A week ago I probably wouldn't have been able to tell you who Carey Bell was. It wasn't until I listened to the new DVD from Delmark Records, Gettin' Up Live, that I'd heard of him, let alone heard him play. In spite of that here I am a week later writing an obituary about him.
I'm sure there are many people out there who are far more qualified to be doing this than me, and I'm sure they already have, going into details about his career, where he was born, the great stuff he did with the harmonica, and how wonderful his voice sounded. Maybe they'll even talk of the fifteen kids he had and his two marriages.
He was seventy years old when he died on May 6 in Chicago's Kindred Hospital of heart troubles brought on by complications from diabetes. From what I gather he'd been in the hospital a while because of his diabetes and had been very sick. His health hadn't been the greatest for a while before that either; when he performed the gig in July of 2006 that makes up part of the Gettin' Up Live DVD, he had suffered a stroke four weeks earlier, which had also caused him to fall and break his hip.
But there he was up on stage at Theresa's in Chicago, blowing harmonica and singing while his son Lurrie was blowing out the lights with his guitar. It would have been an amazing performance even if you didn't know about the stroke a month earlier, but when you factored that in, it was hard not to feel awed by the man's indomitable spirit.
What does it say about somebody that only four weeks after not only having a stroke but also suffering from as debilitating an injury as breaking a hip, that he's sitting on stage blowing his harp and singing and acting like there ain't a thing wrong in the world? The only allusion he made at all to his recent illness was to apologise for not being able to stand because "I been ill recently".
Three months later the two men were back again at Buddy Guy's Legends club in Chicago, and some tracks from that October 2006 gig are included on their DVD as well. Carey isn't sitting down in a chair now, he's sort of side-saddle on a stool, one foot on the floor while he perches on the bar stool swinging his other leg in time to the music. It's a perfectly natural pose that you see plenty of performers assuming, so aside from the fact he didn't shift from the stool at all during the five songs filmed, there's no indication that he was ever "ill" at all.
I realized something belatedly about the gig at Buddy Guy's, that only three or so months after he had suffered a stroke and broken a hip, I was taking it for granted that he was up on stage performing. He had already done it at four weeks so what was the big deal about doing it again at almost four months?
The big deal was it was still only four months since he had broken his hip and had a stroke and he didn't look like he'd been through anything untoward in the last four years let alone months. You have to figure he must have been in some fair amount of pain during the second gig, let alone how he must have felt during the first one. I know from experience just how long bone pain takes to heal.
I also know what kind of effect sound can have on any sort of pain, that just an acoustic guitar can quickly become unbearable. To sit onstage four months, let alone four weeks, after breaking his hip must have been close to intolerable. But I also know about the need an artist has to do what he or she does, and how that in the moment of fulfilling that need you can transcend all concerns.
So when you see Carey on stage in this DVD you're seeing something that has nothing to do with the mechanisms of the marketing machine behind so much music these days. You're bearing witness to the relationship between artist and art brought to life in as tangible a fashion as you're ever likely to see. The motivation of performing with his son Lurrie was what got him out of bed and to Chicago from the Carolinas where he lived, but his need to make music carried him the rest of the way.
So that there's no confusion about this, I'm not talking about crap like "the show must go on", because as we see in the DVD, the music carries him no matter what the situation. The day after the gig at Theresa's, a crew from Delmark Records showed up at Lurrie's apartment to record the two men doing a few songs. No musician feels their best the day after a night gigging in a bar, let alone one who's had a stroke recently.
Yet the four songs that Carey and Lurrie did that day on the couch in Lurrie's living room were just as potent as any they did in either one of the "concert settings". It didn't matter how tired they might have felt, or that they were sitting on a couch with the only audience being a camera crew and Lurrie's wife and kids, what mattered was the music and doing right by it.
I think it was this willingness of the part of both men to so readily bare their souls in such an intimate setting as a family home that built the connection I felt for them right away. I've found that I can sit and talk with somebody for hours on end and come away not knowing anything about them because we've not talked of anything of substance. At the same time give me five minutes to watch any person who is truly connected to who they are and what they are doing and I can feel an instant affinity.
The fact that we also spent time in Lurrie's house and watching some of the interaction between him and his wife and children helped break down barriers that would normally be in place between performers on a DVD as well. It doesn't hurt that Carey is such a personable man, you felt if you had run into him at a bar that you could strike up a conversation with him and be chatting away in no time.
(My wife, who is musician, was watching the disc with me. She's mainly a percussionist/vocalist, but has recently taken up the harmonica. At one point she let out a laugh and pointed out Carey's missing left front tooth. She is missing two left front teeth as well, and like Carey, never wears her plate as it interferes with both her singing and her harmonica playing. As she wears her hair about as short as Carey did we had a few separated at birth jokes with the gap mouth smile and haircut.)
When I went to write the review after watching Gettin' Up Live I looked over the press materials they had sent me with the disc and saw a notice in black ink announcing that the disc was dedicated to Susan Greenberg who died this year. Susan was Lurrie's wife, the woman we had seen laughing and smiling with the children in their apartment.
As well as being Lurrie's wife, (they had originally met at Theresa's bar when she was waiting tables there), Susan had begun creating her own artistic niche within the blues community. She had taken some amazing portraits of blues musicians and been posting them at her former site Reaching For The Light.
Having just seen her in the DVD with her kids I felt compelled to mention the fact of her death in the review. When I wrote my contact at Delmark and asked him it he thought it was appropriate or not, he wrote back and said yes, and that Lurrie was having a particularly rough time, again, because now Carey was very sick and in the hospital. This afternoon I wrote him again to see if he had heard anything about how Carey was doing.
When I didn't hear from him right away I decided to do a quick search about Carey on Google, and on the third page I found the first reference to his death on in the Orlando Sentinel of all places. I realized I wasn't all that surprised to read that he had crossed over, not because of any premonition or such thing, but because of the tone of the letter I had received from Delmark records when I found out he was sick. I can't help thinking about Lurrie; how in the space of four months he has lost both the woman he loved and his father.
If there had ever been any issues between father and son in the past you could tell by the way they worked together on stage that they had been resolved and they were both comfortable and happy in each other's company. The hole that has to have been opened in Lurrie's life recently is not going to be filled easily. What words are there you can offer a man under these circumstances?
Sometimes people enter your life in ways you'd never suspect and their passing impacts you seemingly all out of proportion to your knowing them. Carey Bell, because of who he was and what he did, was such a man. The world is short on original voices today, and we don't have that many that we can spare them easily. Thank you, Carey Bell, and I only wish I had known you longer.