In its heyday, Chicago produced some of the best bluesmen ever. Legendary names like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Otis Spann called Chi-Town home. But behind all these legends was a slew of back-up musicians who got no glory. One lesser-known who played with all of these cats is Eddie Shaw, a saxophonist, singer, harpist, songwriter, manager and producer who has lived on the far South Side for 25 years. Shaw worked with the inimitable Wolf, a.k.a. Chester Burnett, playing saxophone and writing music with Wolf's band. He arranged all the cuts on Back Door Wolf as well as The Howlin' Wolf London Sessions, a supergroup album that included Eric Clapton, Stevie Winwood, Charlie Watts, and Bill Wyman. In a phone interview with New Times, Shaw said his work with Wolf taught him a long time ago that making a living as a bluesman would never come easy, "It ain't like Frank Sinatra, working one night a month and then you sit down for a whole year."
Since the Wolf's death in 1975, Shaw has kept on playing the blues. He gathered what was left of Wolf's band and re-formed it as Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang. Besides crisscrossing the country, playing assorted bars and venues, the group has recorded four albums, Have Blues Will Travel, King of the Road, Movin' and Groovin Man, and the soon-to-be-released In the Land of the Crossroads.
This latest record is the one Shaw hopes will bring him some long-awaited recognition. The bluester says he wrote and arranged every song on the album, and even called on Chicago session man Cash McCall to lend his six-string talents. Now that everything is finished, Shaw says he can only bide his time to see how it is received. "I'm just waitin' now for the wheels to start turning," he says.
Except for a few of the chord progressions, the songs on Crossroads bear little resemblance to Howlin' Wolf. Where the Wolf sang with a gravelly growl, Shaw sings in a more restrained, pronounced manner. Where the Wolf's music was often raw and gritty, Shaw's shines with a slicker finish and more sophisticated arrangements. Shaw says he tries only to copy the Wolf's spirit, everything else is uniquely his own. Even when the Wolf Gang covers a Wolf song live, Shaw says he doesn't sing it note for note. "I do my own reviving of it," he says, "I never try to imitate because you can't duplicate him. Wolf was one of a kind."
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Maybe if Shaw did try to walk, talk and sing like the Wolf he could get a job in Las Vegas as a Wolf impersonator. He'd almost certainly make more money than he does now. But the fifty-something bluesman says he would rather keep his integrity than pad his pocketbook. The blues are both Shaw's expression and profession. After 35 years, he still has to get up and go to work. "I got to play," he says, "I got to live. I got to do the same thing as a guy going down to the steel mill. I got to pay the rent and I got to eat at least every other day."
Lately though, things are looking up for bluesmen, says Shaw. The music is enjoying a new revival, with more radio stations playing more blues than ever. Shaw thinks that wider radio exposure and better distribution of his albums will help him reach new and wider audiences. He hopes his eventual rediscovery isn't too far off. Shaw says the blues still hold the same appeal they always have: some good music to soothe one's troubles and to make the loneliness disappear. "I can look through the crowd and see the same people as 25 years ago," he says. "Their names have changed, but they're still after the same thing, they still want to understand the blues."
Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang will perform at Chuy's on Tuesday, October 23. Showtime is 9 p.m.
"It ain't like Frank Sinatra, working one night a month and then you sit down for a whole year." "I got to play. I got to do the same thing as a guy going down to the steel mill. I got to pay the rent and I got to eat at least every other day.