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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chicago Blues All-Stars continues to breathe new life into music scene


By ERIC SCHELKOPF

Chicago Blues All-Stars is a band with a heart of gold.

When he is not on stage, Chicago Blues All-Stars frontman Daniel "Chicago Slim" Ivankovich is an orthopedic surgeon who donates his services around the Chicago area and world.

He is joined on stage by guitarist "Killer" Ray Allison, who has played with the likes of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor and Junior Wells.

Chicago Blues All-Stars regularly performs around the area. A schedule of upcoming performances can be found on the band's website, www.chicagobluesallstars.com.

I had the chance to talk to Daniel and Ray about the band.




Q - Your band has quite the credentials. For example, "Killer" Ray Allison has played with the likes of James Cotton, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. How did you guys get together?

Daniel - I had the good fortune of connecting with “Killer” Ray Allison before I ever took up the guitar. I was a high school senior and went to see Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter at the ChicagoFest Blues stage on Navy Pier.


While they were tied up with interviews and greeting their visitors, I introduced myself to the drummer (Killer Ray) who was the most energetic and animated personality that I’d ever met.

We talked a lot about music and I told him that one-day, my goal was to learn guitar and study Blues music. We hit it off right away, exchanged phone numbers and have been Brothers ever since.

Ray - I’ve had similar positive experiences with many of the current Chicago Blues All-Stars. They’re amazing musicians and people with incredible life stories. 

Together, we’ve orbited the Blues universe multiple times, while playing with a who’s who of musical legends, including Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Koko Taylor, Bobby Rush, Ohio Players and more. Not to mention that among the band there’s over 300+ album credits. 

It’s a very exciting band with lots of history and impressive credentials.

Q - It seems like the band is pretty booked with shows this summer. What continues to be the thrill for you when you get on stage?

Ray - Chicago Blues All-Stars is comprised of musicians that have been together as friends and musicians for going on four decades. We’re like a family, and these long-term relationships create a great chemistry and telepathy between us on stage. 

Everybody feels each other’s groove and the music flows because we’re connected on a very personal and emotional level. Whenever I get on stage, my goal is to share a love for Chicago Blues and the legends that preceded me.

To create a musical experience that audiences will never forget is what I always try to achieve.

Daniel - The band has been very lucky because we’re currently as busy as we want to be with shows and private events. Over the years, members of the band have literally played thousands of shows that range from the chitin’ circuit to international festivals. 


In Chicago, we try to focus on larger capacity rooms because the stages and sound systems can better accommodate the band’s size (8-10 pieces). We usually headline shows at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Kingston Mines and House Of Blues. 

What’s been most amazing is to see what a destination Chicago has become for Blues lovers all over the world. On any given night that we play, 40-50 percent of the audience is visiting from out of town or even out of the country. 

It’s really makes the band happy when Blues fans tell us what a wonderful job we do of interpreting the music and representing the city of Chicago.

Q - You were performing with kids at the recent Chicago Blues Fest. Do you see that as a way to instill interest in the blues in a younger generation and ensure that the blues carry on?

Ray - It’s great to see somebody like Fernando making a commitment via his Blues Kids. I try to stop by to see him and say hello at every Bluesfest, and every year his program gets bigger and bigger. 

As a full-time musician, it’s challenging to schedule school visits during daytime hours. But over the years, I’ve made time to share my love of music with many Chicago Public School students.

While it’s rewarding to see the smiles on their faces, it’s sad to hear that funding keeps getting cut for arts programs. Something needs to be done so that more young children from Chicago can express themselves through music. 

How can our music keep going if children don’t get a chance to understand how it’s linked to their history?

Daniel - Fernando Jones is an amazing human being. He’s somebody that continues to inspire me to be a better person every time that I see him working with children.

His enthusiasm is so infectious. He can take a roomful of people that have never experienced Blues and make them coverts in less than 10 minutes. That’s true genius. 

