Featured Interview – Billy Branch

Hello, my name is Little Mack Simmons. I’m the world’s greatest harmonica player. I challenge anyone that can beat me to come down to the Green Bunny Lounge and if they can beat me, I will pay them $500.

– Radio advertisement that ran on Chicago’s WVON (1690 AM) radio station back in 1975

When it came to harmonica-fueled head-cutting on the bandstand back in the mid-70s, Little Mack Simmons was Chicago’s self-proclaimed ‘king of all kings.’

Simmons’ reputation certainly preceded him, and as evidenced by the above commercial that plastered the Windy City airwaves, the man did not lack for self-confidence.

Billy Branch, now a legendary harmonica blower and Chicago bluesman in his own right – but back then just an unheralded up-and-comer – remembers hearing those ads and being called into action by his friends.

“I heard that commercial and I asked some of my buddies if I should go down there. They was like, ‘Yeah, man!’ So it was my friends that urged me to go, because I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to. So the story is, that I won the contest (that night), but Mack was the judge!” laughed Branch. “This was a popular club back then and the place was packed – probably three hundred or so people in there. Well, as soon as I finished playing, people started yelling, ‘Give him the money!’ But then Mack runs out and says that the boss says it’s closing time. That’s when the place turned into complete pandemonium, with people shoutin’ and cussin.’ It was wild, but I just stood there, it really didn’t faze me.”

Despite the ‘judge’s’ lack of acknowledgement at his victory – and despite leaving without the promised $500 stuffed in his pockets – Branch still came out on the winning side of things that night at the Green Bunny Lounge in 1975.

“Yeah, that was the day that I was ‘discovered.’ All of the Chicago blues intelligentsia were there – Jim and Amy O’Neal (Living Blues founders), Bruce Iglauer (Alligator Records founder) and Dick Shurman (noted producer), along with other various members of the media and record companies, as well as a lot of the old-timers (Chicago blues musicians). I say old-timers, but they were probably in their 40s then. But when you’re in your 20s, that seems old,” he laughed. ” I was on the scene (back then), but I wasn’t known. I was just out of college and I’d go to the clubs and hang for a while and then I’d disappear for a couple of weeks. So only a handful of people really knew who I was (before his showdown with Simmons). I was also painfully shy in my youth and I think that the blues – and becoming a musician – helped me to overcome that shyness.”

Branch -who was the recipient of the 33rd Chicago Music Award’s Little Walter Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award – says that he was not intimidated or scared by the prospects of entering a bandstand battle with Simmons, but still, he had to be coerced into going.

“That’s right. I had to be talked into going by my friends … I almost didn’t go. That just shows you how fate is. If I hadn’t gone, I’m sure eventually I would have found my way into the recording studio – but immediately after that – I was in the recording studio,” he said.

Fans that had been salivating and anxiously awaiting a brand-new Billy Branch and The Sons of the Blues disc were finally rewarded for their patience with last year’s excellent Blues Shock (Blind Pig Records). Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that a full decade passed between Don’t Mess With The Bluesmen (2004) and Blues Shock. Branch certainly kept busy – way busy, as a matter of fact – during the time between albums with his name emblazoned on the cover, but why the long wait?

“The only reason that I was able to come up with that somewhat made sense was, that I was just going through a period of knowing what I didn’t want to do, but was not sure exactly what it was that I did want to do,” he said. “I had multiple recording offers over the years, but I just didn’t … I don’t know … sometimes as an artist, you just go through those periods, you know?”

Inspiration seems to move in mysterious ways for artists, which can ultimately turn into a stumbling block when it comes time to bring a new work of art to the light of day. But the way that Branch sees it, inspiration is sometimes not all its hyped up to be.

“My family and myself was in South Africa and the Poet Laurette of South Africa (Keorapetse Kgositsile) said that inspiration is over-rated. But sometimes you find yourself feeling that way, you know? You’re waiting for inspiration or looking for the ideal song or the ideal melody or the ideal lyric,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s just better to take a stab at it and given your ability and professionalism, you can probably come out better than expected anyway.”

Looking at it from the outside in, it sure seems that Blues Shock is one of Branch’s more personal albums. And although a song title like “Song For My Mother” suggests that it belongs to the author alone, Branch insists that’s not the case and sees it as more of a universal ownership of the cut.

“Yeah, “Song For My Mother,” which is an instrumental, has universal appeal to everyone; especially to those of us that have lost our mothers,” he said. “That was just a piece that we came up with and the title came later, but it seemed appropriate.”

While also steeped in personal recollections, “Going To See Miss Geri One More Time” is more of a historical account about an undervalued – but essentially important – member of the Windy City’s rich and storied musical culture.

