Featured Interview – Corky Siegel

Cover photo © 2022 Bob Kieser

imageA vital cog in the Chicago music scene since the ‘60s, Corky Siegel has every right to rest on his laurels after being one of the key figures in the introduction of the blues to a new, white audience and then fusing it with classical music and in a way never heard before. When COVID struck and he was housebound, he could have said: That’s enough. I’m done.

But not Corky.

Instead of feeling sorry for himself and unable to perform for adoring audiences for the first time in decades, Siegel set his sights on an even loftier goal: to use his downtime and figure out a way to use his music to spread love, peace, truth and understanding to a society wracked with disease, political upheaval and social disorder.

Fortunately for fans across the music spectrum, there’s a reason to rejoice because Corky — one of the most gentle, good-humored and upbeat revolutionaries you’d ever want to meet – has been so productive that he’s in the process of serving up three new, subtle, multi-textured and distinctly different projects that will entertain while serving as a salve for a world in dire need of healing.

Siegel was on top of the world in the spring of 2020. He and his ensemble, Chamber Blues – a tour-de-force until that includes a string quartet and world-class musicians from multiple mediums – were relaxing at an outdoor café after a successful performance on St. John in the Virgin Islands when news of the impending lockdown in the U.S. broke.

It was a painful announcement on several levels, he admits, noting that he’d recently received a dire warning from an advisor that – at age 76 — he had to stop spending and start bringing in more cash in order to avoid impending trouble. A bad-enough message on its own, the words came on the heels of having had to buy a new car after his old one exploded, leaving Corky and wife Holly stranded in the middle of Wisconsin.

“So there were were,” Siegel says, “having just spent money to pay everyone really well, which is something I always did – but that was okay because we were calling this date a ‘vacation.’ We were losing a little money but we had all these gigs booked – none of which happened. As Holly, says: ‘Mother Nature sent us to our rooms.’”

What for most folks could have been conceived as the onset of major problems, however, turned into yet another opportunity for the man who describes himself as being “an innocent victim of my own good fortune.”

A gifted harmonica player, keyboard player and composer who was born on Nov. 24, 1943, and grew up on the South Side of the Windy City, Corky’s path to the blues came while studying music at Roosevelt University in the Loop. He was playing harp at home one day when a neighbor heard him and subsequently turned him on to the music of Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.

As someone who was covering Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry in a trio in South Side clubs at the time, the uninhibited sounds struck him to his core. And he dove headfirst into the music shortly thereafter when he befriended guitarist Jim Schwall – a fellow member of the university’s jazz band – and started jamming at his apartment.

At the time, Schwall was also playing harp behind Mike Bloomfield, a founding member of both the Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag and one of the greatest guitarists in the history of American music. Schwall taught Siegel – who’d been playing in a rudimentary style akin to Bob Dylan — how to play in second position and to bend reeds – both blues essentials – and quickly elevated his attack, laying the groundwork for the techniques that still serve him well today.

They started learning songs but took a different approach than many of the other white bluesmen were doing at the time. While the great majority of the others were copying their licks and arrangements note-for-note off the originators’ LPs, the duo took a different approach. “I’d listen to the record one time,” Corky says, “and then try to play it like I felt when I was dancing around the house.”

That tactic alone would have set them apart from the crowd. But their sound was even more unique because, when they played out in public for the first time as a duo, Jim was on an amplified acoustic six-string in a scene dominated by blaring electric guitars. Trading off vocals and with Corky primarily playing piano and adding percussion via a bass drum and hi-hat situated underneath his keyboard, they debuted at a Hyde Park coffeehouse not far from the University of Chicago.

Despite a sparse crowd, it was a successful – and memorable – night, during which they were approached by a pair of then-unknown playwrights who liked their playing so much they wanted to enlist them for help on their new work. The writers turned out to be James Rado and Gerome Ragni. For the next six months, Siegel and Schwall toiled away on the charts for what would become Hair – albeit with a significant plot change and other major alterations years later.

Luck was on Siegel-Schwall’s side when they decided to land gigs in the numerous small clubs that populated the South Side in that era, too. Their first excursion took them to Pepper’s Show Lounge at 43rd and Vincennes. “To me, it was just another bar,” Corky remembers, “and we were probably the only two white kids for miles around. We went in and asked: ‘Can we play?’” – without any hint of an idea that it was one of the top blues clubs in the city — and the world — in its day.