As a life-long lover of Blues music, it’s very important that the circle of life continues to flow through our youth. It’s the only way to perpetuate the stories and music. For me, I believe that music can be a vehicle to develop inquisitive young minds and teach about healthy lifestyles.

Fernando and I are exploring ways to continue collaborating on this type of mission.

Q - What drew you to the blues to the first place and what have you tried to contribute to the blues genre as a musician?

Ray - Growing up in Chicago during the 50s and 60s, there was Blues music being played everywhere. My parents listened to WVON and that would probably be where I got my first taste of it.



DJs like Pervis Spann and Herb Kent played all kinds of music. Everything from Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Bobby “Blue” Bland to Motown and Stax releases.

I always enjoyed music with great rhythm. That’s probably what got me interested in drums when I was in grade school. 

I learned pretty quickly and by the time I graduated from John Marshall High School in Chicago, I was ready to go. Almost immediately, Buster Benton hired me to play with his band. 

From there, it seems like in a very short time, I got introduced to Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, who had me playing with their band. So when Muddy Waters was looking for a drummer, they recommended me for the gig. 

I played with Muddy’s band until he passed, and since that time it’s been non-stop. I’ve been very fortunate to play with some of the biggest names in the business (Rolling Stones, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, James Cotton, Koko Taylor) and traveled the world many times over. 

For the past 20 years, I’ve been focusing on being a vocalist, bandleader and guitar player. It’s very important to me that I get to share this music with people in order to keep things going and finding younger fans who will hopefully go discover and listen to Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James.

Daniel - As a teenager, I never considered music to be a long-term option for me. I was an All-State and All-American basketball player with a lot of promise and pro potential. 

After I hurt my knee and basketball got ripped away from my life, it left a big hole that I was able to fill with Blues music. The music touched me to my core, because it reflected what I was feeling after my loss. 



A couple of critical things happened that got me firmly established within the Blues community. While at Northwestern University in Evanston, I had an opportunity to produce “ Out Of The Blue" at WNUR-FM. 

The show was very successful locally, and I had an opportunity to have it syndicated on over 60 stations throughout the country. This gave me unparalleled access to artists, record labels and concerts. 

At one point, I had over 20,000 records in my collection that covered almost a century of music. In one year alone, I got to see over 300 shows in Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans.

The other amazing thing was that LC Thurman, the owner of the Checkerboard Lounge, also worked at Northwestern and managed several of the science laboratories. When he found out I loved Blues, he literally gave me a direct pipeline to all of my idols. 

I got to connect with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Magic Slim, John Primer, Lefty Dizz and Johnny Dollar on a weekly basis, and for an 18-year old, it was beyond my wildest dreams. The image permanently etched on my brain is of these legendary artists sitting at the Checkerboard’s bar telling jokes and talking trash to each before getting up to jam. 

I’ve had the honor of experiencing Chicago and its Blues in a way that most people could never imagine.

Q - I understand that Magic Slim was the first guy who let you play with him. What did he and others like Eddie Taylor and Otis Rush teach you? Having Magic Slim give you the name Chicago Slim must have been quite the honor. 

Daniel - Magic Slim’s legend only grows in stature after his unfortunate passing, but one of the redeeming qualities that he possessed was his humility. I believe the things that connected us were our height and outgoing personalities (Slim was 6’6” and I’m 6’11”). 

In the Blues world if you’re tall, that’s prerequisite enough to earn the “Slim” of “Long” designation. Back then, I called him Mr. Magic Slim and he called me Slim Junior. Magic Slim was a human jukebox and knew hundreds of songs. 


He shared stories of the hardships experienced while getting established in Chicago. Landing the gig as Hound Dog Taylor’s rhythm guitar player was exactly the break Slim needed to become a fixture on the scene.

But even as his star ascended, Slim never turned down young musicians wanting to study and sit-in with him. I my humble opinion, Magic Slim was one of the greatest electrified Delta bluesmen to ever strap on a guitar! 

