David Whiteis – Blues Legacy: Tradition And Innovation In Chicago
Photographs by Peter M. Hurley
David Whiteis has authored several books on blues music. The first, Chicago Blues: Portraits And Stories, published in 2006, featured in-depth looks at artists like Junior Wells, Sunnyland Slim, the famed Maxwell Street market, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, Artie “Blues Boy” White, and Cicero Blake. He followed that up with a 2013 publication, Southern Soul-Blues, which examined that sub-genre of the music, not only looking at the most popular artists like Latimore, Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, and Miss Jody, but also looking at the long-term viability of that market in light of a number of issues that were impacting the music at that time. A long-time resident of Chicago, Whiteis has had articles in Living Blues, Juke Blues, and Downbeat magazines. His work was recognized by the Blues Foundation with the 2001 Keeping The Blues Alive Award in the Journalism category.
Writers do well to stick to subject matters that they are well-versed in, so it is no surprise to find Whiteis updating his earlier work with another deep dive into the ever-vibrant Chicago blues scene. The book is divided into four sections: Bequeathers, Council Of Elders, Inheritors, and Heir’s Apparent. In his introduction, Whiteis encourages readers to approach the book in the same mindset that they might experience a sampler CD, searching for the artists that speak to them, with the author covering a wide ranging variety of sounds that are the current norm for the genre. Interspersed throughout the book are Peter M. Hurley’s black & white photos of the various artists covered.
The Bequeathers portion offers profiles of five mainstays of the Chicago blues community. The chapter on James Cotton summarizes his career, with an emphasis on his tenure as a member of the Muddy Waters band. After a night of listening to saxophonist Eddie Shaw and his band, the author made the move to Chicago to immerse himself in the music. Shaw’s remarkable career is covered, including the night he started as a member of Muddy Waters band, and ended the evening as the newest member of Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Then Whiteis gives well-deserved recognition in chapters on guitarist Jimmy Johnson, who just celebrated his ninety-first birthday and can still get as deep as anyone, the late Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, and Jimmy Burns, who’s career spanned has run the gamut from gospel to doo-wop, soul, and a return to blues after years of inactivity.
Sticking with artists who were there at the start of the Chicago post-war electric blues tradition, the Council of Elders section has brief pieces on Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, artists who need little introduction to most blues fans. Several other key figures, Billy Boy Arnold and Syl Johnson, are covered in a bit more detail. Whiteis points out the enduring classics from Arnold like “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You,” then reminds readers that Johnson’s impact extends into the modern era as his tunes have been sampled time and again. Also chronicled are singers Mary Lane and Holle Thee Maxwell, drummer Sam Lay, and Byther Smith.
The book then moves to the next generation of blues artists. Some, like Kenny Smith, Big Bill Morganfield, Shemekia Copeland, and Ronnie Baker Brooks all carry on in the legacy that they learned from their fathers. In the case of Lil’ Ed Williams, it was his uncle, slide guitarist J.B. Hutto, who created the spark that lead to a career as one of the most popular blues performers in the world. The family of Eddie Taylor, an acclaimed guitarist, can claim four siblings – Demetria, Eddie Jr., Tim, and Larry – who have their own established careers. John Primer and Sugar Blue are also highlighted.
The final section, Heir’s Apparent, reverts back to the short biographical portraits, highlighting a total of twenty-one artists. Lurrie Bell, Toronzo Cannon, Big James and the Chicago Playboys the Kinsey Report,, and Mud Morganfield are familiar names. But Whiteis also introduces readers to artists like guitarist Melody Angel, who appears on the book’s cover, singer Jo Jo Murray, a local legend, and Jamiah Rogers, an exciting young guitar player.
There are several themes that run through the book. One is the on-going debate of what is blues music. Is it the traditional sounds that the late Eddie Taylor Jr. adhered to, often to the detriment of his career, or is it a more wide-open landscape favored by Ronnie Baker Brooks, mixing elements of rock, funk, soul, and even pop music. For singer Nellie “Tiger” Travis, the challenge is to balance the the straight blues content favored by the white portion of her audience with the demands of her soul-blues fans, who favor dance-able rhythms that are often the result of programmed beats surrounded by synthesized instrumental tracks. Johnnie Taylor was a legendary vocalist. His son, Floyd, could never quite escape his father’s shadow, all the while chafing at being labeled part of the southern soul-blues genre. Jimmy Burns questions why many white musicians substitute volume for soul. One key point is stressed by singer Dietra Farr as she preaches the value of writing and performing original material in order to stand out from the dearth of bands playing covers all night long.
Whiteis understands the art of keeping readers engaged while he adds to their understanding of the current Chicago blues community. The fact that several musicians covered in the book have passed away certainly speaks to the importance of his work to document their stories. And some of the thought-provoking issues raised in the book deserve wider attention and discussion. A book well-worth reading………
(Full disclosure – the author Whiteis makes several reference in the section on Nellie ‘”Tiger” Travis to an interview the reviewer conducted for Blues Blast Magazine – run on 8/4/17.) http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-nellie-tiger-travis/