A multitude of blues artists have emerged from Chicago in the past century, but no one has taken a more circuitous path that gifted harmonica player and vocalist Russ Green.
A finalist for the Sean Costello Rising Star Award at this year’s Blues Blast honors, Green grew up in what can only be described as the true ground zero of Windy City West Side blues sound — area where Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins and plied their trade in the small neighborhood clubs that flourished along on Madison Street a hop, skip and jump to the north and Roosevelt Road a mile or so to the south.
In fact, Russ never had any desire to become a professional musician. He didn’t pick harmonica full time until he’d already reached adulthood, had graduated from college, served a stint as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army and after already establishing himself as a budding star in the TV and film industry.
It took a genuine blues Pied Piper in the form of Sugar Blue to lead him down the road he travels today.
An extremely focused, well-spoken man who’s the son of a career telephone lineman and installer and a stay-at-home mom, Green grew up near the intersection of Kostner and Jackson, and regrets that he simply was too young to have been able to soak up the action in the musical sea that surrounded him in haunts that already were fading into history as he achieved manhood.
“I really would have lo-o-oved to walk in and see Howlin’ Wolf and some of the great older folks,” he says. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have that opportunity.”
Blues played a minor role in the fabric of music Russ listened to back then, he says, “but I was listening to my parents’ music. It was Motown. It was War. My father had Rare Earth albums, the Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf sessions that they did in London – it was all kinds of stuff.
“But I did hear blues on AM radio, and I did have relatives who listened to it — my paternal grandparents. B.B. King was always a huge thing in the house, Muddy and a whole bunch of others.
“I was always listening to classic rock, and always a (Jimi) Hendrix fan. I loved the Cream…oh, my God, man! For me, I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of ‘you’re only supposed to listen to certain things or certain music.’
“I don’t care. If it’s good, I wanna hear it. Nowadays, though, I find myself listening to more blues than anything else – blues and reggae.”
Hendrix was a profound influence.
“When I discovered him, I remember that I was in my parents’ basement in the mid-’80s,” Green remembers. “It was fall, and it was really cool. I was going to City College, had a job at night and had to get up early for school. I turned on this classic rock station, and Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ comes on.
“It just captured me – it took me a long time to realize it was a Bob Dylan song. Then I started listening to more and more of Hendrix. I went: ‘Oh my God! This is making it okay to be me! It’s okay to have the thoughts that I have in my head.’ That’s what Hendrix said to me.
“The thing was that he was so different, that there was a spirituality to his music and his persona and seemingly what he was trying to accomplish. To me, that’s who I was. I was always different from the people around me because I was trying to explore new stuff.”
Years later, when Russ finally picked up a harmonica for the first time, Jimi’s influence remained a driving force in his life. After two years of general studies, he wanted to attend a four-year college, but realized he had no way to pay for it. So he enlisted.
“I was the oldest child,” he says, “and had two younger sisters. I went: ‘Okay, I won’t ask my parents any more to burden themselves for education for me. I’ll go and take care of myself and let them concentrate on my sisters.’”
It was a decision he’s never regretted. The military, he says, reinforced his focus, his self-discipline and his confidence that he’d be prepared no matter what difficulties he faced.
After discharge, Green studied film at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, splitting his time between classes and shooting movies on film in the era that just preceded digital recording. He picked up the harp there for the first time in the midst of a true blues crisis after remembering that he’d purchased one from a pawn shop on the West Side years earlier.
“I was going through a rough time,” Russ remembers. “I was going with a girlfriend who no longer wanted to be my girlfriend, but didn’t tell me until much later.”
He sought solace in music.
“I wanted to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix,” he says, “but all my money was going to my student films. That’s when I remembered I had the harp, which I’d bought with no intent to playing it, although I did take it with me in the Army, and took it out and blew on it occasionally.
“I said: ‘Okay, now I’ll be Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica.’”
Little did he realize it at the time, but someone else held that moniker – and become someone who would change his life dramatically down the line.
“I spent the rest of my time in Carbondale playing out and sitting in with folks,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but they still let me (laughs)! Then, I was hanging out at a park at an outdoor concert, and somebody said to me: ‘Hey, man, when you get back to Chicago, make sure you go and check out Sugar Blue.’
“I went: ‘Sugar…what?’
“He said: ‘Sugar Blue. He’s one of the best harmonica players around.’
