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Blues Blood

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The second record I put out was one by Big Leon Brooks, and it spawned a great friendship. I'd been listening to Big Leon Brooks for many years and I knew that he just had to be recorded, because he was such a wonderful singer and harmonica player. So a friend and I pooled our money until we had enough to do some sessions and put out another record. Well, by this time, Big Leon was not in great health. He had heart problems, hypertension problems, all kinds of body problems. And when we finally got enough money together, we made a plan to go talk to him at his regular Sunday-night gig over at the [west-side neighborhood blues club] Golden Slipper--he was the harmonica player in Taildragger's band, and he would also do a good part of the singing during the set. Well, he wasn't there that night, and Taildragger [a relatively obscure Chicago blues singer who modeled himself after Howlin' Wolf] said, "Leon had a heart attack and he's in the hospital, and we're not sure if he's going to make it."

So the next day we went and visited Leon in the hospital and he looked terrible. He had tubes all over the place, in his nose and in his arms, and he sure didn't look like a man who was going to make it. So I gave him this chromatic harmonica I had bought for him as a present and I said, "Leon, we want to do a record for you, and you need to get better so we can have these recording sessions."

And he said, "Bob, I'll try. I'd like to make that happen." So he put all of his strength together and got himself better and did a couple sessions for me.

Well, because we were on such a shoestring budget, it took a few months to get everything together. And the very last thing that had to be done was for Big Leon to do an interview with Jim O'Neil, who was a good friend of mine and the editor of Living Blues magazine. I wanted Jim to write the liner notes for the album, and Leon knew the last thing he had to do for the record was to sit for that interview, and he did the interview and that very night he died. It was like he was just waiting until he could go.

[Editor's note: In 1994, the Chicago label, Earwig Records, rereleased the Big Leon Brooks album Let's Go to Town (CD4931) along with Little Willie Anderson's Swinging the Blues (CD4930).]

NT: As the number of living blues legends continues to dwindle, do you see anyone emerging as a clear tender of the flame?

BC: Let's face it. There will never be another Muddy Waters. There will never be another Albert King. There will never be another Lightnin' Hopkins. Those were musical personalities that were so strong, so vivid that they're irreplaceable. They're national treasures that we once had that are no longer. And I think that when B.B. King and John Lee Hooker pass, we will truly know the end of an era. Still, there are people who keep the traditions going. People who, themselves, are middle-aged and older. But it's sad because at this point it's not clear who the next huge blues artist will be, so there is a sense of a widening void.

NT: Do you feel, then, that the blues as a form has gone stagnant?
BC: Not hardly. I recently had a conversation with Cary Wolfson of Blues Access magazine, and he mentioned that he received 600 blues releases for review last year. So, no, the blues is not stagnant. Look around you. Just recently, the Blues Legends postal-stamp series came out, and on General Hospital, one of the characters just opened up a blues bar and so we had the rather strange sight of B.B. King playing a gig on a soap opera. No, the blues is still widespread and popular.

I think, if anything, the market is so full of blues that people are a little bit overwhelmed. It's hard for a new artist to break in now because of all the new releases and all the people looking to obtain their place in the new scene as the old generation of blues continues to die out.

NT: That's commercial success, but what about artistically? As a music form, can blues take an evolutionary next step, or is it creatively maxed out?

BC: You can look at the blues from the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, and every decade has brought its own accomplishment. Who knows what will happen now? But something will. It may be that the whole '50s thing [the dawn of electric blues] will repeat itself and, if that's the case, then what we'll see is people relearning that language and finding their own voice within it.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse