On any given night in Chicagoland a person can choose from a number of blues performers to go see. How does one decide who’s worthy of those hard earned dollars? Well, this writer has been in the Chicago area his whole life and has seen a good number of acts to help you decide.
Decide what kind of act to see. Is it a certain type of guitarist, mean harp player, female singer or a combination of everything blues? The guitar legends in this town are many. One can’t go wrong with any of them. Start with those with seniority which include Buddy Guy, Lonnie Brooks, Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater, Linsey Alexander, Jimmy Burns, Jimmy Johnson and Carlos Johnson. All these guys have been performing for years. There’s a reason they’re still around.
The next level of guitarists hasn’t been at it as long as those in the senior circuit, but provide hope that the blues will keep getting passed on from generation to generation. Start with Toronzo Cannon, Lurrie Bell, Carl Weathersby, Pistol Pete, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Lil Ed Williams (Blues Imperials), Donald Kinsey (Kinsey Report), Studebaker John, Rocco Calipari (Howard & the White Boys), Nick Moss, and Jeff Massey (Steepwater Band). All are worthy of those dead presidents.
Harp players aren’t as numerous as guitarists, but Chicago has some of the finest around. The top harmonica players are Billy Branch, Sugar Blue and James Cotton. Equally as good, but much harder to find is Billy Boy Arnold. Billy will be performing in June at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival.
The second level of harp players is led by Mathew Skoller, Pierre Lacocque (Mississippi Heat), Harmonica Hinds, Joe Filisko, Studebaker John (also on Guitarist list), Geneva Red and Kevin Purcell.
For lovers of the horns, the very best is saxophonist Eddie Shaw. For a whole horn section look no further than Big James & the Chicago Playboys.
Just love that voice? There are plenty of vocalists leading the way in Chicago too. Check out Big Time Sarah, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, Demetria Taylor, Shirley Johnson, Inetta Visor (Mississippi Heat) and Peaches Staten.
For those who can’t decide what type of blues to see, an option may be to choose a little bit of everything. Mississippi Heat, Studebaker John & the Hawks, Kinsey Report, Eddie Shaw & the Wolfgang all provide multiple blues specialties.
Buddy Guy in Austraila on April 18. Buddy tours the world as well as playing local concerts and shows at his own club in January. This writer has seen Buddy at his club Legends, Blues on the Fox in Aurora, Il., the Star Plaza in Merrillville, In. and at the Chicago Blues Festival.
He has friends in high places and has influenced some of the greatest guitarists of all time.
His shows can be intimate where he will interact with the people, go into the audience and share stories. Those are usually in the smaller venues like his club. They can also be smokin’ hot where he plays some blistering guitar. That happens in front of large crowds like Blues on the Fox.
Lonnie Brooks is pictured flashing his outstanding guitar playing. He is the patriarch of the first family of Chicago blues. Look for sons Ronnie Baker Brooks and Wayne Baker Brooks performing near you. Wayne still plays with his father. Ronnie has his own band. Somehow they seem to all wind up on the stage together.
Lonnie is found at the festivals a lot these days when the weather warms up. Lonnie started his journey in Louisiana and made his way to Chicago with Sam Cooke. His first gig was with Jimmy Reed.
Lonnie combines Louisiana flavor, Texas, swing, Memphis soul and the power of the Chicago blues all in one.
Veteran Jimmy Johnson is from a musical family, including brothers soul musician Syl Johnson and Mack Thompson who played bass for Magic Sam. Jimmy recently celebrated his 85th birthday. He can be found playing around Chicago in places such as Chicago’s Cultural Center, the Chicago Blues Festival and B.L.U.E.S.
Jimmy arrived in Chicago with his family in 1950 from Holly Springs, Mississippi. He started playing professionally in 1959 and has played with Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Eddy Clearwater, Freddie King and Albert King.
In the 60s he switched to soul, but by the 70s was back to the blues. He teamed up with Jimmy Dawkins and toured Japan with Otis Rush.
From there he began his own recording career in 1977. He has recorded for Chicaago’s Alligator and Delmark Records as well as others. He has recorded into the 2000s.
Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater & Ronnie Baker Brooks
Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater has been around since the 1950s. He started on Chicago’s West Side along with other guitar legends such as Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Freddie King and Jimmy Dawkins. He’s an intense, flamboyant blues-rocking showman. He often performs with a full Indian Headdress. He’s comfortable playing heartfelt blues or his rock-a-blues style. He’s self taught, playing left handed and upside down.
Ronnie Baker Brooks is one of the young guns of the blues. He started out playing with his father Lonnie Brooks. He’s been on his own now for a while. Ronnie has three recordings out so far. He plays with a fierce white-hot intensity. He’s carrying the torch to the next generation. Ronnie has a large devoted fan base in Northwest Indiana. He can be found playing at Beer Geeks in Highland, Ind. regularly. You can also catch him frequently at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, Ill.
- Best blues clubs in the Chicago area
- Top blues guitarists in Chicago
- New generation of female blues artists
- Top current Chicago harmonica players
- Recap of 2013 Chicago Blues Festival