After a brief audition, the owner, Johnny Pepper, hired them on the spot for a regular Thursday-night gig – but he insisted that they work as four-piece with a rhythm section instead of a duo.

“From nine at night till four in the morning, we’d be playing with the rhythm section from whatever band was in town but off that night,” Siegel says, “and we…we were just learning to play.”

The first night, they were accompanied by Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer and bass player. “And who comes to sit in with us?” Corky remembers, “Wolf, Muddy, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor!” Corky remembers. “They thought we had a different approach. We weren’t imitating. We were just trying to play…and they lo-o-oved us!”

imageNow a four-piece with a rhythm section that other groups would lust after, the Siegel-Schwall eventually became one of the first ensembles to bring the blues north of the Loop. Butterfield had laid the groundwork for blues on the North Side through their regular gig on Wells Street. But when they hit the road after signing with Elektra, Siegel-Schwall took their place at Big John’s and played at a neighboring club, Mother Blues, too.

“Wolf came to Mother Blues and brought his family to see us,” Corky remembers fondly. “He tells ‘em: ‘Siegel-Schwall’s my favorite band ‘cause you guys are doin’ somethin’ different. You’re not tryin’ to imitate someone else’ — Muddy told us the same thing.

“Wolf hops on stage with us, tells me I’m playing ‘Down in the Bottom’ — (a song he’d first recorded for Chess in 1961) — wrong…and then says Siegel-Schwall isn’t his favorite band…his favorite band is his band — but he still wants to take us on the road with him – including two weeks at Café-a-Go-Go in New York City.

“He used to knock on my door every morning and we’d take these long walks in the (Greenwich) Village.”

One of Corky’s favorite mementos from that era is a photo from that shows him sitting on Wolf’s knee with bass player Jack Myers in the background. A giant of a man, Wolf dwarfed the diminutive Siegel so much that Holly describes it “looking like a ventriloquist with a dummy.”

Back then, though, Siegel was so green to the blues that he’s still embarrassed by an incident that occurred at Pepper’s when the joint hosted an all-day show in Wolf’s honor that was emceed by his bandleader, sax player Eddie Shaw, and anchored by his regular band, the Wolf Gang.

“Eddie invites me up to play, and I’m feeling really, really out of place,” Corky recalls, “because there hadn’t been another white person on stage all day. He introduces me and says: ‘This guy might look to you to be out of place, but he’s one of us…and Wolf – who’s sitting nearby — says: ‘That’s my boy!’

“I’m on stage, and all these amazing people are sitting in…all of the very same people I was listening to on records at home. It was mind-blowing!

“This one guy shows up – and he’s definitely been drinking. He says: ‘Hey, man! Can I sit in?’ I say: ‘Why don’t you come back another time when you’re feeling better?’ And the audience goes: ‘Hey! Why don’t you let him up!?! That’s Little Walter!’

“And it gets worse…because I’m thinking: ‘Who’s Little Walter?’ So I let him sit in, he starts playing, and I went: ‘Oh, my god! That’s Little Walter!’

“It shows you how naïve and new to it all was at the time. I never read the back of the album covers. I was trying to listen to the music. I didn’t want to be distracted by anything else. So I had no idea that the guy playing harmonica was named Little Walter.

“Fortunately, though, when harmonica players showed up, I played the piano or the harmonica if a piano player showed up — so I got to play with all of ‘em.”

Signed to Vanguard Records, Siegel-Schwall’s first four LPs were produced by Samuel Charters, the top blues historian of the era, and they recorded a dozen more albums as stars in their own right. In the midst of all their success, however, a casual encounter with another “fan” early in their career led Corky down a path that literally has created a unique niche in music that will forever link lowdown blues with the sounds of formal high society.

The meeting occurred at Big John’s after an Asian gentleman finally approached the band stage one night after arriving early and staying repeatedly to the end.

“Finally,” Corky remembers, “one night he comes up to me and says: ‘I would like your band to jam with my band.’

“’Who’s your band?’ I asked. He says: ‘The Chicago Symphony.’”

The fan turned out to be Seiji Ozawa, the symphony’s Japanese-born director and one of the most important classical conductors of the 20th century.

