Several cities lay claim to being the “home of the blues,” including Memphis and New Orleans. But no one will argue that Chicago belongs on the list, particularly when the discussion turns to guitar players. For more than eight decades, Chicago has boasted many of the players that have defined the traditions through several generations. Staring with legends like Lonnie Johnson and Tampa Red, followed by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, Earl Hooker, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Otis Rush, the lengthy list moves on to Magic Sam, Lonnie Brooks, Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater, and Luther Allison to the current scene with Buddy Guy still at the top of a list along with John Primer, Billy Flynn, Joel Paterson, Toronzo Cannon, Carlos Johnson, Linsey Alexander, Mike Wheeler, Joe & Nick Moss, and Dave Specter. The fact is that each era had too many fascinating players to list them all.
One notable aspect of the current scene is the presence of a number of outstanding female guitarists. Where Memphis Minnie once garnered attention for her stellar fretwork, there are six women who are working hard to share their musical visions with the blues community in Chicago and beyond. Joanna Connor and Liz Mandeville are familiar names with established careers. Donna Herula, Kate Moss, Melody Angel, and Ivy Ford have been working hard at establishing themselves as players deserving wider recognition. Sticking musicians into categories based on their sex is an unfair assessment. If a blind listening test was conducted, no one would be able to distinguish male from female players. A great player is recognized for the music they make, not their race or sex.
Ivy Ford has been making music for about twelve years, singing with live bands in her high school years. At one point, she was introduced to blues music at open jams. She started bringing her guitar, a birthday gift, to the jams for instructions on how to play. Inspired by liquid courage, she bragged about being a great bass player, even though she had never played the instrument. When her friends called her on the boast, she had to step up. “I played with guitarist J.B. Ritchie, who introduced me to musicians in Chicago. I was with him for about two years while still doing my own gigs. It was hard at open jams to get the band to play what you want as just a vocalist, especially as a female. The guitar players would tell me I didn’t know what I was doing. So I figured ok, I’ll pick up the guitar and I’ll play for myself”.
When she was hired to be the singer for a band, the guitar player took offense that she was playing guitar. She relates, “I was nowhere near as good as he was, but he got his nose out of joint. The rest of the band said it wasn’t cool and they wanted to keep playing with me. So that the group that hired me as a side-person ended up with me as Ivy Ford & the Cadillacs. That was about five years ago. We were playing the circuit in Waukegan, IL”.
“At one point, I went to Buddy Guy’s Legends as a patron, where I was completely star-struck. Several weeks later I got a phone call from Mark Maddox, the booking coordinator at Legends. I had sat in with Joe Moss and Mark was getting good feedback about my playing, so he offered me some opening slots on their schedule. I was like, holy crap, pinch me! Of course I want to do it. I agreed before he gave any of the details. When I finally asked who we would be opening for, sure as shit, it was Buddy Guy. That experience is what jump-started my career”. Ford ended up breaking with the Cadillacs over creative differences, although bass player Willie Rauch remained with her up to the present.
Playing live, Ford used to use an Epiphone ES-339, similar to what Freddie King played, running it through a Fender Blues Pro Junior amp. “The Epiphone was my first new guitar. It has a smaller body and fit me ergonomically. I eventually had it signed by Buddy Guy. The amp is highly under-estimated.
Mine is one of the last ones made in the US, back in 1993 or 1994. It has 15 watts with a single 10′ speaker, volume and tone controls. When I walked in with that little amplifier, people would laugh at me. But it packs a lot of heat and gets the job done. Now that I am a bit more savvy and particular, I am using a Peavey Classic 30, a tube amp with the vintage blonde face. It is a smooth sounding amp with more controls that I can dial in real nice, but the downsize is that it weighs 34 pounds, so it’s heavier than all get out to haul around. Just recently, as a wedding gift, my husband bought me a Fender Stratocaster, the black, polka-dot Buddy Guy model. It is a smoking guitar with great sustain plus power and punch”.
When asked about being a female musician, Ford feels fortunate that she has been respected from the start. “Most genres are male-dominated, and blues is no different. There are some obstacles that come with the territory, even though people aren’t being ill-willed about it. I get comments from new fans, saying that when they listen live with their eyes closed, they say I sound like a big black man. I take that as a big compliment. In the working environment, I have been fortunate that I haven’t run into much discrimination or disrespect on the stage. Willie Rauch has been playing for decades and holds me in the highest regard. My current drummer, Dave Axen, is a long-time friend who has played with us for the last two years. As a band leader and front man, male or female, you have to respect your rhythm section”.
