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FEATURE: Book Review

BLUES LEGACY: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago

Author: Dave Whiteis

Photos: Peter M. Hurley

University of Illinois Press

Blues Legacy book cover

by Linda Cain

When esteemed educator, writer and music historian David Whiteis pens a profile of an artist, he is not content to go with the mundane.  The Chicago author goes far beyond the standard Q & A interviews or promotional bios; he delves deep in to his subject’s past and present and gives us a glimpse of their future. He brings you into their world, reveals what makes them tick and tells us how each of them discovered the blues and why they made it their life’s work.

Whiteis gives the reader insight into the artist’s childhood, their musical influences and how their environment shaped their development as a musician. He also lends his critic’s voice to analyzing each artist’s take on the blues genre. Colorful details and anecdotes from the musicians’ careers are also included.

For instance, Muddy Waters and Magic Slim guitarist John Primer, who started his career playing with Junior Wells in the house band at Theresa’s Lounge, recalls the time in 1974 when the feisty owner threw a beer can at guitarist John Watkins’ head for playing the Wild Cherry song “Play That Funky Music White Boy.” Theresa scolded, “Motherfucker, please don’t play that shit in my place!”

Whiteis’ in-depth interviews also reveal very personal details. His profile of Shemekia Copeland includes much commentary from her mother who recalls the special childhood relationship she shared with her late father, the Texas blues icon Johnny Clyde Copeland, right up to the poignant final moments of his life. Her birth name is Charon Shemekia, but it was her dad who only called her Shemekia. He raised his daughter from birth to sing the blues, which seemed strange in 1980s Harlem when rap and hip-hop were all the rage. At age 9, Shemekia made her debut at the Cotton Club when Johnny Clyde called her up to sing with him, which she did for the rest of his life. When she was 15, her father suffered from congestive heart failure and had to undergo multiple surgeries. Whenever Shemekia would visit her dad in the hospital, she’d sing for him and his waning vital signs would perk right up. Her voice was the perfect medicine to help extend Johnny Clyde’s life. Shemekia went on to be signed by Alligator Records in 1997, the same year her father died. On each of her albums since then, Shemekia always covers one of her dad’s songs.

The only non-Chicagoan included in Blues Legacy is Big Bill Morganfield, who hails from Florida and Georgia; the son of Muddy Waters who has never lived in the same town as his famous father, but grew up in his large shadow, nonetheless has a story to tell that is very compelling and emotional. He was never able to enjoy a close relationship with Muddy as child, but they finally connected once Big Bill had graduated with the first of his two college degrees. “We talked really regularly until the day he died,” Morganfield recalled. And when the legendary father left his mortal coil on April 30, 1983, it had a profound impact on his son. “It was just like somebody pulled my whole skeleton out of my body…it felt like somebody de-boned me,” he related. From that day on, Big Bill became obsessed with the blues, like never before.  Morganfield said he “went and locked myself in a room for six years, a woodshed, and I learned it. Note by note. Measure by measure. All of my dad’s records, I learned them.”

Blues Legacy is organized into four parts: Bequeathers, Council of Elders, Inheritors and Heirs Apparent.

Sadly, some of the subjects that the author chose to write about passed away before the book was published, but he included them nonetheless: Eddie Shaw, James Cotton, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Floyd Taylor, Otis Rush and Eddie Taylor, Jr.

In the Heirs Apparent section, which clocks in at 35 artist profiles, Whiteis looks ahead by including two young artists in their 20s who are bending and shaping the blues into the future: Melody Angel (who appears on the book’s cover) and Jamiah Rogers.

Whiteis’ previous book Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories from 2006 profiled 11 artists with lengthy chapters on each. He also wrote vivid stories about the Chicago blues club scene past and present.

Fourteen years later, the Windy City blues scene has changed and Whiteis includes many more African American musicians in his Blues Legacy. Some of the artists are featured in long, detailed chapters and others are briefly profiled in short half-page bios. All told, there is an impressive array of 48 artists included in Blues Legacy along with stunning B&W photos by Peter Hurley.

Obviously Whiteis couldn’t include every single artist on Chicago’s blues scene in a 256-page book. Whittling the list down to a manageable size was surely a monumental task for the author. After all Chicago is hands-down the World Capitol of the Blues and there are currently hundreds of working Chicagoland musicians (including sidemen and women) of various ethnicities playing the blues (and playing them very well). Some of them record and tour internationally to public and critical acclaim. (To see a list of Chicago area blues artists on Chicago Blues Guide’s band guide CLICK HERE).

The author’s focus for Legacy is to present the blues as a uniquely African American expression that is forever entwined with the genre’s legacy that began in slavery and moved up north during the Great Migration. The struggles faced by a minority, both then and now, continue to be echoed in the blues art form as it evolves in modern times. Whiteis illustrates how musicians on today’s Chicago blues scene carry on the tradition handed down from the elders, while updating the genre with current musical innovations.

Even if you’ve previously read articles or heard interviews with the blues musicians profiled in Blues Legacy before, you are guaranteed to learn something new and interesting about them while reading this well-written and fastidiously researched book by Mr. Whiteis.

For info or to buy the book CLICK



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