Lurrie Bell's Chicago Blues Band
“If there is a Chicago Blues child who perhaps epitomizes the blues life, it’s Lurrie Bell… the premier guitarist in the Windy City.” -- Boston Blues News
Born in 1958, the son of famed blues harmonica player Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell picked up his father’s guitar at age of five and taught himself to play. Lurrie grew up around many of Chicago's blues greats - he was literally schooled in the blues. Role models and mentors included not only his father but his grandfather, former Muddy Waters pianist Lovie Lee, as well as others such as guitarists Eddie Taylor, Eddie C. Campbell, Jimmy Dawkins, Eddie Clearwater (a cousin), harmonica master Big Walter Horton, piano legend Sunnyland Slim, ace bass player Bob Stroger, and many more. At seven years old, Bell left Chicago to live in Mississippi and Alabama with his grandparents. During this time he played mostly in the church, immersing himself in the passionate expressiveness of the gospel tradition. “My folks down in Alabama– my grandfather he was a preacher, I had to go to church and play my guitar in the church… Once I began to play with the singers and learned about the gospel music I began to love it. I played acoustic guitar and was already very familiar with the blues so I would listen to the singers, and, well, the music just came naturally to me.” At fourteen he moved back to Chicago and continued to play in church as well as forming his first blues band while attending high school. By 1975, Lurrie was close to graduating high school, but decided to leave at the invitation of his father to join his band. After savoring a taste of the life of the professional bluesman, Lurrie never looked back. He found himself in demand, and some of the music's leading lights offered him jobs in their bands. By seventeen Lurrie Bell was playing on stage with Willie Dixon. In 1977 he was a founding member of The Sons of Blues with Freddie Dixon (son of Willie) and Billy Branch. The band recorded three standout tracks for Alligator Records’ Grammy nominated Living Chicago Blues series. In 1978 Bell joined Koko Taylor’s band and stayed for several years, honing his chops and learning the ropes of being a traveling musician. He continued to work with his dad as well, recording the 1984 Rooster Blues album Son Of a Gun and several other titles for UK’s JSP Records. Not only was Bell recognized as an exceptionally talented guitarist and musician, his knowledge of different blues styles, and for his soulfulness and his musical maturity, which is astounding for a blues musician at such a young age.
Tragically the onset of mental illness in his early twenties would deter Lurrie from fulfilling his destiny. He was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. "I was confused about what I wanted to do, who were my friends and how to relate to society," said Bell, now 52, of his "dark days." "Everything was going too fast for me." For nearly two decades, Lurrie struggled. Despite several short stays in institutions, he received little ongoing treatment, and he eventually became homeless. By the early '90's, he didn't even own a guitar. However, his passion for music remained unrelenting. He often spent his days walking around the city, playing harmonica. At night, he'd still find his way to blues clubs, where he'd stand at the edge of the stage blowing harp, hoping to be called up. Usually Lurrie was ignored or even barred. Nonetheless, many times he was still able to strap on a borrowed guitar, and play down torrents of fractured lightning, before handing it back and disappearing again into the night. Some mornings he'd show up at the Maxwell Street Market, dirty and disheveled after days of roaming the streets, find a band, and pour forth an epic version of a blues classic like Buddy Guy's "A Man And The Blues," astounding long-time observers and casual tourists alike with the depth of his passion, and the height of his musical powers. Moments like these have become legends in the annals of Chicago blues. To this day, Lurrie remains beloved as a musician, and deeply respected as a man for the courage and perseverance he showed during those dark years.
“An incendiary fusion of Chicago Bluesboilerplate and his own mercurial imagination, hyperkinetic energy, and dazzling technical dexterity.”David Whiteis – Chicago Reader
The story of Lurrie Bell is filled with heartbreak and mental illness, but also with hope, inspiration and the redemptive power of love. His road to recovery began in the early '90s when he met his wife, photographer Susan Greenberg. "She was there for me all the time," said Bell recently from his home in Chicago. "She made sure that I got to the right doctors and that I took the right medication. She inspired me to keep going." Bell did keep going, through the illness and death of his baby twins, born prematurely. After their loss, the couple had another child, Aria, but tragedy struck again when Greenberg, who had also battled mental illness, died from cancer in January 2007. The following May, Bell lost his father and mentor, Carey. "It hurt me very deeply to lose my baby twins, my wife and my father all one after the other," Bell recalled. "It was hard to deal with, but I think it also woke me up. It taught me to do the best at whatever I do. I learned that I had to focus more on my music, and I have." Lurrie says when he's onstage he often thinks about the musicians he met as a child, the father who inspired him and the wife who loved him. "I pick up my guitar and play the blues away."
