Steve Ditzell – Deep Chops – High Life, Hard Dues and Unsung Heroes
The Adventures of a Chicago Blues Guitarist
Everyone has a story. Blues musicians probably have some of the best ones imaginable. When I joined Crossroads Blues Society almost 20 years ago, I met two great Chicago Blues guitar players who had relocated to Rockford, Illinois. One of them was Steve Ditzell.
Steve was a fiery guitar player along with being a solid vocalist and songwriter. I use past tense as Steve’s health issues preclude him from continuing his music career, so he is now working on his writing as he moves forward.
This great biography was done as a short run of 50 copies to promote Steve’s new writing career. He is now working on formally publishing the book through a publishing house and is considering releasing it as a package deal with copies of his album Blues For Theresa.
Ditzell began his musical journey after growing up in a very strict Baptist household in upstate New York. While the Devil’s Music and even dancing we not allowed, the Blues called to Steve and became his life’s love and calling. He got into his first formal band at age 18 and that began his journey.
A big fan of music, Steve’s earliest big influence was Eric Clapton and Cream. He played bass in the style of Jack Bruce and longed for a voice even close to Jack’s. His college days in New Haven, Connecticut, at Paier School of Art pretty much were spent majoring in drugs, marijuana, booze, beer and listening to and playing music. Elmore James, Tampa Red and Jesse Edwin Davis, the slide player for Taj Mahal, were huge early influences. Davis’ version of “Statesboro Blues” not only floored Ditzell but Steve also reminds us it also moved Duane Allman; Allman had a cold when he first heard this song and used his legendary Coricidin bottle to be his slide. Music was a hot commodity in New Haven as were drugs and booze.
He then got to see Cream in New Haven, his all-time favorite band. It spurred his interest in playing guitar instead of bass, so he began to play the six stringed axe. This was also followed by a period of depression induced by LSD and became a deep gorge that he spiraled into and emerged from after a period of time he spent in his family’s basement in Ithaca, NY. Ditzell pulls no punches in telling his story, remaining brutally honest throughout.
He followed this cleansing of his body and mind by living in a cabin in the woods where he lived predominantly off the land, until his landlord passed away and her family sold the cabin. He got a job processing vehicle engine blocks and parts for scrap reuse as steel and played in local bands after that and honed his skills on guitar. He decided Chicago was the way to fix his other addiction, the Blues.
In 1975 he hit Chicago and found Theresa’s Lounge. After building up confidence and getting a chance to sit in, his talent got him an offer to be part of the house band full time (and later part time when he was touring). In all, he played with Theresa’s House Band through 1984. The lead guitarist was Sammy Lawhorn whom Steve respected and loved. He dedicates the first chapter of his book to Lawhorn who is under-appreciated and under-recorded. Anecdotally, Lawhorn would occasionally drink to excess, pass out on stage, and allowed Ditzell to be the lead guitarist from time to time.
He first became part of Fenton Robinson’s touring band. That was from 1976 to 1977. Fenton was another huge influence to Ditzell. They parted ways when Robinson decided a keyboard player was more of a need than a rhythm guitar player; Fenton did not want the added cost of another body in the band.
It was then that Koko Taylor was looking for a rhythm guitar player and Steve served in that capacity from 1978 to 1980. Steve notes that you always knew where you stood with Koko as she was very in your face; there we no secrets or talking behind your back. She and he did well together, touring all over, but two things got Steve to want to move on. One was that he yearned to play lead guitar, something he had few opportunities to do in Koko’s band. The second was that the touring involved non-stop driving from gig to gig with Koko’s husband Pops doing all the driving himself, sometimes as much as 36 hours. Steve felt the advancing years of Pops with the long drives as something he was more than a little concerned about, so he moved on amicably to play lead guitar with a man who he met and grew to love and respect at Theresa’s: Junior Wells.
Wells was no angel and loved to kid and dig and even torment people (mostly in jest). This began in January 1981 and went through mid-1984 when Ditzell was broke and had to take a year off to financially get himself reestablished. His life on the road left him financially strapped and full-time day job work was the solution. He also tried out to pitch for the White Sox in 1983. He got a much longer try out than virtually any other pitcher, but at age 33 things just did not work out for his baseball career.
He also picked up tours with Buddy Guy who he also met and loved working with. Buddy opened the Checkerboard Lounge, another famed old Chicago Blues club.
After his year at a day job, Ditzell again began touring with Wells, who said he was welcome back any time. This new touring period with his old mentors and friends went through 1994.
Steve moved to Rockford, Illinois in April 1993 with his girlfriend and first long term love of his life Maggie. He gigged and toured with many folks, including his own Band Blue Lightning. It was in Rockford that Maggie’s health began to deteriorate, and she was moved to a nursing home for a very short spell and Steve did not accept this so he took her home and cared for her himself. She finally passed with Steve at her side in late December 2013, just 3 days before her 64th birthday. They were together 25 years, the last 10 as husband and wife. He was one of the most dedicated spouses I have evet met; their love ran deeply.
The book is not chronologically written. It begins with a chapter on Sammy Lawhorn. The next chapter is mostly his early life and is entitled “The Devil’s Music.” The next chapter is “Theresa’s Lounge.” I was moved to put on Steve Ditzell & The Blue Lightning Band album Blues For Theresa as I read this chapter. Not only was it appropriate but I got to hear Steve, Junior Wells and the great backline of Marty Binder on drums and Dave Kaye on bass as I read the story about the lounge. Recorded in 1994, Steve spiffed up the songs with some added second lead guitar work and re-released it in 2005.
Chapters on Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Koko Taylor follow that, offering anecdotes and fantastic nuggets of information on his work with these great artists and his behind-the-scenes life touring with them.
The final chapter is “More Heroes and Adventures,” a whirlwind ride through blues nobility and other icons Steve worked with. Some of the most interesting stories are included here. He also adds an “Epilogue” after the final chapter because he claimed he really wasn’t finished.
The impetus for the book began early in his career. So as not to forget his memories as a musician, he would jot down notes and put them in a cigar box. He and later Maggie would joke that they would be the basis for his book of his life story. Life on the road and working never allowed that book to happen, but a few years ago carpal tunnel syndrome and other physical maladies cut his playing career short, so he began to write. He also took care of his elderly Dad in Florida, not mentioned in the book, which consumed a lot of time and probably also delayed the start of his new endeavor with his writing career.
Writing replaced gigging and last year he finally completed this biography, but not before he has several starts and stops. He had to teach himself how to write, emulating several of his favorite authors, Including Ernest Hemingway. His terse and direct manner in relating his story to us is certainly in that style, but he also maintains a conversational approach that is engaging and something that keeps the reader locked in and looking for more.
The book is his story in 163 pages. He says there could have been so much more, but in this he offers a rich and interesting life story in this volume that even the casual blues fan will love. Fans of Chicago Blues will read these stories with rapt attention and enjoy the inside look at life of a gigging and touring Bluesman. He doesn’t hold back; the dialogue is often abrupt and filled with how he and his band mates and associates really conversed and some of the harsh realities of life he and others faced. The book is real, honest and a true insight as to how a man overcame his adversity and issues from drug and alcohol abuse. He also talks about being a little surprised how he managed to make it so far in life (he’s now in his early 70’s), and how he managed to do what he loved to do best in life: play the Blues.
I really enjoyed reading Steve Ditzell’s story and I look forward to its release to the public so other blues fans and artists can read and appreciate this great piece of biographical work! You can order the book directly from Steve Ditzell by emailing him at: email@example.com