Billy Branch photo: Krister Palais

Branch, Billy #168

Billy Branch  photo: Krister Palais
Photo: Krister Palais

Billy Branch is one of the the most determined and experienced Blues Artist you can enjoy at any show, anywhere. Yours truly was to meet and hang out with him at the Reykjavik Blues Festival in 2010.

Proud and very professional, he played his show with Dori Blue Ice Band and stayed very positively connected with the staff, working with the festival. Billy Branch is here for real, not only performing with his band Sons Of Blues, but also teaching the Blues in the Schools. In other words; Keeping the Blues Alive. He came up when some of the legendary originators were still active. He met them, played with them and he filled the gap between traditional Chicago Blues from way back then, to the modern expressions of the Blues today.

Let’s talk about your legendary band Sons of Blues. Or S.O.B, as it’s also called. That was probably the first time we Scandinavians heard about you back in the 70’s. How did the original band come together?
The original band were recruited by Jim O’Neal for going to the Berlin Jazz Festival. What happened was, there were about 15 of us. We complied of three different rhythm sections. The Harrington brothers were part of it as well, Vernon and Joe. There were 3 different line-ups there. Bombay Carter, James Kinds, Harmonica Hinds, Larry Taylor, William “Dead Eye” Norris and some others. I played mostly with Lurrie Bell, Freddie Dixon, Jeff Ruffin and Garland Whiteside

You all toured Europe for a while, how long and how much?
BB – We didn’t tour so much. But we played mostly around Chicago. In the clubs that were still open, back in the days.

That band is still playing, though with other people now?
Well, I kept the name, Sons of Blues, (S.O.B.s). I never stopped using that name for my band. It’s always been Sons of Blues. The line-up has been changed, that took place in 1977. We had a lot of people coming in since then. Carlos Johnson worked with me for a few years. And then I had Carl Weathersby with me for about 17 years. The bassplayers J.W Williams and Nick Charles worked with me. So did the drummer Mose Rutues. I had some of the best guitar players of our generation, in S.O.B. Including Lurrie Bell, Carlos Johnson and Carl Weathersby.

Prior to that you were a member of another great band, called Chicago Blues All Stars. How did that happen?
Right, I was playing with Willie Dixon. It happened like; when I was still in college, I knew a young lady that worked on the campuses as a secretary. She mentioned that she knew Willie Dixon. I was like; “Oh man, you got to introduce me to Willie”! I kept bugging her about it, and bugging her about it… And eventually she told me, “Look, I can give you the number, just call him yourself”. And I did! I stayed in touch with him.

I guess this is what happened. He invited me to come out to his studio. And if my memory serves me right, they were rehearsing for a session. I went there, the next day. The recording session was at Chess Studios the next day. Because Carey Bell was out of town, Willie Dixon would say; “Well, you try this. You work fine”. And I ended up doing the whole session.

The bass player I am, I would like to know if Willie Dixon always played those simple bass lines you can hear on some sessions.
Well, no. His son Freddie Dixon was the bass player primarily. When we did a show, Willie only played the up-right bass as a novelty. It typically happened throughout the end of the show. Freddie and Willie would play together, so you had two basses on the live shows. Willie wasn’t the primary bass player on that, he was just the image.

They had a really syncopated rhythm thing, the way they did with their basses

You got connected and met some of the great blues legends of the past. And you are still working with the so called veterans of today? Eventually, in 1990 the “Harp Attack” recording came out. Who pressed that button, was it Bruce?
That was a great knowable recording, which won a W. C. Handy award. Yes, of course, that was Bruce Iglauer’s baby. He had done the guitar “Showdown” on Alligator Records. With Johnny Copeland, Robert Cray and Albert Collins. He had this idea to do a harmonica version of that same kind of thing. He had Carey Bell, James Cotton, and Junior Wells there. And he asked me, would I be interested. I said “of course, oh Yeah! If I can fit in there”. I recorded the song; “New Kid on the Block”! And there I was. But I guess I’ve done a lot of sessions. I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my career.

In between those recordings you did a string of other records. Do you keep a record of how many?
I have done a lot of sessions and been asked to accompany some of the greatest.

I think I have maybe 11 or 12 albums under my own name. Some others are shared on compilations, you know. But I’ve done, for example; I’ve done 3 with Johnny Winters.  I’ve done about 4 with Koko Taylor. Also The Kinsey Report, Lou Rawls, aside of the blues. Willie Dixon, of course, Hubert Sumlin, many, many more.