“I went: ‘…Okay.’ I had no idea in the world who he was.”
On Green’s first Friday back in the Windy City, he picked up a copy of The Reader, the popular, free weekly tabloid that contained extensive entertainment listings, and noticed Blue was appearing that evening at B.L.U.E.S. Etc. – then a larger sister club to the smaller B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, which still thrives today.
“I was standing outside and handing the doorman my money,” Russ recalls, “and the band starts playing. I can hear this song – boonga, boonga, boonga – and it sounds so-o-o familiar. So I said to myself: ‘Wow! This is pretty cool!’”
What he was listening to was the countdown and opening licks to “Miss You,” a monster hit for the Rolling Stones in the mid-‘70s, and a song that remains Blue’s signature tune today – and for good reason. Those are his harp pyrotechnics that helped turn the song into a classic and remain a powerful force whenever they appear in classic radio rotation today.
“I walk into the bar,” Green says, “and I suddenly hear this harmonica play. Oh, my God! It’s the most incredible thing I’d ever heard. I thought to myself: ‘Whoever is playing this thing is torturing this instrument!’
“As I walk farther, I look at the bandstand at the far end of the room, and don’t see a harmonica player. I keep walking, and I see the dance floor, and I can see there’s two women dancing and there’s a guy between them with his hands cupped around his mouth playing the harmonica.
“I went: ‘Oh, God! That’s what I want to do!’”
Only after Green took a seat did he notice an advertisement for the night’s performance in a plastic holder on the table. It read: “TONIGHT at B.L.U.E.S. Etc.: Sugar Blue, the Charlie Parker of the blues harp and the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica.”
As Blue delivered wave after wave of notes and danced and bobbed his way around the room dressed in his familiar beret and French paratrooper pants at the time, he cast a spell, and Green was instantaneously hooked.
“I spent the next three months in Chicago,” he remembers, “and every chance I got, I’d go check out Sugar Blue. I’d just watch him — blown away – like: ‘How does he do this?’”
His stay was short, however, because Seattle – a city he feel in love with after being stationed at Fort Lewis – was calling. He attempted to break into the TV and film industry there and did work on one commercial, but quickly realized there wasn’t much of an opportunity there because, even though the Pacific Northwest was hot at the time, the great majority of the jobs were based in Alaska and Vancouver, B.C.
He landed a day job with a company that rented equipment instead, often shipping it to film crews in those locales, and he started sittings in with bands and playing at jams every night he could. And he spent every waking moment with a harmonica.
“The damn thing was in my mouth all the time,” he insists. It didn’t matter whether he was simply sitting on the couch at home, driving his truck at work or simply walking through the neighborhood. He was always practicing and — unbeknownst to him at the time — living a life that was eerily parallel to Blue, who was known to practice his scales every waking hour of the day during that era.
“I stayed in Seattle for about three years,” Russ says. “But I had come home for a Christmas visit one year, and a friend who was a buddy from the Army told me: ‘Sugar Blue’s playing at Rosa’s tonight. You wanna go?’”
It was Christmas Eve. Green said yes.
“Those three months that I’d spent in Chicago before, I never said a word to Sugar Blue. I was so-o-o intimidated,” he remembers. “But we went out that night, and during a long break between sets, he was shooting pool on the table at the front of the bar. He had a Hohner CX12 chromatic harmonica with him, and I said: ‘Hey, did Hohner give that to ya?’
“He goes: ‘No, it’s just one I’m tryin’ out.’
“Then he asks: ‘Do you play?’
“I said: ‘A little bit.’ He goes: ‘No! If you play ‘a little bit,’ you play a lot. You play!’”
Their friendship blossomed quickly after that initial conversation. Later on that evening, Blue invited Russ to the bandstand, where he helped back singer Shirley King, B.B.’s daughter, who was also in the audience. Then they hooked up again for more of the same when Sugar gigged the next night.
“He said: ‘Where you live?’ I said: ‘Seattle.’
“He said: ‘What the hell you doin’ out there? Come back to Chicago and I’ll teach you what I know.’
“I hadn’t intended on doing so,” Green remembers. But 18 months later, he finally came to the decision that, if he really wanted a career in film production, the best place to be was the Windy City, where he could establish himself before a move to Hollywood, and not the Pacific Northwest.
It choice was a door-opener for Russ in two worlds.
