The blues world is chock full of artists beloved by their peers, but who fly under the radar of fans because they perform yeoman duties on stage while their band leader receives all the credit. There’s one man, however much he remains hidden, still stands out from the rest, an unheralded superstar himself despite working in the shadows for others for better than 40 years.
Guitarist Rico McFarland has a résumé that reads like the roster of the Blues Hall of Fame, having spent decades alongside Albert King, Lucky Peterson, Tyrone Davis, Otis Clay, Little Milton, Jimmy Johnson and Sugar Blue, none of whom ever hesitated to sing his acclaim. A sweet, soft-spoken bear of man, he takes other musicians to school every night, delivering some of the tastiest tones and perfectly modulated licks in the business – chops that have been featured on dozens of instantly recognizable hits.
Despite receiving international recognition in the early 2000s, when Rico was a finalist for new artist of the year honors at the W.C. Handy Awards, the precursor to the Blues Music Awards, he’s elected to remain a sideman. Even though he was swamped with offers to tour in the months that followed, he quickly realized he’d be better off abandoning his own career as a leader and concentrating on helping others instead.
A first-call guitarist in the studio as well as an arranger and musical director, McFarland’s never wanted for work since making that life decision. But except for his peers and admirers, he’s remained pretty much invisible to the outside world – so much so, in fact, that the interview that follows is the first one he’s given since his early acclaim.
A key component of Sugar Blue’s band, Rico re-formed his own group a couple of years ago when the harmonica genius decided to relocate abroad, dividing his time between Italy and China. Although the pair still team up today whenever possible, McFarland’s band was working regularly at the top clubs in greater Chicagoland until the COVID-19 shutdown.
Like everyone else in the business right now, he’s chomping at the bit to get back out there. In the meantime, he passing time by writing new material for what portends to be his first album in 19 years and working on rehabbing his childhood home on the West Side of the Windy City.
McFarland’s a bluesman from birth despite also making a name for himself in the funk and soul worlds, too. A child prodigy who started out life as a drummer, he’s the son of James McFarland, a guitarist in his own right, whose band included six-time BMA bass player of the year Willie Kent, then a rising talent, as well as recording artist Willie Hudson, whose work got new life recently when two of his songs were included as part of Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection, a compilation that’s a finalist in this year’s Blues Blast Music Awards.
He grew up across the street from Lil’ Ed Williams in a hard-scrabble neighborhood that teemed with talent and was still home to dozens of neighborhood taverns that featured some of the best downhome music in the city.
“I grew up at Homan and Monroe,” Rico says. “Muddy Waters and Eddie Shaw, Hubert Sumlin, and Howlin’ Wolf…everybody was over there in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I started playin’ at the age of five, knockin’ my dad’s guitars over (chuckles). He said: ‘Well, I guess you’re gonna have to (learn how to play and) pay for this one!’
“Every time I go over to that old house, I gotta go into the backyard because I have so many good memories. We always used to have blues parties. Everybody’d be showin’ up, man…Hubert, Otis Rush, Willie Kent, Willie Hudson, a couple of times Freddie King, (drummer) Kansas City Red…just everybody!”
>The McFarland home was one of the go-to places for West Side bluesmen to hang out. Even before young Rico knew what was going on, he was already being indoctrinated with deep lessons about the music that’s impossible to pick up by listening to a record, reading a book or watching a video like you can today.
“We had a bar in the basement,” he says, “and there’d be parties there all night – until six in the morning. I got the blues from him and my uncle Marvin. Everybody’d come over and jam, and I grew up playin’ Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Rogers style low-down, dirty blues.”
Now accomplished on guitar, bass and keys, his chances to sit in came when some of his friends…shall we say…had too much of a good time. “It was like…somebody’d get drunk and somebody’d have to take their place,” he says. “That was how I got to learn so many instruments.”
A child protégé, McFarland was a member of a couple of soul bands in his youth, most notably Cook County Express and The Natural Explosions. His playing skills on the six-string in that medium were aided by lessons from funk guitarist/producer Johnny McGhee, who’s best known for his work with the band L.T.D. (Love, Togetherness and Devotion). Originally from Greensboro, N.C., the group was fronted by future Grammy nominee Jeffery Osborne and hit the top of the chart-toppers in 1977 with the song “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back in Love Again.”
“He was really one of my favorites for chording and grooving,” Rico notes. “And, of course, Walter…Walter Scott was a big help, too.”
Known as Sir Walter, Scott led several different configurations of family bands with his nine brothers, playing both soul and blues. His guitar provided the backbone of hits by the Chi-Lites and other Windy City soul greats. “I got a lot of pick lines from him,” McFarland says. “He knew how to play inside the groove.”
