Why they sing the blues - Keeping the blues alive in Southern Illinois

Why they sing the blues - Keeping the blues alive in Southern Illinois
By Joanna Gray

Delta blues. Electric blues. Urban blues. Acoustic blues. Blues fans, choose your flavor. They're all cookin' in Southern Illinois and served up scorching hot by both seasoned legends and young blood just starting to pay dues.

"There are deep musical roots in southern Illinois, and for that reason we've got some really talented people here," said Will Stephens, who hosts the Electric Blues Hour every Sunday night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on 91.1 WDBX. "This area has really grown a really nice blues scene over the years, partially because of its location at the crossroads of Chicago, St. Louis, and Memphis. People think first of St. Louis, where the first notes of blues were ever written, and Chicago, the huge hub for blues musicians. But I think a lot of people just don't realize what we have here in southern Illinois."

Stephens calls his volunteer DJ gig at WDBX a "labor of love," something he has been doing for the last 10 years. His Electric Blues Hour show keeps the blues alive by broadcasting music and interviews with both local and national blues artists. Stephens also announces a calendar of upcoming local blues shows at 6:30 and 7:30 during his two-hour broadcast. Check out his web site at www.myspace.com/siblues.

Although the area wineries are doing their part by hosting mini blues fests in the summer and fall, local blues musicians still often struggle to find a venue. But Southern Illinois' blues players are eager to keep on carrying the torch for the blues.

Martin "Big Larry" Albritton

Martin "Big Larry Williams" Albritton is the king of the southern Illinois blues scene after more than a half century of singing the blues. Despite fighting a chronic illness, Big Larry still gives blues fans 110 percent. On a recent night at Key West, he delivered energetic sets backed by long-time Carbondale musicians Bill Stillwell on guitar and keyboards, Mick Ritchason on drums, Mark Moreno on bass, and newcomer Joey Odum on guitar and vocals.

"Big Larry is the last bastion of a kind of bygone era, the chitlin circuit," said Robbie Stokes, owner of Robco Audio and veteran guitarist who has shared the stage with blues greats such as Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Mamma Thornton. "A lot of the new blues cats these days are more rock based, and there's a pretty strong urban influence," Stokes said. "There aren't that many people carrying the torch like Larry does."

Big Larry urges people to stop ignoring the blues and take time to listen to blues CDs and radio shows like Will Stephens' Electric Blues Hour on WDBX. Most of all, he's excited about the next generation of blues players, especially his godson and protégé Joey Odum.

"Joey is going to turn out to be someone really important in music, because in his soul and mind he has thoughts of nothing but the blues, and I love him for that," Williams said. "I'm 82 now, so it's just a matter of time before someone else has to come along and keep the blues alive. I think Joey will do it."

Search www.youtube.com for videos featuring Big Larry.

Paul "Tawl Paul" Frederick

High energy, house rockin', and outrageous, Tawl Paul (a.k.a. Paul Frederick) and his band Slappin' Henry Blue have been testifying to the blues for several decades on the Carbondale Strip and throughout the area. Once you've heard Tawl Paul's deep gravel voice deliver a Howlin' Wolf or Robert Johnson standard – or have experienced his electric stage presence – you'll understand why newcomers to Carbondale hear over and over again, "You've got to go see Tawl Paul!"

"The blues is just a basic human experience," Frederick said. "We all get the blues no matter who we are. I think people really relate to that. Other musical trends come and go, but it always comes back to the blues."

Slappin' Henry Blue features Tawl Paul on vocals, "T" Thomas on bass, Bill Carter on guitar, Bruce Camden on guitar, and Brian Camden on drums. You can catch their show at Key West on July 11, at Highway 127 in Murphysboro on July 18, and back at PK's on July 24 and 25. The band has also performed at the Elks and Eagles clubs in DuQuoin, as well as John Brown's on the square in Marion.

Influenced by Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, Frederick and his band apply their blues mastery to a variety of musical styles, including country and jazz standards, and classic rock. He admits that he's seen times when the blues scene has faded, but he knows that it will never disappear.

"I just love singing and entertaining," Frederick said. "It's a part of my life and I love doing it. I just can't escape it."


Sharon Clark

Whether she is performing solo accompanied by Mel Goot on piano, or backed by guitarist Larry Dillard and a host of other local blues stars, Sharon Clark woos you with traditional, down home blues that will make you fall in love with her and her soulful renditions.

"I love the blues because it tells a good story," Clark said. "It tells an old story, a new story, and it does something to your soul and penetrates in a way that no other music can."

Clark is a native of East St. Louis and started singing gospel in the style of Mahalia Jackson with her father in church when she was just six years old. That experience – and growing up in the fertile St. Louis blues scene – sowed the seeds of a lifelong career as a blues vocalist. A star in her own right, Clark has opened for popular blues and soul artists including the Chi-Lites and Little Milton Campbell. She has owned the stage at some of Chicago's best-known blues clubs, including Buddy Guy's Legends, Kingston Mines, and Blue Chicago.

