“You can’t go to school to learn how to play the way I play,” says Chicago bluesman Lurrie Bell. “It’s kind of a feeling, you know what I mean?” Delmark Records in-house producer Steve Wagner in 1995 told writer George Hanson that blues musicians are divided into two categories, conscious competence and unconscious competence. Dave Spector, he said, is an example of conscious competence, and Lurrie Bell is an example of unconscious competence.
Both Lurrie Bell and Steve Wagner are given to understatement. The son of blues harp legend Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell in 1995 released his first solo LP Mercurial Son on the Delmark label. It was a feral, primal juggernaut that was downright scary in its intensity and combined the spastic energy of an R. L. Burnside with the seasoned prowess of a Muddy Waters.
The release flat out intimidated Bill Dahl who wrote in Lurrie’s AllMusic biography that Mercurial Son was “as bizarre a contemporary blues album as you’re likely to encounter.” The New York Times gushed that Lurrie was “one of the few blues musicians under 40 who has chosen not to take a technocratic, rock approach to blues. He is a virtuoso of the irregular, of strangely angled phrases, of spilled lines and notes seemingly grabbed back.”
With that release he refuted traditional hardliners who say most contemporary blues has lost something in the transition. He was and is the quintessential Chicago blues artist, the archetype. In subsequent Delmark releases he defied the logic of his musical contemporaries who tend to blend classic riffs and themes with younger generation influences. He WAS and IS his father’s Oldsmobile – but with four on the floor.
After all, he’d been listening to his father, Carey Bell’s postwar electric blues harp playing since he was in the womb. Daddy’s credits include Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Robert Nighthawk, Big Walter Horton, and Johnny Young. Carey Bell’s 1990 alligator release Harp Attack with James Cotton, Junior Wells and Billy Branch alone cemented his position as a Chicago powerhouse and Carey’s Deep Down Alligator release with son Lurrie on guitar was a staple of blues radio in the mid-90s.
“My dad knew that I had the blues,” says Lurrie today. “And he was there in my corner, and coached me along the way. He had everything I needed. He had guitars there for me, and he had albums there for me, All I needed to do was pick up the guitar and play. I think my dad knew that I was going to be a blues man, and I think he was proud of what I was doing as a guitarist and working with my father and playing in my dad’s band. I think that’s what my dad wanted.
“I felt like I was one of the luckiest individuals alive to be able to play the blues, and I was proud of my father. I wanted him to know that I could do the blues like him, and I wanted to impress my father, and I think I did. I felt very lucky to be able to play the blues. You know, my dad was something else. My father was a hell of a musician.”
Lurrie picked up his first guitar when he was six years old. It was missing both the high E and B strings. “I was over my dad’s house, and the music was sounding good. The band my dad had – they were all rehearsing, and I was there. It was sounding so good, and I saw this guitar. I said I’m gonna learn how to play this damn guitar. It didn’t have but four strings on it, but it didn’t matter. It felt good to just be able to hold a guitar and play along with the band. I didn’t have my guitar amplifier that I listened to on those four strings, and from then on I said to myself I’m gonna learn how to play this thing, and I’m gonna be a blues guy.”
It took a while for Carey to figure out that his son was going to follow in his footsteps. “I guess he was busy doing his thing with his band members, so they just figured I could make it with whatever was down in the basement, instruments in the basement, you know. Back in those days, everybody was kinda crazy. The band members was drinkin’ booze and everything. You could do what you wanted to do.”
Lurrie’s early tutors included Eddie “Playboy” Taylor, Big Walter Horton, Eddie Clearwater, and Pinetop Perkins. By the time he was 15, Lurrie had mastered the guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. “My first gig was playing bass guitar for my grandfather, Lovey Lee. We used to work in a club called John’s Place, and I picked up the bass guitar. That was my first job was on that bass guitar with Lovey Lee and my father.”
Surprisingly, he was not most influenced on guitar by the artists he met through his father but rather by an artist he only heard on Dad’s records. “Albert King was my favorite blues guitar player. I used to listen to Albert King on record at my father’s house when he lived on 62nd and Elizabeth St. on the South Side of Chicago. My dad had a bunch of Albert King records, and I used to try to learn his style. It took me a while, but Albert King is something else, man. It was a challenge for me to learn some of his guitar style. He was left handed, and to me he could squeeze those guitar strings like nobody else.
“I was just stunned with Albert King, his guitar playing and his singing. Back in those days, Albert King was the best guitar player I ever heard, man. He just caught my ear automatically, and I was glad my dad had Albert King albums at his house. I used to put the Albert King vinyl album on the phonograph, and I would listen. After each solo, I would put the needle, the arm of the record player on, and I would get on my guitar and try to remember those lines that Albert King did until I nailed it (chuckle). I would do Albert King licks, but I would put my own style into soloing like Albert.
“When I first got introduced to the blues, I was young, and the music that my dad introduced me to was amazing to me. It caught my ear. I said to myself, ‘Whoa! This is real music.’ When I really first started to play the blues I found out that I had a style.
“The way I play my guitar, I do not use a pick. I use my thumb and my index finger to pick certain chords, and I think playing with my fingers is how I got my tone and my style. It’s different from a lot of guitar players. A lot of guitarists use picks. I don’t use none.
“I started working and meeting all the blues guys that my dad knew back in the day. That inspired me to know those guys. People like Eddie Taylor and Roy Johnson and Joe Harper that played along with my dad back in the day. I realized back then that I had a sound, too, and once I started really working on the blues scene my style developed. I would learn from those old guys like Eddie Taylor and people like Albert King, but I had something in the scene also.”