Beginning as a production assistant on TV commercials, he graduated to assistant director before eventually becoming a member of the Directors Guild of America. His credits include E.R. and Prison Break on TV and a host of major motion pictures, including Soul Food, The Break-Up, Save the Last Dance, Road to Perdition, Source Code and more alongside Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Vince Vaughn, Vanessa Williams and Jude Law, among many other stars of the small and silver screen.
One of his favorite memories during that era, was working with harmonica aficionado Bruce Willis on the movie Tears of the Sun in Hawaii and getting to play with Willis and his band, which he’d brought to the islands for a few gigs.
“It (TV and movie work) was a great experience,” Green says.
A blues man at heart, however, he walked away from it completely in 2012.
“It was my goal to establish myself here, then L.A., and live and work out of Seattle – a lot of folks in the industry don’t live in L.A.. But I’m still here!”
As you’ve probably figured out my now, Blue proved true to his word, and Green became an eager, diligent student who’s the master’s most accomplished protégé to date.
“When I wasn’t working (in film), I would go and hang out with him,” he remembers. “It was probably the greatest inspiration that I could have had because I knew, based on my personality and who I was, that I was going in a certain direction (with the harp).
“I wasn’t necessarily going to be traditional. I didn’t want to be Little Walter — as much as I love him and Big Walter and all the older guys. That’s been done already.
“He taught me that it’s okay to push the envelope, to go further — as long as you’re maintaining your authenticity towards the music.
“What he was basically telling me was: Don’t worry about it. Be authentic to the music and be you. For a long time, I really tried not to sound like him. But there’s nothing wrong with copping those techniques. They’re head-and-shoulders above what other people are doing.
“That was the biggest thing I can say I took from him – because, at one point, folks were saying: ‘You sound too much like Sugar Blue.’
“In my mind, I’m thinking: ‘Give me a chance to develop my own style. Everybody starts off sounding like someone. Give me a chance to get to my own.’
“It took me a long time just to get to that point,” he says. “When I first met Sugar Blue, I was a lip pursing. And your lips get tired when you do that, but I didn’t know any better. He asked me about it, and said: ‘No, do tongue blocking.’
“He said that before he came to Chicago, he was lip pursing and it took him a year to get used to it. …Took him a year (laughs!). It took me a while. But once I started doing it, I said: ‘Oh, my God! The world has opened up! Dig this!
“’This is working for me!’”
But Russ has another, equally important task master, too, in the form of veteran Chicago harp wizard Billy Branch.
As Green likes to describe them, they’re “two little devils standing my shoulders, whispering in my ears ‘do this’ – ‘no, do that!’
“I take more stylistically from Sugar than I did from Billy,” he adds, “but I still have some of Billy’s stylings, too, which are based on Carey Bell and Big Walter, Cotton and the other old-timers.
“He’s always been a tremendous support. He was that way from the moment I met him, and it’s always appreciated. He already knew who I was from speaking with Sugar Blue, and he’s always tried to push me to maintain a more traditional blues sound.
“And at the same time, though, Sugar Blue’s like: ‘Hey, do what you’re gonna do, man (and be more progressive)!’”
Green and Branch worked together on Blues Hip Hop Experience, a mixed-media show that debuted at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2006 and then traveled to other venues, blending artists from both worlds. And Russ has also served as Billy’s understudy/fill-in for another play, Muddy Waters (The Hoochie Coochie Man), which enjoyed a run at the Windy City’s Black Ensemble Theater.
It took about 20 years before Russ released his first full-length CD, City Soul, last year. But despite his limited credits as a front man in the blues world, he’s no stranger to the studio, having recorded and toured with both John Primer and Lurrie Bell in addition to recordings in support of Toronzo Cannon, Wayne Baker Brooks, Vince Agwada and Frank Bang and The Secret Stash.
He’s also appeared as a soloist on a pair of well-received compilation CDs issued under the auspices of Severn Records: singing and playing on Chicago Blues Harmonica Project: Diamonds in the Rough in 2005 along with Omar Coleman and four older harp players and its sequel, More Rare Gems, in 2009, on which he was solely an instrumentalist.
Because of his work in film, Russ couldn’t commit to many long-term music ventures during those years, although he and Agwada worked together for a while in the band The Chicago Blues Project, which gigged around town and appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival.
