Perfect Sound Forever

Carey Bell

Photo courtesy of Alligator Records

by Kim Rush

Blues harmonica innovator Carey Bell Harrington will be 66 on November 14th, 2002. He is still touring and recording as often as the opportunities come along. There are no complete books devoted to his incredible life story. It takes some time to gather the information from sources like out-of-print blues magazines, books, album liner notes, Internet interviews and various short biographies. An amazing story deeply-rooted in post-war blues history eventually begins to unfold. Yet the greatest resource that exists concerning Carey Bell is to be found and enjoyed in his sizeable discography. Throughout his career he has recorded over 68 sessions and on at least eleven of those, he is the leader.

At the age of eight, Bell received his first harmonica and went to work on " Oh Susanna." As a child, he especially liked Louis Jordan and country music. He simply loved learning to play the instrument right from the beginning. Bell and his harp were inseparable. He was punished firmly by his teacher for getting caught playing his harp behind the outhouse at grade school when he was excused from class to relieve himself.

As a teenager in the early 1950's, he "started hearing Little Walter playing harp with Muddy Waters and forgot about Western and Country." By this time, Bell was already dividing time between two bands, Bobby Shore's country band and Lovie Lee's Swinging Cats. Both of these bands were based around Meridian, MS.

In 1956, Lee traveled to Chicago to search out better-paying, steady work for his band. Optimistic that they could compete for work in the Chicago blues clubs, two members of the band plus Lee, Carey Bell and his wife Sally Kate moved to Chicago. With next to no work surfacing for the band and Bell's savings already spent, two of the band members returned to Meridian. But Lee, Bell and his pregnant wife decided to make Chicago their new home. Bell found a part-time job washing cars. After he lost this job, he was thrown out of his mother-in-law's apartment and Sally Kate stayed with her mother.

Fellow bluesman David "Honeyboy" Edwards provided a place for Bell to stay in his tiny apartment at 43rd and Wentworth Place. Edwards, his wife and his two daughters all stayed there with Bell sleeping on the kitchenette floor. He proceeded to teach Bell how to play guitar and bass and also let Bell use his guitar for playing jobs. He used this new skill to support himself all the way into the 1970's. Harp player Charlie Musselwhite recalls that the first time he met Bell he was already working for Johnny Young as a bass player. Musselwhite and Bell eventually played together with mandolinist Young at Maxwell Street Market. He eventually played bass for Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sleepy John Estes (Electric Sleep Delmark, 1968), Earl Hooker, John Lee Hooker, Big Walter Horton and Eddie Taylor. He can be heard playing nice tight bass patterns on Nighthawk Shuffle on Robert Nighthawk's Live on Maxwell St (Rounder, 1964) and on three tracks for1972's Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell (Alligator).

Edwards was the one who introduced Bell to Maxwell Street Market, a location on Chicago's West side where blues musicians played on the sidewalks, corners and alleyways for tips. Actually it was an outdoor market where you could buy just about anything one can imagine. Here he met, played with, and befriended many musicians. "If you want to find somebody, you go to Maxwell on Sundays... If you haven't seen 'em in years and years-but if they lived in Chicago, just hang out on Sunday, you'll see 'em," Bell told Cathi Norton in a '96 interview. Bell soon realized that he could at least survive by playing bass and harp here for tips. Yet he was not able to totally support himself with his music until the mid-seventies. From what Bell is saying here, it doesen't sound like money was the only priority: "as long as they were throwing money in the basket, we didn't have time to think what was the name of the damned song. We'd just make up shit. And drinking whiskey ...there was nothin' but wine, beer and whiskey in that hot sun. We had a lot of fun!"

It is very fortunate that recordings of musicians playing at Maxwell Street Market were made back in 1964 as part of the project for a documentary film called And This is Free. Here we find Bell's very first recordings. Remarkably, his playing is already very advanced and the sound is fairly clear despite the fact it was taped in this crude, outdoor setting. Bell is the only surviving musician featured on this 3-CD set called And This is Maxwell Street (Rooster Blues). Bell pays his respects to both harmonica wizards Big Walter Horton and Little Walter Jacobs on "Juke Medley." He is featured on five tracks on this collection. Willie Dixon's "I'm Ready" is the vehicle for his singing debut. The Robert Nighthawk CD mentioned above is gathered from these same recordings.

Edwards and Bell "used to walk with their amplifiers from 43rd and Wentworth Place to 'Jewtown' in the winter time," which is approximately five miles long (this is from an interview segment with Carey Bell on the The World Don't Owe Me Nothing CD by David Honeyboy Edwards (Earwig 1997). The open-air Maxwell Street Market was commonly referred to as 'Jewtown' because it was created in the mid-1870's by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The area became racially mixed during the Black industrial migrations to Chicago.