Soon after, he began returning to the club in the company of William Russo, a giant in the world of avant garde musical composition, to join forces and kick around ideas. The end result turned out to be “Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra,” a work that gave Siegel-Schwall space to improvise in blues scales in juxtaposition to the Symphony, which was playing  charts with formal arrangements and structure.

Debuting at the upscale Ravinia Festival in suburban Highland Park, the event drew rave reviews with critics drawing comparisons to the creativity of Miles Davis and Leonard Bernstein. Siegel-Schwall subsequently started traveling the country and repeating the performance with other classical ensembles.

The work finally made it to record a few years later, when Siegel-Schwall reunited with Ozawa, who was at his new gig with the San Francisco Symphony. Released by Deutsche Grammophon, one of the foremost classical labels in the world, it became the label’s highest-selling LP ever, climbing as high as the No. 21 spot on Billboard’s jazz chart – an amazing feat because of the hybrid nature of the music.

Since that era, Corky has successfully walked a tightrope between the blues and classical worlds, expanding the scope of both in often surprising directions each step of the way, carving out a niche as a concert composer, too.

First, the San Francisco Symphony came calling, the the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., and the Grant Park Symphony in Chicago. A second partnership with Russo produced “Street Music, A Blues Concerto,” which earned the Grand Prix du Disque from the French government and other honors, and his works began appearing in ballet performances and Olympic skating events.

imageSchwall – who Siegel jokingly refers to him as “my ex-wife” – went on to earn a PhD degree and taught music at the University of Wisconsin for years, ran for mayor of Madison a few times and became deeply involved in social issues after they parted company in 1974. But they remained close friends  until his death earlier this year, reuniting occasionally to record and perform when their schedules allowed.

Siegel’s love for the juxtaposition of blues and classical music kept growing through the years and he eventually came to find that working with a string quartet was so soothing and healing that he launched Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues in 1983 and has been working in that and other formats ever since, foregoing the traditional blues rhythm section in favor of the wooden sounds emanating from the strings and the addition of a tabla player because the sound of the Indian drums is so complimentary to the mix.

“I adored it but thought people were going to hate it,” he says. But when the ensemble debuted in Boulder, Colo., in 1987, he adds: “The critics were rabid. They absolutely loved it. I was really surprised.

“Today, we’re the only chamber orchestra ever to record for an all-blues label,” Corky chuckles. “And Siegel-Schwall’s the only blues band to record two albums for an all-classical label!”

Through it all, Corky insists, he’s still the same guy who started learning the blues so many years ago. “I’m still dancing and doing what I’ve always done,” he says. “Whenever someone asks me what I play, I tell ‘em it’s blues.

“At the same time, I want to honor every form of music” because pitch, harmony and melody carry listeners away no matter what its form and that blues players provide a special element to the mix, providing guidance to the other musicians through their ability to throw themselves so deeply into their performance regardless of what’s happening around them on stage.

After decades in the business, however, Siegel found himself in the same boat as every other musician in the world when COVID struck. And as one of seven million Americans who are immunocompromised and had to go to extreme measures to protect themselves from the infection, he had to do the same.

“Holly and I basically didn’t leave the house throughout the pandemic,” he says, which isn’t exactly true. Making the best of a bad situation, they regularly left home to stretch their legs on long walks through their North Side neighborhood.

“In the early days,” he says, “we’d see somebody coming down the sidewalk, cross to the other side…then yell to them: ‘Nothing personal!’ And we’d wave to everybody. Sometimes somebody’d ask: ‘Do you know me? Why are you waving?’

“I’d tell ‘em: ‘It’s social distancing…not anti-social distancing!’”

Shortly after their return from St. John, a promoter called, wanting to reschedule a Chamber Blues concert from the spring to November. “I started thinking: ‘Every individual is going to have to be in an airtight container,’” Siegel remembers. “‘We’re artists. Why don’t we think of something that’s creative? Let’s do something new!’”

After discussions with the Chamber Blues board of directors, the ensemble started doing video productions. “We were calling them Better Than in Person, listing about 35 reasons why (performing remotely) was more interesting and exciting than live,” he says, “because the only thing you lose is the whole group of people doing it together.

“People were watching our videos and going: ‘This is better than watching it in person!’ They were really digging it…when they couldn’t go out.”

In total, they produced five two-hour concerts before Corky changed the format and began broadcasting shorter, less formal shows twice a week over social media – 160 at last count and climbing — that have included performances as well as a few diverse interviews with Toronzo Cannon, Marcella Detroit, Schwall, Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, director Gary Sherman, composer David Amram and others.

