Monday, May 7, 2007

Carey Bell

Carey Bell

The legendary Carey Bell passed away from heart failure this past Sunday in Chicago, IL.

Carey Bell was one of the finest practitioners of the Blues harmonica. He had toured through the Bay Area many times during the past 20 years. He was an influence on an entire generation of harmonica players. His incredible tone, his ease at witty and inventive phrases and personal idiosynracies made him one of Chicago's finest, and the world's greatest harp players. His impact on Blues will likely remain immeasurable. He was an amazingly talented and innovative artist.

I grew up in Chicago. In 1980, I started listening to the Blues. I didn't know much about the music. Some people might say that I still do not. For me, it started when I was a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Circle Campus.

Muddy Waters was one of the first Blues artists that I had ever seen. He was performing at Chicagofest. I also caught Luther Allison there, too.

During my freshman year, the university had a weekly Blues series that lasted for several weeks. Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues kicked off the series. A few weeks later, it was the first time that I ever saw Eddy Clearwater.

Shortly after the passing of Big Walter Horton, I came across his Alligator release with Carey Bell. It was Alligator release #4702. It was amazing stuff. I was hooked.

It was about a year later that I first saw Carey Bell at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. He was playing with his son Lurrie. It was a jaw dropping experience. The man had killer tone and a really unique sound that was indescribable. He was one of those rare artists that took what he had heard and propelled in into a new direction. He was truly inventive.

I've spent a number of years attempting to accumulate his recorded works:

- his early recordings with Earl Hooker,
- his rare appearances with Muddy Waters in the early 70's,
- and the super obscure recordings with guys like Willie Williams
- not to mention recordings under his own name.

After moving to California, I didn't go to Blues shows very often, but I always made it a point to see him when he came to town. I remember one of Mark Hummel's first harmonica blowouts that I attended. It was at Kimball's. There were four or five well known harp players that came up before Carey.

I was just about all harmonica'ed out, when he stepped onto the stage. He said more in about 30 seconds and with fewer notes, than all of the preceding players that are considered the creme of the crop of today's players. For the next 45 minutes, he put on a fabulous show that just exhibited a tremendous amount of soul.

I caught him several more times during his travels through the Bay Area. He could always be counted on to deliver a top notch show. He was a really friendly and approachable guy.

He was the anti-thesis of the current crop of harp players out there today that are focused on techniques, lessons, masterclasses and equipment. He used whatever crappy equipment was on stage and he sounded phenomenal through it. He learned from the true masters of the instrument. He was a harp player's, harp player.

I remember the last time he came through town. He was part of Mark Hummel's Harp Blowout that produced the Blues Harp Meltdown, Volume 3 recording. I had photographed him many times, but I never really thought that I captured an image that captured his essence. Half the photos, I shot that night were of him. While I got some great shots, nothing really seemed to capture his intensity at I saw and heard it.

It's almost become a cliche to say that the recently deceased artist didn't receive the critical acclaim and financial recognition that was due to him, but I don't believe that he did. His degree of talent was unparallelled. He was a unique and talented stylist that was true to the tradition while bringing something new to the music.

He will be missed.

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