Featured Interview – Billy Branch

The summer of 1969 was one that occupies its own special place in the pantheon of American History.

Awash in a menagerie of psychedelic colors, the summer of ’69 is largely remembered for the events that transpired in upstate New York on Aug. 15-18 at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair.

Those three days were an unforgettable moment in time, one that will never be duplicated.

But several hundred miles north that same summer, another life-changing moment was about to take place, just two short weeks after Woodstock.

Aug. 30, 1969.

That was the date of the “Bringing the Blues Back Home” festival at Chicago’s Grant Park Band Shell.

That was also the day that the power of the blues forever changed the life of young Billy Branch.

“That was the first time that I ever heard the blues. It was at a festival that Willie Dixon, along with Murphy Dunne, produced,” he said. “It was actually the very first Chicago Blues Festival. There wasn’t another one after that for 20-some years. And there hasn’t been a festival the magnitude of that first one before or since then … Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton … there was close to 50 notable artists there. Legends.”

Although he had been born in Illinois, Branch was raised in Los Angeles and had made his way back to his home state to attend the University of Illinois when he experienced the pull of the blues on his soul.

“It was the first time that I had ever heard live blues music. I just went on a whim,” he said. “You talk about a life-changing moment – that was one. It just blew me away. I said, ‘What the hell is this?’”

Little did he know at that particular instant, but a scant six years after being turned on to the blues that late summer day at Dixon’s inaugural festival, Branch would end up playing harp in the big man’s band. He probably also had no clue that some 40 years later, in 2011, he would headline the Saturday night at the event now officially known as the Chicago Blues Festival, a gig that also featured special guest Magic Slim.

But things have always moved at a brisk pace for Billy Branch.

As though his foot was pressed all the way down on the accelerator, his career immediately went from zero-to-60 after that fateful 1969 day, as Branch quickly carved out a name for himself as one of the hottest harp players in Chicago, or for that matter – anywhere.

“I never set out with that goal in mind. My friend Mark Hummel and I were (recently) listening to a compilation of my work that my number one fan in Japan created for me – one of my claims to fame is that I’ve played on over 150 recordings with various artists – and as we were listening to some of my early stuff, Mark said, ‘Man, you got really good, really fast,’” said Branch. “And I never really thought of it like that. But I imagine that I did. I mean, I spent so much time being around the blues in all the clubs with Junior Wells and Carey Bell and Big Walter Horton and Homesick James. I absorbed all of that and there weren’t a whole lot of active harp players my age in town at that time. And I was the guy that stuck it out. I was just determined to get as good as I could.”

Not only did Branch become a first-call session player when a dose of innovative, gritty blues harmonica was in order, but his group, the Sons of the Blues, rapidly became the talk of the town, playing anywhere and everywhere.

Alligator Records’ excellent harp summit in 1990, featuring Carey Bell, Junior Wells, James Cotton and Branch – fittingly titled Harp Attack! – served as a springboard to help launch the name and sound of Billy Branch to blues lovers worldwide.

That album was showered with praise and won a Handy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

A lot of the same type of excitement is also associated with the latest projects that Branch has been involved with – Chicago Blues: A Living History (Raisin’ Music).

Nominated for a Grammy Award, Chicago Blues: A Living History was just what the title implies and in addition to Branch, featured Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer and Lurrie Bell.

“It was pretty much the brainchild of Larry Skoller,” Branch said. “He wanted to get some of Chicago’s active musicians that had been around for awhile and were some of the better players and have them give tribute to the old, classic Chicago blues style – the old masters.”

Volume two – Chicago Blues: A Living History – The (R)Evolution Continues came out late this summer and is another attention-grabbing listen, with special guests like Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Magic Slim – definitely a trio of masters – along for the ride.

While the style of the music contained within the Chicago Blues: A Living History discs is indeed “old” and “classic,” it is by no means stale or predictable.

“We’re trying to preserve that style (Chicago blues), but we’re also adding our own personal edge to it, as well. More of a contemporary edge,” said Branch.

And the results definitely speak for themselves.

“Well, everyone that hears them says that’s the best stuff, CD-wise, that’s been produced in a long time. It’s got a very tight rhythm section – Kenny Smith, Billy Flynn, Felton Crews, Johnny Iguana – they form a really nice ensemble. And it turned out really well. When we heard it, the first one especially, we were amazed at how good it sounded.”

Excellent primers of what the true spirit of Windy City blues is all about, the Chicago Blues: A Living History series cuts through all the flash-and-dash, along with the guitar pyrotechnics, normally associated with today’s blues-rock and serves as a striking reminder of the foundation that the genre was originally built on.

“Part of the reason that those of us that were chosen to do it was because we represented the contingency that came up along the ranks. Every single one of us had done significant tenures with the legends,” said Branch. “We’ve all spent a lot of time in the trenches and I think this was demonstrating that we took our lessons of those times seriously and absorbed what we were taught.”

And for the gospel of the blues to continue to perpetuate and grow, the younger generation of players (“When I set out, they used to call us the new generation of Chicago blues, but those days have come and gone,” laughed Branch.), while no doubt needing to be up to speed on the history of the music, also need free reign to create their own personal expression.

