Lurrie Bell is not a doctor.
He never attended medical school, wrote a prescription or wore a stethoscope around his neck.
But regardless of that, Lurrie Bell still knows what it takes to cure a severe case of the blues.
Doesn’t matter if he’s bummed out because of a lover’s quarrel, depressed by the insane price of gasoline, or fretting over a loss by his favorite football team, the cure remains the same.
And it comes attached with six strings.
“When I get down or think about the way things are these days, I thank God that I own a guitar,” he said. “Because I pick up my guitar and all those down feelings and depressed feelings that I may be having, they just go away. Like a magic wand.”
And even though he may not have a medical diploma to hang on his office wall, Lurrie Bell has nevertheless been helping folks feel better about themselves by dishing out generous helpings of Chicago blues since the mid-1970s.
Hailed back in the day as a member of the “younger generation of Chicago blues,” Bell has long since surpassed that tag and has became one of the elder statesmen for an art form that refuses to die.
Ever since he first cradled a guitar in his small hands at the age of 5, the son of harmonica legend Carey Bell has had one simple thing on his mind – to play the blues.
“When I first picked up the guitar, I knew right then that I wanted to be a blues musician,” he said. “Hanging around with all the old legends that my dad knew, I would listen to them and it did something to me. It did something to my heart and I knew right then that I wanted to be a bluesman. I think my favorite player growing up was Eddie Taylor. I used to listen to him and say to myself, ‘If I ever get anywhere close to him, I’ll be bad.’”
And “bad” is just what Lurrie Bell soon became.
Raw, emotive guitar licks, topped with heartfelt vocals and straight-forward subject matter, is what Bell is all about.
Not only did he get a chance to play with his idol, Eddie Taylor, Bell also pulled duty playing guitar in Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine for four years. Four years that helped Bell hone his considerable skills, while also teaching him how to become a professional musician.
After that apprenticeship, Bell teamed up with Billy Branch to form the Sons of the Blues, an act that quickly became a staple of the Chicago blues scene for a long time.
Bell and Branch can be heard together once again on the recently released Chicago Blues: A Living History – The (R)Evolution Continues (Raisin’ Music).
That disc is a follow-up to the Grammy-nominated first edition of the series, and in addition to Branch and Bell, features Windy City stalwarts like Billy Boy Arnold, Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Magic Slim.
And if you don’t bring your “A” game to a session loaded with as much firepower as the ones that it took to complete the Chicago Blues: A Living History discs, you’d be better off to just stay at home.
“That project is a good one. Me, John Primer, Billy Branch, Billy Boy Arnold … that project is one of the greatest ones that I’ve been involved in,” Bell said. “When you’re playing with guys like that, it does something to you. It just hits you right in the heart. Working with those cats just inspires you. It makes you really dig in.”
While the Chicago Blues: A Living History series is just what the name implies it to be, according to Bell, the game-plan going in was to add a touch of “today” to the songs of yesterday.
“We’re carrying on the tradition, but we’re also trying to put new stuff into the blues, as well. This is a connection (between the old and the new) that the blues has been looking for,” he said. “That’s why the project is called Chicago Blues: A Living History. We’re trying to carry on with what came before us.”
But instead of learning about the Chicago blues from old records, old video tapes or older stories, Lurrie Bell learned about the rich history of the music first-hand, part of a living, breathing history lesson taught by his iconic father.
Before his passing at age 70 in 2007, Carey Bell played harp with everyone from Muddy Waters to Robert Nighthawk to Lowell Fulson and Jimmy Dawkins and beyond. He was also an accomplished bandleader in his own right.
Not only did Lurrie learn from watching and listening to his dad, he also had had the opportunity to do something that only a select few youngsters get to do – work side-by-side with their father on a night-in, night-out basis.
“Oh, man. Working with my dad was everything to me. I felt like I was one of the luckiest persons around. Being able to share the stage with my father, Carey Bell, was an honor and a privilege, man. It was a powerful thing,” he said. “I took that very seriously. I tried to show my father that I was just as interested in the blues and in music as he was. I wanted him to know that I was his son and I was there to make things happen for both of us.”
