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Carey Bell Epitomizes The Chicago Blues Club Stalwart

Masahiro Sumori
Wikimedia - Creative Commons

Despite one of The Paul Butterfield Band’s better known recordings, I sometimes wonder if anyone was ever really 'born in Chicago.'

Blues harp player Carey Bell was a feature in the bands of any Chicago greats during the 1950s through the early 1970s when he started his own band and went on to be a top draw at major clubs like Buddy Guy’s Legends and Rosa’s Lounge, but, like so many other Chicago greats, he was born in the South.

Specifically, the late Carey Bell was born in in Macon, Georgia, in 1936. At an early age he fell in love with the music of Louis Jordan and it made him want to play saxophone, but his family was too poor to buy him one and he had to settle for a harmonica. A lucky thing as he often later said.

Like so many harp players of the time he discovered and learned a lot from the early players like "Big Walter" Horton, Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs, and "Sonny Boy" Williamson I and II. Using their recordings to guide him, Bell was otherwise self-taught and by age 8 he was well known for his great proficiency.

His first real music gig came when, at 13, he joined Lovie Lee's Blues Band.


It was Lovie Lee who first took Bell to Chicago in 1956 where Carey expanded his skills on harmonica working with both of the Walters; "Big Walter Horton" and "Little Walter" Jacobs. He also learned bass guitar from the enigmatic “Hound Dog” Taylor, which is interesting to me as Taylor usually worked with another guitarist, a drummer and no bass.

In the late 1950s, use of harmonica was on the outs in Chicago as the electric guitar was more and more the be all and end all of the Chicago sound of the era. Fortunately Carey Bell was able to make a living playing bass with harp on the side and he played with some pretty well known west side groups including those of guitarists Eddie Taylor and Royal Johnson.


In 1969, after a successful tour of Europe, Delmark Records released Bell’s first album, Carey Bell’s Blues Harp. That release garnered him gigs with the best of the best, the Muddy Waters Blues Band and Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-stars.

Soon after, Carey joined several of the top harmonica players of the day including Junior Wells, James Cotton and Billy Branch to record the very significant album Harp Attack! Which did a great deal to re-popularize the harmonica in modern day Blues. After leaving Dixon in the mid 1970s Bell, often joined by his guitarist son Lurie, led his own group until his 2007 death from heart failure.

Given his frequent headlining there I’ve chosen a piece recorded live at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago to play on this week’s Nine O’clock Blues.

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