Corky Siegel's Triple Blues Threat Corky Siegel has new music out — just pick your album. The blues harmonica player has released three separate recordings this year, each featuring different players and styles.
NPR logo

Corky Siegel's Triple Blues Threat

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5056799/5058303" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Corky Siegel's Triple Blues Threat

Corky Siegel's Triple Blues Threat

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5056799/5058303" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Boy, has Corky Siegel been busy. The blues harmonica player has three--count them, three--current albums out. First up, "Flash Forward," with the Siegel-Schwall blues band, a group that's been performing Chicago-style blues on and off, off and on for 40 years.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CORKY SIEGEL: Say, I've seen that face before.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Then there's "Corky Siegel's Traveling Chamber Blues Show," the harp player's unlikely amalgamation of the blues with classic blues.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Finally, this past summer, Corky Siegel got together to tour with some old blues buddies. In hand, they carried their live recording, "Chicago Blues Reunion: Buried Alive."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, we're gonna make more honey, baby. Just let me inside.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Ah, I remember that one. Corky Siegel joins us now from our Chicago bureau. Corky, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SIEGEL: Oh, great to hear from you, Scott.

SIMON: And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to disclose, we have known each other since the 1970s. I wish I could say we were both in grammar school then but--you and Jim Schwall have been playing together, as we've said, on and off, off and on, since the late '60s, at Pepper's Lounge on the South Side.

Mr. SIEGEL: That's where we started, Pepper's.

SIMON: Are there times when you take a look at a relationship that goes on that long, are there times when it's hard to surprise each other, which I think of as being necessary in the blues?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, the interesting thing is with music, if you really allow a spontaneity to come into what you're doing, it's a constant surprise. And so the state of consciousness is surprise when I'm performing with Jim Schwall.

SIMON: Now you guys, you played with Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and then split up as a band in 1974, came back again in the mid-1980s, now you're performing together again. What keeps you coming back?

Mr. SIEGEL: You know, when people think the group split up, it actually didn't split up, we just sort of went on a little sabbatical, a 13-year sabbatical. You know, eventually we were going to play together again. The question was when.

SIMON: I mean, the sardonic quality in your lyrics--there's a song here, "Hey Leviticus."

(Soundbite of "Hey Leviticus")

Mr. SIEGEL: (Singing) Hey Leviticus. I got a kid who's driving me crazy. I been thinking about selling her into slavery.

SIMON: Oh, God.

(Soundbite of "Hey Leviticus")

Mr. SIEGEL: (Singing) How much do you ask for a 13-year-old kid? Hey Leviticus, should I just take the highest bid?

SIMON: How do you guys write a song?

Mr. SIEGEL: Normally I start with the lyrics. I just stare at a blank piece of paper and it's not my job to come up with ideas, but it's my job to wait till an idea comes. And if I like it, if it feels right, I put it down on the paper.

SIMON: I don't think I've asked this question of anybody who's not in a sanitarium. Do the ideas come with voices? Do they make your hand move across the page?

Mr. SIEGEL: No, they come in feelings. The ideas come in feelings. First there's this feeling of inspiration that sort of gives you goose bumps. And then it filters through the brain and then from there ideas come up.

SIMON: I notice here, you're always very good about crediting, in a sense, musical forbearers, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Otis Spann.

Mr. SIEGEL: Yes. Well, what I can tell you is that it's pure inspiration. You know, when I used to hang and listen to these guys, it's just pure inspiration. It's just pure excitement. And then again I don't necessarily have to formulate it into a particular idea but it just was inspiring. And in terms of the way we put the music together, we didn't necessarily try. Well, I mean, early on, I did try and imitate, you know, Wolf and Muddy but I realized I think in the first 10 minutes that that was going to be impossible. So I just started allowing every other influence to come into my music. I know Jim Schwall does the same thing. And whatever comes out comes out. We have no contract that we made with the world that said we are playing blues and we're doing it in a particular way. So whatever comes out, comes out. And, you know, I think those blues masters are the blues masters. I think if there's some new people coming along, they'll be the masters of something slightly different.

SIMON: You have been one of those first crossover musicians that have gone from blues into serious classical and chamber music, really, since the late '60s. What intrigued you about that or what did you see in, for example, chamber music that you thought left a big space open for you?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, you know, understand that first of all chamber music and blues, the combination, came together when Seiji Ozawa used to come into Big John's where Siegel-Schwall used to play and said he would like his band, which was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra...

