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Three Flavors of Chicago Blues:

Big Ray, Linsey Alexander, Donny Nichilo

by Liz Mandeville

Chicago has long been a center for blues musicians. Going back to the Roaring Twenties when the Black and Tan label first introduced classic blues mama Ida Cox, on through to the seminal 1950s electric blues architects like Muddy Waters and on to the pilgrimage made by the Rolling Stones to record at Chess Studios in the ‘60s, musicians have come from all over the world to this city to drink at the fountain of blues, to play their best with the best.

When I came to Chicago in 1979, the music had already started to evolve, influenced by the funk, disco and rock that were played on commercial radio. While you still heard the traditional 12-bar sounds of Tail Dragger or John Brim, you were also hearing smooth, seductive soul blues coming from the likes of Tyrone Davis, Otis Clay and Johnny Taylor as well as the more rock/metal-influenced Blues laid down by guys like Johnny Winter -- where guitar is king, the faster and louder the better.

This year three Chicago Bluesmen released CDs that come from all corners of the blues spectrum.  Here’s a look at CDs from Big Ray, representing the funky urban blues; Donny Nichilo’s smooth swinging, more traditional blues; and Linsey Alexander, the rockin’ faster blaster.

Big Ray & Chicago's Most Wanted

Travellin’ Lite

BigMella Productions

Big Ray CD

Anyone in Chicago who loves rubbing shoulders with blues musicians knows that B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted is the place to go. Chicago’s longest running, seven nights a week blues club has fostered three generations of blues players and has been the home of the funky urban soul-blues I described earlier. Any given weeknight you might go there and run into a guy they call “Big Mella,” a.k.a. Big Ray. Some nights he’s the doorman, other nights he’s the MC and every other Wednesday he hosts a pro-jam session that reeks of funk so ripe you’d swear a blues orgy was goin on!

It’s this sophisticated, funky groove that epitomizes Big Ray’s music. From his velvety baritone voice and playful lyrics to his clock solid drumming, he’s one of Chicago’s go-to guys for good blues music. On his CD, Travellin’ Lite, Ray delivers ten tunes swimming in funk and surrounds himself with the same great sidemen that regularly grace the B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted stage, all former members of the late Chico Banks’ band.  Frankly, Chico’s influence is heard all over this disc.

Mike Wheeler’s guitar playing is steeped in tradition, but he delivers it through a series of effects pedals and with a swagger that brings the sound right up to the minute. Guitarist, Carlos Flowers, a regular member of the infamous Big Time Sarah’s band, dances over the notes with a tantalizingly light touch. Bending his slinky strings he blends effortlessly with Brian James’ wash of synthesized keys that are sometimes echoing the Hammond B-3 sound, sometimes blasting a ghetto-fied horn section patch, but always dripping with the funk. Brian delivers the hooky flute patch that makes the gently rapped “I’m the Boss” simply addictive.

The rhythm section of Pookie Styx, (drums) and Larry Williams (bass) get a chance to showcase their considerable talents on the 10th track, “Just Funkin’,” with each man taking concise, musical solos. Their driving is masterful, punchy and musical yet at the same time soothingly sexy. These guys are real masters of their craft and the whole disc makes you want to get up and dance. In fact, when I took this disc to a house party in Gary IN, that is exactly what happened!

Producer Pete Galanis is also given a turn with a guitar solo on Ray’s tribute to the man he refers to as his brother, the late guitar hero, Chico Banks. “Groove for Chico,” includes a verse of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” one of Chico’s pet grooves.  Pete’s solo on this tune is the most articulate, beautifully rendered guitar playing on the whole disc.

            Ray also pays tribute to his musical father, the late Johnny Dollar, who was a regular performer at B.L.U.E.S. until his untimely death in the last decade, with the Albert Collins-esque “5 A.M. Blues.” Rays blues are warm, witty, sexy, funky, personal, conversational and familiar; do yourself a favor and get this, won’t you?

Big Ray’s disc is available from CDbaby, I-tunes and at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted.

Linsey Alexander

If You Ain’t Got It

Hoochie Man Music

Linsey Alexander CD

Across the street from B.L.U.E.S. is the world infamous, 4 a.m. licensed blues institution with two stages for the price of one – the one and only Kingston Mines nightclub where the funk is featured on one stage and the over-the-top, rocked out, louder than thunder, guitar-is-king attitude rules on the other. Here’s where you’ll find the master of blaster-faster, Linsey Alexander bleating his blues and beating his guitar on a weekly basis. Lindsey will loudly proclaim that he’s just taken 25 Viagra and 30 Cialis and he’s ready to take all comers. Then he’ll turn his guitar up to a Spinal Tap influenced 11 and play more notes than you thought possible from this gray, posturing madman in his Stetson hat and cowboy boots. He’ll leave the stage and prowl the crowd, leering at both men and women proclaiming his sexual prowess at volumes too loud to ignore. Linsey’s self-produced disc, If You Aint Got It is a pretty faithful rendition of his live show:  loud, raw, rocked out and raucous. If that’s the kind of blues you like, then get on down to the Kingston Mines and get this CD!

From the first blast of saxophone on the title track to the last ringing chord, this raw, unpretentious, “tell it like it is” disc is a stark contrast to the other two reviewed here, really speaking to the blues vibe of Chicago’s blue collar South Side bar room sound, complete with quirky tempo shifts, and a few forgivable clams. This disc is served best with a glass of cheap whiskey sold over a beaten wood bar in a room with a cracked linoleum floor to really set the mood.