At age 17 in 1977, Lurrie formed The Sons of Blues ( The S.O.B.s) with fellow Chicago blues scions Freddie Dixon (son of Willie) and Billy Branch (son of Ben). “We did a tour of Germany. That as when Willie Dixon was living, and Willie Dixon and about 10 musicians went to Europe, and we played in Berlin, and that whole project went pretty good, pretty successful. And once we got back to Chicago, me and Billy wanted to keep that same moment happening, so we formed a band, and we called it the Sons of Blues, The S.O.B Band.
At age 25, Lurrie played bass on one of blues’ true unsung classic LPs, Eddie C. Campbell’s King of the Jungle, just before taking on lead guitar duties with Koko Taylor for four years. A stroke survivor, Eddie C. Campbell still sits in with Lurrie at Chicago today. “He’s ok. Eddie is ok. He’s coming back from that stroke. I mean he doesn’t fool around with the guitar as much, but when it comes down to blowing the harmonica and singing and stuff like that, he’s doing pretty good. I get to see Eddie quite a bit nowadays. This café which is about 10 minutes from me, I usually work there and do acoustic show there, and Eddie C. usually comes to my shows. We just have a good time. He sits in and blows his harmonica and sings. He can’t play guitar like he used to. He can fumble around on it, but he’s real slow and he isn’t playing as well as he used to before he had that stroke.”
Lurrie has put out 12 solo CDs, half of them with Delmark. He mixes originals with covers that include chestnuts like “Sit Down Baby” by Willie Dixon, Little Milton’s “Hold Me Tight,” “I Got So Weary” by T Bone Walker, “Honey Bee” by Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed’s “Found Love.”
“I just sit down, and I listen to what my mind is telling me, and something tells me in my ear, ‘You should record this. You should do that.’ I play a lick or two on my guitar, and those particular songs automatically come to me in my mind, and then with my producer who produced those CDs with me, Dick Sherman, he helps me a lot to pick different songs.
Lurrie’s 2017 Grammy nominated CD Can’t Shake This Feeling is Lurrie’s second release since returning to Delmark following two CDs for his own label named after his daughter, Aria. Can’t Shake This Feeling was mixed by Steve Wagner and produced by veteran Chicago producer Dick Shurman with album production and supervision by Bob Koester who founded the label in 1953. That’s not a typo. Koester started the label in 1953. The promotional flyer with the CD states: “We’re so grateful that Lurrie has become such a consistent and reliable standout performer and recording artist, and how he has overcome such insanely difficult life obstacles and tragedies to become one of the world’s greatest, most positive, inspiring, passionate and intense bluesmen and friends to us all.”
Delmark can be forgiven for such seemingly over the top hyperbole, not just because Lurrie Bell so defines the quality Delmark has championed for 64 years, but also because every word of it is true. “I’ve been knowing Bob Koester since I was a youngster.” Lurrie’s dad first recorded with Bob Koester’s label in 1969 when Lurrie was 10. “Yeah, he’s 80-something years old. Just to be able to work with Mr. Bob Koester and to be affiliated with the Delmark label is something else. He always tells me, ‘Lurrie C. Bell, you’re one of the greatest blues guitar players around,’ and that’s inspiring when you hear those words from a guy like Bob.”
The insanely difficult life obstacles and tragedies referenced in Delmark’s press release for Can’t Shake This Feeling include emotional issues that had him living on the street in the ’80s, and the loss of his father and his wife, blues photographer Susan Greenberg, in 2007. It’s Susan’s photos that grace the cover and liner notes of Mercurial Son. Aria is their daughter after whom he named Aria B. G. Records.
“It hit me very hard when Susan got sick like she did. I just believe that God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he does things to make us – you know we can’t do nothing when death comes. It hurt me very much because I cared very deeply for Susan. I didn’t know that she would get sick like she did with that lymphoma cancer. It just took over her body, and next thing you know she passed.
“God bless Susan because I learned so much from being with her, and she taught me a lot, and she helped me with my career in so many ways, and we had children together. We had bad luck. We had twin babies. They passed because they were born too premature. I think that’s what made Susan go under when the twin babies passed.
“It hurt Susan when the twin babies died. She went through a lot of pain and suffering from that, and she fought that cancer and quickly that cancer just took her away, but I will always remember Susan Greenburg because she was something else. She was fun. She was a fan. She worked with almost all of the blues guys, people here in Chicago. She was just something else. I will never forget her.”
Dave Spector, the “consciously competent” musician that Steve Wagner talks about in the opening paragraph wrote “Drivin’ Through the Darkness” for the “unconsciously competent” Lurrie Bell for his album Kiss of Sweet Blues: “Well, I’m driving through the darkness with the lights turned way down low/feeling lost on this lonely highway/wondering if I’ll ever get back home.”
Lurrie is December’s child born December 13, 1958, but his tragedies have informed his blues and garnered him much deserved accolades including 2017 BMA and Grammy nominations for Best Traditional Blues Album, and several Living Blues Critics Awards. In 2009 he paired up with Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, and Billy Branch on Chicago Blues: A Living History which garnered him his first official Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Recording and a Blues Blast Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.
On any given night you’re likely to find Lurrie Bell playing a Chicago club as a headliner or sitting in the best of the Chicago stalwarts like Jimmy Burns, Pete Galanis, Corey Dennison and Carlos Johnson. “Plus, I’ve been doing my own gigs at the Blues on Halstead, Kingston Mines. I’m very tight with all those musicians that work on the lower side of Chicago, downtown and House of Blues. I know just about every musician there that’s on the Chicago scene these days, Mike Wheeler and all those guys. They let me sit in with them and, man, we just have fun. We have a b-a-l-l. (The word rolls off his tongue for emphasis) when I’m sitting in with those gentlemen.”
Visit Lurrie’s website at: http://lurrie.com/
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.