Clark now makes this area her home. In addition to her solo gigs at Von Jakob Winery, watch for her on stage singing duets with Big Larry Williams or jamming with Ivas John and others on a Sunday night at Key West. Clark says that she likes southern Illinois and has enjoyed working with the musicians here.

Bob Pina

While the guitar is considered by many to be the most popular blues instrument, the piano is credited with introducing the ragtime, barrelhouse, and boogie-woogie styles to the blues. Veteran musician Bob Pina is keeping the essence of piano blues alive and well in southern Illinois. First influenced by the simple, bluesy R&B style of Fats Domino, Pina says that the blues seems to just come naturally to him.

"I incorporate blues elements into my style of solo piano playing, such as grace notes to emulate the bending of guitar strings or the human voice, or playing two notes at once to try to play a blue note, or an attempt to get between the notes and play in the cracks," Pina said. "The piano can be amazingly expressive. Although the blues is very simple music, I actually have more notes to play – the black notes, the white notes and the blue notes."

Pina has been a highly visible member of the local music scene since the 1960s. As far as blues goes, he has played keyboards mostly with Big Larry Williams, as well as with many other blues artists in the area. He also played keyboards for Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, Pina plays standards, jazz, and popular favorites in his own bluesy style on solo piano at The 20's Hideout Steakhouse in Marion on Tuesday and Saturday nights, and at Ten Pin Alley in Du Quoin on Wednesday nights.

Jim Skinner and Wall to Wall Blues

Blues vocalist Jim Skinner grew up with the blues in Mississippi. "There was always blues in the house," said Skinner, who has been spreading the gospel of the blues to area audiences for the past 20 years. "My family has always loved the blues, and so do I. I guess it's in my genes and in my blood."

In his band, Wall to Wall Rhythm and Blues, Skinner showcases his love for the blues and a tremendous talent for writing original tunes and interpreting the classics of Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Detroit Junior, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Skinner gets soulful and funky, too, on favorites made famous by James Brown, Percy Sledge, and the Temptations. Lately, Skinner says he's been attracted to the blues of the late Jimi Hendrix. But you'll never hear the same set of songs twice.

"When I put together a show, it's never the same," Skinner said. "I strive to put something different in each show."

Wall to Wall Rhythm and Blues features Skinner on lead vocals, plus Jim Jarvis on bass, Bob Iltis on drums, and Matt Gardner on guitar. Skinner says he would like to see more young people like Joey Odum get into the blues.


Joey Odum Blues Project

Joey Odum of Marion will turn 20 on Saturday with a celebration gig featuring his band, the Joey Odum Blues Project, at the Perfect Shot in Herrin. His mentor is Big Larry Williams, and as this young bluesman matures musically, he continues to win the respect of other fellow musicians and fans alike. Lately, Odum has juggled his own band's schedule to also play dates with Big Larry.

"Larry has given me the chance of a lifetime to back him, and I just can't pass it up," Odum said. "A lot of people play in several bands at once, so I can do it, too."

Playing in two bands is enough to tax an able bodied person, but Odum was born with cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. He began playing guitar at age three and first performed on stage at age six with rock legend Edgar Winter. Backed by Mark Mareno on bass and Mick Ritchason on drums, Odum feeds hungry blues fans with a mix of his own original songs and traditional favorites made famous by artists such as B.B. King,

Odum's band's CD, "Working Hard to Play the Blues," was released last July. Now they're in the process of mixing a new CD, which Odum says reflects a more "grown-up" direction with his music. www.myspace.com/thejoeyodumbluesproject

Ivas John

Ivas John and the Maxwell Street Blues Band are doing their share to keep the blues alive with a regular Sunday night jam session starting at 9 p.m. at Key West in Carbondale.

"We encourage whoever wants to come sit in to come on out," John said. "A lot of blues musicians already come out, and we never know who will be there – Big Larry, Jim Skinner. There's always something fresh for the crowd to hear."

John came to Carbondale nine years ago as an SIU student. He was just getting into blues guitar at the time, then got an offer to play in a band, and that started the ball rolling for John's immersion into the local blues scene. His current band, Maxwell Street Blues, features drummer Charlie Morrill, keyboardist Brad Bell, and Mike Alderfer on bass. Fronted by Ivas John, the band has produced a CD, "Street Magic," and has opened for top acts such as Leon Russell, Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, and the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings.

"I like to think that the blues and jazz are really closely related," John said. "They're both highly improvisational and influenced by feeling and soul."


Blues Bandits

There's no escaping the good feeling of the blues when the Blues Bandits are on the loose. Guitarist Marty Davis has been playing the blues for the past 15 years, and in his words he has the "cream of the crop of local musicians" in his band – bass player Charlie Ryan and drummer Rich Lee. Even though Davis thinks that the local blues scene isn't as strong as he'd like it to be, he's not about to stop.

"Blues music is soulful," Davis said. "Reggae comes close, because it's a black, soulful music form, too, but blues is actually more soulful than the music it originated from, the Negro spiritual. On this earth, I think there's nothing more soulful than blues. That's why I play it."

