Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Veteran blues guitarist J. B. Ritchie celebrates his 60th birthday with a show at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Oct. 6
As CBG staff writer Liz Mandeville learned, Ritchie is fortunate to keep having birthdays.
By Liz Mandeville
Photos: Jennifer Noble
Photos: Jennifer Noble
Late legends J.B. Hutto, Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor were famous for playing rip-roaring slide guitar and laying down the boogie all night long in Chicago’s storied blues joints of the past. Following in their footsteps are contemporary artists like Lil’ Ed and Studebaker John. Often overlooked, J.B. Ritchie is equally talented and deserving of inclusion in that pantheon of veteran Chicago blues guitar greats.
Two years ago, cat scratch fever robbed Ritchie, of his appetite and laid him low for months. A non-believer in Western medicine, it was herbal remedies and a strong will that saved this life-long blues man and career sound engineer.
A fit and trim J.B. sits across the table from me at P.F. Chang’s, looking almost exactly the same as he has for the last 20 years. His salt and pepper hair skims his shoulders, his slim face hidden behind a two week growth of beard. He’s dressed in the same black leather motorcycle jacket, black shirt and black jeans he always wears. If you have a copy of his one CD, 1997’s Power Blues, you’ll see a cover photo of J.B. playing his vintage black Stratocaster. He looks exactly the same. These things are consistent with J.B. Ritchie: he’s dressed in black, he plays the blues on a Fender guitar, in a power trio and usually Frank Bandy is on bass. That much is a given, the rest of his story is the stuff of Hollywood movies.
As I sit furiously scribbling notes on my pad, trying to follow the wild ride that has been his life, it amazes me this guy is still alive and about to celebrate his 60th birthday with a gig on October 6, 2012 at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago.
I notice that J.B. has rejected the drinks menu and ordered iced tea and tofu with broccoli, not what you’d expect from a guy who epitomizes the Harley rider crowd, and who has been close friends with the Ghost Riders Cycle club since the ‘70s. He says, “I’ve been clean and sober for 17 years this past July. Kind of an interesting story behind that,” he understated. This is the story he told me in his own words.
“I was doing sound and lights for a company that was doing Haute Couture Fashion shows, not one of those sleazy bar lingerie shows, but real high fashion. The director saw me, liked my look, and drafted me to walk these two 6’7” blonde Amazon models down the catwalk. Well, who’d turn that down? Then the guy paid me $300 cash for my trouble, so I went down to Stone Park to celebrate.
“Well I was working two nights a week at the Interaction Lounge on Mannheim Road back then. I was doing the 1:30 to 4:30 a.m. shift. In those days the bars were open 23 hours a day and you could pretty much get anything you wanted on the strip in Stone Park. There was a bartender there I knew, she got off work and we started to spend my dough. I was drinking a glass of Jim Beam, neat, with a soda on the side, plus we were both doing shots of Amaretto. We put away a bottle of Amaretto between us and who knows how much Beam and other things. We decided to get out of there while one of us could still drive.
“I gave her a ride home, got to her house and she said, ‘Hey, I got some hash, you wanna smoke some?’ Well, I hadn’t had hash in a long time so I said sure.
“About that time I was driving a ’79 Lincoln Continental Mark 4, that thing was about 22 feet long, a real nice ride, but it had a broken gas gage. I thought I had enough gas to get her home and then make it up to where I was staying. I got on 290 headed for Buffalo Grove, right at the point where it splits off to 355 I run out of gas. You know there’s nothing around there, not even a tree I could slide under and rest and get sobered up. It was about 7:30 in the morning and there was nobody on the road, right then the hash really hit me. So I get my gas can and I’m trying to walk straight on the highway, really trying to focus and stumbling down the highway toward the exit ramp that seems like miles away. Right then, this brand new, white Caddy rolls past me, pulls over to the side and the window comes down. There’s this guy behind the wheel, looks a little Mafioso, with all the gold chains and everything and he says “Get in.” He takes me to a gas station; he says “Get your gas. I got something to do and I’ll come back and pick you up.” Now I’m thinking ‘This is some Mafia hit-man. He’s gonna go whack somebody and I’m his alibi or something! I gotta get outta here!’
“So I call up an ex-girlfriend who owes me a favor and I say ‘You have to come find me I’m in trouble!’ She’s like ‘Where are you?’ and I don’t know, I can’t tell her but right about then the Caddy comes rolling back up. The window goes down and the guy says ‘You got your gas? Let’s go.’ So I get in and this guy proceeds to tell me everything I’ve been doing, everybody I talked to that night, tells me where I been spending my time, this guy knows everything, every move I made. Takes me back to my ride and sits there in his Caddy while I’m putting the gas in the tank, he tells me ‘Save some for the carburetor.’ So I do and I get back in the car while he’s waiting and it starts up, so I go back to close the hood of the car and the Caddy is gone. I didn’t see it drive past me, there was no place it could’ve turned around, and I didn’t see it go. So I got back in the car and there on the seat is a Bible. I pick it up and inside the cover there are the words ‘J.B. read this it might help you.’
