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Interview: Blues Guitarist Lurrie Bell

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I first came to know about the extraordinary Blues guitar player Lurrie Bell through a wonderful DVD put out by Delmark Records of Chicago featuring his dad Carey and himself performing in three different locations around town. Gettin' Up Live caught them at Buddy Guy's Legends, Rosa's, and in the comfort of Lurrie's living room one afternoon.

It was the scene in Lurrie's living room that really got me; it wasn't some staged shit like those, we just happened to be in the neighbourhood with cameras and sound equipment spots you see on "documentaries" about "Celebrities." No this was a planned thing when it was discovered that Carey would be singing and playing harp accompanied by Lurrie on guitar for that weekend.

Carey's health was failing, in fact he came out of a hospital bed to do the gig that weekend, so my feeling is that people just wanted to gather as much footage as possible of the two men playing together while there was still time.

It was the lack of pretence that made it so beautiful and so heartbreaking. During the shoot the camera would cut away occasionally to Lurrie's wife Susan Greenberg, a great photographer, trying to stop three kids, one of them Lurrie and hers, from running out to hang with grandpa. The music was great and the atmosphere was even better, which made reading the press material closely after I had written the review that much more distressing.

You see there was a ghost on that film; Susan Greenberg had died of illness the same month that the DVD was released. If that wasn't bad enough Carey was taken from Lurrie only a couple months latter, heart attack and complications brought on by Diabetes (The second song on the DVD is called "Gettin' Up" and Carey had written the day of their gig at Rosa's as he had just "Gotten Up" out of bed to come do the show).
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Lurrie Bell's 2007 started out really hard and continued to be a rough ride right through the first half of the year. But I think that if you were to open a dictionary printed this year and looked up the word determination, he would be staring back at you with a small grin on his lips and a guitar in one hand and his little girl Aria in the other. The year's not even over and he's started his own record label (Aria, named for his daughter of course) and produced his first disc for it Let's Talk About Love.

When I was given this opportunity to send Lurrie some interview questions by email to coincide with the release of his new CD, I wasn't given any guidelines on what I should and shouldn't ask. Since he'd obviously taken steps to get past the events of earlier this year, it seemed obvious that I owed him the respect of honouring that commitment and wasn't about to start asking him about it. "Tell me – how's it feel to lose your wife and your father in the same year" just didn't seem appropriate.

Lurrie's not the most chatty of men in these situations, I think he prefers to leave the talking to his music, so his answers are short and to the point. But I figure if anyone has a right to be reticent it would be Lurrie after the year he's had.

Is there any truth to the rumours that a) you were born with a guitar in hands, b) backstage during a sound check before a gig your dad was playing at Buddy Guy's, and c) that you were sitting in before the night was out?

(Laughs) Yeah, I’ve been playing the blues ever since.

Well if that's not the case maybe you better set the record straight and tell us how you came to pick up your first guitar?

I first picked up the guitar when I was hanging with my father at his rehearsals. I think I was 4 or 5 years old.

Was there pressure on you to become a musician? What if you had wanted to be an accountant or something, would that have disappointed your father?

No pressure but my dad was very proud that I had made a name for myself being a musician.

Seriously was there ever any doubt in your mind about what you were going to do?

NO

You were sort of like an elite athlete in that you really didn't know anything else aside from your chosen profession – you were playing professionally by 16 or close to that. Do you think given the opportunity you might do things a little differently?

I wouldn’t change a thing music is my life and always will be.

One of your first permanent gigs was playing in Koko Taylor's band, and since then you've played with who knows how many hundreds if not thousands of players. Are there any in particular that stand out from the crowd who might not be the household name that Koko is but who made an impression on you – you know people like Taildragger?
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A guitar player that’s not a big name that I always liked was Wayne Bennett. He could make the guitar sound so smooth. I’m going on tour next week with Taildragger, I’ve been knowing him for many years. Southside blues man.

You were part of another band for a while, Sons Of The Blues, with you and some other second generation Chicago Blues musicians. Was that just for the one album or did you guys stay together for a while as a band?

We played together as a band for a good while. Just played the 30th anniversary show at The Chicago Blues Festival this summer.

Did you, or any of the other sons, ever find it, I don't know a little frustrating to be thought of in terms of being the "son of " instead of being yourselves? Or was that never really a problem for you?

No Not really. Being a “son of” gave me the opportunity to meet and learn from some of the greatest blues artists in history. Because of my dad. What can be frustrating about that?

Your new release, Let's Talk About Love is a collection of what might be referred to as standards. You were very deliberate in your choices of material – in the liner notes your producer Matthew Skoller says you took almost three months working up the material and finding just the right songs. The result is almost an affirmation of the power of love. Was that your intent with the CD, or was there more than that to it?

I paid a lot of attention to the lyrics. Blues has always made me feel love and I was thinking a lot about Susan and I guess the songs I picked reflected that.

You picked a wide variety of styles for this disc. Some of the songs reminded me more of Sam Cooke then anything else, and Pop Staples "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)" is Gospel. Was that a deliberate decision not to do a "straight" Blues recording and mix it up, or did it just happen because of which songs you ended up selecting?

There are blues in all music and if you notice almost all the songs were written by Chicago musicians. I like to play around with lots of styles. I like to think any song becomes a blues when I get to it.

Let's Talk About Love is the first album produced on your own label, Aria B. G. Records, are you going to be opening the label up for other performers or will this be for your personal projects only?

Right now it’s a label for my music…I can make records on my own terms.

Now that you've put out your own album again, where you had complete creative control – do you have the itch to put your own band together on a permanent basis and start recording and playing with them?

I do have a regular band now. I’ve been working with the same guys for a while now. Now that I have a record that’s out there I hope to do a lot more touring when I’m not playing in Chicago.

I guess this is sort of the b part of the last question, and the final one that I'll take up your time with: What do you have planned for the future?

Making a hell of a lot more blues music….I’m just getting started and I hope I can continue to make music that will connect with people. These days people need the blues more than ever…takes your mind off other things.

I want to thank Lurrie Bell for taking the time to answer these questions for me. Unlike me he's able to say a lot with few words and I hope you enjoyed thinking of them in context with all that's gone on in his life recently and his plans for the future.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.