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There's a famous story about Sonny Boy Williamson's attempt to record with the Yardbirds in the mid-'60s. The band entered the session with the cockiness of emerging British pop stars, almost as though they were doing this broken-down mule a favor just by showing up, but when Sonny Boy began throwing songs at them, they were hopelessly lost. Each song had a slightly different intro, or a slightly different verse structure, but the band hadn't bothered to learn these subtle distinctions. They came away chagrined by the experience, and when Williamson got back to America, he moaned about having worked with some English boys who didn't know how to play.
The lesson is that the blues, perhaps more than any other music, is defined by its details. So many people condescendingly assume that it's a simple form of music, because the chord structures tend to be easy to pick up. But learning the 12-bar blues form isn't the same as capturing the feel, the mysterious groove that no amount of musical training can teach you.
In an era when the blues is overpopulated with rock journeymen who bludgeon the music more than play it, Chico Chism is the rare bluesman who has that feel. A product of the electrifying Chicago scene documented on Chess Records, Chism was the last drummer for the legendary Howlin' Wolf, and he's gone on to work with heavyweights like Bo Diddley, Robert Lockwood, Louisiana Red, Little Junior Parker and Little Milton.
Early this year, though, Chism's deteriorating health began to alarm his friends. His slurred speech and impaired movement led them to take him to the hospital, where it was discovered that he'd suffered a minor stroke.
"At first they thought he'd had a shortage of oxygen to the brain, and then they thought maybe he'd had a heart attack, but he didn't have any of those symptoms," says Drew Verbis, promotions director for the Rhythm Room. "When they realized he'd had a stroke, they told [Rhythm Room impresario] Bob [Corritore] that he can sing a number here or there, but he can't play a set of drums, or he's very susceptible to another stroke."
Chism has long been known for his unflagging optimism, and in recent weeks, he has refused to let his condition keep him off the stage, getting up to sing two songs at a packed April 10 Rhythm Room benefit show for him, and guesting with various bands at local clubs.
But Chism's inability to continue playing drums is a devastating blow for a local blues community that's long been held together by his effortlessly funky timekeeping. As Corritore recently said, "It's an end to an era."
"When you want that Chicago sound, or that original blues sound, the drummers need to play behind the beat," Verbis says. "But most of the drummers these days, they don't know how to play that. With Chico, you almost never had to instruct him on how to do anything. He played behind the beat, he never got out front, he never ruined it. He never had that contemporary rock 'n' roll-style drumming that a lot of bands try to do."
Chism had been scheduled to sit in with his friend Louisiana Red at Red's recent Rhythm Room gig, and to play with him at a recording session, but he had to limit himself to a vocal guest spot at the show. His condition will also affect the Rhythm Room All-Stars, a local supergroup put together by Corritore to back visiting blues and R&B legends onstage and in the recording studio.
Corritore -- a Chicago native and lifelong blues aficionado -- was the impetus for Chism's move from Chi-town to the Valley in 1986. The two men had met in the mid-'70s when Chism was playing with Howlin' Wolf, and Corritore has long championed Chism's peerless sense of groove.
Their long history together will make Chism's 65th birthday party at the Rhythm Room on May 9 a bittersweet affair. Judging by the overwhelming response to the club's benefit show, which raised more than $2,000 to help cover Chism's medical expenses, it should be a gathering of musical genres that would rarely cross paths for anyone else.
"I've got a lot of friends who do punk shows and are in punk bands, and Chico's legendary to those guys," Verbis says. "They always talk about him. I can't tell you how many times, especially in the early '90s, before I was old enough to go to a lot of the blues shows, I'd go to all-ages punk shows, and Chico Chism would be on the bill."
Reached at his Tempe home, Chism characteristically downplays his physical setbacks, saying, "I got a little sick for a bit," before quickly adding, "I'm feeling pretty great."
Verbis says: "Everything's pretty normal except his motor functions are a bit slower, and his speech is somewhat slurred. But he's still the same Chico that everyone loves."
Chico Chism's birthday show is scheduled for Thursday, May 9, at the Rhythm Room, with special guests, including the Rhythm Room All-Stars and the Friends of Chico Chism. Showtime is 8 p.m.