Edwards also introduced Bell to Big Walter Horton and Little Walter Jacobs. The first meeting with Little Walter took place at the legendary Club Zanzibar, on Ashland and 13th, just a few blocks from Maxwell St. Market. Once it was clear that Little Walter was going to have Bell play with him onstage, Edwards slipped Bell some wine to bolster his courage. "So we went up to the bandstand and he got to playing "Juke." "Can you blow that song?" When I said no, he told me, 'You gonna play it tonight!' And he played about two twelve -bar solos and turned it over to me... at intermission time he says, 'Come on, let's go out. You drink?' 'Yeah.' 'What you drink?' 'Don't make no difference.' And he had wine, whiskey, gin in the trunk of his car. 'Can you play third position?' 'No.' So he showed me. He'd do it, pass the harp to me, I'd try, pass the harp back-'You're gonna do it or whup me,' he told me... And then that cat slapped me-boy, I could see stars! So I'm thinking, I'm in it now. I got to blow this harp right or he's gonna kill me!" (The Blues in Images and Interviews, Connor and Neff, p.62)

They became good friends. He gave Bell money and clothes and reinforced the importance of his physical image as a performer. Bell was indeed fortunate to be trained by three of the four acknowledged masters of blues harp: Little Walter Jacobs, Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and Big Walter Horton. John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy I) was murdered in 1948. Carey Bell never met him.

In 1966, Bell's first marriage broke up. He remarried that same year to Dorothy Strozier. Out of deference to his new bride, he tried to give up playing and be a family man. During the rioting following Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968 Bell " lost everything (in a fire) but my wife and four kids-guitar, amps, clothes, everything was gone." Also, during his arrest in the same time period, he was struck on the head with a gun and kicked by a policeman. After being released from jail, he claims he made a vow to himself to work solely as a musician from that time forward. In the same highly informative interview with Cathi Norton, Bell reminisced about the decision to devote his life to his playing: "You know I knowed there was something in this world better for me than a day job." One of his first studio sessions was with guitarist Earl Hooker in 1968. Bell can be heard playing on one track from each of two separate Hooker albums. These two tracks are actually from the same recording session. He performs "Little Carey's Jump" as featured instrumentalist (harp) on The Moon is Rising (Arhoolie, 1968). He plays harp and sings "Love Ain't a Plaything" on Two Bugs and a Roach (Arhoolie, 1968).

Bell also went on the road with Hooker in 1968. Between 1968-1970 Bell toured Europe five times. He played the Fillmore in San Francisco with guitarist Mike Bloomfield in 1969. That same year he teamed up again with Hooker in Europe to play the American Folk Blues Festival. In 1969, he recorded his first album as a leader (Carey Bell's Blues Harp Delmark). In the early seventies he was in the studio twice with Muddy Waters, as well as touring with him for a year. Two live recordings also exist with Bell playing harp for Muddy Waters. He started to perform off and on for a many years with Willie Dixon, the great blues songwriter and bassist. In 1972 he recorded the Last Night album on Bluesway (re-issued on One Way), again as a leader. That same year he began his key association with Alligator Records as he played bass and harp and co-produced on Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell (Alligator). There was no significant interruption in his touring or recording from 1968 onward.

Throughout the 1970's, Carey Bell continued to" pay his dues" by recording and gigging with pianist Bob Riedy. He also worked in the studio with Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Campbell and Buster Benton. In 1977, he played his own session with his son Lurrie and Bob Riedy that produced Heartaches and Pain. In the 1980's, he was involved in both a "live" and studio album with his cousin Eddie Clearwater. He also made LP's with Louisiana Red, Eddie Taylor, Billy Branch, and Blues Queen Sylvia and performed on Alligator's Living Blues series, both with his own band and in a supportive role with his old boss, Lovie Lee. Bell has nine children (not to mention marrying Willie Dixon's daughter), and at least five have recorded. His sons Lurrie and James helped him with Lurrie's Son of a Gun album. He had Lurrie with him again on Goin' on Main Street. In 1988, Bell recorded both Harpslinger and Brought Up the Hard Way, the latter with his sons.

Since Muddy Water's death in 1983, Bell has toured extensively (including shows at the legendary American Folk Blues Festivals in Europe) with various band configurations that pay tribute to this man and his music. These bands can be seen bearing names like the Legendary Blues Band or the Muddy Waters Tribute, or Alumni Band. Mainstays of these groups include ex-Muddy Waters' band members Bob Margolin, Pinetop Perkins, Luther Johnson, Willie Smith and Calvin Jones, Bell and Hubert Sumlin. (In fact, Bell played the 2002 Chicago Blues Fest with Perkins, Johnson, John Primer, Smith, Jones and his primary competitor, James Cotton. Carey Bell also tours separately with his own band that features his very close friend, guitarist Steve Jacobs)

