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Siegel Schwall Interview

| December 30, 2005

The Siegel-Schwall Band
Talkin’ Corky & Jim Blues

It’s hard to imagine Ginger Baker sparking the Cream reunion by calling up Eric Clapton saying, “Look, I have this new tape recorder and need a band to test it out.”

It’s not exactly what coaxed The Siegel-Schwall Band back into the studio, but it’s close. While their 13-year hiatus ended in 1987, Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall haven’t recorded formally as The Siegel-Schwall Band in three decades. Flash Forward (Alligator) gets them back on track, so to speak.

“I decided I was going to [record another Chamber Blues album] in-house, so I bought a digital recorder,” Siegel says. “Knowing that my engineers were very extremely outrageously particular — more than you could imagine — I told ’em, ‘I don’t care how it sounds, I just want to make recordings. I’m interested in the interplay between the musicians and this and this, and if it doesn’t sound like the most amazing record in the world, that’s fine. I just want to make records.’ So they found a recorder for me that’s been an amazing work of art. The sound we’ve been getting out of it has been amazing. We did the Chamber Blues record and we got rave reviews from audiophiles, so I thought, ‘O.K., now I’ve got this recorder — it’s time for Siegel-Schwall to make a record.'”

The result feels like an acoustic blues outfit who’ve been rehearsing for 18 years, which it is. One advantage of avoiding electric Chicago blues is a resistance to the trappings of technology. Acoustic always sounds acoustic.

Siegel agrees. “First of all, Jim plays an acoustic guitar, which Mike Bloomfield told him he should get rid of and get a ‘real’ guitar. Eventually Mike got the exact same guitar Jim got!” he laughs. “So Jim has this very unique sound that I personally really love. Electric guitar is amazing and the players are amazing and everything, but there’s so much of it. It’s so nice to hear a different sound and different patterns and not the same, familiar licks. It’s nice to hear some of the familiar licks, but it’s also nice to hear some different stuff. [Schwall] tends to play some more unique phrasing.”

Keeping diehard sidemen Sam Lay and Rollo Radford in the fold only softens the cushions on the old couch, making Flash Forward an equal among a group of albums that were in need of a bookend.

“How does it feel? Well it was long overdue,” he laughs, despite hardly having taken time off. “I think the focus is live performance, and Siegel-Schwall has been performing live. With Siegel-Schwall, Chamber Blues, and my symphonic things and now with the Chicago Blues Reunion, I’ve played more than 100 dates this year, which is more than I’ve ever done in my life.”

The life of Siegel-Schwall often (and understandably) gets buried in Chicago blues history because of the names involved. It’s hard to put a couple o’ guys from Roosevelt University’s jazz band up against the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, Elmore James, and Willie Dixon. Even before you can reason, “They’re white,” historians are more likely to come up with Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop before the house band at Pepper’s. But public perception is usually far from reality.

“To me,” Siegel says, “one of the greatest honors — I didn’t think so much of it then as I do now — even though all these blues masters would come in and sit with Siegel-Schwall, the reason they came in was we were playing at Pepper’s and we were the house band. That was the tradition, for them to come and sit in. But when a blues master would actually come to somewhere we were playing with the purpose of actually sitting in with us, that had to be the big one, and that was Howlin’ Wolf.

“Howlin’ Wolf came to the Northside of Chicago and sat in with us at Mother Blues and then asked us to go on the road with him. And we did. We went for two weeks to New York and Siegel-Schwall opened his show. I know exactly what Siegel-Schwall was doing and how we fit into that world in those days. We were just learning, and we were very jug band oriented, so [our identity] wasn’t really the electric blues that was becoming the thing [to do]. So, we didn’t have a whole lot of support from our friends and our contemporaries. In fact, I had somebody beg me, a drummer from Steve Miller, not to play the way we were playing. He said, ‘You can’t play music like that. You can’t do it.’ But Howlin’ Wolf came, and he loved the band. And he loved us for the reason this other guy didn’t like it. ‘I really like the way you’re doing that. It’s really cool. Everyone is trying to imitate us, and you guys are doing something different and I really love it.'”

And that, Siegel contends, is what made them so relevant. “The thing is,” he says, “Jim and I very much allowed all forms of music to influence what we did directly. We never said to ourselves, ‘We are a blues band.’ In fact, we said to ourselves, ‘We are not a blues band.’ We just so happened to be playing a lot of material derived in blues. We never thought of ourselves as a blues band. Technically, the band was called The Siegel-Schwall Band. And when someone suggested we call it The Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, we said no, because we’re not a blues band.”

Worn out by 1974, The Siegel-Schwall Band nonetheless had a huge impact engaging prejudices of white audiences and bringing them to the blues. A longshot proposal by Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa in 1966 culminated in the landmark jug band/symphony performances of William Russo’s Three Pieces For Blues Band And Symphony Orchestra — continued this day, on a smaller scale, via Chamber Blues.

Still, their return has introduced a time crunch, not only on the everywhere-at-once Siegel, but also on a band no longer full of spring chickens. Siegel plans on finishing a book he began 20 years ago and Schwall recently turned his attentions to a mayoral race in Madison, Wisconsin. At an advanced age, keeping the band together might not make the most sense.

“Sam Lay,” Siegel says, “who is 70-years-old now, wants to keep playing music ’til he dies. He’s not gonna give up for anything; there’s nothing he loves better than music. He’s already showed us how much he wants to do this. He’s been very sick a few times, and he would just get up on the stage and just play like a maniac. There’s no reason to not play it, because when you do you feel better.”

So don’t treat this as yet another reunion.

“In terms of recording again with Siegel-Schwall, certainly,” he reasons. But then, chuckling, “In another 30 years without question.”

Steve Forstneger

Category: Features, Monthly

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