SIMON: Yes, I was about to say, he was leader of the Chicago Symphony and was also, I guess, doing Ravinia, which is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony, I think.

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah. Exactly.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SIEGEL: And my band was Siegel-Schwall and he wanted to bring the blues onto the stage with symphonic music and he felt it was important, for many reasons, socially and musically. And, you know, he did it and I was just following him. You know, just like the blues masters took me under their wing, so did Seiji Ozawa. And we started performing with symphonies, you know, New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony. We recorded on Deutsche Grammophon. And he used to tell me I must pursue this form of music. And I really wasn't all that interested 'cause I was sort of pursuing this form of blues and--but what happened, eventually, after I started writing some symphonic pieces, all of a sudden I fell in love with it.

SIMON: Well, let's give a listen now. I guess it's--What do we have? "Opus 4 (1/2 of Opus 8)."

(Soundbite of "Opus 4 (1/2 of Opus 8)")

SIMON: OK, Corky, I'm gonna put you on the spot a bit but who tends to be most receptive to this mixing of genres? The classical music heads or the blues heads?

Mr. SIEGEL: Well, classical music, without question.

SIMON: Really?

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah. The reason is classical musicians have been playing the same music for hundreds of years and I think they're looking for a something a little different.

SIMON: A little change of pace.

Mr. SIEGEL: Somebody said the other day, `Well'--when we were trying to book a gig somewhere for Chamber Blues, I said, `Well, we only present classical music,' and the agent said, who is my wife, by the way, said, `Well, yeah, yeah, but you mean you only hire groups that do cover tunes?'

SIMON: Oh, yeah, that Brahms. We've covered that. Yeah.

Mr. SIEGEL: Yeah.

SIMON: Do you think this has also worked to make more classical music listeners seek out the blues or vice versa? Yeah? Really?

Mr. SIEGEL: Absolutely. Absolutely. It has been--I mean, since I've been working with--you know, doing the things with Seiji and doing symphonic things and the Chamber Blues things, there is absolutely no question that if the blues police get a little upset about this, they should rethink this and realize what chamber blues and the symphonic blues has really done for exposing people who never would have been exposed to the blues and getting them interested in it and having them actually become blues fans because of it.

SIMON: OK. Now let's talk about the "Chicago Blues Reunion."

Mr. SIEGEL: OK.

SIMON: This was recorded live in Chicago last year. You toured with the band this past summer. Want to listen to a little of the Paul Butterfield classic "Orange Cotton Field(ph)."

(Soundbite of "Orange Cotton Field")

Mr. SIEGEL: (Singing) I was born in Chicago, 1941. Oh, in Chicago, 1941. My father told me, `Son, get yourself a gun.'

SIMON: You're playing there with Barry Goldberg, Harvey Mandel, Nick Gravenites, Tracy Nelson, Sam Lay and other blues veterans. What was the tour like?

Mr. SIEGEL: Oh, it was really, really fun. And, you know, it wasn't as much of a reunion of music. It wasn't a reunion about music. It was a reunion about people and about us having been there in Chicago, you know, in the '60s, when us kids were just getting excited about the blues.

SIMON: Yeah. And then when you become older, does the music begin to mean different things to you? Do you learn things about it?

Mr. SIEGEL: You know, from a musical perspective, it has different meaning because I've learned to understand more what music is doing, what the elements of the music are and what they mean, and one specific element that I've really been focused on is dynamics, the loud and soft aspect of music, and when you start looking at music that way and performing it that way, it just--all this meaning that you never experienced before pours out of it and it's a way of maintaining the emotional connection to music and I really have just had so much fun in the last, you know, 20 years performing and knowing that secret. It's really been great. So, you know, coming back and playing some of the tunes with the new approach has really been great.

SIMON: How many harmonicas do you have at any given time?

Mr. SIEGEL: Boy, right now I have about seven but I carry about 50 of them with me.

SIMON: Could we persuade you to--a little something to go out?

Mr. SIEGEL: Sure.

SIMON: Let me first just tell our listeners that for a sampling of "Flash Forward," "Corky Siegel's Traveling Chamber Blues Show" and "Chicago Blues Reunion: Buried Alive in the Blues," you can come to our Web site, npr.org.

Corky, it's been wonderful talking to you.

Mr. SIEGEL: Oh, great to hear from you again, Scott. Really wonderful.

(Soundbite of harmonica music)

SIMON: Good morning, public radio listeners! This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.