Roots And Branches — The Songs Of Little Walter
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As heir apparent to the Chicago blues harmonica throne, Billy Branch is perfectly suited to shine a bright new light on the timeless music of Little Walter Jacobs, a transcendent artist revered by millions and an inspiration to every harmonica player who followed in his wake. Roots And Branches – The Songs Of Little Walter features 15 songs written by or made famous by the harp genius, each one brought to new life by Branch and The Sons of Blues as they blend elements of soul, funk and gospel into the proceedings while remaining true to the integrity of the originals. "A potent blend of rootsy integrity and exploratory zeal" —Living Blues
Billy Branch: Harmonica and Vocals
Sumito "Ariyo" Ariyoshi: Piano
Giles Corey: Guitar (except Track 12)
Marvin Little: Bass
Andrew "Blaze" Thomas: Drums
with Shoji Naito: Guitar (Track 12)
Produced by Billy Branch, Sumito Ariyoshi and Rosa Enrico Branch
Arrangements by Billy Branch & The Sons of Blues
Recorded, mixed and mastered at Joyride Studios, Chicago, IL
Recorded by Blaise Barton and Brian Leach
Mixed and mastered by Blaise Barton
Packaging design by Kevin Niemiec
Photos by Roman Sobus
except tray photo by Janet Mami Takayama
Tree designed by Freepik
Little Walter illustration by Oscar Ivan Pintor
Billy Branch has been rightfully hailed as the heir to the title of "Chicago Blues Harmonica Master." His powerful, fluid and melodically inventive playing and his soul-deep grasp of the nuances of the blues harmonica tradition have won him worldwide acclaim. Ever since he burst on the Chicago scene in 1975 at a harmonica competition on the city’s South Side, his reputation has continued to grow. In 1976, the great blues songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon chose Billy to play in Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars band, a spot he held for six years. By 1977, Billy had started his own band, The Sons Of Blues, playing whenever Dixon wasn’t touring. They made their recording debut on Alligator’s Grammy-nominated Living Chicago Blues series in 1978. That was the beginning of a prolific recording career that includes eleven albums with The Sons Of Blues, plus duo recordings with Hubert Sumlin and Kenny Neal. Billy has made scores of appearances on albums by luminaries like Lou Rawls, Johnny Winter, Oscar Brown Jr., Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’ and Son Seals as well as on the classic album Harp Attack! with his mentors James Cotton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell.
Since 1977, Billy has led various incarnations of The Sons Of Blues, each with outstanding players—guitarists Lurrie Bell, Carl Weathersby, Carlos Johnson and Dan Carelli, bassmen J.W. Williams, Nick Charles, Jerry Murphy and Freddie Dixon, sax man Michael Peavy and drummers Moses Rutues and Jeff Ruffin. For over two decades, The Sons Of Blues keyboardist has been the highly-respected Sumito "Ariyo" Ariyoshi. These days, the fiery Giles Corey holds down the guitar spot, while the imaginative and rock-solid Andrew "Blaze" Thomas and Marvin Little comprise the airtight rhythm section. But it’s Billy himself, with his soulful playing and immense talent, who carries on the Chicago tradition of Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell and so many more.
Most living harp players studied the recordings of all these immortal players, but only a few learned from the legends themselves. In the ‘70s, the eager young Billy was welcomed onto the Chicago scene and soon became almost every harp player’s favorite protégé. Billy remembers:
During my early, formative years, I would sit in every chance I got. I listened and absorbed every harmonica player that I would encounter, young, old, black or white. I just wanted to get as good as I could. Many times I would engage in "head-cutting" contests with Junior Wells, James Cotton, Carey Bell, and the great late Big Walter Horton. It is with great sadness that I recall each of them, as they are now all gone on to Blues Heaven. Most of those head-cutting moments involved me receiving the worst of it. In Junior Wells’ documentary, he is asked, "What about Billy Branch?" His response? "We used to make Billy Branch eat that harmonica!" Carey Bell would come down to my gigs and say on the microphone, "When the hell are you going to learn to play that damned thing?" On a major blues festival in Mexico City, Big Walter Horton cut my head by playing, (what else?) his signature version of "La Cucaracha." As I say in my song "New Kid On The Block," James Cotton and I used to sit in his Cadillac, where he proceeded to give me a private head-cutting on the chromatic harp.
I relish every single one of those "head-cuttings." I cherish those magical moments with those magical men who inspired me to be the best that I could. Perhaps my proudest moment is my appearance on the album Harp Attack!. I consider that effort to be my PhD in blues harmonica. This was confirmed by Bruce Iglauer who told me that when he conceived of the Harp Attack! album, he asked Carey Bell, Junior Wells and James Cotton who they wanted as the fourth harp player. They unanimously said, "Get Billy Branch." I remain humbled and honored to be able to say that I recorded with the greatest living blues harp players of that time.
Of course, the one harp player that Billy never had a chance to learn from in person was the immortal Little Walter Jacobs, who died in 1968. That was a year before Billy returned to his birthplace, Chicago, for college. Little Walter, whose recording career lasted only a couple of decades, is undoubtedly the most influential and honored harp player of all time. From his accompaniments of Muddy Waters to his early 1950s hit singles like Juke and Off The Wall to a large body of venerated, super-influential recordings like My Babe, Boom Boom Out Go The Lights and You’re So Fine, Little Walter created a legacy that has become the Bible for every aspiring blues harp player. Like all the others, Billy fell under Walter’s spell.
Once I began my quest to become a skilled blues harmonica player, it wasn’t long before I realized that there was one person that was an absolute must to listen to and emulate—Little Walter. It quickly became apparent that Little Walter was "The Man." All of the cats on the scene who were around my age said it, including seasoned players such as Rick Estrin and Jerry Portnoy. This was echoed by the guys who would eventually become my teachers and friends: Junior Wells, Carey Bell and James Cotton. There were other great harp men around town who befriended me as well. Big Leon Brooks probably evoked the Little Walter sound best during those times. Good Rockin’ Charles, Charlie Musselwhite, Easy Baby, Eddie "Jewtown" Burks, Little Arthur Duncan, Lester Davenport, Golden Wheeler, and Louis Myers were other great harp men who all testified that the genius of Little Walter’s playing was unequaled.
I acquired as much of Little Walter’s music as I could find--amazing material from the man who revolutionized blues harmonica. I was mesmerized. How did he get that sound? How could any human being possibly assemble notes from this humble little instrument so rapidly and fluidly? How the hell did he think of these insanely creative crazy solos? I was astounded, yet inspired enough to attempt to try to play at least on some level, like Little Walter.
Many harp players have tried to perfectly copy Little Walter’s every lick and nuance. They pay tribute to Walter by creating the best possible imitation. But when Billy Branch conceived of this album of Little Walter’s songs, recreating Walter’s music note-for-note was not his goal.
We were determined not to make this a "typical" Little Walter tribute recording. We are proud to present an album with elements of soul, funk and even a little bit of gospel. Our goal was to competently and respectfully produce a Little Walter-themed recording with a different twist, while preserving the integrity of Little Walter’s innovative style. We hope that we achieved that goal, and sincerely hope that you enjoy this humble tribute to the most influential harmonica player that ever lived. Little Walter’s daughter, Marion, gave her blessing to the album, and added a few personal memories of Walter to close the recording.
—Bruce Iglauer, Alligator Records