The lessons came in handy because Rico’s own bands were providing backing for stars, too, including working with playing behind Ruby Andrews, whose biggest hit, “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over,” reached the No. 9 spot in soul charts in 1967 and “You Made a Believer (Out of Me)” came close to duplicating it two years later.
Still too young to drive, Rico also spent four years as a member of Kansas City Red’s band. Born Arthur Stephenson, he was one of the biggest characters on the Chicago blues scene in that era, a diminutive, wise-cracking man who’d previously served as drummer for Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker and for Sonny Boy Williamson’s King Biscuit Time radio show band on KFFA in Helena, Ark. He was fronting his own group as a singer when he brought Rico on board.
“I was playin’ drums at the time, and I was gettin’ tired of ‘em,” McFarland remembers. “Then switchin’ up on the bass, too, before movin’ to the guitar.”
He was still just 15 when he and his brother made their way a few miles east to the 1815 Club — the Roosevelt Road a bar owned by Wolf’s sax player and band leader, Eddie Shaw – to catch Otis Rush in action. “My brother bet me I couldn’t get Otis to let me sit in,” he remembers. “But I won the bet – and got a standing ovation, too!”
McFarland’s indoctrination to the subtly different South Side blues came when he started working with Buddy Scott — Sir Walter’s brother—who fronted his own band, The Rib Tips, as well as Artie “Blues Boy” White. A man whose life was cut tragically short because of complications from diabetes, Buddy recorded one stellar album in his career, Bad Avenue, on the Verve label.
A rich-voiced singer, meanwhile, White was a key figure in the city’s music landscape, a contemporary artist whose bridged post-War blues and what’s known now as Southern soul or soul blues. He owned his own club, Bootsie’s Show Lounge, recorded for both Ichiban and the Malaco subsidiary Waldoxy — two of the top soul-blues labels of the era, and is best known for the hits as “I’m Gonna Marry My Mother-in-Law” and “Your Man Is Home Tonight.”
“Buddy really gave me my start,” Rico says, “puttin’ my name out there and stuff. He got me on the Big Bill Hill Show at a club called Texas Lady.”
A deejay on WOPA, Hill had the ear of Chicago blues lovers for decades, both as a radio personality and a promoter. He also owned the Copa Cabana Club and, in 1965, hosted the teenage dance show Red Hot and Blues, a precursor to rival WVON deejay Don Cornelius’ Soul Train, which debuted two years later on same station, WCIU-TV.
“And Artie was like my godfather,” McFarland remembers fondly. “I played a lot over there with him.”
Another great blues influence, he says, his biggest influence was Willie James Lyons. Another often overlooked guitarist, his career in Chicago began in the ‘50s and ended with his death at age 42 in 1980. He started out as a member of native of the house band led by Willie Kent at Ma Bea’s Lounge on Madison Street then became a fixture with Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins and Bobby Rush. He only two albums as a band leader — Ghetto on Storyville, sharing billing with Kent, and Ghetto Woman on Isabel – were released solely in Europe
“Them were the guys,” Rico says. “I used to sit in the front of the stage, try to sit in, and they’d be like: ‘Okay, young man, you ain’t got it yet (laughs).
“We didn’t have DVDs or VCRs back then. You had to sit there (and watch). I knew I got it, but they say I don’t. I’d come back the next week and try it again. Aww, you’re almost there. I learned (the hard way) through the years — that’s what they’re talkin’ about…okay… They give ya hell, man, but you appreciate it when you finally do get it.
“When I did get it, I started listenin’ to cats like Matt Murphy, Pat Hare and Luther Tucker and goin’ down to Theresa’s (Lounge)…the basement over there at 42nd and Indiana. Those are the good old days!”
McFarland’s first recordings came on 45s for Kansas City Red and Artie White before becoming a road dog for four years with Albert King — which was a lesson unto itself — and several more on the road with Little Milton. To say that Albert was a difficult task master would be an understatement.
“Woo, man! I love him, but love him from a distance,” Rico says. “He could be the nicest guy, but he could be the meanest, too.”
Back then, many of the guitarists tuned by ear and weren’t necessarily on pitch, something that made it a challenge for their accompanists, and King was one of them. His roster changed often because of his stern demeanor and – even back then – some former bandmates complained that he’d tune up before leaving on a tour and wouldn’t do it again until returning home. His playing style was distinctly different because he adjusted his strings to a lower register – something McFarland, himself, didn’t realize for years.
“I didn’t know he tuned down,” he says. “He sat in one time when I was playin’ at Artie’s club, Bootsie’s, much later. It was his birthday, and he said: ‘Gimme the guitar, young fella!’ So he went u-u-u-h-r-a-a, u-u-u-h-r-a-a, u-u-h-r-a-a (lowering the tension in the strings).
“That’s how he was able to bend like that, and that’s how I found his technique out! He was a mean one, but I miss him, man. I miss him.”
