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Author Topic: Jody Williams, Chicago Blues Renaissance Man
Double D

Posts: 195
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Post Jody Williams, Chicago Blues Renaissance Man
on: September 25, 2012, 01:50
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In 2001, whilst touring with Nigel Mack and the Blues Attack (out of Vancouver at that time, Nigel is now based in Chicago) we had the honour of being booked at the Chicago Blues Festival, the second year running. The night before the gig, we went up to Rosa's Lounge http://www.rosaslounge.com/ and sat in with Sugar Blue (uh, 'MIss You', Rolling Stones...), whose guitar player (Moto!) was a good friend. At the gig our band leader got wind that Chicago proto-modern-blues-guitar legend Jody Williams was booked to play the next evening and his band had all bailed, with various lucrative blues-festival related gigs around town. (It's like New Years Eve for A-level Chicago blues guys at festival time). Nigel, always quick to see an opportunity, informed the bar manager that his guitar player (me) listened to Jody Williams incessantly in the van and would be able to lead the band behind this gentleman (who was a bit of a god to me). It is true I had been performing a cross-section of Jody's material (instrumental and vocal songs, both) for some time, but Jody has a tuning structure all his own, and all his tunes are in A flat or E flat, hardly comfort keys to me, especially at that time. But we got the job.
The next day we were to perform at the festival about an hour before Jody would appear on the main stage with his biggish band (eight or nine pieces, I don't recall). Although the Blues Attack acquitted ourselves well, I was more concerned (worried like a pig in autumn?) about the gig that evening with Jody.
For those of you who aren't aware of Mr. Williams, he was a sideman to Howlin' Wolf https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmoZkL3fsvs,
Billy Boy Arnold https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rohDUIDkD70, Bo Diddley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAGoqMZRLB4,
and many others, as well as cutting a series of classic instrumental https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=172h_y-meSw
and vocal sides as a frontman. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOg6nNW9bDM Yeah, I used to sing this in bars, what's it to you?). The west-side school of electric blues guitar that arose in the late 50's and early 60's was very much beholden to Mr. Williams, in particular his fondness for minor tonalities influenced many; Otis Rush recycled Jody's head from "Lucky Lou" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3IWewE_PAA into his iconic "All Your Love" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMdn0EKH7Ys to astounding effect (seriously, if haven't given Otis a good listen recently, do. He makes the guitar cry more than anyone I've ever heard). It's not hard to argue that Jody Williams and his slide-obsessed, more down-home counterpart, Earl Hooker https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScGEbM4Jdaw were the players that made electric guitar into a true instrumental lead voice in Chicago blues; up until their groundbreaking recordings, harmonica, piano or saxophone were the go-to axes for instrumental cuts and/or showcase solos on most seminal Chicago blues recordings, regardless of the label (okay, big generalization there, but weighed all together, I think it's true). Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown and many others (not from Chicago) had scored jukebox hits, and those sounds were percolating in the Chicago blues world; Jody and Earl helped turn those influences into a local vernacular that is spoken to this day, although often those quoting the quotes have no idea where they originally came from.
Jody's career was truncated after he had the all-too-familiar combo of 'new family' and 'disillusionment with the music biz'. A legal battle ensued over an instrumental number that Jody had written, "Billy's Blues" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDul8aWExTo that was appropriated by none other than jazz/blues guitar giant/only New Yorker-who-could-ever-play-blues-fer'-real Mickey Baker, who borrowed the lick for Mickey and Sylvia's "Love is Strange" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpEA5QGYJFQ . Jody lost the copyright infringement case and soon after put his beautiful Gibson ES-355 under the bed and his old 3x10 brown-face Fender amp in the closet, and after a couple/few private business ventures, became a tech for Xerox until retirement. Upon retirement, the itch struck again and Jody made a few tentative steps back out into the music world. He was bowled over by the immediate world-wide interest in his music and has since recorded two new albums featuring a mixture of old hits and new(er) material.
At the end of the day, Jody Williams still sounds exactly like he did back in the day, and now that he's worked some of the rust out, he's playing as good or better than ever. A modern American master.
Oh yeah, the gig was a real nail-biter for me; I'd only worked out Jody's parts and had no real plan for playing second fiddle. I'd also simplified a lot of the keys, flattening A flat out to G, etc. It wasn't my finest hour, I suppose, but it was yet another chance to stand on stage and make music with one the godfathers of my profession, a guy who had changed the way a city (or at least a city within a city) played their home-grown music ten years before I was born, and whose legend looms large. I was walking two feet off the ground for weeks after. I saw him again in Vancouver the following year and he was the same genuine gentleman I'd come to adore in Chi-town. A true blessing.