Carey and Lurrie Bell made a lot of things happen as a duo, sharing the spotlight on 10 releases, including the live platter Gettin’ Up, Live at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Rosa’s and Lurrie’s Home (Delmark Records).
Needless to say, the chemistry the two men shared was something special. This bond is especially evident on Gettin’ Up’s last four tunes, songs recorded in the intimate setting of Lurrie’s house in the summer of 2006. Those were also the last songs that Carey Bell would lay down to tape. Fitting then, that those were tunes recorded with his son right at his side.
“I just got so much inspiration from working with my dad,” Bell said. “A lot of people never get the chance to work with their father as closely as I did. I learned so much from him. Touring, recording … just everything about the blues, I learned from my father. More than I could ever imagine.”
His father’s death left blues lovers all around the world saddened, as it did Lurrie, but at the same time, it also served as a wakeup call to the younger Bell.
A wakeup call he immediately heeded.
“Well, when my father passed a few years ago … I hated to see him go, of course, because I loved him with all my heart and soul … but when he passed, that was a message, man,” said Bell. “One that was deeper than I ever could have thought about. It’s hard when you lose a father – a family member – but the positive thing it did for me was to make me focus on my music more than ever. I take music more serious now than I ever have.”
And even though he no longer is capable of standing side-by-side with his father, backing up Carey’s sweet blasts of harp bliss with a sturdy bed of blues guitar, Lurrie Bell still has plenty of reminders of his larger-than-life father.
“I look at the harmonicas (his dad’s) and that makes me feel good. I’ll never forget him,” said Bell. “I want to continue to remember what he taught me and try to carry on in his footsteps. I want everyone to know what my dad meant to me. I miss him so much, but he still lives in my heart. Before we went on stage, we would laugh and talk and joke around and humor each other. I loved the way he blew the harp.”
Just like any son would be, to hear his father’s words of approval at the skill in which he went about his profession made Lurrie Bell swell with pride and satisfaction.
“He would compliment me and that carried me a long way,” he said. “To have him tell me I sounded good meant the world to me.”
Just like his father used to do back in the day, Lurrie Bell spends the majority of the year on the road, packing up his guitar, his band and playing anywhere there is a stage and an audience.
“I went to Europe three times this year and those tours were fantastic, man,” he said. “The audiences over there are really into the blues and what the blues represents.”
And when he’s not thrilling European crowds with his brand of the blues, Bell can be found at several different venues right on his home turf of Chicago.
“Well, I’ve been working at Buddy Guy’s Legends and the Blues on Halsted and Rosa’s, too,” he said. “So I’ve been busy on the blues scene. I’m just trying to stay as busy as I can. I just love the blues.”
Bell has also recently spent time in a recording studio in Chicago, emerging with his newest disc, the soon-to-be-released The Devil Ain’t Got No Music.
Although there’s plenty of the Lurrie Bell that his fans have came to know and love on his latest offering, there may also be a bit of a surprise in store, as well.
“It’s blues, but it’s more gospel. I’m singing about the Lord,” Bell said. “I’m singing some of the spirituals that I learned when I was living in the south with my grandparents down in Alabama. I used to attend church a lot and I also played in church. I wanted to revisit that whole scene on this new CD.”
The Devil Ain’t Got No Music also offers Bell an opportunity to stop for a moment and reflect on just what all he’s accomplished to date.
“I think a lot about how I’m blessed with a talent and get to play music these days,” he said. “And to be able to do something for the Lord after all these years of playing the blues and going to all those countries and recording all this music … I just wanted to spend a little time and thank God for what he gave me.”
And if Lurrie Bell has any say about it, he’ll continue to use those God-given gifts as long as he’s able to.
“I get up early in the morning and look forward to the day. I get my guitar and it’s like the power of the Lord is moving in me nowadays,” he said. “To me, the blues is the most powerful music in the world. And I think about this more and more each day. The blues is the foundation, the backbone of music. Period. And if you’re playing blues and mean it from your heart, I think God will bless you in a lot of ways.”
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2011MJStringerPhoto.com