“Holly, who’s a graphic artist, handles the camera, Ken Goerres (an inventor, top sound engineer and fixture in the film industry) has been doing all my audio since ’73 — and I had to learn video editing. She and I were both writing and, fortunately, since I play harmonica and piano and am a songwriter, it made it possible for us to turn out a lot of content.

“That was our life – until recently.”

But not really!

As these words were being composed, he was on the verge of repeating a feat he accomplished in 2005, when he was involved in the production of three albums in a single year – which included the release of Corky Siegel’s Traveling Chamber Blues Show, Siegel-Schwall’s Fast Forward and Buried Alive in the Blues as a member of Chicago Blues Reunion, a group that included Sam Lay, Barry Goldberg, Tracy Nelson, Nick Gravenites and Harvey Mandel, and others.

“But this time,” he jokes, “I did it all on purpose!”

His latest Chamber Blues effort, More Different Voices, is already getting rave reviews, with Songs for Truth and Harmony — an all-original set recorded in various settings — with Something Wrong — a collection of previously unreleased material culled from solo concerts – soon to follow.

Despite their inherent differences, there’s a unifying thread that runs through all three works in that they all deliver what the world needs most now – a heaping helping of love. And none of them would have happened, Corky says, without generous contributions from fans and supporters to his Kickstarter and Unrecorded Love crowd-funding campaigns.

imageMore Different Voices, the seventh Chamber Blues CD, includes contributions from blues artists Toronzo and Tracy Nelson, jazz diva Lynne Jordan and saxophonist Ernie Watts, vocalist Marcella – who bridges the jazz, pop and blues worlds, Frank Orrall – the front man of the Hawaii-based alt rock/soul group Poi Dog Pounding, a string section composed of members from from Spain, Taiwan and the U.S., and tabla giant Kalyan “Johnny Bongo” Pathak. As an inventive twist, the music goes in an entirely new direction, too, with the addition of Ukrainian-born, America-based cantor Pavel Roytman.

“I’ve always had myself a lot of faith in Mr. Spontaneity,” Corky says. “It’s more like the choices happen to me rather than the other way around.”

That was the case a decade ago when he received a call from someone who knew Siegel incorporated guest artists in his performances and suggested Roytman, who’s regular role in music is to sing and lead congregants in chants during Jewish religious services.

“I had lunch with him, we hit it off really well,” Corky notes, “and I wrote a (bluesy) version of ‘Hine Ma Tov’ for him. It was the only Jewish song I remembered! It’s a chant (drawn from the first verse of Psalm 133) that’s repeated over and over.

“I decided to make it really long and explore where it would go. It starts out as ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ – (the lyrics – in Hebrew — following the same pattern) and then it gets very Mozartian and goes into other realms while maintaining a little blues on harmonica.

“We recorded it in 2014…he wanted it for his synagogue…and never did anything with it. When we were about to do this album, I said: ‘Let’s do this!’”

The timing couldn’t have been better when you consider that the decision to include it occurred prior to the war that’s raged in Roytman’s homeland and has left his hometown, Mykolaiv in the Donbas region, in ruin.

The set’s extremely interesting throughout and not as high-brow as you might imagine, beginning with Lynne’s spine-chilling vocals on the jazzy/bluesy “No One’s Got Them Like I Do,” which opens and features Corky providing counterpoint on harp. The group dips into the Siegel-Schwall songbook for a reinvention of “Twisted,” too.

And blues fans will also enjoy “Joyful Jambalaya,” and instrumental on which and rips and runs on the reeds and emits  a few Sonny Terry-style whoops as accents, and Toronzo covering his own song, “Insurance,” which takes on new life as strings substitute for his guitar runs. Other treats include Marcella – who co-wrote “Lay Down Sally” — soaring on mic to deliver her original, “There Goes My Man” and Tracy accompanying herself on keys for a rereading of the original, “Down So Low,” which first appeared in 1968 when she was working alongside Bloomfield in Mother Earth.

Corky’s other projects are far more down-to-earth.

Co-written with Holly, Songs for Truth and Harmony channels the spiritual energy of tunesmiths Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and the teaching of the Dalai Lama, social psychologists as it delivers a passionate, blues-infused plea for kindness and truth – the seed for which was planted by Dr. L. Subramaniam, a frequent Corky collaborator and violinist adept in both South Indian and western classical music.