smgear

Posts: 170
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Post Re: Jody Williams, Chicago Blues Renaissance Man
on: September 25, 2012, 06:56
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great story. I've been to the CBF a couple times and my favorite sets are the one's composed of the old 'legendary' session players that I had regretfully never heard of before, or at least never matched their names to the recordings they played on. I always end up with a list of old combo's to search out when I get home.

Blues appreciation is an odd thing because the modern mainstream market is very small and there are so many talented players. That's understandable because it is a very approachable genre and it doesn't take a lot of work to reach the point where players sound good enough to really enjoy playing. Of course the combination of practice and natural abilities still applies to reach the point of greatness. But those old session players and sidemen had a unique training and skill set. They knew the value of solid rhythm playing and how to support the overall sound, respected the value of arranging parts in advance while also knowing how to follow if the leader changed things up, knew how to craft a 'short' solo to have the right impact, get a full sound without getting muddy, etc. They were professionals rather than modern 'pros' - if that dichotomy makes sense to anyone other than me.

There are certainly a lot of younger players who have those skills and I don't diminish their abilities, but those old guys still stand out and it becomes clear at festivals like the CBF. After listening to a couple hours of sets by the younger superstars, my ears are just tired of blistering extended solos and the monotonous wall of rhythm that supports them - despite my enjoyment of the playing. But then you walk over to a tent where a couple of the old guys are playing with some of their younger protege's and it's just refreshing. They're playing tunes rather than just putting on a performance. The sound is dynamic and engaging - not because there is necessarily more or less of anything, but because everything is set appropriately in its place. You are reminded of that subtly controlled energy that propelled all those Chess and Stax classics. But the reality is that you've got to be lead guitar superstar to get any attention in today's market so I don't fault anyone for striving for that. Anyways, I guess my point is to just encourage you all to try and hear these guys play while they're still with us because their contribution to many genres is undeniable and is rightfully earned.

Double D

Posts: 195
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Post Re: Jody Williams, Chicago Blues Renaissance Man
on: September 25, 2012, 08:12
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Excellent point, smgear, and one I have been aware of as long as I've been playing blues, particularly when I had the opportunity to play with some of the old masters. And although I am fairly educated in the subtleties and history of the music (and have generally jived well with said masters), I've never felt totally natural or totally legit playing it. Although most of my material is still drawn from blues and soul, I've ceased to consider myself a 'blues guitarist'; 'guitarist' or 'musician' probably describes me more accurately, as I've drawn on all kinds of music for inspiration and it all comes out in a big messy lump that sounds like me when I play with any sort of freedom. I still keep pretty busy by playing 'genre' as a sideman, and in a really good band, playing 'inside' stylistically can be rewarding, but you're always aware of the 'borrowed clothes' you're wearing.
At the end of the day, if I want to hear some blues I'm going to listen to an old recording or go to see one of the survivors perform. I have no desire to listen to, or be the next Vaughn/Montoya/Bonamassa. I admire the talent, but the music generally fails to move me. Mavis Staples will have me in tears for her whole set, while Gov't Mule will make me think "Wow, them guys can really rip it up". I want to feel the soul not hear the chops.

smgear

Posts: 170
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Post Re: Jody Williams, Chicago Blues Renaissance Man
on: September 25, 2012, 09:36
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very true. Trying to not sound like yourself is one of the hardest things to overcome. It's funny because it's a great feeling when you first compile enough recordings or compositions to realize what your sound is. But then it becomes a nightmare to free yourself from it.

So with regard to those 'classic' sessions and players, I think one of the most difficult, or perhaps overlooked, parts about studying/practicing/playing is respecting what's not there - space in the arrangement, intentional imbalance, beats left off, instrumental breaks, short background riffs, etc. Some of the most moving early blues/roots recordings were recorded by guys that appear to have only known one chord, the repetition of which, or sudden omission of, built and relieved the tension in a most satisfactory way. With the early soul and blues label system, I think the technology of the time mandated a certain minimalist approach to arranging and requisite precision to the performing. But even if that wasn't the impetus, the results were great.

