Standing at six-feet, six-inches tall and weighing in at well over 250 pounds, the late, great Freddie King could easily be described as a mountain of a man.
And as most blues fans can testify to, when Freddie King really got cooking on his Gibson 335, there were very few that could challenge him.
When you combine his physical presence with his musical prowess, it’s highly unlikely that those that were fortunate enough to bear witness to the ‘Texas Cannonball’ up-close-and-personal would ever forget that experience.
Such was the power and magic of King that he could even overshadow the memory of the bands that he opened up for, including some that have long been entrenched in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.
“Well, I saw Freddie King in 1971 at the Kinetic Playground in Chicago and he opened up for The Who … or maybe it was the Jeff Beck Group …it could have been either of them, I don’t really remember,” said Wisconsin-based bluesman Reverend (Rik) Raven. “What I do remember was Freddie walking out into the crowd with a 100- or 200-foot (guitar) cord and man, he was just rippin’ … standing like five feet away from me. Freddie just stole that show, standing out in the middle of 2,000 hippies. And that was it. I stopped listening to rock-n-roll, I stopped buying rock-n-roll records and I started learning to play as much blues as I could.”
That encounter with King (who is also in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, along with The Who … and Jeff Beck) would ultimately help spur Rik Raven on to endless nights of playing the blues for eager audiences all across the Midwest and beyond.
Together since the mid-90s, Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys are edging ever closer to their 20th anniversary as a functioning, real-deal blues band. The group is so popular that it is a six-time winner of the Wisconsin Music Industry’s Blues Band of the Year Award (1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010). The outfit also won People’s Choice Awards in 2006, 2008 and 2010 and were also nominated for a Blues Blast Award for Band of the Year in 2011.
“Hard-driving, passionate blues” is how Raven describes the sound of his group. “I’d like to say ‘50s and ‘60s inspired Chicago blues, and I’ve had bands and been in bands where we’ve done that, but we’re really not like that. We try and present our music like what I saw back in the early ‘70s when I went to the clubs in Chicago to see these great blues bands. They were there to entertain you and make you have a great experience so you’d come back and drink more. So that’s what we try and do.”
As one might fathom by just hearing the name of the band, its origins lay deep in a night fueled by plenty of drinking.
“I’m waiting for the Catholic church to sue me. But you know, they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” laughed Raven. “First, it was going to be the Altar Boys, then it was going to be the Smokin’ Altar Boys and then someone said The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys. This was at a bar that had blues on the jukebox on Monday nights, so we were sitting around getting drunk and trying to come with a band name. And that’s what we came up with.”
And as for the ‘Reverend’ label?
“I got the ‘Reverend’ tag back when I was in the Navy. I had put the guitar down and was really focused on just being a (Navy) lifer. But at one point I started playing again in a band, part time. One of my collateral duties (in the service) was counseling troubled sailors in our command,” Raven said. “And the kids started calling me Reverend, instead of the Chaplin. They had come looking for me one night and I was in a band with a bunch of hippies. They thought that was the greatest thing in the world. They started calling me Reverend and it stuck.”
The wheels of progress have been constantly moving forward for the Reverend and his troops, with plenty of projects and gigs occupying most of their waking moments for the last several months.
“Yeah, things have been good, we’ve had a great year with lots of work,” he said. “Almost too much work. But I always like to say that keeps me from having meaningful employment. I like it like that. I’ve got a 20th anniversary CD that I’m working on and I’ve got three songs already in the can. And then, I’m working on two live projects; Live at the Red Rocket, which is my bootleg series and then I’ve also got an official live CD coming out, too.”
Raven, who was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, has also managed to find time to work on a few new song ideas, some of which he’s been batting back-and-forth for a couple of decades now.
“I perform better under pressure, so when I know I have to get something done, that’s when I finally push everything else aside and focus on it,” he said. “I have lots of songs that we’ve done over the years, things like obscure covers where we take and throw a different groove underneath it. After we’ve been doing that and the band’s really tight with it, then I try and sit down and write some lyrics over it. I have books with 20 year’s worth of lyrics in them, some that I’ve never been able to make work. But then, all of a sudden, you might stumble across something that makes those lyrics work. And if I can’t finish those songs, then I’ll get with someone that can help me and then we’ll co-write it.”
Lyrics and song ideas may not exactly be floating through the air we breathe on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not right out there in the open just waiting to be discovered, either.
“A lot of times, they (song-writing ideas) come from something that I hear someone saying on the street. Or maybe I’ll overhear a conversation and go, ‘Oh, that’s a great line for a song,’” Raven said. “I try and keep a little notebook with me and the last couple of years with these smart phones, I realized that they have a voice recorder on them, so I’ll record a line on my phone when it comes to me. I read somewhere that Steve Allen (famous comedian, song-writer and television personality) kept two of them (recorders) – one in his left pocket and one in his right. The one in the left pocket was for jokes and the one in the right pocket was for songs. Isn’t that something? These smart phones are great.”
The original incarnation of The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys included the exceptional talents of harpist Madison Slim, who was a one-time band member of Jimmy Rogers.
“He (Slim) was looking for something to do when he wasn’t on the road with Jimmy Rogers. And so Slim was in and out of the (Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys) band three or four times,” Raven said. “Then Slim moved to Bradenton, Florida and he plays with Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones when Dennis (Gruenling) doesn’t. Slim does most of the Florida gigs with The Jewel Tones and is just a perfect, perfect fit for that band.”
You can hear the way that Reverend Raven and Madison Slim work together so well on the Live at Blues on Grand CD. “That’s still one of my favorite CDs that I’ve done,” Raven said.
