Chico Is the Man

We all judge books by their covers, and each of us has that one story that tells us why we shouldn't. I first saw Chico Chism about 10 years ago, drumming away at Warsaw Wally's, maybe with Big Pete Pearson's band--I'm not sure. What stood out was Chico, a diminutive caricature of a transplant from anywhere other than Arizona, replete with cowboy hat, zippered boots and a polyester suit covered with beads and pin-on buttons. "Man," I said to a buddy, "'zis guy tryin' to fit in, or what?"

When you separate yourself from what you love, as I had from the blues during the '80s, you become clueless. Chico was too good, too professional to be unknown, and he had that groove that smacks of authenticity.

Years later, I'm at Encanto Park with my 4-year-old, and we stumble upon this group of kids banging on things and singing "If I Had a Hammer." Their leader was the same odd dude I'd seen at Wally's back when. He was conducting this program--one of many, I later came to discover--called "Even Kids Get the Blues," which emphasized children's abilities to express the rhythmic overtures of their young lives, to find their own grooves. Who was this guy, and why was he leaving these lasting impressions on me?

The bio short on Chico Chism I've found since is: The guy's a legend in the biz. The hallowed walls in his modest Tempe home, his "house of blues," confirm that he's played with everyone--excuse me, EVERYONE! A list that would consume three or four pages includes: Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, T-Bone Walker, Koko Taylor, Nappy Brown, Big Joe Turner, Mighty Joe Young, Eddie Shaw . . . and on and on, not including the last dozen or so years. These weren't occasional jams, either. During the '70s and '80s, Chico appeared as drummer and/or band leader on a vast list of major recordings with these and other artists, lectured at colleges and universities and taught the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana and Dan Aykroyd.

Chico won't say when he was born--he's saving that for his book, which has been requested by the Smithsonian. The Windy City native will tell you he started "playing professionally about 30 years ago," although his earliest recordings from the Clif and his own CherKee labels are documented on 78 and 45 rpms from 1959 on.

He's best known for his work of many years with Howlin' Wolf. After Wolf passed on, Chico continued with the Wolf Gang Band at Eddie Shaw's now-famous Chicago club. In the mid-'80s, Bob Corritore, now owner of the Rhythm Room, got Chico to move out from Chicago. Ever since, Chico has been a primary force in the growth of the Arizona blues scene and with Valley MS charities. In 1995, he earned initial induction to the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame. That same year, he recorded his impossible-to-find Raw as Hell CD. Another highlight was the Top to Bottom tour last year, in which he and Hans Olson performed throughout the state from Page to Bisbee.

Here in the Valley, Chico has played just about every venue there is: Char's, Wally's, The Blue Note, the Rhythm Room, Cactus Jack's, Mill Cue Club and many more. Currently, he can be seen regularly at the Blue Note, the Rhythm Room, and at Big D's in Glendale, where he hosts an open jam session for people of all ages every Saturday afternoon. Recently he began playing at Country City.

But what I've really learned about Chico is what I've learned directly from him during recent interviews. "You've got to give others the dignity to learn for themselves . . . that's what teaching's about," he offers. "Music is a tapestry. It covers everything we are--our rhythms. Blues is the basic--it's like a story of our lives unfolding in chapters. One day you're happy, the next down, then that gets better and so on."

Of the music scene today, he remarks, "Some of these young guys, they see only what they can get out of it, not what they can give.

"You can't live beyond your means. You have to learn to survive first, then to succeed. Success comes from learning to live life," he says.

I ask him why he does so much here in his "retirement," and he doesn't skip a beat: "Wherever we live . . . that's our community. This is my community. I just try to make it a better place, always improving, you know."

Well, I still don't know how old he is, but in mind and spirit I know he's younger than most of us in our 20s, 30s and 40s. And on the eve of his birthday, I listen.

--David K. Byrne

Chico Chism's Birthday Bash is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 20, at the Rhythm Room, 1019 East Indian School. The cover is $3. 602-265-4842.

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David K. Byrne