I've been really struck with this lately. I have a couple friends that I've written with over the years and whenever one of us gets stuck or tired of our own sound, we'll give each other a challenge to write an album in a specific style or topic. So my last challenge was to write a southern gospel album. It's a good challenge for a couple of reasons. One is that although I am a Christian, I have a strong aversion to most 'Christian' music because it is often musically dull, falls into repetitious lyrical traps, or is just theologically incorrect. While its easy to criticize, it's extremely difficult to overcome those constraints.

So I started with a typical southern gospel approach, but it was just impossible to write anything close that wasn't immediately cheesy. So I kept stepping backwards to draw more heavily on the blues roots to see if I could tap an early strain and take it somewhere that wouldn't have all the mental associations that go along with the prevailing style. I really like what I'm coming up with, but as I sketch out the parts for recording, I'm forcing myself to try to emulate the space on those early recordings. I'm great at filling in space, but the more I fill, the more it sounds like me, so I'm wrestling over my arrangements while listening to those early recordings to see how I can capture the feel by playing as little as possible - without making it too boring and repetitive. It's tough, but great exercise.

I will note that Mavis's last album with Tweedy was spectacular. I've never been a Wilco fan, but I thought that he did a great job of propelling Mavis with a minimal accompaniment. He gave her the space to let her incredible voice power the tunes. I'm shooting for a similar approach (without the incredible voice), but it is definitely a challenge for me to write.

Double D

Posts: 195
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Post Re: Jody Williams, Chicago Blues Renaissance Man
on: September 25, 2012, 10:55
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It's interesting that you brought up southern gospel, as I'd just been thinking about that music's huge influence on contemporary Chicago blues. The bands you see around the clubs in Chi-town today almost all feature younger rhythm sections with a funky, uptown approach. Although it's impossible to overstate the influence of James Brown (and his descendants) on this generation of players, many of them began playing in the context of the Baptist church (drum corps is also a biggie), and the celebratory, bubbling groove of that music permeates their work in the blues idiom. Indeed, some of the most accomplished bassists and drummers I met did church gigs as their main source of income.
I really love the sacred-steel bands (big shout out to my brothers the Lee Boys); they have a way of uniting contemporary gospel with its blues roots (or vice versa, depending how you view that chicken-egg arrangement), and bring a beautiful and joyous spirituality into the clubs, much like the Staple Singers did a couple generations before. And they are anything but boring and staid.

smgear

Posts: 170
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Post Re: Jody Williams, Chicago Blues Renaissance Man
on: September 25, 2012, 13:30
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yeah, there seem to be at least two distinct streams of Southern Gospel going on - the funky/sacred steel/gospel choir type and the more C&W/bluegrass/quartet type (basically split by skin color in most cases). The former is awesome and the latter is not quite my cup of tea. Robert Randolph is a great example of the steel movement and there are also a lot of great B3 players coming out of atlanta and the east coast. I'm just nowhere near capable enough to try to tackle that vibe though. So I'm sort of aiming at the middle where those two groups diverged.

The church has long had an influence in blues (well, most music for the last 500 years history I suppose), but it is interesting that a fairly large percentage of young players across the socio/economic spectrum are primarily learning/playing in churches today. It seems like at least a quarter of the reviews on musiciansfriend are from 'worship' players. A gross over-generalization would be that the african-american churches seem to produce a lot of blues/jazz/soul players and the white churches produce a lot of indie/alt-rock bands. In either case, I'm glad to see young players have a place to cut their teeth.... if only we could get all sides to stop self-segregating..... but that's another discussion. What was the original topic?

Double D

Posts: 195
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Post Re: Jody Williams, Chicago Blues Renaissance Man
on: September 25, 2012, 16:36
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Well, we did kinda' come around to the "to thine own self, be true" part of the thread. I know what you mean about getting inside of some of this stuff. A lot of it comes down to who you work with, as well. There's only one rhythm section I know of in Western Canada who can nail that baptist-congregation groove, and guess where those fella's come from? Yup, the baptist church. I wouldn't even attempt it without the right sidemen to dance over, my attempts at playing some legit soul-blues being educational in this regard. I find that as I go on playing music, that influences from all the streams of American music just keep blending together with no real effort on my part. Historically and harmonically, it's all a lot more similar than different, so I just don't worry about it. The appropriate sounds come if I don't force an agenda on the proceedings.

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