It’s been nearly 50 years since Chicago singer and harmonica player Billy Branch heard blues music for the first time as a 17-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Branch said it was Aug. 30, 1969. Legendary blues musician Willie Dixon had organized a blues festival at Grant Park with a lineup that included Bo Diddley, Big Mama Thornton and Buddy Guy. Branch said he attended the fest on a whim, but eventually went on to collaborate with Dixon and lead his own all-star group.
“It was like an awakening,” said Branch, who had owned a folk-style harmonica for years. “It was like something in me that was there laying dormant and it just woke it up.”
Now, Branch is widely considered to be one of the greatest harmonica players to ever play the blues. His band, The Sons of the Blues, released their 14th full-length album Roots And Branches: The Songs Of Little Walter in July.
“The blues, in my estimation, is the most powerful music on the planet,” Branch said. “It’s universal. You can’t say ‘I got the jazz’ or ‘I got the hip-hop. Everybody has struggles and problems.”
Eating and sleeping the blues
After graduating from UIC, Branch started touring with Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars band. He said Dixon helped him develop a more comprehensive understanding and appreciation for the blues.
“He literally ate, slept, talked blues. And he was acutely aware of its role in not only the American music scene, but the global scene, and its role as an integral cornerstone of African American culture,” Branch said. “And through those years, I absorbed that.”
Branch was later recruited by the Berlin Jazz Festival to (present) a new generation of blues musicians Out of that concert, The Sons of Blues was formed in 1977, so named because many of them were the actual sons of well-known blues artists.
“We were the answer to the question ‘Are there any young black artists playing the blues,’” Branch said. “You gotta remember this is African American folk music. It’s important. This is the soundtrack of our existence in this country, that’s what the blues is.”
The Sons of Blues celebrated their 40th anniversary at the 2017 Blues Fest in Grant Park — the same place that launched Branch’s career in the late 1960s.
“Why would a 10 or 11 year old young black kid in Los Angeles pick up a harmonica and continue to have one all the way through high school and into college? Why? Looking back, I can only come to the conclusion that it was destiny,” Branch said.
A tribute to ‘the greatest’
In the span of four decades, The Sons of Blues have released 14 albums. The 15-track Roots And Branches is a tribute to the late-great Little Walter, who passed away in 1968.
“[He] was the greatest blues harmonica player who ever lived,” Branch said. “That was a challenge. How do you adequately reproduce these songs and make it your own? It was kind of like a hope and a prayer.”
Walter’s daughter, Marion Diaz, is featured on the album, which was released July 5 on Chicago’s Alligator Records.
“She gives a personal insight from a daughter’s perspective that I think is really beautiful and it’s something that people have never heard before,” he said.
Training the next generation
Branch continues to tour around the world and is working to educate the next generation of players with his Blues in the Schools program. He said he’s inspired by the younger African American artists coming up on the scene, and hopes mainstream artists will continue to embrace the blues.
“Unfortunately, it's so overlooked and relegated and marginalized,” he said. “It’s my hope that the mainstream artists will come back and see the value in this.”
“The blues deserves it.”
The Sons of Blues will perform Aug. 17 at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Tickets are on sale now.
Nereida Moreno is a producer with The Morning Shift. Follow her on Twitter at @nereidamorenos. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation produced by Jason Marck and follow him on Twitter @jasonmarck.