When Slim made his sojourn south, Raven replaced him with saxophone player Big Al Groth. “Then after Al left, I have a wonderful piano player named Danny Moore in the band now,” said Raven. “And Westside Andy’s been playing with us a lot lately. He’s a great harmonica player out of Madison, Wisconsin.” The rhythm section features drummer Bobby Sellers Jr., along with P.T. Pedersen on bass.
According to Raven, the blues scene in Wisconsin mirrors that of many other cities across the country – it’s not what it used to be, but it’s still managing to find a way to survive.
“Wisconsin used to have a great blues scene. When I moved to Milwaukee from Chicago when I first got out of the Navy, there was a club down on the east side called the Up and Under Club and that was THE blues club in Milwaukee. Everybody that toured played there on their way to somewhere else,” he said. “Then before I got there, there was a club called Teddy’s and Howlin’ Wolf and Magic Sam used to play there. There’s still a pretty good blues scene around, but it’s just gone back to where the blues used to be – in the taverns. And you just can’t make a lot of money playing taverns. If you’re a blues band that wants to do it full-time in Milwaukee, you pretty much have to hit the road and go town-to-town. But Madison’s got a pretty good blues scene – it has two full-time blues clubs. And there’s little blues clubs in towns like Oshkosh and Wausau.”
Music – especially the blues – was a part of Raven’s childhood from almost the get-go.
“Blues was always around our house in some form or the other. My mother was born and raised in Chicago and she listened to a lot of jazz/blues. She tended to like Count Basie more than she liked Duke Ellington,” he said. “She listened to a lot of piano blues in the house, along with singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee. And then my older brother Dave, he started bringing home all The Yardbirds and The Stones albums, and then him and his buddies found out that Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and those guys were right across the expressway, like two miles away. So all of a sudden, they were off to the clubs and bringing home albums, so that was always around the house.”
On certain nights, lucky audiences at one of Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys’ shows are treated to a near hour-long set of heavy-duty slide guitar histrionics, courtesy of the good Reverend. You don’t have to listen too closely to pick up more than a preponderance of influence via the almighty Hound Dog Taylor in Raven’s slide playing.
“Every Tuesday night for a couple of years, I used to go down to the Pickle Barrel and see Hound Dog with Brewer Phillips and Ted Harvey. I’d watch them get massively drunk on stage and tear the place up,” Raven laughed. “I loved that. Brewer Phillips was such a great guitar player. Him and Hound Dog together … wow! I used to steal all kinds of licks from them. When my kids or their friends are in the audience, that’s the first thing they want me to do (play slide). They don’t want any of the cutesy stuff; they want to hear the raw, Hound Dog Taylor sound. And they all start dancing and go crazy. So when I play for bikers, or younger and rowdier crowds, I usually break out the slide first.”
Raven first perfected his raunchy slide-guitar playing in a way that Taylor and Phillips certainly would have approved of – at a good old-fashioned house party.
“We used to have hippie house parties back in the ‘70s and have like 300 people in this big farmhouse in Keeneyville, which is outside of Chicago. We’d take all the furniture out of the living room and put it in the backyard and then the band would set up in the corner,” he said. “There was two of us (guitar players) that played slide and we’d pretty much just play the same songs over and over, the drunker we got. It was great, 300 drunk hippies dancing everywhere. It was a ball.”
Raven first picked up the guitar when he was 14-years-old, after watching his older cousin, who lived in the household, play in bands all over Chicago.
“He was in a real cool band called The Nerve and they had a guitar player named Phil Lucafo (later of the band Heartsfield). And Phil started giving me lessons and he taught me how to play the guitar solo from “Pride of Man” (Quicksilver Messenger Service) and how to correctly play the solo to “Sunshine of Your Love.” I was driving my mother crazy all summer long just playing that riff – duh, duh, duh, duh, dunt, dunt, dunt, dunt, dunt, duh – on a big –ole acoustic guitar. So she bought me a guitar and I took a few lessons from Phil and started pouring into some records and going to see people play.”
From there, Raven went through a host of ‘bad blues bands’ before he put the guitar aside at 22 and enlisted in the United States Navy.
“I didn’t touch the guitar from about age 22 until I was about 39,” he said. “And then I’ve been learning to play again ever since (now at age 60). I try and learn something new every day, if I can.”
After almost two decades of leading The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys, it looks like all the hard work and sweat – along with all the other sacrifices that go along with playing the blues – that Raven has put in has borne fruit in the form of a successful career as a musician. With all that in mind, Raven has a great deal of empathy for bands that are just starting to take their first steps down the road he’s traveled for these many years.
“I’m working steady and I’m very, very grateful for that. But for new bands coming up, it’s just so hard. I feel so bad for them. I try and help them as much as I can, getting them gigs and trying to hook them up with agents and things like that,” he said. “But there’s just a limited amount of clubs these days and there’s a lot of us competing for the dates at those clubs. And getting into new territories is tough, because club owners don’t want to take a chance on a band they haven’t heard before. So it’s really tough out there for a new band.”
Partly because of that being the case, Raven has softened his views a bit regarding the International Blues Challenge.
“I used to pooh-pooh that whole IBC thing; I thought there was a bit of exploitation of the bands. But from the standpoint of a new band being able to get in front of a lot of people, wow them and then being able to get work out of it, I’m all for it.”
One thing that does seem to have affected both new bands, as well as their seasoned counterparts, is an ageing audience that may not quite have the same pep-in-its-step that it used to back in the day.
“The baby-boomers are getting older and are either going home earlier from the clubs, or just staying at home altogether. I know I’m playing a lot of gigs from 7 to 10 p.m. these days,” Raven said. “And I encourage that to the club owners, because old guys like to go home. But you know, doing three sets a night is getting tough on my old self.”