Not only has he found a way to move on, but has enabled his music to lift his pain, and he has found peace, beauty and the strength to grow. The emotion he expresses has a deep understanding of the words and what they convey, the fear and the ease of slipping into darkness. Blessed with a deep and resonant baritone, its impact is rich, full-bodied and deeply sonorous. His stinging guitar lines are pure soul, long on melody and lyrical rhythms; the playing is vocal and intensely personal. It seems as if not one note is out of place, and everything is as divined to be. Everything seems so natural: feeling, timing, sound, phrases, inflexions are made of grit, honesty, compassion, sensibility and culture forged with his innate musical talent and life experience endows him with this power to transmit emotions. His leads blend string-melting fury with eloquence and precision. His splintered runs and length-of-the-fretboard fusillades have a terrible beauty. His string-bending, time-stretching guitar work and playing behind the beat seems as if he's pulling the song apart at the seams. The economy of his playing is devoid of technical tricks or over practiced scales, its pure transcendence. When Bell sings of loss, its gut wrenching, as if he were confiding his pain to the listener personally, wiping away tears in the process. It is a powerfully moving experience.
Lurrie began to receive some of the professional help he had needed for so long, and he began to regain control of his mind and his life. He also started to rebuild his music career, and the results were astounding. His technique is more powerful and focused than ever, yet the incendiary intensity that's always characterized his music- through good times and the bad - is undiminished. “Each time he picks up a guitar he seems to have forgotten where the limits are, what boundaries existed the last time he played, and he fearlessly sets out on a new exploration."(-- Scott Dirks) Since the onset of the new millennium, Bell’s profile has been steadily rising. 2002 saw the release of the CD Cutting Heads and in 2004 Alligator Records released Second Nature an acoustic duet record with his father Carey Bell that was nominated for a WC Handy Award Acoustic Record of the Year by the Blues Foundation in Memphis. In 2007 Bell started his own label Aria B.G. Records and released Let’s Talk About Love, which has been called his most accomplished, deeply heartfelt album yet. On the strength of this record, he was voted Most Outstanding Guitar Player in the 2007 Living Blues Magazine’s Critic’s Poll, and in 2008 and 2012 he was named the magazine’s Male Blues Artist of the Year. Since 2007 he has received multiple Blues Music Award nominations as Best Guitarist and Best Traditional Male Blues Artist by the Blues Foundation. 2009 found him pairing up with Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer and Billy Branch on the recording Chicago Blues: A Living History which garnered him his first official Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Recording. In 2011 a follow-up was released; Chicago Blues: A Living History (The Revolution Continues) featuring Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, and Ronnie Baker Brooks. And in 2012 came the arrival of his second CD on Aria BG Records The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, a collection of acoustic blues and gospel songs that recollect the music he often played at church in Mississippi and Alabama as a child. It was honored with the Prix du Blues award from the prestigious French L’Academie du Jazz for the Best Blues Recording of 2012 and the title song (written by producer Matthew Skoller) received a nomination from the Blues Foundation for song of the year. In 2013 Bell renewed his alliance with Delmark and enlisted famed Chicago producer Dick Shurman to make the record Blues in My Soul. For this project he wanted to get back to the solid foundation of Chicago-styled traditional guitar blues. The album features three new Bell originals plus songs by Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Big Bill Broonzy and T-Bone Walker. The disc has generated five 2014 Blues Music Award nominations for “Album of the Year,” “Song of the Year – Blues In My Soul” (written by Bell), “Instrumentalist - Guitar,” “Traditional Blues Album,” and “Traditional Male Blues Artist.”
“Lurrie Bell is on a blues journey that started early, divined by fate, fueled by spiritual and secular forces, beaten and scarred by unfathomable tragedy and heartbreaking illness, finally finding redemption in the music that defines him. It’s the blues that is in Lurrie Bell’s being, that’s for certain. After experiencing Blues In My Soul it will be equally clear that the Soul of the Blues is Lurrie Bell. There’s not a human emotion that Lurrie Bell hasn’t faced down. Whether it be penury, excess, love, loss, madness, death or life. These are the realities and textures of Lurrie Bell’s blues. If Lurrie Bell didn’t exist, the Blues would have to invent him.”
-- Mark Baier - Chicago Blues Guide