Pacific Northwest blues giant Paul deLay came to Chicago to make this recording.
The Paul deLay Band had cut all nine of their previous albums in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, but this one would be different.
"This album has been brewing in my mind since the mid-'60s, when I was 15 years old and first heard a record with Paul Butterfield playing Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." Through the music of Butterfield, he discovered the Chicago blues masters including Muddy Waters and his great harp players. He loved them all, especially Little Walter, James Cotton, and Junior Wells, and was particularly influenced by Big Walter.
As a teenager, deLay and his mom would go to hear Chicago blues artists when they performed in Portland at Reed College and other venues. He saw shows by Muddy with Paul Oscher, Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Wells, and George "Harmonica" Smith. Chicago-style electric blues has always been his favorite.
Chicago touched deLay more directly after the break-up of his first band, Brown Sugar (which included Lloyd Jones and Jim Mesi). deLay jumped at the opportunity to replace piano legend Sunnyland Slim's regular harp-player for a West Coast tour. "Slim came out here a little bit after Howlin' Wolf died and had Hubert Sumlin on guitar and Big Time Sarah on vocals. It was really something for an Oregon boy to fall in with those people. It was about a month's worth of work up and down the coast," deLay remembers.
But deLay had actually been to Chicago only once before this recording, in August of 1997, and the experience was so powerful and the people he met so inspiring, that he was driven to act on what he felt. This album is the result.
DeLay tells the tale: "We were playing at Buddy Guy's [Legends] on our way back from performing at the Notodden Festival in Norway, and we got into Chicago a night early. I was going to hit as many jams as I could to try to get a little buzz going about my playing. My first stop was Buddy Guy's. I got there well before the music was going to start and I met Rockin' Johnny Burgin at the bar. We started talking about the non-alcoholic beer we were both drinking. He was good enough to introduce me to the rest of his band - Sho Komiya, Kenny Smith, and their excellent harp player, Martin Lang. They were backing up Jimmy Burns that night.
"I listened to their first set, and it just murdered me. I had no idea there were young guys playing the traditional Chicago style so incredibly well. It really moved me a bunch. Martin was nice enough to let me sit in for a couple tunes, and it was just amazing. And what those guys were not playing... the sparseness, the holes they left in it made my head spin.
"Rockin' Johnny's got the kind of taste that you're either born with or not. People who get bitten that hard by the blues bug, like Mr. Burgin and myself... It's not exactly like a conscious decision to play blues, it's more like you get drafted, you know. Or shanghaied, maybe. I think Johnny said he played 28 dates in the month of December, rolling around in his beat-up station wagon. The guy's got the passion like nobody's business.
"After the great fun I had in Chicago, I couldn't get the city and that sound out of my head. I had only gotten a taste and wanted more. As soon as I returned to Portland, I called the guys at Evidence and said, 'Can we make a record in Chicago?'"
The Chicago experience inspired him to write all new songs for a Chicago album with Chicago musicians. Rather than use his regular band, deLay took a one-CD recording sabbatical from them to revisit his Windy City encounter with Burgin and band, and include longtime guitar hero Jimmy Dawkins.
"I wanted the record to have that 'old school' feel, and Johnny and I had many similar musical heroes and influences," deLay explains.
DeLay was greatly influenced by his record collection. "I don't really have a heck of a record collection. I really just dug the heck out of the few that I had, and listened to them over and over and over again. I'm a longtime fan of Jimmy Dawkins from those Johnny Young sides [on Arhoolie Records]. That's the most eerie, spooky guitar I've ever heard. What a thrill it was to work with him in the studio!"
DeLay not only wrote songs for the CD when he returned home from that first meeting with Rockin' Johnny, but was still writing them throughout the recording session. According to deLay, "Rockin' Johnny and I really pushed each other creatively, and the fact that we had no prior relationship other than a few tunes at Legends really added to the excitement."
He continues, "Also, I wanted to get extra down and dirty on the harp for this record and prove that you can lean on that button [on the chromatic harmonica] and still make it sound like burnin' Chicago blues and not the Sesame Street Theme."
About the folks in Chicago, deLay says, "They had a friendlier vibe there than in any other real big city I've been in. I got a really warm hit from the people I talked to there. And it was fun to get on the El train and see it up close, rather than on the back of an album cover." He was captivated by the wooden staircases on the backs of the buildings, the myriad decks and stairways where a million hot dogs are grilled each summer.
Like the city that inspired it, this album is vibrant, diverse and parties hard.
"Between the friendliness of the people I met, seeing my songwriting come alive and getting to meet and work with Zora and Jimmy - it just all came together!
"Blues can have some joy in it. I was having a helluva good time. I really got a little nuts there."
- Niles Frantz, September 1998
Niles Frantz is the host of Comin' Home on WBEZ 91.5 FM, Chicago, and a freelance writer and photographer.
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