Ageless wonder Jimmy Johnson had already recorded two albums in Europe, but when he made his U.S. debut on Delmark Records with Johnson’s Whacks in 1979, Rico was in the studio with him, laying down the rhythm.
McFarland moved on to Little Milton’s band, but left in the early ‘80s not long before Lucky Peterson joined Milton as his keyboard player. Their relationship was short-lived, but the soul-blues legend spoke so lovingly of Rico in his absence that Lucky – then still a teenager himself — made a trip to Chicago to find him when starting his own band.
It was actually a reunion of sorts. The duo had crossed paths more than a decade earlier – a meeting that had taken place in the hallowed confines of Chess Studios, apparently when Willie Dixon had brought Lucky to the city to record what would become the LP Our Future: 5-Year-Old Lucky Peterson.
McKinley Mitchell – the soul, blues and gospel singer best known for the tune, “The Town I Live In,” a major hit in the early ‘60s – was a friend to both their parents, thought Dixon might be interested in adding Rico’s voice to the record. He told the youngster: “I want you to meet this little kid.”
McFarland was either eight or nine himself at the time, and says today: “I didn’t think nothin’ about it.” Peterson did catch his attention a few months later, though, making a huge impression.
Dad James was watching Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show one night when Lucky was making an appearance to promote his record and called for Rico to sit and watch him. “My father said: ‘You gotta be like this guy,’” Rico recalls. “‘Look at this little guy go!’”
Flash forward a dozen years or so before they crossed paths again.
“I was playin’ somewhere with Artie,” Rico recalls, “and he came in the door. He said: ‘Remember me?’ I said: ‘Uh-huh!’ He was all grown up…but he still was small. He said the first thing out of Little Milton’s mouth (when he announced he was leaving) was: ‘Go find Rico. He’s gonna be with Artie.’”
“I gotta meet Rico, I gotta meet Rico…,” Lucky told him. “That’s all Milton would talk about.”
They formed an instantaneous friendship and kept in touch regularly, but it took years before they finally hooked up, during which Peterson had become an international superstar and McFarland was rising in popularity, too, as James Cotton’s guitarist. They were both booked for the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena Ark., one year when Lucky approached McFarland, this time insisting he switch allegiance and join his group instead.
“Lucky was like: ‘Man, I need you to come on the road,” he recalls. “‘I need somebody to handle my band. My record is hot overseas.’ I said: ‘All right. Let me know.’
“I didn’t hear from him. A year went past, and he called me again and said: ‘I really need you come out. I need somebody to keep my band tight. So I said: ‘Okay. I’m gonna try it.’
“Man, I get off the plane in Europe and he had two buses and two semis outside the airport. I said: ‘You got it like this for real? (laughs)’ I thought it was gonna be like a van tour, ya know.”
In fact, he notes, Peterson’s band was performing as part of a James Brown tour – and the Godfather of Soul had the same setup as Lucky waiting for him outside the gates that day, too.
“‘You got it like that!’ I told him.’ Lucky says: ‘Yeah. We’re rollin’, man!’
“James Brown was the star, but Lucky was puttin’ too much heat on James ‘cause his record was so hot at the time. I stayed with him about ten years.”
Their bond remained strong until Peterson’s unexpected passing at age 55 earlier this year. Rico remained at his side even after the success of his own album, Tired of Being Alone, which was released not long after they’d first joined forces.
That recording came about as somewhat of a fluke, McFarland explains today. It began as an album for Chicago vocalist Zora Young, who was making waves after the release of her first Delmark CD, Learned My Lesson, a year before. But the project reached a standstill and was on the verge of death for reasons Rico can’t remember.
“I was producin’,” he says, “and they (Evidence Records) already had a due date to put it out. So they came back and asked me if I could finish it because they’d put so much money into it. I felt bad and told Zora. She said: ‘You oughta go on and do that record.’
“I had to come up with some songs I wanted to do at the last minute. But it paid off (laughs)!”
Released in 2001, it features helping hands from several heavyweights, including Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Billy Branch, Blue, keyboard player Roosevelt Purifoy and guitarists Melvin Taylor and Carl Weathersby – “pretty much everybody I had played with,” Rico says. It features collection of standards, originals and covers, including a standout re-do of Prince’s version of the Joan Osborne hit, “What If God Was One of Us.” The title tune is an original, not the Al Green song of the same name.
Despite losing out to Otis Taylor in the W.C. Handy competition – a truly deserving winner, Rico insists, McFarland was soon deluged with offers to tour because of his newfound success. But he was conflicted.
“I was still out with Lucky, and Lucky was so-o-o hot, man,” he says. “He wanted me to leave, and – then again — he didn’t. And people – his promoters and stuff – wanted me to stay.