“That song was based on a personal experience, but it also is a historical narrative and a tribute to someone (Miss Geri Oliver, who owned the iconic Palm Tavern for over 50 years) I felt got short-changed, given the fact that her legacy was not treated with more reverence and respect. That was my humble way of acknowledging a woman who is a very revered figure on Chicago’s south side,” he said. “That was a very difficult song to write and I say that it’s the best song, lyrically, that I’ve ever written – and perhaps also one of the most challenging. I had to make sure it was factually and historically accurate. I also had some challenges like rhyming this list of luminaries (like Miles Davis, Joe Louis, Frank Sinatra, to name a few of the mentioned in the song). I had Chicago’s’ foremost African American historian, Dr. Timuel Black, who is also a friend of Miss Geri Oliver’s, make sure I had historically accurate information. Miss Geri is about 95 years old and Dr. Black is maybe a year or two younger than her.”

It’s not easy to pigeon-hole Branch’s music into just one category, because it has a lot going on, featuring a number of twists and turns (sometimes even within the same song) that keep it from being predictable. That being said, there’s no doubt that the traditional Chicago blues is the chewy center of Branch’s music. Considering who helped to mentor his approach to playing the harmonica, that should be no surprise.

“Coming up when I did and immersing myself in the scene back then – learning from guys like Big Walter and Carey Bell and Junior Wells and James Cotton – I never thought of myself as practicing, but I really was. I made sure every moment that I got, I was in these clubs, some of which might be described as ‘bucket of blood clubs.’ But I never gave that a second thought; I was just drawn to the music and to the guys that played it,” he said. “I think by having the association and learning from such great players and having the chance to play with guys like Louis Myers and Dave Myers and Fred Below – Little Walter’s band – I was able to have the ability to play at a high level.”

As stated before, the Chicago blues is not where Branch’s music ends; it’s merely it’s springboard.

“Even though I was learning the style of these masters, I was still in the process of developing my own style. Most real musicians – even though they may be known for one style or genre – they listen to everything … to a variety of different things,” he said. “Personally, I listen to every type of music. If I’m in a meditative mood or want to read, I’ll put on some classical music. And when I came up in my teenage years, I was listening to what everybody else was listening to. Stuff like Motown and to The Beatles and The Stones and Hendrix … the whole gamut. I think ultimately, my style is a result of all those influences, as well as the traditional Chicago blues. It’s not really a conscious thing; it just develops once you reach a certain stage or level with your playing.”

Branch has been nominated for Best Instrumentalist – Harmonica, at this year’s Blues Music Awards (BMAs). That should certainly come to no great shock or surprise to the legion of Branch fans all across the globe. He’s also been nominated for three Grammy Awards over the course of his career and Branch tends to view such awards and accolades with a bit of a cautious eye.

“I’ve been nominated for three Grammy awards and that does look good on your resume. But the truth is, a lot of times, these awards are so politically-charged, so you take them with a grain of salt,” he said. “And that’s whether you win or whether you lose. A few years back, the (Grammy nominated) Chicago Blues: A Living History (Raisin’ Music) – not just because I’m on it – was really Grammy-worthy. Not to take anything away from anybody, but when we got beat out, it was by a country-folk singer. We were all at the Grammys (ceremonies) and we were all like, ‘What?’ So a lot of times, the process is flawed, for lack of a better term. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to express myself as a sore loser – it’s just that so many times you see these awards given and you realize that there are people that have been doing this for four, five and six decades that have not really been afforded that honor or that accolade.”

He then takes things a step further with another Grammy-related observance.

“When we were up for the Grammy for Chicago Blues: A Living History, we were there and watched the show – you know, all the big stars. The most spectacular thing that night was when one of these young stars was performing on a trapeze with all the pyrotechnics,” he said. “And we sat there and watched that and we all agreed that a good blues band would blow practically every act there that night right off the stage. A decent blues band would have smoked that place. I mean, everyone relates to the blues … it’s universal.”

He knows of what he speaks, since Branch served two consecutive terms on the Grammy Board of Governors and also founded the Grammy Blues Committee.

Maybe one of Branch’s most passionate endeavors over the past four decades has been his association with the Blues in the Schools program. He was one of the first performers to step on board that long-running project and was in fact the very first artist to involve his whole band in the process. He has mentored more young musicians than he could ever count and it’s hard to tell just where and when they will turn up.

