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Feature Story: Jay O’Rourke

| December 11, 2018

Jay O’Rourke (photo: Pamela Lukas)


If the Chicago music scene had a spine, Jay O’Rourke would one of its vertebrae. He’s been around a while, worked with some great artists as producer and engineer, and tasted some brief major-label success. But it wasn’t until now, 40 years into his story, that he says he’s found his voice. Last month he released his fourth solo LP Sumpthin’ Good on his own label.

Though his brief taste of success as a musician was as a guitarist and producer for the late-‘80s Chicago roots rockers The Insiders, his heart has always been full of the blues. “Growing up outside of Philadelphia, I was introduced to the electric guitar through Elvis, then the Beatles and the Stones,” O’Rourke recalls. “I was very inquisitive, and I went back to find out where they got their influences. I was one of those kids that stayed home and practiced guitar from the time I got out of school ‘til the very next day when I had to go back. That’s where the Blues thing first started for me; I was trying to figure out where the Beatles and the Stones and Hendrix came from. It led me to Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters – the real icons.”

Until a few years ago, O’Rourke was one-third of the Lucky 3 Blues Band with good friends Jim Desmond and Frank Raven. “We had worked for three years on the Lucky 3, and it was going really well. We were a small, compact unit, we were a great opening act, and we were doing well. And it was over in the blink of an eye.”

In 2013, Lucky 3 called it quits, and O’Rourke took the band’s break-up hard. “I sat around for a couple of weeks with a bottle of Jack Daniels in my hand. Then one night while my girlfriend was leaving for work, she came up to me, put her face against mine, and said, ‘You’d better do something. I don’t know what, but…’ And the next day I started writing songs.

“I was never really a songwriter before,” he goes on to explain. “I had been a producer and arranger, but I always worked with what I considered to be very good songwriters, so I never did it. So it’s new to me, and on this record, I think it shows – that I learned how to do it in a way that kind of suits me and is flattering to the way I sing. I mean, I hadn’t even been a singer since I was a teenager either. It’s all new to me.”

After a few “experimental” solo releases, he sat down with his bandmates to put some more thought into this fourth record. “This record focuses a lot more on what I’d call ‘garage-blues-rock,’ which I was encouraged to do by the other guys in the band.


“The thing about this band is – they’re my oldest friends. I’ve played with the drummer, Ed Breckenfeld, for 30 years. The guitar player, Grant Tye, actually used to live in my building here for six years. He and Klem Haye (the bass player) go way back. And Frank (Raven) and I have worked together in one way or another for 30 years. It’s a family affair, and we’re having a ball doing it. And I hope that comes across.”

Indeed it does: Sumpthin’ Good is ten tracks of gritty rock with a traditional blues backbone, the highlights of which are O’Rourke’s expertly laid guitar leads and Raven’s smoldering harmonica riffs. The highlight tracks: “Blackout” has a laid-back jazzy feel, and “House Full Of Strangers” brings some Muscle Shoals southern-fried flavor. But the biggest standout is probably “Bullshit” – it’s got great classic rock guitar licks along with these pauses that sound like they’re open for play and interpretation, maybe in the form of a remix with a rap guest artist?

When asked if he’d be willing to reach outside the blues-rock ideals for something like that, O’Rourke was all for it. “Sure,” he replied. “It has been suggested to me that I collaborate with some people who may be farther along with their celebrity or appeal. There are certain techniques that people use to get attention for their work and certainly collaborating with other artists is one of them, and I’d be very open to that. I still think I found the sweet spot in what I should be doing on this record, so I would want it to stay within these boundaries and this sort of instrumentation. But I’m not against rap or having a rapper [collaborate].”

Although O’Rourke recently completed renovations on his home studio, he has decided to take advantage of his own musical “second wind.” “I’ll probably start working on a new record immediately [in the new year],” he says. “This is, primarily, what I do now – the Jay O’Rourke band. It seems a little weird to start something new at more than 60 years old, but the fact that I’m in a position to do it, I have the facilities for us to work in…I don’t want to not capitalize on the opportunity. The band is solid; these are the people I’ve chosen to work with, and they want to do it. It’s not that strange. It makes sense to me.”

– Penelope Biver

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