“I haven’t run into much discrimination, but I have had my fair share of underestimating me. I try to demand a level of respect and I don’t take any shit. Being a younger female musician can be an issue because of that old cliché about paying your dues. Now I am part of the Chicago scene. It is great to be friends and a peer with guitarists like Joe Moss, Mike Wheeler, and Toronzo Cannon. I strive to present a polished live show, so that the audience gets an experience. We play different venues that have a younger clientele and I always go over very, very well, even when I play stuff like old school Muddy Waters slide. There are a lot of young blues music fans out there. They just need to hear the music. I think there is a lot of hope for my generation”.
Adding to the excitement, Ford now has Miss Vivian in her life, her vivacious eight month -old daughter. “I bring her to shows when I can, because it is good to start them young. It is awesome being a mother, but no one is ever completely ready or prepared. It is definitely life-changing”. A true “blues mamma,” Ford kept playing until three weeks before Vivian was born, then started again three weeks after the delivery. She represented the Crossroads Blues Society, out of Rockford, IL, at this year’s International Blues Challenge, where she released her new all-original recording, Time To Shine, available at her website, www.ivyfordmusic.com.
After playing piano for five years, Donna Herula really wanted to learn to play the guitar. So she convinced her brother to get one of his friends to teach her the Penatonic scale. In high school she played in a all-girl rock band and took some lessons on jazz guitar. “I wrote a song, “Midterm Blues,” for a variety show, getting help on arranging it for jazz band from some excellent teachers at the school.
That was the start. I play acoustic instruments, doing traditional blues. Being born and raised in Chicago, I have incorporated the blues sounds I grew up with. I have taken some lessons from guitarist Rory Block, who commented that my style is like an electric blues player. My influences include Son House, Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters, Eric Sardinas, and Rory Block”.
Her guitar collection includes two Gibson Nighthawks (Chicago Blues and Memphis Mojo). One is tuned for slide and the other is set up in standard tuning. She uses a brass slide. Her resonator guitars are Nationals – a vintage sunburst Steel Triolian, a polychrome Steel Tricone, and a silver Steel NRP. For amplification, she utilizes a Red Light boutique amp or a Fishman PA system. For solo performances, she breaks out her Porchboard Bass stomp box, using velcro to add a tambourine to it.
“Tampa Red is one of the people that inspired me. He was a resonator player who influenced Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, and Elmore James. People think you have to play electric guitar to play slide but there are players like me who slide on a resonator. I love to play solos, it is a joyful experience that isn’t always part of traditional songs. One of the first times I saw blues being played on a resonator was as a teenager outside the Chicago Blues fest one year. Steve Arvey and Kraig Kenning were playing on the street with a big crowd around them. I stayed there watching them for hours”.
“Playing the resonator makes me feel free. My intention was to play the electric guitar. But when I went shopping for guitars, I tried one and just couldn’t put it down. It makes me happy, allowing me to imitate the human voice. The clincher was when I saw Eric Sardinas live. Eric plays more of a dobro-styled guitar, amplifying an acoustic instrument with electric pick-ups, which is what I ended up doing. Performers like Eric and Rory really make me feel emotions when I watch them play. Listening to Son House do “Death Letter Blues” basically sealed the deal for me. I was hooked on traditional blues at that point. Traditional blues songwriting has humor besides the gut-wrenching, heartfelt songs that bring out an emotional response. So the majority of what I write and play is blues”.
A recent change in the schedule of her day job has given Herula more time for her career. She typically plays 3-4 shows a month in addition to teaching classes on slide guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music. “I teach acoustic Slide guitar I and II classes plus a number of individual lessons. There are a lot of people that have supported me over the years. One of them was Chris Walz, who had me cover two of his blues finger-style classes at Old Town when he went on a sabbatical. He has been a teacher there for more than twenty years. After eight weeks, the students really liked me, so they kept me on as a teacher. It is a blast!” Teaming up with her husband, Tony, the guitarist has done over fifty blues education programs for adults. Tony sings, plays harmonica, and rhythm guitar during a program that highlights the different styles of the music.
Herula is thankful for all of the encouragement and support she has received over the years from other musicians and from blues societies throughout Illinois. “Barry Dolins gave a big break when he invited me to be part of the Robert Nighthawk commemoration at the Chicago Blues fest, playing on a big stage as a solo artist. That lead to me participating in the Johnny Shines and Sister Rosetta Tharpe tributes. I invited singer Oscar Wilson, from the Cash Box Kings, to do a couple songs with me. He liked my take on traditional blues. The Windy City Blues Society supported me twice when I represented them at the International Blues Challenge. Liz Mandeville taught me a lot when we were performing as a duo. And the Chicago Women in the Blues experience, with Joan & Gary Gand, has made me a better guitar player and entertainer. Sharing the stage with strong personalities like Shirley King and Peaches Staten makes you step up your game, as did my trip to Durbanville, South Africa with guitarist Charlie Love”.
