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FEATURES -- Inside the Blues with Liz Mandeville

Interview with:

Guitarist Mark Wydra:

 "Living Under a Lucky Star"

 Part 2

mark wydra in club

By Liz Mandeville

Photos: Jennifer Wheeler

Back in 1983, I went with my guitarist boyfriend down to Summit IL. to play a gig in a little club right outside the gates of the Argo Cornstarch factory. I knew about three songs and was nervous as hell. We were playing with an unknown white blues group called Blues by Five.  It was there I first met guitarist Mark Wydra, who has since played countless gigs with me and been featured on two of my Earwig CDs. Most often associated with Eddy Clearwater, Mark has been a first-call side man for band leaders in-the-know for over 30 years. His taste, talent, timing, versatility and professionalism, along with his ability to lead a band and harmonize vocally have kept his calendar filled to this day and allows him to choose his commitments. Mark is also my guitar teacher and the father of 24-year-old guitarist, J.R. Wydra, who also has recently played in my band.  The following conversation occurred recently in the Downers Grove music studio where Mark still actively passes the torch to his more than 50 students

Liz Mandeville for Chicago Blues Guide: Tell us some more about how you came up in the Chicago blues scene.

Mark Wydra: If there’s one man responsible for bringing the blues to the North Side, it was Bob Riedy. He got the idea to bring these great blues players and back them up with young white guys. That’s really how I got my start in blues. That’s how I started playing with Eddy, through Bob Riedy.

I’ve been playing blues since before there was a B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. I’ve paid my dues. I was in the very first blues band ever that played the Kingston Mines. Blues by Five, a bunch of suburban white guys, lovin’ the blues, playin’ it pretty good. Because we were getting into the city and seeing the greats. It was me, Joe Charles, Dave Knoff.

Who was the drummer with that band?

Oh, we had so many, sometimes it was Twist Turner, or my good buddy John Hiller. He was a real go-getter. He got me on the Bob Riedy gigs and got me into Blues by Five. Back in the late ‘60s the blues was going through a really bad period, a real slump and Bob Riedy got the idea to bring the blues to the North Side clubs. It’d be like Blues by Five backing up Sam Lay, Carey Bell or Eddy Clearwater. That’s why, when there was a reunion weekend recently, I jumped at the chance to do it. It was kind of a let down; here was this really influential guy and only about 20 people showed up. All the players had gotten so old.  Bob used to be the man, he was a tyrant onstage. He really knew what he wanted. He would organize these gigs and I got to play with the best. The dark side was I’d get paid $40 to play and the next week Bob shows up in a new Cadillac!  I got disgusted and got out of the blues, got married, did wedding band gigs. But when I got out of the blues, it was just before the big blues wave hit, Stevie Ray and The Blues Brothers movie. Timing is everything.

I used to go to Europe with Eddy and he’s treated like royalty and we come home and he is, you know, in the back of the bus. Times have really changed.  It was amazing to go out on this last tour with Eddy and see the tears standing in his eyes when he goes to these places where previously he was called names and told ‘you’re not welcome here,’ and now he’s being feted like a king. Only in America! It’s only in America can we elect a Barack Obama, we can right our wrongs. Some of my band mates were saying things like ‘We’re going to South Africa and show those muthas how it’s done.’  I say: it’s only possible because you’re American, man! Those guys over there don’t have the same government, they don’t stand a chance like we’ve got here to change things, to make it right. And that’s my American speech. You have to go out and do it, like Honeyboy Edwards says, ‘the world don’t owe you nothing,’ you got to work for it. And you can get it, but only in America.

My friends, who also play as side men, constantly complain about not being more successful. My good friend Harlan Terson complains of all the many nights he played the Mines, all the gigs he’s played and where is the money? Where is the success?  I say:  ‘You know how many records I’m on? A handful, on various labels and I’m proud of all the people I’ve recorded with. How many Delmark records are you on? Thirty? More? Those records will go out all over the world and after you’re gone, people will continue to buy and collect those records because of Delmark’s   position and reputation. You’ve made it, man. That is success in the blues.’