Regarding Otis Rush, I don’t have enough words to praise his musical genius. His single note soloing is unparalleled, and in my humble opinion, when Otis was on, you would be hard pressed to name a musician that played Blues with an intensity and emotion than touched listeners all the way to their DNA.

He could go places vocally and on his guitar that many of us mere mortals can just dream about. Otis remains an extremely complex personality, but he shared his knowledge freely. 

I had the opportunity to learn things from Otis that still inspire me to this day. He’s one of the legendary and tragic figures in the Blues, but to those that know him, he’s touched all of us on such a personal level. 

It’s been sad that his medical issues have forced him to retire from music altogether. It’s both a loss for Chicago and the Blues community at large. 

My prayers go out to Otis and his family on a daily basis.

Q - How do you think the Chicago blues scene compares with other blues scenes across the country? How would you like to see the Chicago blues scene improved?

Ray - Chicago is undeniably the most important Blues market in the world. There’s more Blues music happening here on a daily basis than anywhere else. 

But being the leader often makes it slow to change attitudes. Memphis, New Orleans and Austin have been more innovative, but not necessarily more productive.

The Blues life has historically been a lifestyle that most people don’t choose, it chooses them. But as Chicago has evolved, there is an entire generation of young groups and artist that are Chicago Blues All-Stars’ peers and join us in breaking new ground as artists and evolving a more contemporary sound for the Blues.

Mike Wheeler, Li’l Ed, Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks, Corey Dennison, Joanna Connor, Toronzo Cannon, Marty Sammon, Eddie Jr.  and Demetria Taylor are just a few of the great young talents that are positioned to keep Chicago vital for the next 20-30 years.

Daniel - Club owners and labels have to allow the natural evolution of the music; otherwise Blues runs the risk of becoming a museum piece at a historical society. Chicago is a great scene because artists can stay true to the Blues and still experiment with new sounds and arrangements. 

“Killer” and I play many shows as a two-piece that allows us to carry on the Maxwell Street tradition. We’ll cover artists like Jimmy Reed, Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters and Elmore James in a very stripped down format that we call our “Maxwell Street Mojo Set."

And with the band, the driver is more contemporary and focused on high-energy and danceable versions of the Blues in the vein of Bobby Rush, James Brown and P-Funk. The All-Star Horns are simply incredible and we’re fortunate to play with some of the best horn players in the business. 

Also, if you haven’t seen C.C. Copeland, you’ve got to’ catch him. He’s one of the most engaging visual spectacles you’ll ever experience. He’s a fantastic bass player, but his vocals and on stage acrobatics always drive crowds into frenzy.

Anji Brooks is one the brightest young vocal talents in the Blues. She’s our closer on every set. 

We’ll get the beat pumping and Anji comes on to knock it out of the park.
 
Q - You co-founded the nonprofit organization, "One Patient Global Health Initiative," http://onepatient.org and have set up nonprofit clinics across Chicago. I understand that Chicago Blues All-Stars' album, "Red, Hot & Blue, " has raised almost $10,000 to help Chicago blues musicians with medical costs.

What were your goals in creating the initiative? What kind of personal satisfaction do you get in seeing people get the help they need?

Daniel - One of the common threads that I’ve seen over the past 30 years in Chicago has been that Blues musicians lead challenging lives. They don’t always taken care of themselves and health care isn’t always accessible when they need it most.

I made a commitment a long time ago that I was going to do something for the Blues in the name of my musical mentors. Eddie Taylor passed far too early from complications that arose from untreated diabetes.


He was one of the kindest and sweetest gentlemen that I ever met in music. He was willing to share whatever musical knowledge he could with me.

It bothered me a lot that I wasn’t at the point in my medical education where I could have helped him to a greater extent. But things have come full circle, and I’m trying to help his son, Eddie Taylor Jr., overcome some well documented health issues.

