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Remembering Carey Bell

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[MUSIC – “Must I Holler”]

There are few sounds in music as haunting as the blues played on a harmonica…. (pause)

It's a seemingly simple instrument known to many as an inexpensive child's toy. But in the hands of a master musician, it's capable of producing deeply expressive music.

Chicago lost one of its most accomplished masters of the blues harmonica last Sunday with the passing of 70 year-old bluesman Carey Bell. 

As a child growing up in Macon, Mississippi, Bell was inspired initially by the country and western music he heard on Grand Old Opry radio broadcasts. He began playing the harmonica at the age of eight, after receiving his first instrument as a gift from his uncle. A few years later, Bell was playing in a band under the tutelage of pianist Lovie Lee. And when Lee moved to Chicago in mid-fifties, Bell, a teenager with six years of music experience already under his belt, tagged along.

[MUSIC – “Too Late”]

Bell will be remembered first and foremost for his work as a harmonica player, but it wasn't the only instrument he played. Throughout much of the 1960s, he found more plentiful work playing bass, another skill he'd picked up along the way. You can hear him playing bass, as well as harmonica, on one of the seminal Chicago blues recordings of the 1960s, Robert Nighthawk's “Live on Maxwell Street.” Bell also played bass behind Chicago blues harp legend Big Walter Horton. The experience would help shape the stylistic direction of Bell's harmonica playing for years to come. Bell also acknowledged Sonny Boy Williamson and “Little Walter” Jacobs as early inspirations for his harp playing. But by the time Bell's star began to rise as leader of his own band in the 1970s, there was no doubt that Bell had built on the foundation of his influences and developed a signature style and sound of his own.

[MUSIC -  “Carey Bell Rocks”]

Through his mastery of the harmonica, Bell eventually was called into service behind some of the music's greatest legends, including Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, but as Bell gained prominence as a bandleader, blues fans began to take note of another aspect of his music, his singing. Bell's ability as a vocalist shouldn't be overlooked, for he could summon through his voice the same high level of expressiveness he achieved through his harmonica playing…  It was a voice that seemed perfectly suited to be heard in tandem with the sound of his harmonica – reedy and powerful, with a dynamic range that moved easily from a whisper to a shout. The way Bell could “worry” a phrase with his voice gave his songs all the depth of feeling and emotion that the blues is intended to convey. 

[MUSIC: “So Easy to Love You”]

With a discography that spans several decades, including multiple albums for Chicago's Delmark and Alligator record labels, Bell leaves behind an impressive musical legacy. But his influence will likely be carried on by a number of Chicago musicians, two of Chicago's most prominent bluesmen in particular – harmonica ace Billy Branch and Bell's son, guitarist Lurrie Bell. Branch, who was playing at Carey Bell's bedside during his last days, has long credited Bell as one of his primary influences. Lurrie Bell, who made his first studio recordings in 1977 as a teenage member of his father's band, recently reunited with his father to record a live performance on the album “Getting Up”.

Carey Bell's health had been declining in recent years, and he'd suffered a stroke and broken hip only a month before the performance. Unable to stand, he stays seated throughout the concert, but succeeds in delivering as strong a set of music as he's ever put on record. It's an unsentimental presentation that serves as a testament to the Carey Bell's sheer love of music.

[MUSIC – “Getting' Up” ]

For Eight Forty-Eight on Chicago Public Radio, I'm Richard Steele.

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