going to New York for the weekend and then coming back for a week and then the next week, they were going to Belgium for 12 days,” McCormick said. “Well, I called my mother and she said, ‘Boy, are you nuts? If they want you now, they’ll want you even more when you cross that stage (at graduation). Why would you waste a whole semester of school to go on the road and not finish what you started? That’s ludicrous. You better not do anything like that, or I’ll come to Chicago and beat your brains out.’”
Mama’s message firmly understood, McCormick hopped on the phone and told Cotton’s manager that he did want the gig … just not right then.
“They got Larry McCray to do it, but they did call me back in July and we started rehearsing and it was cool,” he said. “I told him (Cotton) that I wanted to be a blues star and I wanted to learn as much as I could from him. And James – he called me ‘Quincy’ – told me to do what I could for him and that he was not going to hold me back (when it came time to leave). He said he would do anything he could to push me in the right direction and he was a man of his word.”
McCormick and his group found steady work at the Kingston Mines in the mid-90s, but he was still a bit unsure about the way he was being received by the rest of the blues community in Chicago at that time.
“I really didn’t know any of them (other musicians) at the time, but I couldn’t understand why the ones that were out in the crowd didn’t want to get up onstage and sit in with us. I didn’t like that and I felt bad because they didn’t want to sit in with us, like they did with everybody else,” he said. “Well, Rick Hall – Buddy’s guitar player – was telling me, ‘Q, that’s a good thing. That means they (other musicians) are so into what you’re group’s doing that they want to just sit and watch, as opposed to get up and play with you. That’s a great thing.’ I never thought about it that way, I felt kind of embarrassed about it. But after I found out (why) that gave me even more confidence about what I was doing.”
That confidence has never ebbed or waned since then, and it looks to be that way from here on out.
“Once I head that Albert King song (“Little Brother”), that was it, man. I said right then that was the starting point and I’m playing the blues for the rest of my life. This it it, right here,” he said. “There’s too many of us (bluesmen) that are dying off … somebody has to carry this torch and that’s what I want to continue to do. There’s a lot of cats out there playing hip-hop, but I don’t know how to rap. I do know how to write and that’s what’s I’m going to do – write and sing the blues.”
Visit Quintus’ Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/quintus.mccormick
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine