Blues Blast spoke by phone with legendary musician Bob Stroger both before and after the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival. His speaking voice is remarkably similar in cadence and enunciation to that of the late Texas Bluesman, Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins. It’s eight in the morning and the eighty-six year old Dean of Chicago Blues bass is just getting around to his morning coffee. Ditto with the coffee on the West Coast where the call originates.
After completing the morning pleasantries we get down to the nitty. We start by discussing his associations in Europe and South America where he tours two or three times a year and generates a lot of press. Bob Stroger is a celebrated journeyman here in the states, but a virtual celebrity in Europe.
“I generally work with three bands when I’m out of the country. When I’m in Italy, I work with Luca Giordano’s band. Luca is actually here now to play the Chicago Blues Festival. When I’m in Switzerland I work with a guy named Bonny B. When I’m in South America, I work with a band called the Headcutters. I look at Europe as home away from home, ” he says with casual seriousness.
Bob Stroger stays busy. When asked about his activity in 2016 he admits to slowing down a tad, but only because he’s having work done on his house.
“Well, this year I kinda cooled down cuz I had to do some work on the house. I’m still quite busy. I’m doing several festivals this year including the Chicago Blues Festival and the King Biscuit Festival. Then I’m off to France and Switzerland. After Europe, I’ll come back home before I do Brazil, Argentina and Chile in South America.
My career has changed direction over the last 10 or twelve years. When Pinetop (Perkins) was alive, I preferred to get the call and go with various bands. But now, I’m more or less doing my own thing, I’m being pushed to do more recording as well as a lot more traveling. When I was working with Pinetop and those guys, I didn’t wanna cut no Cd. All I wanted to do was go up and down the road and play with them.”
Of course Stroger is talking about his tenures with Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Eddie King, Otis Rush and other potent stalwarts of the Chicagofied Delta Blues. Like many of his musical peers, the history of Bob Stroger is colorful and varied. When asked if he hung out at the Chess Records Studio in the old days he gives a synopsis of his career.
“Yes, I was kinda on the outside looking in. You know as youngsters we called ourselves trying to stretch out. When I started off, the Blues was my background.
“The first band we (he and his brother) started was called The Red Tops. After that band broke up, my brother formed another band. Back in those days you had to have a little name so uh, he kinda changed his name and called it the Joe Russell Blues Band. So it was my brother, who was the drummer for us back in those days.
After the Joe Russell Blues Band broke up, I went into trying to play a little Jazz with a guy who blowed saxophone by the name of George Foreman, I think it was. We didn’t get nowhere doing that. We then got with a guy named Eddie King, whom I met in about 1959. Eddie took over the band and we were playing the R&B side and then the Blues side. We had a whole revue with three woman singers. We performed as Eddie King and the Kingsmen.
We toured Alaska in the early ‘60s. I played with Eddie King for years. We became one of the hottest bands in Chicago along with the Jaguars, the Scott Brothers and the Wheeler Brothers band. We took a break for a couple of years when 5 of Eddies children were killed in a terrible house fire. The night of the fire we were working at the Eye Spy Lounge. When we came back together we called ourselves Eddie King and the Blues Machine. Eddie’s sister Mae Bee Mae sang lead. As it turned out, Eddie dissolved the band when he went on the road with Koko Taylor. I could’ve gone too, but I couldn’t quit my day job. Back then musicians weren’t making much money and I had a pretty good job. When Eddie went with Koko, I took about a three year break from music. I had been with him so long, I didn’t think I could play with anyone else. Eddie and I remained good friends until he passed on. In a few weeks as a matter of fact, we are going down to do a tribute CD to Eddie King. His old friend Johnny Drummer and I are going to St. Louis to record it. That’s my next project coming up after the Chicago Blues Festival, before I head out again.
I stayed around Chicago and eventually started working with Otis Rush. My friend Jesse Green who was Otis Rush’s drummer at that time, told Otis about me when his bass player left for California. I did my first job with Otis at a place called the Peanut Valve in Old Town Chicago. I stayed with Otis about eight years.”
These days, Bob Stroger is fully able to handle his own business without a contracted manager or agent. “I handle all my business myself. I work with different agents but I never sign exclusively with one. I have a guy I use in South America who gets me jobs down there. If you get me a festival, I’ll pay you a commission. This way I’m not hung up and can freelance and go where I wanna go, you know.
It’s also exciting to have guys working for me. Luca, DK and those guys get things together for me in Italy. I have Bonny B in Geneva. That’s the way I work it. I do mainly festivals, even here in the states. Not too many clubs anymore. When I’m home in Chicago I do a few, but I still do my own thing.
Getting back to the query about Chess records, he reveals that he eventually, he played there, after the Dixon family bought it and named it Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven.”Yeah, I ain’t been in there in quite a while, but I pass by it just about every day when I’m in town. I’ve got to stop by there and see them. I used to work down there on Wednesdays with a band.
I’m not signed to any label either. I didn’t wanna get on that end; people tellin’ me what to do, what to sing, what to play and all that. I kinda like being my own boss. I work where and when I wanna. It’s as simple as that. Me and Kenny Smith were just talking about how when you get on a label, the royalties can disappear and you don’t get paid. But, if you do it on your own, if you don’t make nothing, you don’t get nothing. But, if you do make something, everything is yours. I’m too old now to be going through that. If people don’t know me by now, they’ll never know me. I ain’t got rich in all these years. All I want to do is enjoy. I’m comfortable where I’m at right now.”
Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith is the son of the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Like his dad, Kenny is a drummer. Last year Bob Stroger and Kenny Smith teamed up to release a Cd together. Of their association Bob states, “We kinda got this thing together, you know, from father to son. I worked with Willie for years and now I’m working with Kenny. It’s just a pleasure for me to do this. Kenny and I had been talkin’ about it and he thought we should do a tribute to his dad. I actually had an offer to do another CD, but I decided I’d rather do it for family. Willie was like family to me and Kenny and I decided to do it as a tribute to him. Keepin’ the line together.”
The name of the CD is aptly named Keepin’ It Together. Bob Stroger explains the genesis of the project this way:
“There’s a song on that CD entitled “In My House,” that Kenny, in the liner notes gives songwriting credit to his late dad, because it came to him in a dream. That’s what kinda started the project off. Kenny Smith said Willie came to him with that song. Everything in that CD is about our lives.“
Indicative of the Blues bond the men share is the song on the album that Kenny wrote for Bob. The track is title “He Took Her.” Kenny sings it and his voice becomes the narrative lament of a man from whom Bob Stroger took his woman.
“Yeah, Kenny wrote that for me, ” chuckles Bob. “He surprised me with it at the studio. That was a fun song.”
With that tidbit, the discussion turns to a relatively late development in Bob’s career – songwriting. “I’m just beginning to do it. You know, in this business you don’t wanna get burned out doing one thing so when you do start to get burned out you try to do something to keep you really pumped up. So now in my later years, I’ve started to try to sing some, you know that’s like learning all over again. That’s a challenge. I just love challenges. I’m fighting a challenge now – singing and doing a little songwriting! I keep a notebook on my nightstand to jot things down if they come to me in the night. Yeah, if something comes through it’s there. I mean, I got notes everywhere. In the car, if something comes up, I start to hummin’ and then write it down. Then I come back, put it all together and see if I can work with it.
Ooh! It’s a job. It’s a challenge. It takes a lot away from playing the bass but I love it. I laugh at myself and I’m still trying to do it. The person who started me doing it was (the late) Willie Kent. He could play and sing so well. I figured I could do it too. I played with him when I first started out in the Joe Russell Blues Band . I will never be a singer’s singer. It’s just a challenge learning to do it. It keeps me going, you know.
“On the Keepin’ It Together album, I wrote “That’s My Name,” “My First Love,” “Come On Home, ” Sweet So Sweet” and ” Born In Missouri.” I’ve got three or four Cd’s that I’ve got songs written on. But songwriting has never been my thing. All the songwriting I’ve done has kinda been forced on me. I’ve always just wanted to play music. The first Cd I did where I wrote was called Bob’s In The House and was recorded in Switzerland at the Lucerne Blues Festival. Big Daddy Fritz, who used to be the boss of the Lucerne Blues Festival wanted to do a Cd on me, so that’s how that came about.
Guido is now the promoter of that festival and we are doing it again this year. We actually started that festival off when I was with Mississippi Heat in about 1995. The acoustic player Robert Belfour was also on the bill. It was held at a Roller Rink.
We turn a sharp corner in the conversation and talk about the continuing kaleidoscope of players that have paraded through his life: “Yeah, I was down in Phoenix recently and recorded a CD with Taildragger. He’s a character.
Back in the day, Carrie Bell and I toured Europe together. Lurrie Bell was a young boy then, about 16 years old. That was the American Folk Blues Festival Tour produced by Horst Lippman. There was Willie Mabon, Eddie Taylor, Odie Payne. We all did that together.
Jr. Wells was another character. We had a lot of fun together. He liked to back up and do the James Brown.
We pause to ponder a quote from Jim Moore, former manager of Big Mama Thornton and current manager of Sugar Pie DeSanto. The quote was about how Memphis Slim was living like a king in Paris when Big Mama played the American Folk Blues Festival in 1964 or ’65. Bob also considered moving to Europe. “Yeah, well I thought about it back in the day. There was a guy in Norway who tried to convince me to move there. Norway was a home away from home.I might’ve been a rich man too, over there, but I had too much going on here in the States at the time. Even now, I’d like to go, but I have a home here and would have to give up too much to live over there.”
We also examine the quote from book Today’s Chicago Blues, written by Karen Hansen where she notes Bob Stroger’s trademark natty apparel. She quotes Stroger as saying that your manner of dress shows respect and appreciation for the music you love. “I came up old school, you know? Dressing the part. You knew who the musicians were when they walked in. For example, if you’re a lawyer don’t go to court in blue jeans, you dress respectably. That’s the way I feel about the music. I’m doin’ something that everybody’s not doin’ and I respect it. I want to dress the part. Not in run over shoes or dirty blue jeans. That’s not showin’ respect for what you love or where you came from.”
We can’t let Bob Stroger getaway without talking about what type of bass he prefers. He also touches on the legendary homemade bass prototype, the plank. “I have three basses. I have a red ’69 Fender Jazz bass that I’ve been playing since the beginning of time. It is the second bass I ever owned. Sometimes you might see me playing my black 60 P bass but my Jazz bass I’ve had almost my whole career. I should retire it but it wouldn’t do me no good sitting on the wall. I carry it all over the world with me. I’m very comfortable with it.
The plank came from Elmore James or Homesick James, I’m not sure which. It was made of wood and was homemade from an old guitar into a bass. We couldn’t afford a bass. It was given to us by Elmore or Homesick. If I still had it, it would be a collector’s item. It’s what I first started playing on. I gave it to a guy named Bobby Hudson who played with Willie Mabon.”
In an interesting bit of Blues trivia it should be noted that Mr. Stroger has appeared in two films. The first is titled The Perfect Age of Rock & Roll, released in 2009 When asked about it, Bob’s response is modest.
“We did that film before some of the legends passed away. Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and myself are all part of that film. We play ourselves as a bar band. Director Spike Lee was somehow also affiliated with it. It didn’t do too much when it was released but I’m told it has been trying to do something in places like Texas and overseas.”
While researching that film, we find that there is a spinoff entitled Sidemen – Long Road To Glory that was just released in April of 2016. Bob Stroger’s stock continues to climb. We placed another call to Mr. Stroger the week following the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival asking him how it was. ” It was great, great, great. It was really touchin’, you know? The tribute for Otis Clay was really touchin’. It really made my year. It was really a great thing. We weren’t workin’ off charts, we were workin’ off what came to us.”