People with Passion: Bluesman Larry Skoller

People with Passion

Bluesman Larry Skoller

A lifelong bluesman, Larry Skoller was nominated for a Grammy in 2010 for his production of “Chicago Blues: A Living History,” a tribute to the best of Chicago blues. The success of the first album led Skoller and his team to release a second album in June 2011. On July 6, 2011, Skoller sat down with Jack M Silverstein to discuss his introduction to the music and the importance of Chicago blues.

My father is a big music fan. One day, I picked up a record that was in the house. It was Lightning Hopkins, Big Joe Williams, Brownie McGee. That was the first blues record I heard, and I was immediately hooked. From there I became a blues fan without realizing it. I went from there to discover the electric sound, and Chicago blues, and people like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and B.B. King, who was not Chicago, but who was seminal in influencing Chicago bluesmen. Just started from there. I was ten.

Even at that young age, I was in to the current rock and pop thing. People like Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, and James Taylor, and Dave Mason, and the Allman Brothers. Those sorts of guys. Most of them are blues-based. Absolutely. It all comes out of the blues. That’s a generalization, but it couldn’t be more true. When I heard that, without even knowing it, I was just tapping the source of what that music was coming out of. It was mainlining to the emotion and the feel that I was responding to through the rock music, all the people that came out of that blues thing.

I was a guitarist. I still am a guitarist. I’m more on the production side now, but I spent about 25 years playing professionally and accompanying a lot of Chicago blues people.

I came here in the late 80s. I was in my twenties. I was here for about twenty years. I was already a professional musician, and when I came here I immediately started working as a full-time musician for the next eighteen years or so.

I started playing with my brother Matthew, who’s a great harmonica player in Chicago. I was living up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the time, and I was working with Matt and a couple other people, and then I started working with a great harmonica player named Jim Liban, who had a pretty big name and a pretty big group in the Midwest called “Short Stuff.” And I worked with Liban for about three years. I’d been listening and learning blues off records at that point for ten years, so when I came to Chicago I was very well versed in the different styles.

I came to Chicago and was immediately thrown onto the scene. It was just fantastic. It was great to be accepted into the scene and really hang out with the cats. I listened to records. I studied them. I copped solos from everybody. But it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I was really able to fully assimilate what was going on. Not just musically, but the approach to the music by the Chicago blues guys, and by everybody who was on the scene, and who helped create the music. It’s not just playing notes and knowing licks. It’s about an approach to the music, and really tuning in to what is essential.

It’s a cultural thing as well. I live in Europe now, and there are a lot of really good musicians playing blues. That’s when I started realizing how cultural it is, because they’re able to execute the style, and they’re very accomplished musicians, but you can tell they’re not from Chicago. Being in the community, and being able to, four, five days a week, go in and jam, and really assimilate the music and the scene – in that sense, coming to Chicago was a big deal for me.

There are other styles of blues that come out of Texas and the West Coast and Kansas City and different places, but the thing about Chicago blues is that it was – it’s what some people call the “electrified country blues.” The music really came out of the Delta blues. It was the Delta blues musicians that came to Chicago who electrified the music. These guys came up and they took the Delta Blues, and they essentially had to electrify it to be heard. To be heard in house parties, to be heard on the street. Because at a certain point, the acoustic instruments were no longer sufficient to fill up the rooms or to be played over parties or clubs.

The Delta blues came from Africa. It started out of a necessity for survival, and started out because a lot of the Africans were denied their instruments. They used their voices, and that voice tradition in music in Western Africa is call and response, which is the basis of blues. There was this combination of the African influence, and what was going on in the South. It started as a call and response thing with spirituals and work songs, and became the Delta blues, which was primarily guitar and voice, which moved into guitar, voice, and other instruments, harmonica and that kind of stuff.

When those Delta blues guys went north and ended up in Chicago – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy – they essentially were playing Delta blues and electrifying it. And when Muddy started to put together guitar and bass, and when the guitar and harmonica took the place of the piano as the main instrument, and the drums started being used, it was really Muddy Waters who put the ensemble together. That ensemble sound was the foundation for everything that came after it, rock-and-roll and pop music. So Chicago blues is the music that is probably the most important music that came out of the United States, in terms of its influence on the rest of the world.

The blues for me, it’s the truth. It’s pure feeling, and it’s pure emotion. That’s what is so powerful about the music. That’s why the blues is the only music to have ever been able to spawn everything that came after it, quite literally. There’s a power in the pentatonic scale, and the beat, and the feeling and the emotion that characterizes the blues that, put all together, is one very powerful experience. That’s why you keep coming back to the source.

Jack M Silverstein covers music, sports, and culture in Chicago. His book “Our President” is available at Amazon. Hit him up on Twitter @ReadJack.

* For more information about Chicago Blues: A Living History, check out their website.

* For more on Larry Skoller and the new CD from this interview with Jack M Silverstein, check out Performer Magazine.

* Performer Magazine review of Chicago Blues: A Living History 2011 by Ari Goldberg.

Buy the Grammy-nominated Chicago Blues: A Living History and the 2011 follow-up right now at Amazon…

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