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Inside the Blues:

Charlie Love heads to Durban, South Africa as blues ambassador

charlie love at space by dianne
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

by Liz Mandeville

Chicago blues singer, guitarist, harp player, bandleader, Charlie Love is headed over to Durban South Africa this month to be United States blues ambassador at the 2014 Durban International Blues Festival. The Festival, which takes place every October in Durban, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year at Wilson’s Wharf on the beautiful Indian Ocean.

The programmers like to have someone on the fest every year who represents the Chicago sound. Since it’s done as a cultural enrichment program, they also sponsor workshops and blues instruction in the small theatre on site. Past performers have included a host of South African blues players, Australian guitarist Fiona Boyes, Chicagoans Jimmy Burns, Toronzo Cannon, Fruteland Jackson and me! I was honored to play the fest two consecutive years. Believe me, the trip was well worth the 25 hours spent flying. South Africa is not only a complex and beautiful country, the South African musicians love the blues and they play it with authenticity and vigor.  

I had the good fortune to catch up with Charlie Love as he prepares for the next step on his unfolding journey.

Charlie Love by Moe
photo: Airshots Photography

Born and raised in Chicago, Charlie picked up the blues as a child, “Mom listened to the blues all the time. I was just listening to my mother’s blues record and picked up the words. I always had a feel for it,” he told me. He was singing by age seven. His dad played blues harp and Charlie picked that up from him.

When it came to guitar his road was a little more challenging. Charlie’s sister had a musician boyfriend named Jimmy Radcliff who caught Charlie playing his guitar. “At first the guy was mad,” Charlie told me. “First he said don’t play it and in the next breath he said do you want to learn?” So Jimmy Radcliff let him keep on playing. Charlie kept playing that guitar for months until it had only one string left. Finally Jimmy put fresh strings on the guitar and showed Charlie a few chords. “Never had any other lessons,” he explained. Charlie taught himself to play by ear. “I figured if I just kept after it, practiced, something would come of it.”

His first big break came at the hands of Chicago bandleader/guitarist Buddy Scott, a man that was a mentor to many of us who are on the scene today. Here’s how it happened. Charlie was walking down 43rd Street with the guitar in a case on his back. Buddy was leaning on a car out on the street. Buddy Scott said “Hey is that a guitar?” At first, Charlie was hesitant to engage with the stranger, as people can be unpredictable and he didn’t know if Buddy might try to take the guitar or something. But Buddy was persistent, he insisted Charlie show him what he could play. So finally Charlie got out his guitar and started playing a Tyrone Davis song. But when it came to the chord change Buddy said “No that aint right.” And he showed Charlie how the song was played. Then Buddy invited Charlie to come out and sit in with his band and that led to his first gig. “It was 59th and Halsted,” Charlie said, “snow all over the place, but I was so happy! I got to play and I got paid $10!”

Charlie Love by Jenn
photo: Jennifer Noble

That led to a longstanding gig with Buddy Scott’s band. Charlie played with them every Friday and Saturday night down at Lee’s Unleaded Blues at 7401 S. South Chicago Ave. That lasted for five or six years.

Finally, one night Charlie met bandleader, Casey Jones, on a show at Roberts 500 Club. Charlie was singing one of Casey’s songs, “Please Mr. Blues.” Casey heard him singing and told him “That’s my song, you can’t sing that!” Charlie said “I’m sorry I didn’t know that was your tune, who are you?” Casey said “I’m Casey Jones and that’s my song!” Charlie has such a great attitude and laid back demeanor that pretty soon Charlie was invited to jam on Casey’s weekly gig at the Kingston Mines.

The people at the Mines responded wildly to Charlie’s energetic show, “everybody was up on the dance floor, it was a mess!” So that led to Charlie being a regular guest and soon he’d been hired to play every Monday night. It happened the night Sam Goode went out during the break and didn’t come back. “Who’s going to play his show?” everyone was asking, “I’m not playing his show and my show!” was Casey’s answer. “Well, I’ll play it!” Charlie said and he proceeded to light that club on fire! Doc Pellegrino, who owns the Mines, recognized a winning talent and soon had hired Charlie to play with Casey’s band full time.

Charlie played with Casey Jones Band for a long time, but he wanted to do his own music, have his own show. He’d gotten tired of being a side man and one night he was talking to the drummer, Vernon Rogers, about quitting the band to strike out on his own. “Don’t quit!” advised Vernon, “Talk is that they’re gonna offer you your own night, so don’t quit!” Charlie took the drummer’s advice and that very next Monday night Doc asked Charlie to bring his own band in the following Sunday and be the opener. Pretty soon he was there five nights a week.

Charlie has one CD to his credit, So Happy I Could Cry, available at his shows. He is also a featured artist on two tracks for the compilation CD on the Severn Label titled Chicago Blues Harmonica Project: More Rare Gems. The album features the late Little Arthur Duncan, Harmonica Hinds, Reginald Cooper, Big D and other Chicago blues harp players. A photo of Charlie blowing harp graces the CD cover.

Charlie Love on Severn CD cover

The multi-talented artist has most recently appeared on two tracks of the new Blue Kitty Music release, Heart ‘O’ Chicago, singing two duets with yours truly. Critics have praised his singing, calling his contribution “…a magnificent soulful duet.”

Charlie Love and his band Silky Smooth are in the finals for this years’ Windy City Blues Society Challenge after winning the first round. The final showdown will be November 9, at Buddy Guy's Legends. Charlie is philosophical about the possible win. “I just do me,” he said. “I hope they like it, but I just do what I do. “

What he does is a force of nature. Charlie has his own style of guitar playing that fits his natural groove, as sweet and satisfying as hot caramel on ice cream. His singing has passion, urgency and just a touch of gospel. He commands a band effortlessly and can smoothly transition from down home blues to James Brown funk without missing a beat or a step. He packs the dance floor everywhere he goes. I hope Durban is ready to get sweaty!

About the writer: A true renaissance woman, Liz Mandeville is a show-stopping entertainer, singer, award-winning songwriter, guitarist, washboard player, journalist, painter, educator and all around bon vivant. She has performed all over the world and has four CDs on the Earwig Music label to her credit.  She started her own label, Blue Kitty Music, and has two critically acclaimed original CDs on that imprint.

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