“I went home and didn’t go out for three days, just thinking. That was it for liquor and drugs, seventeen years and not a drop. Since that time I’ve been pulled over four times for DUI stops, but I was sober!
When I asked about his early influences and direction, J.B.’s answer was an emphatic “I ALWAYS played the blues!” At eight years old, J.B. tried to build himself a guitar. He found a plank of wood, fastened it to a box, strung some wires across it and tried to play.
“I come from a long line of alcoholics; I knew how to mix a martini when I was seven!” In typical blues fashion J.B was raised by his grandmother after his step-father kicked him out of the family home when he was 12. J.B.’s birth father, a Cherokee, whom he didn’t meet until he was 15, was never a big influence, not like the musicians on the 45s his neighbor played for him. “Yeah, I was around 10, I went over to this kid’s house, he had Muddy, Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy 45s. Lonnie Mack had an instrumental version of ‘Memphis.’ That really propelled me into the music.
“I learned from watching guys. I lived not too far from the Cellar. It was a teen club with live music. They had everybody, back in the day, Muddy, Wolf, Siegel-Schwall, Albert King, Little Johnny Young, Cream, I think I paid $3.oo to see Cream play on an off night at the Cellar. Everybody played there, Steve Miller, REO, Rotary Connection with Minnie Ripperton, Joe Kelly; I’d go and just watch the guitar players. That and of course records; I’d just pick up the needle and put it down on the record a million times. My brother Geoff played bass with me for awhile.
“I was a lousy student. In 6th grade I flunked music, graduated high school through threats, I always ditched school to go home and play guitar! They’d always tell me ‘You’re not applying yourself’ I’d say ‘I am applying myself, just not to school!’ I did graduate at 17, went back for the 30 year reunion and all the other kids said ‘You’re the only one of us who did what you said you were going to!”
There were always bands with various configurations of players and J.B. on guitar. “I wasn’t always a singer, in fact the first time I sang in public was at the Aragon Ballroom. I was about 19 years old, about a week before the date we got a call to open for Ted Nugent. And right before the gig the singer quit. I sort of thought, well it will sound stupider if I don’t’ sing at all than if I just try and sing something. So I just jumped in; I’ve been fronting the bands ever since.”
I asked J.B. how he’d met his long time music and business partner, bassist Frank Bandy. “I’ve been a studio engineer for Rainbow Bridge Studios for around 29 years. I never went to school for it, they didn’t really have a school, you just went and learned from an older guy, plus I read a lot of books. If there’s something I want to know I just go to the library and read all kinds of books on it ‘til I figure it out. Anyway, there was this guy who’d have house parties out in McHenry County who’d book guys like Sunnyland Slim, and Odie Payne, a lot of times he’d just pay ‘em out of his pocket , he just liked the blues. So I was playing this party. Frank had just come to Chicago around ’79, he was there, and that’s how we met. Then in ’85 or ’86 Frank had a session he was doing with Barrelhouse Chuck, Rich Kirch and Sam Lay.” Frank called Rainbow Bridge for the session and J.B. recorded them.
That session led to a working friendship between J.B. and Barrelhouse Chuck, who was also living in Libertyville at the time. They formed a band with Ted Kolecki on bass and Mike Arturi on drums that stayed together for about a year. During that time Frank was playing with Jimmy D. Lane so J.B. did fill-ins with Frank’s group when Jimmy would go out to tour with his famous father, Jimmy Rogers.
J.B. and Frank have been playing together for about nineteen years. “I really like working in a trio, it really gives me room to move. I suppose if I was going to add another piece it’d be a keyboard player, but what it comes down to is -- who do I want to pay, right?”
I ask J. B. about his equipment and how he gets his sound. “I like Blind Blake, Son House, Albert King and Johnny “Guitar” Watson; I like a sound that’s clean with a lot of sustain. I get it using my fingers, my pick and the volume control. I either play a Strat or a Tele, the tone comes from your hand, not pedals, not the amp.” He holds up his hand and points to his heart, “Tone comes from here.” He says. “I do like a Jim Dunlop heavy pick.”
We’ve been talking for several hours now when J.B. begins to wax philosophical. “I look at life as an adventure.” He says, “Even if it’s bad, it’s an adventure and you learn from it. I don’t particularly like to record, I’m an engineer I spend most of my time in the studio already working on other people’s projects. I guess I’ll work on a new CD soon, although I really just like to play. I’ve been working at the Two Wheel, a non affiliated biker bar in Wheeling for 17 years. Playing the Harlem Avenue Lounge for 20 years, I was the first guy to ever play there. I had my own night at the Kingston Mines, every Thursday back in the ‘70s. This year I’ll have played Buddy Guy’s eight times before the end of the year. I’ve played weddings, benefits, pretty much every kind of gig. I always try to tell them ‘This is going to be blues; you may want to have a D.J. to make grandma happy, cause this is who I am and this is what I play.”
Happy 60th Birthday, J. B. Ritchie, we hope you continue to be who you are for many birthdays to come.