“You see this all around now and you can’t exactly argue with it. But just to play the same songs by Muddy and Wolf and Sonny Boy and Little Walter the same way … it can get kind of tired after awhile,” Branch said. “So the younger players are coming from a younger perspective and are adding their own things to it. But all around now, there’s more of a melding of the genres in the blues. You see that a lot now.”

Branch knows more than just a passing thing about the young up-and-comers on the blues scene.

Since 1978, he has been a central figure in the Blues in the Schools program, and while he did not found this important educational series, he was in on the ground floor of it.

“I wasn’t the very first one to do it, but I was probably the second and have done it the longest. I’ve been involved in the Blues in the Schools program almost as long as I’ve been playing professionally. It started out with a grant from the Illinois Arts Council,” he said. “I had a program that I constructed that would have the history of the blues incorporated with a performance. And Lurrie Bell and myself would go around to local schools and do a lot of interactive stuff. And over the years, it’s developed enough to where I can do a residence with my whole band. They’ll fly us to a locale for four or five weeks. And in a case like that, some of the kids will learn harp, some bass, some guitar and drums, and then they’re quizzed orally on a daily basis on the history of the blues. Then they learn standard songs, write originals and they ultimately perform.”

Just like the music itself, the Blues in the Schools educational program has broken free of its origins here in the United States and spread like wildfire all across the globe.

“A couple of years I did a program in Heroica Veracruz, Mexico for a couple of weeks, where I actually taught my classes in Spanish,” Branch said. “And I’ve done a two-week program in Antwerp, Belgium and wherever we’ve been, there’s been many instances where children’s lives were turned around for the better because of these programs. We’ve had kids that were suicidal that have emerged with a whole new sense of self esteem. We’ve had homeless kids and at-risk kids that because of that program have became able to fit in better with the rest of their student body. If I had $5 for every time someone would come up to me in a club and say, ‘I was in second grade or elementary school and you turned me on to the blues and I still love them today,’ I’d be a wealthy man right now.”

With as many young students as he’s tutored, it’s a wonder Billy Branch is not referred to as Professor Branch.

“Last year in Denver, Colorado, in five days in 18 schools, I taught 4,000 kids to play harp,” he said. “And they’re been maybe one or two kids over the years that have went on to become professional musicians. But children from my first residency back in 1978 still reach out to me and make statements like – ‘That was one of the most life-changing moments I’ve had.’ So there are a lot of positive benefits to the program, other than trying to have a career as a working musician. They get self confidence, they’re engaged in situations where cooperation and communication skills are a must and ultimately, it helps them understand and appreciate this form of music.”

When he’s not turning in mind-blowing harp performances on Grammy-nominated albums, or playing the blues on the high seas with the Blues Cruise, or helping to shape young lives in the Blues in the Schools forum, Branch can usually be found at a place he’s called his second home for the past 27 years or so – Artis’ Lounge on 87th Street in Chicago.

“It’s a neighborhood club on the South Side that’s not really a blues club, per say,” he said. “But they do have live music on Sundays and Mondays and sometimes one other day during the week. Nobody can remember exactly how long I’ve been playing there, but it’s been at least 27 years. Every Monday. In fact, I’ve been playing there longer than that, because I played at the same place for a previous owner for a few years, back when it was called the Now or Later.”

Maybe it doesn’t have the name recognition that old spots like Theresa’s or The Checkerboard Lounge had, but Artis’ Lounge is still viewed as one hot spot to chow down on authentic Chicago blues.

“It’s developed into an internationally known spot – it’s not officially a jam session, but in recent years that’s what it’s turned into,” said Branch. “Usually my band plays the first set and then we open it up to as many players as we can get. Everyone who comes there feels very welcome. It’s kind of become a pilgrimage of sorts.”

You never know who might hang out at Artis’ Lounge, as some of the city’s best players, like Ronnie Baker Brooks, have been known to slide onto stage next to Branch.

They also come from outside the city limits to jam, as evidenced by Malian guitarist/singer Vieux Farka Toure’s and Mexican rockers El Tri’s stops by Artis’ Lounge.

Mavis Staples even made an appearance there to sing “I’ll Take You There” on Branch’s 60th birthday.

And it was also at Branch’s 60th birthday shindig that the very basics of physics were tested, when a huge, overflowing crowd tried to jam itself into a spot that can comfortably seat 70-80 patrons on a regular basis.

“It was a real test of how many that place could hold. It was ridiculous,” he said. “Nobody had seen a crowd like that in that place before. There were so many people, it was scary.”

It probably would be fair to say that had Branch not decided to attend the “Bringing the Blues Back Home” festival on that hot Aug. 30, 1969 day, there would not have been an overflow crowd wanting to help celebrate his 60th birthday with him.

But thankfully for those that enjoy the real-deal Chicago blues, along with the countless graduates of Blues in the Schools, Billy Branch did get turned on to the blues at precisely the right moment in time.

And as far as the legacy that he hopes to leave on those blues?

“I’d like to be remembered as somebody who discovered the beauty and the value of the blues and was a person that tried to share that rich treasure with as

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