My desire is to do my part to help sustain the Blues community and bring greater awareness to the health needs of musicians. I’m not much into the nebulous concept of “Keeping The Blues Alive” because it's not action orientated.

Rather, I’m more into tangible actions such as “Keeping Blues Musicians Alive”, because without musicians. . There’s no Blues music. . Period!

OnePatient - Global Health Initiative was founded by me and Karla Carwile to promote health and wellness of people all over the world. But charity starts at home, so we’ve set up clinics and treat patients from some of the most marginalized communities in the United States, and they’re right here in Chicago.

Roseland, Englewood, Austin, North Lawndale and Humboldt Park. It should come as no surprise that many of Chicago’s Blues musicians come from these very areas.

The very first clinic that I set up in 2000 was a mere four blocks away from the Checkerboard Lounge. I had a Friday afternoon clinic with music from Albert King, B.B, King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam and Otis Rush piping into every exam room, and I always brought my guitar to work so I could go jam at the Checkerboard afterward.

Those were great times. Currently, with our radio shows on WVON, we’ve got a public megaphone to do positive things for the communities we serve.

Over 400,000 people per week get exposed to our positive messages of heath and wellness.

Q - How do you think your life would be different if your injury hadn't sidelined your basketball career? Have things turned out better than you expected?

Daniel - Life’s what you make it. We can’t always control our situation or conditions, but we can try to make the best of what we are given. It would have been great to play on the 1984 Yugoslav Olympic Team and have a shot at the NBA, but that just wasn’t in the cards for me.

I’m very happy transforming lives in the operating room as an orthopedic spine and trauma surgeon. It’s a great honor that Chicago Blues All-Stars have given me this amazing opportunity to play and record the greatest music in the world with legendary musicians that are also some of my best friends. 

Q - What are the short-term and long-term goals for the Chicago Blues All-Stars? Do you have any dream musical projects or collaborations?

Ray - Our current release, “Red, Hot & Blue” has been doing really well for us and has appeared on most all of the Blues charts. Slim told me that it’s been played on radio stations in over 75 different countries. 

It’s great to see that people still love the Blues and are giving us a listen. I really love touring the world and playing this music for the fans.

So I’m looking forward to continue with our show schedule and keep bringing Blues to the people. Blues hasn’t changed much, but the world around is constantly changing. 

So it’s very important that the band can connect with younger fans that have never really experience what it feels like to party and dance at a juke joint. At the same time, we got to’ be hip to what these kids listening.

Hip-hop, rap and funk are everywhere, just like the Blues was when I was growing up. So as musicians, we have to preserve the musical history, and at the same time have an open mind for what’s happening in music today.

I’ve had a chance to play with many of my idols growing up, so maybe it would be cool to play with some of these young rappers and DJs looking to get more connected with their musical history, maybe there’s something that we could learn from each other.

Daniel - As a band, Chicago Blues All-Stars is trying to break new grown artistically, while remaining true to the Blues genre. We’re experimenting with many new sounds and arrangements for the band.

On “Red, Hot & Blue,” we chose to stick with familiar covers so that we wouldn’t freak out Blues fans with our arrangements and experimentation. We’ve got about 40 originals that we’d like to start working into the show, but we’ll probably do one more album of standards in order to further establish the band here and overseas.


We just signed with a management company out of New York City, and they’re setting up distribution for our release in Europe, Russia, South America and Japan. Once this is done, we’ll be touring those regions in support of the music.

Foreign promoters are well aware that the Chicago Blues All-Stars is just as passionate about healing people’s suffering and exposing youth worldwide to the power of the Blues. Personally, I’d like a chance to partner with artists like Eric Clapton, Jack White and Billy Gibbons, who use their fame and prestige to support important causes that have touched their lives.

Blues Power is an energy that can make the world a better place; I’m having the time of my life and look forward to changing people’s lives for the better.