By ERIC SCHELKOPF
Billy Branch not only learned how to be a better harmonica player while he was touring with Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon, he also learned more about how blues music has shaped our culture.
Branch will perform with Ronnie Baker Brooks, John Primer, Jimmy Burns and Omar Coleman at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion as part of "Chicago Plays the Stones," a project that celebrates the deep relationship between world’s biggest rock band and the electric blues of Chicago. A full 50% of all profits from sales of the CD go to Generation Next, a music education and youth mentoring program under the aegis of the Chicago Blues Experience Foundation and supporting the next generation of Chicago blues artists.
The show is being presented by WDCB as part of the Lakeside Pavilion Free Outdoor Summer Series. Lakeside Pavilion is located on the College of DuPage campus, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn.
Food and beverages will be available for purchase. Outside alcohol, as well as coolers, kegs, umbrellas, tents and skateboards, is not permitted onto the property. More information is available by going to atthemac.org.
I had the chance to talk to Branch about the upcoming show:
Q – As far as wanting to be part of this project, "Chicago Plays the Stones, what made you want to be part of it?
It was produced by Larry Skoller and I've been part of several of his other projects that he did, notably, "Chicago Blues: A Living History."
This project was a novel idea. As far as I know, I don't think anybody else has taken on such a project. It was kind of like full circle, since The Rolling Stones started out with the blues, emulating their blues musician heroes.
Q – But in turn do you think people will kind of get a history lesson and realize that The Rolling Stones – if they didn't know already – were heavily influenced by Chicago blues artists?
Yeah, you could definitely look at it from that perspective.
Q – As far as the songs that you're featured on, like "Sympathy for the Devil,"for instance, how did you try to change it up?
Again, you're always challenged when you are embarking on re-recording iconic or classic tunes associated with a famous group like The Rolling Stones. I had nothing to do with the arrangement, but my challenge was giving it a suitable and hopefully dynamic interpretation of it.
While evoking the sentiment of the original, you still have to find a way to kind of make it your own.
Q – You've been touring as part of this project since late 2018. Have the crowds all responded well?
Yes. We've heard comments that they like some songs better than the original.
Now that I was able to absorb all of the actual lyrics, I discovered more depth to their writing. For example, "Sympathy for the Devil" is essentially a history lesson.
In learning all of these lyrics, I have newfound respect for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as songwriters. I was surprised at how deep that song is and the historical references they make in "Sympathy for the Devil." There's a lot of specific historical references.
Q – At the College of DuPage show, you're also going to be playing songs from your album on Alligator Records, "Roots And Branches – The Songs Of Little Walter." Was that an album that you always wanted to do?
Last year, we produced a tribute show on the main stage at the Chicago Blues Fest marking the 50th anniversary of Little Walter's passing. Between my wife and Little Walter's daughter, this became a natural segue in terms of recording an album.
Q – As far as paying tribute to Little Walter on this album, what were you looking for this album to do?
We wanted to adequately capture the spirit and stylings of Little Walter and at the same time, bring a freshness and put our own stamp on it as a group, as the Sons of Blues, which was challenging in its own right. Because Little Walter was truly the greatest blues harmonica player and one of the greatest harmonica players in any genre.
And he's the most influential. Traveling around the world, even in China and in the Andes Mountains, I've encountered people trying to play like Little Walter. So we were challenged to present some of his time-worn classics and present them in a fresh way, if you well, without sacrificing or diminishing the integrity of his artistry.
Q – You just talked about Little Walter being one of the greatest harmonica players ever. Did you feel a little intimidated to even try to tackle something like this?
I've been playing Little Walter's songs for many decades. But there was a challenge because you don't want to do anything that comes off as inferior or that you are just copying him.
So the challenge was to make this fresh and vibrant and original, but yet, capture the stylistic feeling of the old songs. So it was challenging.
Q – How have you tried to set yourself apart from other harmonica players?
Over the years, I've developed my own style, although I closely followed and practiced and learned the styles of many harmonica players, including Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. And I learned first hand from Junior Wells and James Cotton, Carey Bell and Big Walter Horton, who were Little Walter's peers.
And so though I missed Little Walter (he died in 1968), I did get to learn from the greatest living artists at that time. My style is a reflection of my musical influences.
Q – You've been leading your group, Sons of Blues, for more than 40 years. You celebrated your 40th anniversary a couple of years ago. I was reading a story from a couple of years ago saying that you've been playing tribute to elder statesmen of the blues for so long that you've actually become one. Do you see yourself as an elder statesmen of the blues?
Well, whether I see myself as an elder statesmen or not, apparently, that's how others see me. The sad part about that is that of course, so many of those great, great, original artists have passed on.
The fortunate part was that I got play and record with so many of them. I was in Willie Dixon's band for about six years. And then I played with Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals, Magic Slim, David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Otis Rush.
During those learning years, I took it very seriously. I was very humbled by their musical prowess and I was very serious about trying to learn this music to the best of my ability.
So now that they have passed on, this is how I am being characterized in some circles.
Q – When you started touring with Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All Stars, how old were you?
Oh, I was probably about 24 or 25 years old.
Q – You've done a lot for only being 67 years old. You're a young elder statesman.
Well, that's one way of looking at it.
Q – What were the biggest things that you learned when you started touring with Willie Dixon?
The main things I learned from Willie was about the immense scope of the blues and I acquired a deeper love and respect for the music. Willie was a guy who was a philosopher as well as a great poet and writer.
He realized and was constantly preaching about the importance and significance of the blues in an historical, social and political context. I'll give you an example. Even before officially joining the band, he shared with me a letter that he sent to the FCC and every member of Congress.
This letter stated that there was a conspiracy to keep the blues off the radio. He drew a correlation between marginalizing the blues and racial discrimination.
The blues, of course, is first and foremost African-American folk music. And the culture is embedded in it. It's like the soundtrack of this African-American existence in this culture.
By exposing more people to the blues, his reasoning was that then you expose them to their history. And then when you start investigating their history, you start really realizing the many contributions and accomplishments that they have made. And that decreases your ability to discriminate against them.
And then musically I learned so much, of course. I became a much better player. I thought I was good when I joined the band and I quickly discovered how much I did not know.
But Willie had a lot of faith in me. He just kind of nurtured me until I really got up to speed.