All songs by Carey Bell Harrington, Eyeball Music, BMI except as noted
Carey Bell, Harmonica and Vocals
Carl Weathersby, Guitar
Lurrie Bell, Guitar
Lucky Peterson, Piano
Johnny B. Gayden, Bass
Ray "Killer" Allison, Drums
Produced by Carey Bell, Bruce Iglauer and Scott Dirks
Engineered and mixed by David Axelbaum at Streeterville Studios, Chicago, IL
Additional recording by David Brickson
Engineering assistance by Rick Cruz, Heather Handburg and Dan Lins
Mastered by Jay O'Rourke at Monster Disc, Chicago, IL
Photos by Peter Amft
Cover design by D. Dominick Forte and Matt Minde
Lucky Peterson appears courtesy of John Snyder Productions and Polygram Records
Easy is in memory of Big Walter Horton
In Carey Bell's own words, "There used to be harp players on every corner in Chicago!" The big three of the blues harp--Little Walter Jacobs, Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson #2" Miller and Big Walter Horton--as well as a hundred others from the pages of blues history weren't yet spoken of with reverence by blues archivists; they were people you'd see on a Tuesday night at a neighborhood tavern on South Indiana Avenue. It was to that Chicago that a 19-year-old Carey moved on September 12th, 1956. But Carey arrived at the tail end of the blues harp boom--the harmonica was beginning to be edged out by the electric guitar as the dominant lead instrument in Chicago blues at a time when blues itself was fighting with rock and roll, pop, jazz and R&B for dominance in Chicago's black clubs. Talented as he was, there would be a long uphill struggle before Carey would finally establish himself as one of Chicago's reigning kings of the "Mississippi saxophone."
Carey's earliest experience on the harmonica came as a youngster in Macon, MS, concentrating on "nothing but Western and Country music" that he was hearing on Grand Ol' Opry radio broadcasts. At age 13 he ran away from home to Meridian, MS, where he joined pianist Lovie Lee's band, The Swinging Cats. Impressed with Carey's raw talent, Lee helped him hone his blues skills and ultimately became a kind of surrogate father to the young Bell. After a few years together in Meridian, Lee convinced Bell that Chicago was the land of opportunity for blues performers, and together they moved north to the blues mecca. As it turned out, "Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, everybody had everything sewed up. We couldn't hardly get a job," according to Bell. Carey toughed it out and eventually found a part-time day job at a car wash but continued to seek work as a musician. His persistence began to pay off when he and Lee started picking up occasional local gigs, often backing Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Young, Johnny Temple and other journeyman blues players. Carey also discovered a place where he could earn some money with his music without having to finagle the elusive booking: "If someone was in Chicago, you could hear 'em Sunday morning at Maxwell Street!" He soon became a regular fixture, plying his musical wares on the streets of Chicago's famous outdoor market for the substantial tips that could be earned there on bustling Sunday mornings. "The more I went there, the more I liked it, and the more money I made!"
Frequent exposure to the big three of blues harmonica had a powerful effect on Carey's musical development. When asked who his favorite harp player was, the answer is immediate: "Well, of course, Little Walter!" While living down south, Bell had fallen under the influence of Jacobs' recordings, and Carey's first night out after arriving in Chicago was a trip to see Walter performing at the Club Zanzibar at 14th and Ashland. The two became friends, and Carey is proud to say that Walter took the time to show him some of the intricacies of his style. Carey was also well acquainted with the records of Sonny Boy Williamson II and got to know and play with him in Chicago, but it was Big Walter Horton who ultimately had the strongest influence on Carey's own playing. Bell was unaware of Horton before hearing him with Jimmy Rogers' band at Ricky's Show Lounge in the '50s, but he was immediately bowled over by Big Walter's sound: "I liked that big tone he had, didn't nobody else have that." (It's worth noting that while he professes a strong admiration for both Walters, these days Bell doesn't sound all that much like either. While incorporating elements from both, his own unique style contains idiosyncrasies never heard in either man's playing, possibly drawn from country music and the "fox and hound chases" that were harmonica staples down south during his youth, as well as more modern funk influences.)
But with even the top harp men of the day struggling to get work in the late '50s and early '60s (Horton himself often worked as a painter or plasterer), Bell wisely decided to increase his chances of getting musical work by taking up the bass guitar. He switched between bass and harp on his recording debut (although he says he wasn't aware he was being recorded at the time!), accompanying guitarist Robert Nighthawk on Maxwell Street (released as Robert Nighthawk Live On Maxwell Street - 1964 by Rounder Records in 1980). And Carey's bass ultimately provided his steadiest musical gig through the '60s playing behind Big Walter Horton. Personally, these two men could not have seemed more different - Horton projecting a sometimes sullen, introspective persona versus Carey's playful, gregarious, nothing's-too-serious demeanor. But in Walter, Carey found not only a close friend, but a musical mentor. Their years together proved to be invaluable for Carey--not only was he able to study every harp trick in the book first-hand from one of the all-time greats, but he established himself as a solid bass man as well, enabling him to eventually quit his day job and tour Europe playing bass behind such legends as John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, T-Bone Walker and Earl Hooker.