“Besides, the amount of money they were talkin’ about, man…I was makin’ more than that with Lucky. I was like: ‘I can’t go down the road with a good band and pay ‘em with this little money.’ I just couldn’t do it. And the guys wouldn’t want to go out with the little money I’d have to be payin’ ‘em.
“So me and Lucky came up with a plan: He sold my CDs and I sold his from the stage. So I was movin’ CDs that way. I just stayed out there with him, and he just promoted my name all over the place. He gave me a name overseas, and I’ll always be grateful. I miss him every day. We were like brothers! I said: ‘I’ll come back to it (fronting his own band) when I can. And I’m still waitin’ (laughs)!
“I just made up my mind two years ago to do it again. I’m just been doin’ it around town unless somebody makes it worth my while to go out. I’m just hopin’ there’s somewhere to go to because things were gettin’ messed up before the virus. A lot of clubs were already closed then.”
When not touring with Peterson, McFarland was still an extremely hot commodity. Not only was he still working with Cotton, he was busy in the studio with a host of others, including Weathersby, Syl, blues shouter Big Time Sarah, and Blue. And he was also a member of the soul-funk band, Amuzement Park, too, a group that was started in New York, based out of Chicago, signed to Atlantic Records and enjoyed three hits – “Groove Your Blues Away,” “Do You Still Love Me” and “No” – between 1982 and ’84.
He and Blue have been working together steadily for the better part of two decades. Their relationship began one night in the early ‘80s when Rico was playing behind someone at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and Sugar was the headliner at the Kingston Mines, which had just moved across the street from its prior location on Lincoln Avenue.
At the time, McFarland says, he had no clue as to Blue’s identity or his previous success, which included three albums with the Rolling Stones. “I said: ‘Sugar who?’” he recalls. “I’d never heard of him (laughs)!”
Then and now, it’s not uncommon for musicians to crisscross the street between the clubs and enjoy each other while working themselves, often sharing drinks late into the night at the Mines because of its later closing.
“Dude, I went over there and he blew my mind,” Rico remembers. “I said: ‘Man, this boy is ba-a-ad!’ I’d never seen a harmonica played like that.”
On that particular evening, Blue’s own guitarist failed to show up, and — out of the blue — Sugar asked him if he’d be willing to fill in as time permitted and then join him for the late sets after his own gig ended. McFarland juggled the simultaneous jobs that night, and they’ve been playing together ever since.
Blue offers up only the highest praise for his partner and friend. “Rico McFarland is the ultimate blues guitarist playing today,” he told Blues Blast for this story. “Everyone else pales in comparison. The breadth of his musical knowledge and his abilities span time and genres.
“He’s the best! Forget the rest! All that and a magnificent voice, too! And he’s far more deserving of a wider recognition than many (of the folks) out there whose names don’t deserve to be on the same page as Rico.”
Their bond of brotherhood has grown stronger as they’ve circled the globe, producing several diverse, complex and well-received CDs in the process – most recently Voyage in 2016 and Colors last year. There’s no doubt that he’ll be involved in Sugar’s latest project, which will launch soon.
The pair were both in the lineup recently for Alex Dixon’s The Real McCoy, which was released to critical acclaim earlier this year, and Rico also appeared on Jimmy Johnson’s new, award-winning Delmark release, Every Day of Your Life — something that might not have happened if Rico hadn’t kept prodding him to do it.
“Yeah, we finally got him to go back into the studio,” McFarland says of the 91-year-old legend. “I’ve been beggin’ him for years. He said: ‘You gonna go with me if I do? I ain’t goin’ unless you’re there.’
“I said: ‘All right, Jimmy, I’ll be there.”
Since the early stages of the shutdown, he’s also been hard at work in his home studio alongside his brother-in-law and former Albert King bandmate, keyboard player Tony Llorens, writing new material for what will be the first Rico McFarland CD in 19 years. Meanwhile, he remains concerned about what will happen next for himself and his musical compatriots.
He remains eternally grateful for all the fans he’s made around the world and for all the love and support they’ve heaped on him no matter where he’s been or with whom he’s been playing. The experience, he says, has been humbling, adding: “Some of them have come up to me and thanked me for saving their lives.”
One woman, in particular, told him that she was on the verge of suicide and only came back from the edge after playing some of his music. “I just broke down and cried when she said that.”
It’s something that’s happened to him at least ten times on the road. He communicates regularly with a throng of friends and fans he’s made in his travels. “I just wanna thank them for bein’ there for me,” he insists. “And I want all the musicians out there to hang in there.
“If you need to talk, talk to each other, man, and keep each other’s head up. Things are rough. But we all have that special clique and have to hang in there until this is over!”
Rico doesn’t have a website, but you check out what he’s up to by visiting his Rico McFarland Band page on Facebook or by following him on Instagram at @ricomcfarland2002.