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FEATURES -- Billy Branch

From the branch to the roots:

Billy Branch passes the torch to the next generation and recalls the Disneyland days of Chicago blues

 

By Tim Holek

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 As the leader of Chicago’s so-called young blues generation, harmonica virtuoso Billy Branch followed a non-traditional path to the blues. He isn't from the southern United States and he didn’t migrate to the north. Branch was born in Chicago in 1951 and was raised in Los Angeles. He returned to Chicago in 1969 to study political science at the University of Illinois. During those years, he was introduced to the blues and became immersed in the local blues scene.

 Photo by: Jennifer Wheeler

 

Branch learned the finer points of harmonica directly from blues legends like Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Junior Wells, and Carey Bell. His big break came in 1975 during a harmonica battle with Little Mack Simmons at the Green Bunny Club. This led to his first recording and it eventually landed him a spot in Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars.  In 1977, Branch formed the Sons Of Blues (SOBs) featuring musicians who where the sons of famous blues artists.


            The SOBs have made numerous recordings in their 30 year history. Additionally, Branch has recorded several solo albums and has appeared on countless releases as a session player. In addition to his recordings, Branch is also an educator, and his Blues In The Schools (BITS) program has earned him praise both inside and outside of the music world.

 

     When I called him in April, he had just returned from a BITS trip to Mississippi and several other southern states. His wireless Bluetooth headset wasn’t always providing a clear signal, but we managed to hold a conversation. With an animated voice, he recalled the old days and openly reflected on the present state of blues. Even though it was only 30 degrees Fahrenheit, Billy had just decided to barbecue his dinner while wearing a down filled coat when I called him.

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Tim Holek for Chicago Blues Guide: You were born in Chicago and grew up in Los Angeles. What music were you exposed to while out in L.A.?

 

Photo by: Tim Holek

Billy Branch: I was listening to what ever was on the radio at the time. I listened to Motown, Hendrix, The Doors, and The Beach Boys. I wasn’t exposed to live music at that time.

 

CBG: You came back to Chicago in the late ’60s to study political science and achieved a Bachelors degree from the University of Illinois. During that time you were bitten by the blues bug. What was it about the music that enchanted you?

 

BB: I look at it like it was my destiny. I had picked up the harmonica as a kid and I never heard anyone play one and never saw anyone play one. I kept the harmonica all the way until I made it to college. I always had one with me. When one was worn out I got a new one. The first blues I heard was at a festival that Willie Dixon produced ironically and it was THE first Chicago Blues Festival. Another one did not happen for many many years. What happened was after Sly Stone didn’t show up at a concert [on July 27, 1970], they had a big riot, and Mayor [Richard J] Daley banned free outdoor music for many years. The next free music wasn’t until Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, came in office [in 1983]. It wasn’t free but Jane Byrne [who preceded Washington as mayor] put on Chicagofest at Navy Pier. It was a great event and I played at it with Willie Dixon. (You can listen to that performance on the Alligator CD Blues Deluxe which was recorded at the festival). It included not only blues but the top performers of the day. It featured all genres. Anyway, I heard this great music man and I said wow I’ve never heard blues before. I didn’t even know who I was listening to. Later I found out it was Junior Wells and Muddy Waters.

 

CBG: You became a regular at Theresa’s after falling in love with the blues. Are there any current Chicago blues clubs that have the same vibe as places like Theresa’s or Alice’s Revisited?

 

BB: Not exactly. Those days they about gone. Lee’s Unleaded is the closest. It’s on the South Side. It’s one of the last clubs that features blues seven nights a week. In the day, it used to be called the Queen Bee Lounge. The beauty of those clubs was that you had some of the best players in the whole planet that you could see any given night, every night of the week. It was just like Disneyland of the blues. You could hear Lefty Dizz, Magic Slim, Junior Wells, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Big Moose, Louis Meyers, The Aces, [and] Left Hand Frank. There were hundreds and everybody was good. They were all just fantastic artists man. It didn’t get any better than that. You’ll never see it again. If you missed it, you just missed it. I really regret the passing of those days. I was inspired to spend as much time as I did with those cats. Even so, I know I could have spent more time [with them]. For example, Big Walter he be-friended me and although I saw him dozens and dozens of times, I wish I’d spent more one-on-one time with him. You just don’t expect the guys to leave that soon. (Walter passed at the age of 64 on December 8, 1981). And as old as they seemed back then, because we were so young, some of them were just the age that I am now [56] or even younger. But they seemed like these really old guys.

 

CBG: You and Little Mack Simmons had a famous harp showdown in the early stage of your blues career. Near the end of his career, he released some CDs on the Canadian label Electro-Fi including some old sides from his independent Chicago label. Anyway, as the story goes, back in 1975 Mack claimed to be the world’s greatest harmonica player and offered to pay anyone $500 if they could beat him at a showdown. So you went down there and as soon as you played the crowd said to give you the money. Mack then requested that you play his local hit Rainy Night In Georgia, which is available on Electro-Fi’s Little Mack Simmons – The PM/Simmons Collection, note for note. You performed it but he claimed you didn’t play it note for note. Then he asked you to play Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got note for note. At that point you said you can’t play that note for note and Mack told you and the crowd that the boss said it was closing time. Give us a sense of what an achievement it was for you to be the new kid on the block and to have beaten him in that competition at the Green Bunny even though Mack never admitted that you beat him.  

 

BB: (Laughs) I’ll tell you a story about that. He kinda did admit it. You know Mack was involved in a lot of stuff in those days. When I was first on the scene I was kind of a loner. I didn’t know a lot of people. When we had that so-called battle … Believe this or not, I have this fan. He is the number one Billy Branch fan. This guy has assembled my entire career on vinyl and disc minus the stuff that I’ve done in the past couple of years. He has bootleg stuff too and he has a recording of that night! How he found it, I don’t know. That’s when I got noticed by Bruce Iglauer and Jim O’Neal. I was still in college. I’d go to classes in the day and on the weekends I’d come out but I wouldn’t come out frequently enough for people to know who I was.  I’d sit in maybe every couple of months. Then I’d disappear for another few months. Nobody knew who I was. Even people who knew everything that there is about the blues, when I’d show up they’d think who the hell is this guy? I was painfully reserved and shy in those days. So when Mack runs out and said the boss says its closing time, he was the judge and the jury. That’s what lead to my first recording and subsequent interviews in Living Blues and that ignited us. It was a pivotal point for me starting out. Years later Mack and I performed on a package tribute to Little Walter. We sat next to each other on the flight to the West Coast and talked all the way. I let him hear some of my recordings and he was just amazed. He said man I want these. I wanna learn the stuff you’re doing. He did say you know I should have given you that money. (Laughs) So that was as much as an admission I was going to get. He was a very humble almost beaten man. Here was a guy who went from having lots of money to being practically penniless when he died. Mack was a good harp player. He had a very smooth style.           

 

CBG: Blues In The Schools was conceived in 1978 by you and the SOBs. The program is an educational project for children. It teaches them all aspects of the blues as an American art form including such topics as the history of the blues, famous blues musicians, different styles of blues, and writing, singing, and performing blues. Each student receives focused instructions on how to play the blues harmonica. Following each multi-week program, the students appear in a graduation concert. The project presents a unique opportunity for students to use and develop their musical abilities. They are taught the discipline of the art and learn the interaction and teamwork, which creates self-esteem and self confidence. Tell us about your most recent BITS trip.

 

BB: I was in Mississippi the last two weeks doing the BITS thing where we passed through the B.B. King museum that’s opening in September. I taught 3,000 youngsters and adults harmonica. Three thousand harmonicas were handed out.

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CBG: Do you ever hear from any of the past BITS kids?

 

BB: From my very first residency in 1978, some of those kids still come out to Rosa’s Lounge [a Chicago blues club] and they still stay in touch with me. They still listen to blues and a couple of them still play.  

 

CBG: There are, of course, many artists involved with BITS such as Fruteland Jackson and Robert Jones. How do you manage to keep the BITS curriculum consistent among all the different instructors?

 

BB: Well you don’t. Everyone’s got their own approach. There is no standard curriculum. That can work to an advantage depending on the capability of the artist. It brings different angles and different perspectives.

 

CBG: So it’s not like the other instructors get in touch with you to make sure that you are doing a similar kind of thing with the BITS programs that you put on?

 

BB: No no not at all. In fact I haven’t seen Robert Jones in probably about 15 years.      

 

CBG: In the 20-25 years that you’ve been doing BITS, have the goals of the overall program changed?

 

BB: I’ve been doing it actually 30 years. I’ve been doing it longer than anyone. I wasn’t exactly the very first one [to run a BITS program] but I think I’ve done it more comprehensively than anyone and certainly longer. For example, I’ve done this for two weeks at a time. I just got back from Xalapa Vera Cruz Mexico where I taught my class in Spanish. If you go to youtube.com and search on Billy Branch blues in Xalapa you’ll see some clips of the kids. We’ve done this in Belgium for two weeks with rich kids as well as Albanian refugees. I’ve done this throughout South America and Haiti and Nicaragua and then on the state department tour back in the mid-’80s.           

 

CBG: I didn’t know it was so international. That’s great.

 

BB: People tend to think of BITS as an organization. It’s not. It’s an effort by many individual artists. It’s not under one umbrella. We are probably the only band doing it. The whole band gets flown to a location for up to five weeks. All the children would learn harmonica and then the others would learn the respective instruments of guitar, bass, and drums. Then the last two weeks the kids would tour and perform original material. Sometimes the kids come up with very profound songs.

 

CBG: Of all the kids that you’ve encountered and taught, has there been one or two that you’ve taken under your wing like Lefty Dizz did to you?

 

BB: There was one guy from here in Chicago and his name was James Jones. We lost track of him. He attended BITS at Grand Elementary School, which is located in a very impoverished area of Chicago in the Rockwell Garden projects. I was at a function at a theater company on the South Side and this young lady sang so dynamically, I asked who she was. She said Latanya Beach. I said Latanya Beach that was one of my star pupils back in the day. She said Mr. Branch I’ve been looking for you for 20 years and I wanna thank you. She credited me with kinda starting her but she was a great singer as a young child. We encouraged her. When we would do one of our performances, she would be one of the featured singers. She is the only one I know that was actively professionally performing. In Seattle, we attended a sea of young inspiring jazz musicians. These kids had such an accelerated jazz program. These kids were budding professionals. One of them Oare Arunga, he was born in Africa, this cat was such a natural. Now he’s got a jazz hip hop group and he is one of the featured attractions in the Seattle area.

 

CBG: Its good to know that thanks to BITS there is yet another generation getting turned on to the blues.

 

BB: Our mission is not to necessarily create musicians but if that happens that’s fine. The main thing is we want the kids to understand the significance and the relevance of blues and develop an appreciation for it. Unless you are a kid that is nurtured in the blues by your parents or relatives, you normally wouldn’t be interested in blues.

 

CBG: In Karen Hanson’s book Today’s Chicago Blues, you are quoted as saying, “The SOBs were put together as the answer to the question are there any young black guys playing blues.” It seems that young African-Americans are staying away from the blues. So who would the answer to that question be now?          

 

BB: That’s kind of a dilemma. There has been so much analysis [on that] as far as the reason [for it] – you do find some young guys popping up here and there but it’s a new day. You don’t have the Theresa’s; you don’t have those masters there so the ones that are learning now – the black guys would be more apt to learn from the white guys who learned from the black guys. You see what I’m saying? Because the black guys are gone. I was very fortunate to have been here in Chicago because you couldn’t get it any place else on the planet.   

 

CBG: If you consider some of Chicago’s younger blues artists such as Nick Moss – although he isn’t the best example because he was mentored by Willie Smith and Jimmy Rogers – do you feel there is anything missing from their music especially the artists who never had the opportunity to learn from the older black guys? (Billy really seemed to struggle with an answer to this question. He paused and thought a lot before and during his answer).

 

BB: To be honest I don’t get out as much as I used to so I don’t catch a lot of these guys unless they are opening or happen to be out. Some of the guys they are good musicians but there is a challenge right now and a push for everything to be new and original and fresh. You’re not gonna hear many guys trying to play like Louis Meyers, or imitating Big Walter Horton. Although while I at one point emulated all of those guys, ultimately I developed my own style but I can go back and listen to [some of my] recordings and think damn I must have been hanging out with Big Walter a lot during that period because I’m playing all Big Walter riffs or Cotton or whoever. I don’t know if I’m answering your question but it’s just a different day. Lil’ Ed and John Primer are some of the few cats from our generation that really hold down traditions of the masters like Ed’s uncle J.B. Hutto.

 

CBG: You are very in demand – both as a solo act and as a session player. Off the top of my head I know you’ve appeared on recordings by Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, Willie Dixon, Lonnie Brooks, and the Kinsey Report among many others. Do you have any idea how many sessions you’ve played on?

 

BB: (Laughs) Over a hundred. The guy that is putting together my discography, he is missing a few and some of them I’ve completely forgotten about. There is some that I don’t have access to like some stuff overseas. Like I’d be out on tour and someone would record us in session. There is some stuff I never ever saw. I remember doing a session on that SOBs trip to Berlin Germany [which led to the formation of the band]. I was in the studio and the producer started shouting, “oh yeah, this is what we’ve been looking for”. They paid me whatever little money it was and I never heard from him again.

 

CBG: What would you say was the most memorable session?

 

BB: Oh, man that’d be impossible (laughs). I’ve been listening back because now I’m hearing a lot of this stuff because it’s on my iPod so I’ll play it on the road in the car. One memorable session that comes to mind was with Hayes Ware. You’ve heard of Hip Link Chain? For a few years Hayes played bass with Hip but he also played a little guitar. Hayes called me to do this project. The studio was right down the street from Theresa’s.  This old guy named Grover had a little basement studio. We had no rehearsal and this guy he played very rudimentary guitar but his songs were so original. Every time I play it for anyone, they always want a copy. The actual LP it’s called Hayes Ware’s Blues He Got A Woman. It is the funkiest sound and man you never heard a tone like I got in that studio. Never. This guy Grover was some kind of recording engineering genius. The tone of the harp is like the best of the tone of Sonny Boy on Chess Records. It’s deep. That one was memorable because everything just fit. It was one of those magical moments. There were no rehearsals. Then you listen to it 20 years later and think damn that was some brilliant shit.

 

CBG: Something else that is almost 20 years old already – which just so happens to be one of my all-time favourite blues albums – is Harp Attack. That, of course, is the album that paired you with three of the greatest blues harp players: James Cotton, Junior Wells, and Carey Bell. What do you recall about those recording sessions?

 

BB: Oh that was great experience man. The only thing was we weren’t all there together all the time because when I was there Carey wasn’t there. But you can imagine [what it was like with] Junior and Cotton being together! Talking shit all the damn time. I remember when I did New Kid On The Block, Junior said don’t fuck with it. I said what you mean? He said don’t be trying to go back in there, that’s it. I think we did either one or two takes and he was like that’s it, just don’t, leave it alone (laughs). That [CD] was like the diploma. If I can hang with these bad cats I can hang with anybody.

 

CBG: With those three harp players and a band which featured Lucky Peterson and Michael Coleman, things must have gotten out of control at times.

 

BB: No it was cool. Everything was cool, man. There wasn’t any jealousy or animosity. It was like, hey let’s do this thing.         

 

CBG: You and Carl Weathersby go way back to 1982 when he joined the SOBs. Do you still perform together?

 

BB: We just performed with him on Monday. It was actually unusual. He practically hadn’t been there since he left the band [in 1996]. He was doing an interview and performing on one of the radio stations and he thought about us and came on down and sat in.

 

CBG: Carl performed with you at the thirtieth reunion of the SOBs at last year’s Chicago Blues Festival. Was that the first time you’d performed together with him in years?

 

BB: No. We’ve done a few things over the years. We had done something in Helena, Arkansas a few years back at the King Biscuit Blues Festival.

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Lurrie Bell & Billy Branch: by Jennifer Wheeler

CBG: Another guitarist that has been affiliated with you for a long time is Lurrie Bell. He was a founding member of the SOBs and performed and recorded with the band between the late ’70s and early ’80s. Bell is sounding better than he has sounded in a long time especially with everything that he has gone through recently. Last year he lost both his partner Susan Greenberg and his father, Chicago blues harmonica legend Carey Bell. Lurrie had already triumphed over a debilitating bout of mental illness that stretched through much of the ’80s and ’90s during which he’d even gone homeless for a time.

 

BB: Yes. I am so happy for him.

 

CBG: You actually had something to do with his resurgence. When he performed with you at the 2005 Chicago Blues Festival, it was one of the first times that he was back on the scene in a while. Isn’t that right?

 

BB: I hadn’t recalled that like that. If you hadn’t a said that I wouldn’t have remembered that. You know after thousands of performances it’s hard to remember what was what. But that could very well be true.

 

CBG: Well I think you deserve some credit for getting him back on the scene.

 

BB: Lurrie is always making me feel good. He is always bragging on me. So many of us are just so happy for him. There were times in the past when Lurrie would always bounce back but there were other times when he had been so knocked down, I thought damn can he survive this shit? Now, [with] the Creator willing, he’ll just go on to enjoy the career that he so deserves. For my money when Lurrie was on, nobody could beat his guitar playing at all. I don’t care if it was Albert King. I’ll tell you, one of our favourite albums with Lurrie with us. There are two, they were re-released on Evidence. There was one live and there was one in the studio. They are both good but the studio one [Billy Branch & Lurrie Bell & The Sons Of Blues – Chicago’s Young Blues Generation] is my favourite. Man, check that out. You won’t regret it.

 

Thanks to Alligator Records and Billy Branch’s website for providing the biographical materials that I’ve used throughout this feature. Special thanks to Madolyn Holloway —Tim Holek

 

Copyright 2008: Chicago Blues Guide

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