Born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis, Linsey has adopted the Chicago sound and made the Windy City his home base. His band always features some of Chicago’s finest up and coming young players, and this CD follows that winning formula. Notable are performances by the young Italian guitarist “Breezy,” who follows in the footsteps of such great Chicago guitarists as Lurrie Bell, by not using a pick. This approach gives him a unique, somewhat subdued attack. Pay attention to the deftly lyrical Japanese sax player, Ayako Minami, who blows the first cadences on the disc and is, in my opinion, also a highlight of Linsey’s live shows.

One of the best examples of Linsey’s singing and writing styles is the groove heavy “I Can’t Eat I Can’t Sleep” in which he proclaims “I can’t drink I can’t sleep I can’t eat/ since my woman left me/ can’t somebody tell me what’s wrong with me?” and goes on to describe the scenario with a fine slide break delivered over a first rate Chicago lump.

This disc, like Big Rays’, was also produced by and features the guitar work of Pete Galanis, who seems to be gifted with the ability to effortlessly blend with and enhance any musical ensemble.

Linsey’s disc is also available through CDbaby,  although if you visit him at the Kingston Mines he’ll personalize it for you! 

Donny Nichilo

Long Way From Chicago

Chico Blues Records

Donny Nicholo CD art

Donny Nichilo’s CD, Long Way from Chicago is a pleasure to listen to over and over. How would I describe it? Smooth, bouncy, deep, swinging, bluesy, rhythmic, subtle, tasty and addictive are all words that come immediately to mind. Donny’s pleasing, mellow, baritone voice, his fluid facility with the keys and superior choice of material are only enhanced by the superb Brazilian musicians that support him on this 12 song treasure.  

Born in Chicago, Donny has an impressive pedigree, honed in Maxwell Street Market, sharpened by playing with such stellar talents as Buddy & Junior, Floyd McDaniel and The Mighty Blue Kings.

Inspired to pick up a harmonica as a teen after hearing Little Walter on the radio, Donny soon migrated his considerable talent to piano. He was fortunate enough to learn the Blues at the knees of the great Chicago masters -- Sunnyland Slim, Detroit Jr., Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor -- all active on the fecund Chicago scene well into the ‘70s during Donny’s formative years.

His repertoire runs the gamut from Horace Silver to Fats Domino, but is gracefully reinterpreted to fit the fingers and voice of Donny Nichilo. The CD kicks off with Jay McShann’s seminal “Confessin’ the Blues,” a moderate shuffle that gently escorts us into a musical environment that evokes a smoky, blue lit club with Willie Dixon and Peggy Lee sharing the mic with Percy Mayfield. Please somebody give me the address, because I want to be there!

Sadly, there’s only one original tune, “Lately,” a burning, slow blues ballad that showcases Nichilo’s fine, mature, dynamic sensibilities.  This reviewer hopes future CDs from Nichilo will expand on his personal insight with more originals.

While the entire disc is a showcase for Nichilo’s well honed piano chops, they are particularly well highlighted on the CD’s only instrumental “The Preacher,” where the pianist and band take a little gospel, a little jazz and a little blues and make a highly entertaining statement.

Although this CD is so beautifully constructed that every song is worthy of mention, one highlight for me is Don Robey’s classic “Mother in Law Blues.” Here it is treated to Igor Prado’s Elmore James-esque slide guitar. It is an energetic romp propelled by Rodrigo Mantovani’s simple throb a of walking bass line and Yuri Prado’s impeccably placed, understated triplets on the ride cymbal. These guys form a rhythmic foundation that rivals my favorite traditional Chicago players.

Nichilo’s blues is heavily infused with jump and swing music, never pushy or histrionic, it is never the less, infectious! With the current infatuation with over- the-top angry young guitarist playing lots of notes as fast as possible, unintelligible or simply unintelligent lyrics passing as blues, Nichilo’s disc is a welcome breath of fresh air. Isn’t it ironic that he had to go to Brazil to record such a respectful tribute to the great music of America? These Brazilian musicians, particularly Igor Prado, whose guitar bends and frets like T-Bone Walker or our beloved Chicago swing hero, Floyd McDaniel, have a deeper understanding and respect for Chicago’s heritage than two thirds of the people working here today.

You can buy Long Way From Chicago at Chico Blues website.


Music makes a great gift, stuff your holiday stocking with the blues this year, won’t you?

PS: Speaking of holiday purchases, the Best of the Biscuit - 25 Years DVD, a labor of love produced by Vincent Productions in association with Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale MS, (a project that yours truly was pleased to work on as a camera operator) is now available. Even if you weren’t there under the beautiful October skies in Helena Arkansas in 2010 for the annual blues festival, you can now be a part of the magic that was made by owning this beautifully rendered DVD. Featuring 10 exclusive tracks culled from the many fine performances at the three day festival; (including historical footage of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Pinetop Perkins and Joined at the Hip, Bobby Rush in a rare acoustic performance, Michael Burks throwing down and many other surprises) this is a musical treasure you’ll enjoy watching again and again. To get yours visit: the limited addition, handcrafted first run is sold on a first come, first served basis.

Liz Mandeville Inside The Blues ARCHIVE

About the Author

Liz MandevilleChicago Blues Guide is happy to have Chicago blues artist Liz Mandeville as our 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.
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