In 1990, again on Alligator Records, he excelled in the company of his two main harp rivals, James Cotton and Junior Wells on Harp Attack. He was back in the studio in 1991 with Andrew Odom, Honeyboy Edwards, Eddie Clearwater and Lovie Lee in 1992, and Koko Taylor and the Vargas Band in 1993. Again with his sons contributing, the Harpmaster sessions were recorded in 1994, and Bell also added his charm to releases by Blues Company, Jimmy Rogers, Sunnyland Slim and Bill Wharton. Other projects from the last half of this decade include support roles on Lurrie Bell's Young Man Blues and Mercurial Son, three more of his own albums and guest appearances for Lefty Dizz, Big Daddy Kinsey, Doug MacLeod, Jimmy Rip, Jimmy Lane, Hubert Sumlin, Angela Brown, Jimmy Rogers, Blues Company and Honeyboy Edwards. His most recent works include participation on a Chuck Weiss release, an Eddie Clearwater album, the Superharps II sessions, and a few anthology and tribute CD's.

On December 9, 1999, Bell slipped on his kitchen floor and broke his hip. He now plays seated next to his table of harps. But he keeps moving quickly, touring places as far apart as Virginia Beach and Helena, Arkansas in the span of a couple of days. He's even finding time to put together another record, to be heard soon.

In a Mai Cramer interview from July 1996, Bell went so far as to say, "I'm never satisfied with my music. Number one, I don't like my singing." Despite his ongoing tendency to discredit his voice, 1991's Mellow Down Easy (Blind Pig), Alligator's Deep Down (1995) and Good Luck Man (Alligator, 1997) all showcase Carey Bell's singing in fantastic form. He is an unpretentious, pleasant blues vocalist, exhibiting total control and contagious enthusiasm. Bell is also capable of creating many moods with various levels of expression and intensity. He thrusts tremendous energy into each interpretation. There is definitely no need to think that the only thing Carey Bell has going for him is his skill as a harmonica player.

Generally speaking, these albums are very contemporary-sounding. They are carefully produced and the arrangements are very well-rehearsed. Even minor mistakes are edited out. His older recordings definitely aren't as rock and funk-oriented as these three are. In other words, the older albums tend to stick with a subdued, "Muddy Waters-type" stylistic approach. The drums are more thunderous and ornate and are up front in the mix. One might say that these albums are more "slick" than perhaps 1973's Last Night or 1982's Goin'on Main Street (Evidence) The critics have heaped praise on the "newer" releases, and this is with good reason. It is obvious that Carey Bell improves in every way as time marches on. But he is deeply committed to the honor of his tradition and he never strays off into trendy tacky projects that are embarrassing or might make him look like a charlatan. The album Good Luck Man very effectively combines two different bands on one CD. One band tends to hit a little heavier with the contemporary sound when it comes to the rhythm and the volume. Yet the transitions on the recording between the two bands are subtle and gorgeous. As an experienced bluesman, fully dedicated to his craft, he knows how to deliver the blues to the public with enviable taste and style.

When it comes to hearing Bell in a supportive role, it is hard to top the more traditional My Heart is Bleeding album by guitarist and singer Eddie Taylor (Evidence). Throughout the years, Carey Bell's harp playing has been described with various phrases and terms like "spectacular glissando," "rhythmic stuttering," "chopped, " and "staccato jabs." He does it all here and more. This album captures him playing with unparalleled lucidity and nimbleness. There are no dull, low-energy lulls. There is a sinuous, natural looseness about the session, and definitely no throw-away material. This is a Carey Bell harmonica master class in combined restraint and explosiveness. The sheer variety and types of exciting sounds he gets out of his harp are stunning, and this particular show of sympathetic interplay with the rest of the musicians is something you just have to hear. This particular session was recorded in 1980, and it is our good fortune that Carey Bell has toiled hard and long throughout his career to provide us with a huge supply of stimulating, beautiful blues recordings.

1. Connor, Anthony and Neff, Robert;The Blues in Images and Interviews Cooper Square Press; 1975; pp. 30,33, 62-63
2 . Blues and Rhythm magazine April 1993; #78; "The Carey Bell Story," pp 6-9
3, Living Blues magazine, August 1993; # 110, "Lovie Lee, I Can Entertain You," pp. 23-28
4. Liner Notes from And This is Maxwell Street (Rooster Blues)
5. Mai Cramer interview with Carey Bell, July, 1996; (Mai's interview of the month)
6. Cathi Norton interview with Carey Bell, June, 1996; (interview archives)

Selected Discography
1.Jimmy Rogers Bluebird (Analogue, 1994)
2. Carey Bell, Heartaches and Pain (Delmark, 1977)
3. James Cotton, Jr. Wells, Carey Bell, Billy Branch Harp Attack (Alligator, 1990)
4.Carey Bell, Lazy Lester, Raful Neal, Snooky Pryor Superharps II (Telarc, 2001)
5. Muddy Waters Unk in Funk (Chess, 1974)

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