Some of the recordings can be found online, some maybe not.

Photo: Hans Ekestang

Billy Branch photo: Hans EkestangWhat’s actual online today is the record; “Chicago Blues – A Living History”, in two editions. How did this great project came about?
That was basically through Larry Skoller, that was his idea. This excellent guitar player started his own record company in France and called it Raisin Music. He came up with that idea and it turned out to be a very good one. Because it got us the Grammy nomination. It actually should have won the Grammy. But some kind of country, folk singing guy, Rambling Jack, got away with it. Anyway, it covers Chicago Blues, from the days of Big Bill Broonzy, to contemporary styles, like Buddy Guy.

On the first edition, a double album. And we have cut the second one already. Officially it will be out in the States in June this year. We are a group of spectacular players on the first session. I was around Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Lurrie Bell, and Carlos Johnson. And Matthew Skoller, Larry’s brother and a harmonica star. He contributed with his ideas. For this second album we added some other great names. We have Buddy Guy on it, Magic Slim, Zora Young, Ronnie Baker Brooks. And Mike Avery from the first record. It’s a pretty impressive line-up.

You all are like family, it must have been a special studio situation right there? 
Well, they used the same rhythm section. Billy Flynn on guitar, Felton Crews on bass, Kenny Smith on drums and Johnny Iguana on piano. And those guys are really good, you know. So, I guess Larry felt like having such a winning formula. Why mess with it? What ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

There’s another unique project you’re doing. The Blues in the Schools programs that you are directing.
Sometimes they say that I’m the founder of it, but I’m not the first one. I’m the one who’s done it longer than anyone, and more comprehensive than anyone. I first started when there was a grant available from the Illinois Arts Council. I applied and that was in 1978. That was almost as long as my professional career. I have been doing it every since. Last year, in one week, I went to 25 schools and taught 4.000 kids to play harp. In one weeks time.

How’s the feedback you get out there with the school kids?
Well, it’s wonderful because I have former students that are now grown. And they have children of their own, that are teenagers already. Since 1978 it’s over 30 years I’ve been doing this. We have wonderful success stories of children who were very troubled kids, problem kids. Their lives were turned around. Some of them drastically changed. Some kids that academically were not doing so well, got up with their grades improved. I’ve got dozens of stories like that. I’ve done this internationally, not just in Chicago and the United States. I had a two weeks residency in Xalapa, Vera Cruz in Mexico. Where I taught my classes in Spanish for a few weeks. I taught in Antwerpen, Belgia, on a two weeks residency with high school youth. Some of them were troubled, some of them were performing in art schools.

All these events are very memorable and inspiring experiences. Usually the programs end with performances by the students. And some times the students play all the instruments, and perform original, as well as standard blues songs. They also learn history and I quiz them and I teach them all history, as well. And they learn to play the harmonica. On some instants they have a whole band. Some kids will play bass, some will play drums, some will play piano, some will play guitar. But they all learn harmonica

Does it work to teach in English? Or do you need any interpreter?
Like I said, in Mexico I speak Spanish, but I had people to help me. In Antwerpen most of the kids spoke English, most students did. But in Japan, where I had a couple of sessions, then I needed an interpreter. Ha, ha, ha.

Is there any highlight in your career that you want to talk about?
Well, I’m hoping that the real highlights are yet to come. But I think the very highlight was having the experience of playing in Willie Dixon’s band. Because that’s where I really learned to play. I thought I was pretty good before I got in his band. But when I got in his band, I found out how much I did not know. He taught me a lot. And Lafayette Leake taught me a lot. The great piano player he was, he also was a masterful teacher. I learned so much from those guys that it was an education that money couldn’t buy. You just couldn’t pay for that kind of education. I spend a lot of time hanging around the greats, and the not so greats in Chicago. Every chance I got, you would find me in Theresa’s, Checkerboard, or any number of other clubs. That was also a fundamental part of my blues education, by all those guys there. I’m very fortunate to have that opportunity, to have been befriended by these guys. And learned from some of the best, you know.

To play with Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, James Cotton, Lefty Dizz, Louis Myers and The Aces, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Rogers and Mighty Joe Young. Also Oscar Brown, Jr., Muddy Waters, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks and Albert King. Just on and on, there’s so many of them.

Text: Krister Palais / Jefferson #168

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