“I ended up building lasting relationships all the way down to the Mississippi delta from the IBC experiences. I met people scouting talent and people at the Delta Cultural Center that liked my playing. I was invited down to Helena, AK and got to meet the late ‘Sunshine” Sonny Payne, long-time host of the King Biscuit Time radio program. There were people playing on Cherry Street, a lot of interesting Delta and Hill country sounds that I have tried to integrate in my own sound. Blues helps you make friends for life. What they say about southerners being kind and caring is certainly true. Every time I’ve been down there, it feels like going home, even though I was born & raised in Chicago. I hope to get another CD done and get back down there. Tony and I will also be making a return trip to the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. in September. Archie had an old barber shop that they use to preserve acoustic music through education and performances”.
More info at: www.donnaherula.com
As she works on establishing her career, Melody Angel makes every attempt to utilize all of promotional tools at her disposal. The singer, guitarist and songwriter has plenty to say, and she is determined to make sure that listeners have easy access to her music. Something of an Internet sensation, she has a YouTube video cover of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love” that has been viewed over 88,000 times in the last five years, and a clip of her solo acoustic version of “Billie Jean” has logged over 20,000 views. A video of “A Woman’s Blues,” the title track on her recent EP, is nearing 1,300 views in less than two months.
She explains, “Those videos have been around for awhile but they continue to get spread around. I want to play for the people, so if they are listening, and I can’t get any real gigs, then I’ll reach out through videos. It took some work for me to learn how to do quality videos – what cameras to get, how to set them up, and to do sound properly. Over the years, I have taught myself how to do my own videos, with help from YouTube. “A Woman’s Blues” is a video I did myself. Financially, you have to figure it out on your own, since I can’t afford to do what the record labels do for artists. But it is a lot of work”.
Starting out at a young age, Angel was singing. She coveted a guitar but it wasn’t in the family budget. At fourteen, her mother finally got her a pawnshop guitar. Soon she had a band put together, doing live shows in clubs, accompanied by her mother so that there weren’t any issues. “I was under 21, so she was with me so I could get into clubs. Those shows forced me to really figure out how to play guitar as soon as possible. I wanted to play everywhere! I met some musicians, a guitarist and drummer in a band based out of Valparaiso, IN, at an open acoustic mic night at Uncommon Ground. They wanted to get something together because they felt we could get plenty of gigs in their area. So we added a bass player they knew, did some rehearsals, and we started playing in the Valparaiso area plus a few gigs in Chicago. That was the start of it all”.
It is easy to pinpoint the exact moment in time when Angel fell victim to the lure of the guitar. “When I was little, I saw Purple Rain, the movie. That was it. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, or heard! I thought all you had to do was pick up the guitar to make it sound like that. But apparently, you actually have to be Prince to get those things to happen. The beginning of the movie, with him coming through the smoke and jumping on stage with his guitar, it was magical. No other instrument even looked or sounded that cool, so that was all I wanted”.
For equipment, she is partial to the Fender Stratocaster run through either a Fender Twin Reverb or a Vox amp if one is available. Her guitar choice was one of personal preference. “It came down to the feeling in my hands. It’s like buying a pair of shoes. They are the right size, but some shoes just feel better on your feet. I tried a Telecaster but it didn’t feel right. The Strat felt right and was easy to play, so that is where I was most comfortable”.
“As a songwriter, I have been affected by the violence in the city of Chicago. There have been family members taken away by the violence. I have been in some very negative racial situations, too. That’s not all of my life, but is a big part. Music becomes an outlet for me to write about being in love, or what happened when the police showed up in a situation, or my cousin getting murdered and nobody doing anything about it. Just writing it off to that Chiraq stuff. I put it out there hoping somebody will empathize, feel the emotions, and learn something”.
Currently, Angel is only playing live 3-4 times a month, including two nights a month at Rosa’s Lounge. The sporadic schedule means that she can’t keep a band together. “Last night I played with someone I hadn’t played with for some time. We had to throw something together. When you mix genres like I do, that can be hard. I am influenced by the blues and rock & roll musically. Vocally, I am soulful singer. My Mom was always playing Motown when I was growing up, that and gospel music. Both are soulful and emotional, and I am a real emotional person. I’m not just saying words. I feel them, and then I sing how they feel to me. Whatever the words are, I think about the meaning and I go through that in the moment. I feel that is the most natural way to sing”.
As far as being accepted in the Chicago blues community, Angel is a bit perplexed about a few things.
“For every guy that supports your efforts, there is often another one dude that thinks I don’t know what I am doing – or thinks I should put the guitar down and just sing. There are a lot of things unsaid.
Overall, I respect anyone who dedicates themselves to the discipline of music. It is a gift for me that I don’t take for granted at all, ever. I want people to know that”.
More info at : www.melodyangelmusic.com
In Part 2 of this series, we will be continuing with Kate Moss, Liz Mandeville, and Joanna Connor.
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!
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