Siegel showed him the lyrics to one of the first tunes penned for this set, and Subramaniam exclaimed: “It’s hard to change people’s minds with words, but you can get to their hearts with song.”

As board members of the Illinois chapter of Common Cause, a non-partisan organization founded by Republicans that promotes accountability and good government and whose rolls include members of both major parties, the Siegels’ words on this one deliver words steeped with a message but conveyed in the kindest, most gentle way imaginable as they deliver a plea for more peace and understanding in a nation in which both sides of the political spectrum have grown increasingly toxic in recent years.

“Music uplifts us, unifies us, it’s healing…it’s beautiful,” Corky insists. “And politics does exactly the same thing — but in a more direct and — practical –way. Where music is more of a spiritual force, politics is a practical force that heal, too – but people don’t always use it or think of it that way. The analogy is: You can hit someone in the head with a hammer, but you can also build a house with it. The same is true with voting.

“I’ve been making recordings since 1966, and this is the first album that I didn’t write strictly for my own joy, but to join the effort to defend our democracy.”

With tunes entitled “Only Love Will Get Us There,” “Don’t Wait for Peace,” “The Question,” “Cool Fragrant Breeze (Truth),” “Big Time Losers Blues” and more and with contributions from jazz violinist/vocalist Randy Sabien and others, the message comes through loud, clear and uplifting but never confrontational.

imageThe third offering, Something Wrong – the title song is taken from an old Siegel-Schwall tune – has a different agenda. Other than a cover of Little Walter’s “Blues with a Feeling,” it’s a collection of Corky’s original tunes that have been culled from solo live performances.

Emerging from his self-imposed cocoon, Corky celebrated the impending release of all three albums along with his 79th birthday with a show in suburban Evanston in late October — one of seven performances he’s given recently, all of which he jokingly refers to as “vax or ‘masquerade” concerts to keep everyone, including himself, safe from harm.

“I’m really hard on COVID – I don’t give it a chance,” he says. “And I only got a few emails from people. They couldn’t just say they didn’t like the idea. They had to express their anger. (chuckles) I told Holly: ‘Instead of answering their questions about “what’s all this insanity about you asking for people to be vaxxed or masked” in the sweet, long email I sent ‘em, I shoulda said: “That’s the same question I got when I put Chamber Blues together!’ (laughs)

“I was feeling like COVID was going to be a beautiful time for people to realize that, inherently, we have a deep desire to take care of each other with so many bad things happening. And, politics aside, it was like the opposite happened.

“People just got sick and tired of having to mitigate around this disease that we don’t know much about compared to others. Because I care about people, I thought we’d all be going to the grocery and seeing all the old people there and take the opportunity to put our on masks. But then I realized, I’m a little weird because I stop at stop signs, too.

“It’s saying that every time I stop, I appreciate my life and the life of others enough to take three extra seconds to show it. And if I do, the chances of me running someone over are gonna be a lot less. It’s sorta a win-win!”

With everything else on his plate, Siegel already has another solo album in the works, which will include a few new tunes along with originals written as far back as the ‘70s that have never seen the inside of a recording studio, including “Queen Ida of the Zydeco,” a tribute to the Louisiana legend. “There was only so much material that could fit on an LP back then,” he says wistfully. “Things are different now.”

Fans can rejoice that there will be more performances ahead, too.

As Corky came to understand after a reunion with Jesse Colin Young, the founder of The Youngbloods, and a friend since their days together in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, being a performer provides special blessings.

“He was playing at the City Winery in Chicago just prior to the pandemic and invited me to sit in,” Siegel says. “We’re backstage with him afterward, and I asked: ‘Jesse, when you got on stage, you looked 80 years old. When you got off stage, you looked 40. How do you explain that?’

“’Music used to be about other things,’ he said. ‘But now it’s about love.’

“And then he said the profound statement that I’ll never forget: ‘What were we so worried about?’ All you can do is embrace life! Take a walk outside. Look at the sky. Make sure you’re enjoying every single second no matter the situation!”

Head to www.corkymusic.com to check out Siegel’s music and find out where he’ll be playing next. And while you’re there, be sure to visit his blog. It’ll definitely be worth the trip!

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