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Guitar legend Harvey Mandel fights cancer with help from other music greats

One of blues/rock’s greatest guitarists, Harvey Mandel was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

Harvey Mandel
Paul Natkin

To raise money to help cover his medical expenses, family and friends gathered together Wednesday night, Mar. 12, at Suite LiveLab in Chicago for a "Birthday Benefit Bash," where Mandel, who turned 69 the day before, performed with stellar backup players.

Additionally, a live auction featured signed guitars from friends including Carlos Santana, The Ventures, the Allman Brothers and Keith Richards, with whom Mandel recorded on the Rolling Stones’ 1976 album Black and Blue.

But Mandel’s reputation was established long before, having first appeared on the classic 1966 album Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band and performing at Woodstock as a member of Canned Heat.

Known as “The Snake” and “The King of Sustai" because of his long, writhing guitar leadS, Mandel was one of the first rock guitarists to employ the two-handed fretboard tapping technique, and is internationally recognized as a major influence on those who followed. Among the other noteworthy bands he was part of are John Mayall & the Blues Breakers, Pure Food and Drug Act, his own Harvey Mandel and the Snake Crew, and the Chicago Blues Reunion.

He’s a key figure in the Chicago blues documentary "Born in Chicago" along with fellow Chicago Blues Reunion members Barry Goldberg and Corky Siegel and out-of-town contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Eric Burdon.

Pianist/harmonica player Siegel, with guitarist Jim Schwall, led Chicago’s Siegel-Schwall Band in the ‘60s, and continues to perform with it and Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues blues-classical ensemble, as well as Chicago Blues Reunion.

"I had a casual relationship with Harvey in the ‘60s, but when we toured together beginning in 2004, we bonded like super glue and became inseparable,” says Siegel, who played harmonica in the band backing Mandel at the benefit.

The other topflight musicians participating in the hour-long set of mostly Mandel material were bassist Wally Hustin, keyboardist Chris “Hambone” Cameron, drummer Julian Daniell, Chamber Blues’ electric violinist Chihsuan Yang and former Canned Heat guitarist/vocalist Mark Skyer.

“During this current traumatic experience for Harvey, one of many in his life, he’s had one thing on his mind: the guitar,” Siegel says. “Imagine nine major operations in a short period of time. But we all know how healing music can be.”

Mandel’s sister Rose Mandel “created an event that was sophisticated, hip and down-to-earth, all at the same time,” Siegel continues. “She placed perfect props, settings, giant video screens, and special lighting, that made the crowd feel like we all were in a "Star Trek" episode. It was really beautiful and tasteful, a great event for the most important reasons and I don't know who else but The Snake could have been so brave and fearless to put himself in the middle of this. And then he introduced his doctor saying, ‘Here's the guy that's going to save my life'.”

Models on stilts displayed the signed guitars, says Siegel, these also including instruments supplied by Markley Guitars and Mandel sponsor Parker Guitars. Martin Scorsese sent posters that he and stars of his movies had signed.

“Harvey just wanted to play his heart out,” says Holly Siegel, Corky’s wife and agent.

“He didn't care about how he looked, or how he thought people thought he looked,” she says. “He wasn't thinking about mortality, he was only thinking about playing guitar.”

Hitting the first note, Mandel was “ecstatic, transformed,” she says, then echoes her husband.

“The power of music, transformative, an immortal place where all time stops, there is only the present moment that matters,” she says. “The thing I loved most about Lou Reed when he heard that doctors had run out of options was that he only heard the word ‘options.’ I think that sums it up for musicians: There are only options.”

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