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Interview with WXRT DJ Tom Marker

Keeping the Blues Alive since 1984

Tom Marker emcees Blues Fest

By Eric Schelkopf

Photos: Jennifer Noble

Without question, WXRT DJ Tom Marker is the biggest supporter and promoter of Chicago blues in town.


Anyone who is a Chicago blues fan has listened to his show "Blues Breakers,", which he has hosted since 1984. Marker is also the mainstage emcee of the Chicago Blues Festival each summer.


Fittingly, he was presented with a "Keeping the Blues Alive" award in 1999 from the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn.


I had the distinct honor of interviewing him about his career.

Wayne Baker Brooks, Tom Marker, Lonnie Brooks
L to R: Wayne Baker Brooks, Lonnie Brooks, Tom Marker at Chicago Blues Fest

Q - You took over hosting "Blues Breakers" in 1984. What were your goals for the show and do you think you accomplished them? 


My goal the first Monday was to play an hour of great blues. I sure wasn't as familiar with the blues then as I am now, but it's always been pretty easy to find an hour's worth of great blues.

My idea from the beginning was to play blues from anywhere and from anytime, but with a current day Chicago perspective. I continue to have that point of view, so you'll hear more local music by artists currently performing on "Blues Breakers" than you would hear on a program coming from another town.


Tom Marker on mic

Q - I understand your first taste of the blues came in high school, when you heard "East-West" by The Butterfield Blues Band. Tell me about your feelings after hearing that album. What is it about the blues that moves you in general?


I think maybe the first time I heard blues it was by the Rolling Stones. They had blues on their records from the time I was barely a teenager.


Not much later, I was hearing more British rock acts' versions of blues songs so that made me more familiar with the style. Butterfield was an eye opener with the "East-West" record.


I was 15 years old at the time and it was a record that opened my imagination as to what music could be with its blend of blues and Eastern music. Also during my high school years the great Chicago blues label Chess Records was selling their library to another record company. 


I think it was an attempt to goose their sales at the time but they decided to release a classic blues album by one of their big stars every week for a period of time. My buddy, Charles Schantz, went out and bought one every week.


I had heard all this blues-rock but now here was the real thing on our turntables.

Tom Marker, Phil Guy, Buddy Guy
L to R: Phil Guy, Tom Marker, Buddy Guy

Q - You've had the opportunity to interview and meet many blues musicians over the years, including Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan. What were your impressions of them? Do you have any favorite interviews or stories?


There were several times I found myself backstage at a Muddy Waters show, often at Harry Hopes in Cary, IL. There was always a crowd around Muddy so I sort of hung around Pinetop Perkins, one of the sweetest men ever.


Meanwhile, Bob Margolin was telling my young bride where his hotel was just in case she wanted to know.


Q - What was it like receiving the "Keeping the Blues Alive" award? Do you feel that "Blues Breakers" has helped to keep the blues alive? 


I was very proud to receive the KBA. Plus, it meant WXRT would fly me to Memphis for a fun blues weekend. 


The award did its job. Ever since it has inspired me to do just that, keep the blues alive.


I believe that supporting the blues should be part of the mission of a blues radio program in Chicago.

Sheila, Billy Boy, Tom Marker
L to R: Sheila Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold, Tom Marker

Q - What do you think of the Chicago blues scene as compared to other blues scenes across the country? Are there any ways that you would improve Chicago's blues scene?

New Orleans has a great live, local music scene that's often related to the blues, but no other city has anything like what we have in Chicago. You can still go out any night of the year and hear blues in Chicago, and on the weekends you have half a dozen good choices.

And that's just live, local blues at full-time blues clubs. The blues shows up at a lot of places from Highland, Ind. to Round Lake, IL.


Also every touring blues musician from anywhere has Chicago as a tour stop at fine establishments from downtown to the near west and north suburbs.

Q - Even though rock derives so much from the blues, it seems that the blues continue to take a back seat to rock. What will it take to get more people interested in blues music? 

They only need to hear it.


Q - Who are your favorite blues musicians these days, Chicago or otherwise? Who have been some of your favorite blues musicians over the years?

I'm not going to answer this question because I would probably, stupidly, leave someone off the list by mistake and then feel real bad about that.

You can listen to Tom's "Blues Breakers" radio show Monday nights at 9 p.m. at 93.1 FM or online WXRT. Read his blog on the station's website.


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