Davis grew up listening to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. He likes to say that blues musicians and blues fans are in a special class of their own. Yet, he also likes to joke about the challenge of playing the blues in an area full of country and bluegrass fans.

"I've got the hardest job in the world playing blues for rednecks," Davis quipped. "And you can print this because I am a redneck. My ancestors were some of the first Germans to come to this area. So I'm a redneck by roots, but I'm a redneck who happens to like the blues."

Catch the Blues Bandits on Friday and July 31 at the Palace Pizzeria in Cobden. Davis and his band are also appearing on Saturday at the Bull Pen in Herrin under the moniker Last in Line.

King Juba

Not even dark clouds and pouring rain could dampen the Fourth of July afternoon at Blue Sky Winery with King Juba on stage. And you just can't help but feel the groove as front man James Barnes shows off his funky dance moves that make you think he's been possessed by the spirits of James Brown and Michael Jackson. King Juba includes Barnes and veteran guitarist Dave Parish, sax player Shadi Frick, drummer Matt Linsin, and former Jungle Dogs bass player Eddie Chapa. They all have one thing in common – a love of the blues, funk, and soul – and they love to talk about it.

"King Juba started about four months ago, but I've been around the area for about 30 years, playing with Big Larry and my own band back in the 80s," Barnes said. "I love blues and funk and just love music, period. Some of my favorite blues entertainers are B.B. King and the late Koko Taylor, but I've also been influenced by singers like Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Tom Jones. Most of all, I like making people happy with my music."

"I just love music in general, but the blues is just fun to play," said Shadi Frick. "You can let your emotions out and frustrations, especially on a rainy day like this. I'm loading up my gear and getting mud all over my shoes – now that's the blues."

Watch for a CD from King Juba to be released sometime next year.

Rich Fabec Band

Making the blues authentic – and bringing out the positive spirit of the music – is the goal of the new CD of original tunes to be released at the end of July by the Rich Fabec Band, based in Anna. Guitarist and vocalist Rich Fabec leads a trio including Edwin Rodrigez on bass and John Shadowens on drums. Critics have praised Fabec's guitar styling as a blend of Chicago blues and Texas blues – think Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Albert Collins. Fabec's other influences include Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Allman Brothers and ZZ Top.

"The great thing about the blues is that there isn't just one style, but a lot of variations that offer something for everyone," Fabec said. "Our band's sound has a southern rock influence, while other guys might play more of a pure, straight-up blues. I think what makes the blues scene in southern Illinois so unique is that you have a variety of bands playing different styles under the whole umbrella of blues."

What makes his band unique, Fabec believes, is the spirit that the trio try to put behind their music. Fabec likes to remind people that the blues is not all about sitting on the porch with a bottle of whisky and feeling depressed.

"To me, the blues is still spiritual music," Fabec said.


Grant and Carmen

Grant Morgan of the duo Grant and Carmen says that it was a simple thing that inspired him to get interested in playing music when he was just a boy – a stereo speaker.

"Have you ever just sat and watched a powerful speaker? It moves according to the music and I wanted to figure out how I could make it move," Grant said. "Then my grandma took me to see James Brown to show me his style of entertaining, but I was more interested in the guitar. Once I learned the guitar, I could finally make that speaker move."

Today, Grant's powerful guitar playing still makes big speakers move, and he electrifies audiences with his special "voice" of blues, R&B, and soul styling. After his band Massive Funk disbanded about 11 years ago, Grant used his computer and synthesizer skills to create a "one-man band." But that changed to a duo once he and Carmen met and married. Carmen wanted to sing, and so "Grant and Carmen" was born.

"When I first met Grant, he had been in the music business for 25 years, so I knew how important that was for him and for me to be in music," Carmen said. "I've always loved music, and I grew up listening to George Benson, Santana, Carole King, Sheryl Crow, and B.B. King."

Shakey Jake

The roots of southern rock and the influence of Stevie Ray Vaughn, early Allman Brothers, and Marshall Tucker Band are the driving force behind the Shakey Jake band's mix of blues and rock. According to bass guitarist Curt Smith, Shakey Jake was founded in 1985 and is now the longest running band in Southern Illinois.

Smith and lead singer Bob Wells, drummer Brian Kingston, and guitarist Hank Russell all grew up on the music of Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and later Stevie Ray Vaughn. Today, the band's extensive blues play list include tunes by those legends, plus contemporary bluesmen Robben Ford and Keb Mo.

"I believe blues is the original music from which everything else started," Smith said. "It's the original American music and it's got a feel to it that really moves the crowd. We do mix in rock and roll in our shows, but it's southern rock founded in the blues."

The Shakey Jake band will begin working on a 10-song CD of "100 percent blues" this fall. In the meantime, the band will be shakin' the rafters and filling the dance floor at area clubs such as Whisky Willie's in Marion, the Steelhorse Saloon in Carterville, and Jono's in Womac.

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