 I probably could’ve been more successful if I’d moved to L.A., with my blues experience I could’ve joined a rock band or whatever. But I made choices. I fell in love, had a family, I wanted to be there for my kids. And I’ve been able to play music. I had three little boys, my ex- and I both had wedding bands. Things happened, you know how I am, I was a dog and I ended up getting divorced.  I was out of the blues for about seven or eight years when I got a call from Eddy Clearwater.

mark wydra in red ‘Hey, what are you doing, want a job? Can you travel?’

I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it what’s the gig?’

Here I was, driving a ratty car, two years divorced, my life in the toilet, and there’s that lucky star again!  lt was two and a half months in Europe!  It was a fluke, his regular guy, I think it was Wil Crosby, had broken his arm or something and couldn’t play. We had four days to get me a passport. It changed my life! I got to play three or four nights and then have time off in the great cities of Europe. I ate really well, you know how it is in Europe. I walked everywhere, I got in shape.

It’s the only time in my life I left everything. My ex-wife, of all people, really encouraged me. You know I’d really hurt her, I’d cheated on her and we had these three little kids. It’s so hard to be in a working band and be married, it’s hard enough in a relationship. But you go on the road, and you know how I am, but she was the one who told me to go with Eddy. It was a beautiful thing, I came back energized, a new man.

I feel like the blues is in its last years, though. I went out a few years ago with Eddy on tour, five weeks, Montreal, New York City, probably the last of the tours playing every night of the week. It was the last time I’ll probably do something like that. All the club owners were whining the clubs were only half full. It’s not the economy because during the Depression we had more live entertainment. People found a dime to go be entertained. Now people are afraid to go out and get a DUI, they have big screen TVs at home, entertainment at home, it’s harder to get people into the club to begin with. Basically I think blues is irrelevant today. People don’t appreciate live music.

Everywhere I go I see people texting, on their phones, I think the cell phone is the death of our culture. I’ve been rear-ended several times by people on their cell phones. This is the death of us all, it’s like atomic energy is really wonderful, but the downside is the bomb!  Think about this, one of the most fun things is selling that CD on your gig, saying ‘here I’ll sign it for you’. Having something to take away to remember. If you think people are going to go home and download your stuff, even if they loved you, will they go home and download each song for $.99?

I notice a pattern here with you Mark, you are anti-technology! You like the big hollow body Gibson playing straight into a Fender amp.

Thank you! You’re right! I don’t have a cell phone, I don’t have a website or MySpace. What do I need one for? My friend, the great bass player Harlan Terson, laughs at me for not having a web site and a MySpace. When Johnny Winter needs a bass player does he go on MySpace to find a guy? Does he call Harlan’s web site?

Let me tell you a story. I’m playing with Eddy Clearwater at the Kingston Mines and John Hiller comes running over to me saying ‘Eric Clapton is coming in!’  I had to open for Eddy, play a few tunes before Eddy came up. So he comes in, and I get up and play ‘Hideaway’. Why? Because Eric made his name on Bluesbreakers with that song, that’s what made it so he could do Cream and all that. I play and afterwards he comes over. He puts out his hand, he says ‘Hi, I’m Eric. Would you like to join us?’ It was him, Alvin Lee, Patti Harrison.  We sat and talked music. It was great, they were all really nice people. I came THIS close to getting him to sit in, you know, to play my guitar, but we took an extra long break, we started getting drunk and Eric said, ‘Man, we’re all done in, maybe next time, eh?’  I gave him my card, but of course I never hear from him. Why? Because, there is a class system in music and even playing with Eddy Clearwater, even headlining the Kingston Mines, we are not of that class. When Eric Clapton wants a guitar player, he doesn’t call Mark Wydra, a great guitarist from Chicago, he calls Pete Townsend or Johnny Lang and says ‘who do you know?’

