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Sweet Home: June 2012

| May 31, 2012 | 0 Comments

Michael “Iron Man” Burks was the kind of bluesman who endeared everyone to him. If you didn’t fall in love with his gritty vocals and fierce guitar licks, you were captured by his humble charm and hardworking attitude. A third-generation performer, his music was hard-won. Although he had played guitar since he was 2 and backed T Bone Burnett at 12, he gave up playing in order to support his family as a mechanical technician. He was coaxed back to the blues after 11 years, and quickly made up for lost time with non-stop touring, passionate shows, and thrilling albums.

A singer and songwriter, Burks started performing regularly at the 300-seat Bradley Ferry Country Club he helped his father build in Camden, Arkansas. Only in his teens, Burks led the house band, played for openers, and backed visiting greats like O.V Wright and Johnny Taylor. He maintained this pace from the ’70s through the mid ’80s, when disco’s popularity seduced the club’s clientele and Burks put up his guitar.

He bursted back on the mid-’90s scene, collecting Blues Music Award nominations and clamoring fans. Burks was a regular at the King Biscuit Blues Festival and was preparing to release his fourth album next month when he suffered a fatal heart attack in Atlanta, aged 54. The Burks family asks that any donations be made to the Blues Foundation’s HART Fund, which supports blues musicians with medical needs.

• The Chicago Blues Festival kicks off with an especially exciting schedule this month. Headliner Mavis Staples will close Petrillo Music Shell on Sunday the 10th, with her legendary contralto vocals that draw from her gospel foundation. Preceding Staples, a lineup of blues divas, “Celebrating Women In Blues — Tribute To Koko Taylor,” promises another highlight. Featuring Melvia “Chick” Rodgers, Deitra Farr, Jackie Scott, Nora Jean Wallace, and the Koko Taylor Blues Machine Band, these powerhouse vocalists can be counted on to tear the fest down.

Other highlights include a Howlin’ Wolf birthday panel featuring Lurrie Bell, Lil Ed & The Blues Imperials, and Demetria Taylor on the 10th. Saturday’s standouts are a tribute to Hubert Sumlin with Billy Branch & Sons Of The Blues and Diunna Greenleaf & Blue Mercy. On Friday, don’t miss Texas Johnny Brown, Milton Hopkins, and Jewel Brown (who was a vocalist with Louis Armstrong), Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, Vasti Jackson, Joe Louis Walker, and Zora Young. Catch the fifth annual Blues Fest after-party at Reggie’s Music Joint on Saturday from 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Hosted by The Rockin’ Johnny Band, the lineup includes Jimmy Burns, Eddie Taylor Jr., and Studebaker John.

• The third biennial Blues & The Spirit Symposium at Dominican University in River Forest continued and expanded upon the thorny discussion of racism within the blues industry. The sold-out conference was held May 18th and 19th with the theme of “Race, Gender & The Blues.” The BSS is an unusual academic conference that includes the voices of African-American blues musicians, cutting-edge scholars, and live music. It also featured a rare opportunity for blues musicians to publicly discuss concerns about blues heritage and history.

“My initial take from the conference was that there is a profound importance to this music, and people are realizing this and I found that revitalizing,” says international harp master Sugar Blue. “The intelligentsia is aware of the significance of maintaining our roots to this music.” Addressing the charge of racism and blatant exclusion of African-American musicians from blues festivals and award nominations, Blue says, “When we speak about the things that are wrong, it gives the opportunity to make things right. Everybody loves this music. Excuse me, but what’s wrong with loving the people who created it? We must continue to stir the pot; it sat silent for too long.”

Deitra Farr gathered a more pragmatic approach from the conference. “I’m a bottom-line person: give me some work,” she says. “I see blues festivals around the country and no black people in them. If you have polka festivals around the world, and no Polish people, how is that going to be? I think that black musicians need to gather their fans to join the blues foundations, to join NARAS [National Academy Of Recording Arts & Sciences] and vote. We all have to be active — you can’t complain and not do anything.”

BSS organizer Janice Monti believes that education is the key to positive change within the blues industry. “There are people within the blues community who know nothing about the black blues experience,” she says. “Under the guise of white privilege, they do not understand that racism exists today. People are looking at why an undeniably black music form has come to be dominated by white artists. If we are going to elevate the blues, we need to educate the fanbase. We had an important beginning discussion but there’s a lot of work we have to do.”

— Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

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Category: Columns, Monthly, Sweet Home

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