A stint as Earl Hooker's full-time bassist in the late '60s provided Carey his first opportunity (on his 32nd birthday) to record as a leader; Carey moved up front temporarily to sing and blow harp on a song he says he improvised on the spot, Love Ain't A Plaything, on Hooker's Arhoolie LP Two Bugs And A Roach. Until that time Carey had worked mainly as an accompanist, but after his Arhoolie debut, Delmark Records quickly recorded an entire album of Carey's music, Carey Bell's Blues Harp. After its release, Bell began to work and record more frequently as a harp-blowing bandleader, and slowly but surely his recorded legacy began to grow. In addition to his burgeoning solo career, in 1970 and '71 Carey toured with Muddy Waters and appeared on Muddy's London Sessions and Unk In Funk albums; soon thereafter he joined Willie Dixon's Blues All-Stars, with whom he worked regularly through the rest of the '70s. He was also becoming a sought-after session player, recording behind his cousin Eddy Clearwater, Memphis Slim, Buster Benton, Louisiana Red and a host of others.
By the early 1980s Carey Bell had established his reputation as heir to the Chicago blues harp throne, finally allowing him to put his bass in mothballs for good. His mentors had all passed on; Junior Wells and James Cotton were the only other survivors from the heyday of Chicago blues harp with the credentials to challenge Carey, and both were then downplaying the role of the harmonica in their music, leaning towards funkier, horn-oriented approaches. Bell's time had finally come, he hasn't looked back since.
He's recorded solo aIbums for Rooster (featuring sons Carey Jr., Lurrie, Tyson, Steve and James, all of whom had developed into talented musicians under Dad's tutelage), Blind Pig, JSP and others. He also teamed up with Junior Wells, James Cotton and Billy Branch for the harmonica blow-down Harp Attack! album on Alligator that won the coveted W.C. Handy Award for "Blues Album Of The Year" in 1991. Combining his work as a leader and a sideman, Carey has now recorded more times than he can even begin to recall; "I'm on at least 30 or 40 CDs... that I know of." These days he's mostly foregone local club work; Carey is one of the few musicians who says he actually prefers the road, and he travels enough to satisfy any wanderlust. In the last decade he's been, as Sonny Boy used to say, "Everywhere God's got land." When you hear Carey singing about life on the road, he's singing from the heart.
It was between trips to California and Europe that the rehearsals and recording sessions for this release took place in early spring of 1994. Carey was reunited with the nucleus of the rock-solid backing band from Harp Attack!: Buddy Guy's drummer Ray "Killer" Allison, long-time Albert Collins bassist Johnny B. Gayden and keyboardist extraordinaire Lucky Peterson. On guitars were Carey's mercurial son Lurrie Bell and Carl Weathersby who, as a member of Billy Branch's band, The Sons Of Blues, is well-schooled in the nuances of backing a harp player, but surprised everyone - including himself - with the stinging, Muddy-esque slide guitar work he improvised on the spot on Rich Man's Woman , using a plastic Bic lighter as a slide! Carey's vocals and harp playing were in top form throughout, and thanks to long-standing personal and professional relationships with all of the players, he was immediately at ease and totally confident leading the band through some serious down-home blues, nods to his old musical cohorts Big Walter and Muddy, high-energy funk workouts, and more.
Another professional relationship that goes way back is that between Bell and Alligator Records president Bruce lglauer. Bell co-produced, played bass and contributed some inspired harp work on Alligator's second-ever release, Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell in 1972; he recorded four songs for Alligator's Living Chicago Blues series (as well as backing Lovie Lee in that series) in the late '70s; and of course was a member of the quartet of harpmeisters on the label's award-winning Harp Attack! .
But their personal relationship goes back even further. While Iglauer was still a wet-behind-the-ears shipping clerk for Delmark Records in 1970, his excursions to the hallowed grounds of Chicago blues on the South and West Sides brought him in contact with Bell on countless occasions, one of which still stands out clearly in the memories of both men almost 25 years later. Bell was playing on a Sunday afternoon jam session at Johnny Do-Wrong's on West Madison St., which regularly featured other local legends such as Jimmy Dawkins, and which sometimes drew some of the hardier (some might say foolhardier) young blues fans such as Iglauer. Iglauer left the club alone after one such gig, only to find a suspicious hole punched in one of his car's tires. As he knelt to the task of changing the tire, he realized that a local gang of young thugs was not-so-casually forming an ever-smaller circle around him. As they closed in, Carey suddenly broke through their ranks and asked loudly, "Hey, Bruce, you need a tire iron?" When Iglauer indicated that he already had one, Bell emphatically responded, "I think you need another one," and brandishing his own, stood guard over Bruce until the tire was changed and he was safely on his way. It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to consider that without Bell's early friendship and timely intervention, there might not be an Alligator Records today.
It could be said that this, Carey Bell's first full-length release on Alligator, has been 25 years in the making. With it, Bruce Iglauer and Carey Bell reinforce a long-standing association that has brought us some great blues music over the years; the way things are going for Carey these days, it looks like there's still plenty more to come.
Scott Dirks is a Chicago radio personality and frequent contributor to Blues Revue and Blues & Rhythm magazines.