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Chico Banks Tribute & Birthday Bash
March 7, 2010
by Dawn O’Keefe Williams
Photos by: Jennifer Wheeler
Photos by: Jennifer Wheeler
It was a Sunday night at 10 p.m. and B.L.U.E.S. had filled early, nearly every seat taken with more people streaming in. Purple and red balloons decorated the tables and club. A birthday cake was snuggled at the back of the bar awaiting the right moment to be presented. This night was a celebration and tribute to remember one of Chicago’s own, Chico Banks, who was a gifted guitarist and performer. A rising star who played regularly at B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted, and also toured between Europe and the U.S., Chico was a seemingly tireless musician. It was not uncommon for him to fly home from a gig overseas and then that evening play a gig at B.L.U.E.S. or his church the following morning.
Sadly, we lost this shining talent far too soon. The Chicago blues community was shocked and saddened to hear of the sudden death of guitarist Vernon “Chico” Banks on December 3, 2008 at age 47 due to complications from prior heart surgery.
The son of West Side
blues/gospel musician Jesse Banks (who played with the Mighty Clouds of
Joy, Willie Kent, Eddie Shaw), Chico started his career at age 14 in a
Top 40 band. Chico’s talent was noticed by the late singer Johnny
Christian, who first hired the teenager. He was a guitar prodigy who
could play in a variety of styles, which made him a sought-after sideman
for an eclectic array of Chicago musicians for both their live and
The guitarist went on to work in touring bands with Otis Clay, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Artie “Blues Boy” White. He was a self-described “freelance musician” who backed up anyone and everyone. The list includes Little Milton, Melvin Taylor, Magic Slim, Big Time Sarah, Chick Rogers, Willie Kent, Big Ray, The Chicago Playboy Horns, Pops and Mavis Staples.
In 1997, he made his solo debut with a CD on Evidence Records. As a solo artist, Chico Banks played the blues in his own, very contemporary, way with a dose of funk, soul, rock and R&B.
On this night of remembrance and celebration, Chico’s own bandmates served as the house band at B.L.U.E.S. -- Mike Wheeler on guitar, Andre Howard on bass, Pookie Styx on drums, Rico McFarland on guitar and Roosevelt Purifoy on keys. All stellar bluesmen, these are the musicians that you see in some of the hottest venues in the States and abroad, who can also be found in the studio backing many famous recording artists as well. Mike Wheeler, who is the guitarist for Big James and The Chicago Playboys, has played with Shemekia Copeland and Koko Taylor. Rico McFarland plays with Jimmy Johnson, Sugar Blue and others. Roosevelt plays for Carlos Johnson and Shirley Johnson to just name a few. Andre Howard can be seen with Linsey Alexander or Lonnie Brooks while Pookie plays drums behind nearly all of them.
With a rousing announcement on the microphone from Big Ray, the band hit the stage and started off the set with uptempo tunes that got everyone in the groove as each musician demonstrated his chops. After they got warmed up, Mike broke into one of Chico’s favorite songs, “Hey Joe” by Hendrix. The chatter quieted and people gravitated closer to the stage to feel the song and remember Chico. Everyone was caught up in the moment as Mike Wheeler, a talented guitarist in his own right, was beyond playing his heart out – he was “in the zone”. Memories of Chico playing that song flashed through the collective minds of the audience.
A large part of the crowd was peppered with musicians. They flowed in and out of the club, prepared to sit in at some point, stacking their guitars and basses in the back room behind the stage. Veteran performer/guitarist, Linsey Alexander stopped in on a break from Kingston Mines along with Koko Taylor’s bass player Melvin Smith. Chico’s family brought his Paul Reed Smith guitar to the club which Big Ray promptly displayed in the middle of the stage on a stand. The musicians reverently touched it as they passed by. When Toronzo Cannon finished his songs he lovingly touched the neck of the guitar even though he got a good natured ribbing for that. Chico’s Fender Strat, which was donated by his family, is on display in a glass case next to the stage.
Mike and Rico took turns playing Chico’s songs. Mike asked Big Ray to sing one. As he was working the door, Big Ray sang from the microphone in the back of the club. His song of choice was “Drinkin’ Martell” an uptempo shuffle that had the audience singing in a call and answer fashion. True entertainers, Mike and Rico shifted into one of Chico’s other favorites, Sly & The Family Stone’s “It’s A Family Affair”. Big Ray really can nail that gritty vocal sound and again the entire club sang the hook “it’s a family affair, it’s a family affair.” Indeed, this was Chico’s blues family joining together to celebrate his life and talent. Everyone was there because they had been connected to the very special musician in some way.
Later, Chico’s daughter got up and thanked his blues family for keeping his memory alive. At which point Rob Hecko, the owner, toasted Chico and brought out a tray of Martell shots to share with everyone who was there. Jennifer, the manager, brought out the birthday cake. Everyone sang Happy Birthday. And everyone remembered. Happy Birthday Chico!
Blues woman Dawn O'Keefe Williams is a singer/songwriter and bandleader from the Chicago area. She is best known for her song “Stone Cold Fool” which won a Billboard award.