Green’s life began to change one day in 2011 when the phone rang.
“John Primer called me and said: ‘Hey, man, you wanna play?’” Russ recalls. “I said: ‘Sure, John. Just one gig?’ and he said: ‘Nah, I need somebody regular.’”
Green jumped at the chance, eventually splitting his time between John and Lurrie before then hitting the road with Bang, former second guitarist in Buddy Guy’s band. Russ’ career really took off after he hooked up with Big Llou Johnson, the deep baritone voice of Sirius/XM radio’s B.B. King’s Bluesville, for what would become Johnson’s 2013 album, They Call Me Big Llou.
“I was still working in film at the time, but close to the end,” Russ remembers, noting that he’s always had a “fairly decent” speaking voice and always wanted to do voiceover work for shows and commercials. After speaking to an agent friend about pursuing that dream, she referred him to Big Llou, who was another one of her clients, believing that they could help each other because she knew Johnson was already working on the album.
“I didn’t realize he was the voice of Bluesville because I hadn’t listed to it much,” Russ says. “But he called me up and told me what he was trying to do. We can do the voice thing for you, too. But I want to do this CD because I want to start singing. I said: ‘Sure, dude!’”
Green ended up serving as the album’s producer, assembling the band and delivering stellar harp work that probably left many folks thinking they were listening to Sugar Blue throughout. Recorded in two days, it earned Big Llou best new artist debut honors at the 2013 Blues Music Awards.
With his TV and film work behind him, Russ has been fronting his own band ever since. He co-produced City Soul along with Sam Clayton, a friend based in France. The effort took about five years from start to finish – primarily because Green financed it himself.
Russ’ choice of material was both very focused, encompassing mainstream blues with elements of hip-hop and soul, too. Like the title indicates, it delivers a view of life in the inner city, and pushes the boundaries of songwriting by including aspects that might not always be pleasant, but be true to his goal always to get to the emotional heart of the story.
“When it came to writing these songs and my particular point of view of blues, I didn’t want to try to imitate anybody else,” he notes. “I wanted to be authentic to the music and to the legacy of the genre, but I also had to figure out a way to move towards the future – and again, maintain the authenticity.
“I also wanted to write songs that people can think about, can have an emotional and/or intellectual connection to – something that makes you think about it even when you’re not listening to it. Something that makes you look at our society and wonder what’s going on, what is the true nature of who we are as human beings.
“I did a lot of soul-searching in what I was trying to say,” he adds, “and there’s a great deal of variety in it – something I believe in because I think it helps tell your story. The CD itself was probably much more cohesive in terms of connections between most of the songs and the overall theme of the album.
“There was so much I was trying to accomplish, and I didn’t get too fancy with it. But there’s still some substance there – and things that are very personal. Overall, I’m pretty happy with it. It turned out pretty good!”
The critics agree. Downbeat magazine, for one, honored City Soul as one of its picks for best blues album of the year for 2018. And it also garnered a bronze medal for contemporary blues album and songwriting in the Global Music Awards for “Goin’ Down South,” which Russ wrote with perennial BMA nominee and acoustic blues master Eric Bibb, who makes a guest appearance on the recording.
Green believes that people “connect to the blues because of the electricity you feel when you hear it. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough people trying to cultivate that connection. First, you have to understand that that’s a part of the music, and you’re not just playing the musical form.”
The link, he adds, remains as true today as it did when the music was born in slavery. The slave masters stripped away human dignity, but the one thing they couldn’t steal from their subjects was their innate ability to connect with one another and share real emotions. Blues proved to be the vehicle they used – both as a means to express injustice and as a way to communicate real emotional love.
“That’s the kind of thing you get when you hang around with people who are truly connected to the music,” Green says. “We’ve got nothing to give but love, nothing to give but ourselves – so let’s do that! For me, that really comes out in the music. I don’t think enough of us are really appreciating that or acknowledging and celebrating that and trying to perpetuate it.”
What’s next? Russ isn’t sure at the moment, but you can look forward to another album down the road, whether self-produced or in partnership with a label. As this story was being written, he was about to pack for a 24-date European tour that would take him to France, Spain and Belgium, and he already has booked to play Russia next Spring. You’ll definitely find him playing somewhere in Chicagoland upon his return.
Check out his music and find out where he’s playing next by visiting www.russgreenmusic.com