“I’ll always go back and forth with different genres. But my first love is pretty much the blues. It may sound cliché, but what I love about the blues is that it’s so honest and so simplistic and so raw. It just lays it right out there for you.”
By Eric Schelkopf
Photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
The Bear Williams Band is a force of nature that delivers the blues in the most passionate way it can. Chicago native Bear Williams (aka Larry Kimpel) is a multi talented bandleader who plays bass and guitar, sings and writes songs for his group. His background is rich in musical diversity and he can play in most any genre, but blues is his true passion.
On April 21, the band will take the stage at Epiphany Center for the Arts, 201 S. Ashland (at Adams), Chicago. Showtime: 7:30-9 p.m., Tickets: $20 at https://epiphanychi.com/events/bear-williams-band/
They also will play from 2:40 to 3:30 p.m. June 11 as part of the 39th annual Chicago Blues Fest. The Bear Williams Band will perform on Rosa’s Lounge Stage at Millennium Park. I had the chance to talk to Bear about the upcoming shows after seeing the band play at The Venue in Aurora recently. Q – Great talking to you. I know that you performed some new songs when you played at The Venue in Aurora in February, including the song "Train to Chi-Town.” How were you inspired to write the song? Were you inspired to write it because you were on a train to Chi-Town? No. Sometimes I write songs that are not biographical, they’re more scenario based.
This one was sort of a love letter to the city. But also, my mom and father as young children came up from the South on the train to Chi-Town. And so I kind of morphed it all together and wrote a song about an adult man coming to Chi-Town to meet his lady. It turned into a love song about that as well as the city itself. Q – How long has the Bear Williams Band been together? Since 2017. We did our first show at Buddy Guy’s Legends in October 2017 and we’ve been at it ever since. Q – I know you are also the bass player and musical director for the R&B group Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, which will be performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May, right? Yes. We’ve played there many, many times, but this will be the first time since the pandemic started, I think. So everybody is excited about that. Q – Of course, some people might wonder how you got interested in the blues, given that Maze performs a totally different genre of music. When I was attending high school here in Chicago, my band director, George Hunter, always impressed upon us the importance of listening to everything. He would bring in rock music, he would bring in jazz, he’d bring in reggae and he would bring in pop. And so my ears got really, really big in terms of different genres. And so I started learning all kinds of stuff. When I started playing the blues, I was still in Los Angeles around probably 2013 or 2014, somewhere around there. Because I was from Chicago, I thought I should start diving into this music that I really didn’t dive into when I was in town. I was much more on the jazz side of things when I lived here. My first touring job was with The Staple Singers and then my next big touring job after that was with Anita Baker. Blues was the only stone I hadn’t overturned really. I started diving into the old artists and their histories. And I found that I really loved the genre, probably more so than any other genre I’ve ever played, which is kind of funny, having not done it for a lot of years. It may sound cliché, but what I love about the blues is that it’s so honest and so simplistic and so raw. I think that’s what it is. It just lays it right out there for you. It’s much like traditional country and western to me, where the stories are just very, very pure and the music is very honest. That’s why I started doing it and fell in love with it. And I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ll always go back and forth with different genres. I still do session work for people. I just did a remote session for a good friend of mine in Germany. He’s a jazz keyboard player. I’ll always do those kinds of things. But my first love is pretty much the blues. Q – And you can also make up songs on the spot like you did at The Venue.
Right, right. That was funny because I had just gotten that idea, maybe a couple of days before the show. And it just fit perfect. People liked it. Q – I guess it’s a way to interact more with the audience, to have them connect with you. Yeah, it is. And it challenges you too.
Photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
Q – I was reading about when you were 12, your brother gave you a six-string acoustic guitar and then you really got interested in the bass after you had listened to Curtis Mayfield. Yeah, my brother gave me the guitar and then probably a couple of months later, my sister bought me the Super Fly soundtrack. And I was trying to pick the stuff out of the guitar, but the bass parts were so mesmerizing, I guess, that I just started trying to follow the bass. Later on, going into high school and having an actual mentor on bass guitar, taught me things and influenced me and gave me other players to listen to. So it grew from there.
The late Thomas "Tiaz" Palmer was my bass mentor. He was a Chicago session player who also toured with Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis and others.
My brother, Maurice, gave me the guitar, my sister, Diane, gave me the record and then my other sister, Mary, allowed my band at the time to play in her basement. So they were all instrumental in my career.
Q – Just like the Sly and the Family Stone song, it’s a “Family Affair.”
Yeah, exactly. They all had a hand in it.
Q – Seeing you perform at The Venue in Aurora, I know you also play guitar in your shows as well as the bass.
I find it satisfying to come back to it, knowing that’s kind of where I started and then I switched to the bass. Now I’m able to switch between the two.
Q – When you first played at Chicago Blues Fest, was that a sign that you are now part of the blues scene?
Yeah, it’s definitely an honor to be a part of it. It really does speak volumes for what you are doing. You’ve made somebody smile, so that’s the cool thing about it.
Q – You probably have heard that this year is Buddy Guy’s last tour, or so he says. He is 86 years old. You are 63 years old. Do you see yourself still playing at age 86 and do you see yourself as helping carry on Chicago blues?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t see myself stopping just to stop.
As long as I am able to do it at a high level, I will certainly continue. My wife, Dee, who is my business partner and manager, would echo that same thing.
I think we’ve got a lot of good years left, God willing. We’ll do it as long as we can do it, absolutely.
Q – I know you teach music lessons as well. What do you try to convey to your students in a music lesson?
I teach bass guitar and I have students as young as 10 years old on up to the 70s. I pretty much teach everybody the same things.
We start with the fundamentals and then we go into the theory and history of music and my experiences.
Each lesson is customized for each student. I just kind of convey the same things I was talking to you about – musicianship, professionalism, timing and all the things you need to know to be a well-rounded musician.
Q – So I guess you would be honored if one of your students landed a record deal.
That would be awesome, yeah. That would be great. I’ve had a couple of students land gigs with bands and that’s always gratifying.
It always makes me feel good that I’m helping to guide them.
Q – Why do you like teaching?
It allows me, in some ways, to give back. It also allows me in a way to relearn what I’ve already learned.
So it’s good on both sides. The main thing I enjoy about it is seeing people improve.
About the author: Eric Schelkopf has covered the arts and entertainment scene in Chicago for over 30 years. Visit his informative blog at: http://www.thetotalscene.blogspot.com/