Jacob Schulz moves with the mannerisms of a middle-aged Southern man. He nods his head to punctuate a point, waves his hand to underscore his words and uses the phrase “listen here” to preface an important detail. None of this would be unusual except for the fact that Jacob is neither middle-aged nor Southern. Barely 21, with a baby face and an earnest demeanor, Jacob transforms on stage into Brother Jacob, an old school blues belter. Nurtured by the blues instead of pop culture, he serves as the latest indication of the unstoppable future of the blues.
“I decided I was going to sing the blues when I was a kid,” says Jacob. “I went to many open jams and now I’m doing it. I tried to steer away from it and do something that would be realistic for my career, which is what folks would tell me.” A senior with an urban and public affairs major and a business minor at UIC, Jacob was encouraged to follow a path in public service. “I thought I’d be a politician but I don’t want to be a politician, I’m a very peaceful person. I like to see folks happy. The blues is where it’s at. It’s a healing power.”
That peaceful, healing energy is all over Jacob’s independent debut CD, Blues From Below (Schulz Records). A catchy collection of traditional Chicago blues with a balance of covers and originals, the 10-track offering is a showcase for intergenerational blues collaboration. Jacob’s blues mentors all pitch in and make guest appearances, including Deitra Farr, Katherine Davis, Toronzo Cannon and Matthew Skoller. But the presence of his biggest influence, the late Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, can be heard on every track, with the underlying growl that hovers in his vocals and especially in his cover of her signature tune, “Wang Dang Doodle.”
“People would have thought I was Koko’s stalker, I followed her around so much,” recalls Jacob. “Koko is my biggest influence, I admired her perseverance. I knew she was sick. I ran around to her shows not only because I loved her but to see her get better. And she did. It made me feel so good, this 80-something-year-old woman getting down for her crown. It didn’t matter how sick she felt. She did a show when she was so sick, she was in a wheelchair. She’d be pushed to the stage and boom! She’d be out of that chair. I have no words for it. If she could sing the blues and she’s old and has health issues, I need to keep doing it. Just to keep the legacy going for Koko.”
Koko Taylor would certainly be proud that her youngest fan has honored her legacy with a CD that pays tribute to the blues elders that have guided him as well as his own brand of new millennium blues. Opening with a boogie blues jam fittingly titled “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” that features a hot Toronzo Cannon guitar solo and a memorable refrain of “long as I stay in school/that was her golden rule,” the tone is set for a solid blues experience. Jacob displays a star student’s ability to tell traditional blues tales of betrayal, good times and pain but the highlights prove to be when he’s working out the blues classics he’s been singing for most of his young life.
His duet with his former blues teacher Deitra Farr, “Key To The Highway,” has the singer crooning with convincing weariness and frustration that belie his years. The two deliver a mournful blues ballad accented by Matthew Skoller’s harp blasts, that truly stands out. Of course, the two have a lot of history with the song, as it’s revealed with Farr’s closing comment of “here’s your glass of water, Jacob.”
“I was part of Deitra’s (Farr) “Blues in the Schools” group the Oscar Meyer Weiners, in 2004″ he says. Shaking his head with the memory, he insists that “Ms. Farr was really strict with learning how to perform.” Jacob apparently choked when he had to sing a verse of “Key To The Kingdom” by himself, asking for a glass of water instead of singing. She would have none of it and made him sing his lyrics. “Deitra is my mentor. I learned a lot just observing her,” he says.
Jacob’s keen observation skills are in evidence on Zora Young’s “Handy Man,” when Jacob adds sly intonations on the double entendres and on Farr’s “When They Really Love You,” which has him singing with smooth assurance. His take on “Wang Dang Doodle” is reverent and brimming with the required swagger but it’s his duet with Katherine Davis, “Good Thing Baby” that’s perhaps the most surprising.
He wrote the tune about “a young man trying to court an older woman” and the combination of his actual youth and the bold lyrics with Davis’ seasoned delivery, create an unforgettable song. Sounding like a lecherous old man, he sings “I’ve been watching you/almost every day/why won’t you/ baby /come on down my way/ I’m lookin’ for the real deal/because you know how to make me feel.” Katherine’s answer of “ baby I know you want me/ but I’m way out of your league/you’re just a little young mojo and you’re still a little naïve/if you think you are truly ready/then come on and rock me steady,” righteously follows the bawdy blues tradition. His parting comment of “you better let me get it baby, you know you want this young stud,” marks it as a blues song that’s flipped the tired young gal chasing script.
Growing up on the north side in Lincoln Park with his mother and on the south side in Bronzeville with his godmother, Jacob feels that his perspective really is different. “Growing up on both sides of the city gave me a really good balance and I see things on an objective level,” he says. His mother listened to classic rock but it was his godmother who listened to blues and gospel, that created his taste for old school blues. “The way blues hits my soul, gospel hits my soul too. Sometimes when I listen to gospel, I feel I’m cheating on the blues.”
Although he’s come a long way from listening to Purvis Spann’s blues show and researching blues legends on the web, Jacob still believes that there’s a lot for him to gain from the blues. “Who knows where blues is going? People say it’s dead but I try to stay positive. I honestly think that with the right folks marketing the blues the right way, we’ll be okay. People trying to bring the blues into a new era aren’t doing it the right way. Turning it into something else and calling it the blues doesn’t work. They need to start reaching out to young folks, then they’ll attract a wider audience. If they won’t do it, I’ll do it. The legacy left to me is so rich. I can’t fill the shoes but somebody’s got to keep it going, doing the real blues.”
– Rosalind Cummings-Yeates