In our last post, we mentioned the Cigars and Stripes BBQ Lounge in Berwyn, which has been known to feature some hot local blues bands. It seemed only appropriate that our Song Of The Week be a blues number. To wit: a true Chicago Blues version of our Bobby Troup favorite, featuring Chicago blues master Billy Branch, with assistance from fellow harp player Sugar Ray Norcia, who’s no slouch, either.
This track is from the 1999 Telarc album Superharps, featuring blues all stars James Cotton, Billy Branch, Charlie Musselwhite and Sugar Ray Norcia. The popular blues album was reissued in 2009 in MP3 format. Currently, it ranks #48 among Amazon’s top paid MP3 blues albums. The Route 66 track is a very danceable rendition that swings without dampening any of its blues influence. Very Chicago, that. Give a listen:
Branch, of course, is well known in Chicago, having been born up in Great Lakes, IL near the Naval Station (whose 39 buildings, incidentally, were designed by Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, who also designed Joliet Union Station near Route 66) and having graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago (while it was still called Circle Campus, after the ‘spaghetti-bowl’ intersection of superhighways nearby). After attending the very first Chicago Blues Festival in 1969 in Grant Park, which was organized by blues legend Willie Dixon, the young Branch toured with Dixon’s own Chicago Blues All-Stars. In 1970, he founded his own group, The Sons of Blues, and a long, successful career followed. He also taught in the innovative “Blues in the Schools” program until 1995.
Today, Billy Branch is a three-time Grammy nominee, an Emmy Award winner, and a retired two-term governor of the Chicago Grammy Chapter in addition to having won several blues awards. He served two consecutive terms on the Grammy Board of Governors and is currently chairman of the Grammy Blues Committee.
I’ve enjoyed listening to Billy Branch at the famous Rosa’s Lounge, where he’s a regular guest artist. Unfortunately, Rosa’s is nowhere near Route 66, being located instead on Armitage Avenue near Kedzie on the near northwest side. Alas, except for Cigars and Stripes and its neighbor just north of Ogden and Harlem Avenue, the Harlem Avenue Lounge, there are no other blues venues on Route 66 between Chicago and Willowbrook (Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket has live blues bands playing every so often; check the calendar). Nor were there ever any on Route 66 in Chicago proper.
Chicago blues is a product of Chicago’s south and west sides, which saw an influx of black residents from Mississippi and Alabama during the Great Migration. The west side contains a long stretch of Roosevelt Road, including a part that goes through North Lawndale (Route 66/Ogden Avenue splits the Lawndale neighborhood into north and south). Roosevelt Road in Lawndale became a mecca for west-side blues beginning in the late 1950s, as the Jews of the Jewish West Side moved out to the far north side and the suburbs and black residents moved in from the overcrowded Black Belt and Maxwell Street areas.
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