Here’s what it is, Muddy Waters, didn’t have a web site, the cream rose to the top! There’s just too many bands, too much mediocre crap out there. I don’t want everybody to have their own CD. I think you got to go out and search for the source, not punch it up on the internet. It’s the same with love. Whatever happened to seeing someone across a room and saying ‘I need to talk to her.’ My ex-wife and her husband met on the internet but that’s not for me. I like the thrill of the real thing.

Here’s the thing too much technology does: it takes the common sense out of people. It’s common sense, that in order to get the music industry back to where it should be so the cream can rise, that we need a major shift in thinking.

mark wydra outdoors

You have three jobs, don’t you?

Yes. I do music, I work at the Hobby Shop and I teach.  I have 50 guitar students. All my work has enabled me to spend time with my kids, to pay my bills and live like I want to. I love it all. At the Hobby Shop my friends come in and we talk politics. I love the job, nobody is yelling at me. I love my students. I never get tired of teaching this music.

It’s the journey that matters, it’s all the people you’ve met and places you’ve seen. You can say ‘I should be further, I should make more money.’  Musicians are whiners.  I’m like Honeyboy Edwards, I feel like what he named his book: The World Don’t Owe Me Nothin!  Hey, I look at it this way: I go to work, have a drink, womanize, socialize, I see all my friends and I get paid a hundred dollars, all for about four hours work.

A lot of the brothers I’ve worked with came along at the time when the blues revival happened and they’ve had the opportunities handed to them without having paid the dues. I tell any musician who asks me: ‘You got to go out and do it like you really mean it. You may not be successful, but you got to go do it like you really think you could make it.’

Let me ask you about your son, J.R.

J.R. is my first born, I love him dearly. I remember the time and occasion of meeting you, Liz. We met at the Blues Bar in Summit IL in the shadow of the Argo Corn Starch factory back in the early ‘80s when I was playing with Blues by Five. When we did those first gigs together in Argo, his mother was pregnant with him. When you hit the stage he started kicking, that was the first time she felt him move, he kicked like hell. He used to come out and hear us play! He was born with the music. And now he’s playing with you! That’s the God’s truth! It’s full circle.

He told me he took formal lessons from you

 To his credit he listened to every word. He wasn’t one of those ‘Aw, dad,’ kids, he hung on every word and he really worked at it. What I think is so amazing about him is that he plays well and he feels it. He can walk into social situations and people really like him. I’m kind of a tough nut, but J.R. is a really likeable guy who can play with feeling and I’m very proud of that.

Let me tell you a real blues story, this is one of the things that’s wrong with the blues, a musician will cut your throat at work and in love. A well known blues drummer, whose name we will omit, went with us on a gig in Indiana. At this time I was fairly newly married and my wife went with me. She was pregnant with J.R. at that time and showing out to here. Anyway the guy in question was sitting with her while I was up on stage.

He leans over and starts whispering in her ear, ‘You are so beautiful. I would like to have sex with you…’ She looks at him and says, ‘You realize that’s my husband up there? You know I’m having a baby?’ He says ‘I don’t care, I still want you!’

It was unconscionable, but that’s the blues for you! 

It was just so BLUES, it’s like a terrible dysfunctional family.

Thank you!  We’re loyal to each other, but we’re in it for ourselves.


To read Part 1 of the interview, click here

About the Author

Chicago Blues Guide is happy to have Chicago blues artist Liz Mandeville as our new columnist.  A true renaissance woman, Liz is a sultry singer, award-winning songwriter, guitarist, journalist, painter, educator and all around bon vivant. She has performed all over the world and has four CDs on the Earwig Music label to her credit.  With each column, Liz takes us behind the scenes of Chicago blues and beyond, to share unique insights from people who have dedicated their lives to the blues.


Photo by: Eric Steiner

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