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Siegel-Schwall Band and guests to honor Sonny Boy Williamson I at Chi Blues Fest

Chicago’s legendary Siegel-Schwall Band is a frequent favorite at the Chicago Blues Festival, but their headlining performance there this year, which is set for 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, June 13 at the Petrillo Band Shell Stage, will not at all be a normal Siegel-Schwall gig.

Chicago Blues Festival 2014 poster
Chicago Blues Festival

“On this night we will be honoring John Lee Curtis 'Sonny Boy' Williamson,” says blues harmonica/piano player and vocalist Corky Siegel.

"On stage with us will be blues harp greats Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, Omar Coleman, Mark Hummel, and other friends. We are also featuring vocalist Marcella Detroit, so the one hour show will be jam packed.”

Known also as Sonny Boy Williamson I, Williamson has been called “the father of modern blues harp,” having first excelled in the country blues style before moving from Tennessee to Chicago and embracing urban blues in 1934. His hits included what became the blues standard "Good Morning, School Girl," “Shake the Boogie” and “Early in the Morning,” another future blues standard.

Williamson influenced numerous blues harp greats who followed, including Billy Boy Arnold and Little Walter, not to mention Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers, who both recorded Williamson tunes. But he’s not as well known today as Alex “Rice” Miller, who appropriated the name of Sonny Boy Williamson and is usually referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II.

Sonny Boy II made many classic blues records in the 1950s, and in the ‘60s toured Europe with backing from The Yardbirds and The Animals. Sonny Boy I was killed in a robbery while walking home from a performance at a bar near his Chicago home in 1948.

Sonny Boy I was born March 30, 1914, and the Chicago Blues Festival is celebrating his centennial.

“I understand it’s his 100th birthday and the festival wanted to honor him, so therefore I will honor him, because my whole life is about honoring all the blues masters—even if I wouldn’t recognize them if they were on the street!” says Siegel. “The ones I would recognize are the ones I was friends with: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junoir Wells, Hound Dog Taylor, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, James Cotton and many more.”

But as Sonny Boy I died in 1948, Siegel never met him.

“I’m not really a blues historian--I never really read the backs of album covers,” Siegel concedes. “One night in 1965 we were playing [historic Chicago blues club] Pepper’s Show Lounge, and [Chicago blues harmonica great] Little Walter came up to sit in with us—and I didn’t know who he was! But I knew he’d been drinking a lot, so I said, ‘Come back another time,’ and they all yelled out, ‘Hey, man! That’s Little Walter!’ So I said, ‘Okay, come up,’ and he comes up and plays and I went, ‘Oh, my God! That’s Little Walter!’”

"It’s like having Aretha Franklin show up in an African-American church and saying, ‘Aretha, you don’t look so good. How about coming back another time?’” continues Siegel, adding, “If John Lee Curtis ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson came up to me now, I just might not know who he is! I should be ashamed of myself. I’m a Jewish person who should go directly to hell!”

Billy Boy Arnold, on the other hand, was friends with Sonny Boy I and a student and neighbor of his.

“We’re featuring him for 15 minutes with us and with players he’s familiar and comfortable with,” says Siegel, who notes that the hour-long Siegel-Schwall set at the festival “isn’t so much a Siegel-Schwall concert as such, but Siegel-Schwall helping out and hosting this celebration.”

There will also be a 10-minute finale featuring Siegel-Schwall and the aforementioned blues harmonica greats, all honoring Sonny Boy I.

That leaves only 35 mintues for Siegel-Schwall by themselves—the rest of the band being guitarist/vocalist and co-founder Jim Schwall, bassist Rollo Radford, and drummer Sam Lay.

“We’re going to feature Jim and Sam, but not me and Rollo,” says Siegel. “We’re also featuring Marcella Detroit, who will be singing with us. It will be fun and amazing, for sure--but not Siegel-Schwall as such.”

Detroit native Detroit, by the way, is also known as Marcy Levy. With Shakespears Sister, she sang lead on the worldwide 1992 hit “Stay” and also co-wrote “Lay Down Sally” with Eric Clapton, with whom she recorded and toured; other major artists she’s sung with include Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, Leon Russell, Santana and Elton John.

“Her movie is 'Three Feet from Stardom!'” jokes Siegel. “Let me put it this way: When Marcella sings, every time she puts the microphone down the audience stands up!"

Detroit will also accompany Siegel when he brings his Chamber Blues classical/blues music ensemble to The Acorn in Three Oaks, Mich., on June 14 and The Ark in Ann Arbor, June 15—“our ‘tree dates,’” says Siegel.

“We’ll be performing arrangements I composed for her songs,” he adds.

Siegel is also preparing for a “synchronized marketing release” on June 11 of a video of a Chamber Blues performance of the Siegel-Schwall classic “Angel Food Cake.” The clip was produced by John Anderson, the filmmaker who helmed the acclaimed Born in Chicago documentary chronicling Chicago’s teenage musicians—including Siegel—who learned the blues at the feet of the city’s pioneers before bringing it to rock audiences, and will be serviced on June 11 to friends of Chamber Blues for sharing and spreading.

“I'm also playing several shows with my harmonica virtuoso buddy Howard Levy at the end of June in Illinois and Wisconsin,” says Siegel. “I love performing with Howard. All I can tell you is that at least 50 photographs were taken from our last performance and all we could find were two where we were not laughing.”

"It's a fun month of ‘Levy-ty’ for me,” laughs Siegel.

[The Examiner has written liner notes on several Corky Siegel-related CDs.]

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