“I played on Demetria Taylor’s – who is one of Eddie Taylor’s daughters – album on Delmark (Bad Girl). Well, I walk into the studio (for the session) and she says, ‘Who am I?’ I said, ‘I guess you must be Demetria.’ She said, ‘OK. When did you first meet me?’ I say, ‘I don’t know.’ She goes, ‘It was when you came to my school doing Blues in the Schools and I was in fourth grade.’ So that’s how long I’ve been doing that. The summer before last, I ran into three students – on three separate occasions – from my very first residency back in 1978. Each one of them told me they still listen to the blues and a couple of them said they still had their harmonica (from the classes). I’ve even had a handful of students that have went on to have professional careers; some of them bigger than what I’ve had,” he laughed.

Majoring in political science in college, Branch had thoughts at becoming a lawyer for his primary vocation. Luckily for blues fans, he instead decided to focus on blowing the harp on the bandstand, instead of focusing on arguing cases in front of a jury stand.

“Well, by all accounts, my wife and friends say I would have been a good one (lawyer). I’m sure it’s nice to have a big, hefty payday, because lawyers generally don’t do too bad,” laughed Branch. “But then again, they may not have as much as us bluesmen do. That’s why they call it playing (music). They ask where you’re going and you say, ‘I’m going to play.'”

Playing is just what Branch does today – and it’s what he has done for decades now. He’s played with everyone who is anyone and has played on well over 150 recordings (heck, probably a lot more than that). Over the course of those years and all those albums, a couple of things that Branch has never failed to do is to be himself and to fit into whatever surroundings he’s in.

“I just love recording in the studio and doing session work. I’m real relaxed when it comes to that. Part of my style and my musical approach is to be able to adapt to all musical situations,” he said. “Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of collaborative work with African groups, like Tinariwen … I play with them when they come to Chicago. And I’ve worked with a group called El Tri, who are like the Mexican Rolling Stones. They had me on their 40th anniversary concert as a special guest in Los Angeles back five or six years ago. And I’ve done work with (Malian artist) Vieux Farka Toure. I love being in different musical environments.”

Being able to fit seamlessly into all those ‘different musical environments’ has as much to do with the way that Branch approaches his instrument as it does with his willingness to step outside his normal comfort zone.

“A lot of guys learn how to solo on the harmonica fairly well. But for me, when I was developing my style, I learned how to compliment and augment the person that I’m accompaning, as well. When my band is playing, normally I’m playing throughout the entire song. I’m not just sitting out until my solo comes,” he said. “I’m always creatively trying to think like a rhythm guitarist, but I’m playing rhythmic harp. Or I’m hearing horn lines or hearing strings and I’m using that to enhance the music. The key to being a good session man is to be able to enhance what the artist that you’re recording with is doing. The challenge, then, in a solo is to play something consistent with the mood of the song. That’s something that I’ve become fairly adept at.”

The old saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ seems to be apropos in Branch’s case. He’s gone from playing the role of up-and-coming savior of the blues back in the late 1970s to now being rightfully recognized as one of the last of his generation carrying on the traditions and ways of some of the cats that he played with and learned from back in the day.

“Recently, I was playing at this club called Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn (a suburb of Chicago) and this photographer – who had shot pictures of me before – came to the show and he presented me with some very nostalgic photos from over 30 years ago. There was photos of me playing with Carey Bell and pictures of when I played with Son Seals in the Cook County jail,” Branch said. “We were reflecting about all the great guys that we were privileged to have been around and had been befriended by and associated with. And you know, they’re all but gone. When I first came on the scene, there were hundreds of musicians. I mean, you can still hear blues seven nights a week in Chicago, but not like you could back then. There was just so many more places back in the day to play and there were just so many great, great musicians.”

Branch may not have had some kind of grand scheme on how to further along the cause of the blues when he founded the Sons of the Blues, but that’s just what he’s done some four-plus decades after the fact. Part of that is because for many years now, the music has flowed through his veins with great purpose. Another part of that is because he understands the major – and historical – impact that blues music has had on society over the decades since it was first played and first heard.

“I don’t know that when I entered the fray that I was on any kind of mission, other than to just play this instrument the best that I could,” he said. “And then subsequently, I respected the men and woman that were so good at this and I came to understand the value of the blues and its role in the world. It’s bigger than just the United States, you know? I always say it’s the most powerful music on the planet, it just transcends so many barriers and so many categories. Embarking on a role as an educator with Blues in the Schools for all these decades, I’ve been acutely aware of how important it is to disseminate this information to these young minds, with the hope that they’ll spread it their children or to their friends. It’s important that we remember where this music came from. It did come from hard times and from struggles and it was the soundtrack of the Jim Crow era. It was the soundtrack of the post-slavery era. It has a lot of historical significance and we should never forget that.”

Visit Billy’s website at www.billybranch.com

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2016 Blues Blast Magazine.

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