Specter speaks out against injustice, with help from Billy Branch and Brother John, on new Delmark release
By Linda Cain
Dave Specter is a man who wears many hats: guitarist, songwriter, bandleader, recording artist, producer, podcast host and music venue co-owner.
Since 1985, Specter has performed regularly at top Chicago blues and jazz clubs, festivals and concert halls across the U.S. Since 1989, he has toured internationally with shows in Europe, South America, Israel, Mexico and Canada. Before forming his own band in 1989, he toured as a band member with blues greats including Son Seals, The Legendary Blues Band, Hubert Sumlin, Sam Lay, and Steve Freund. He has performed and/or recorded with luminaries like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Johnson, Lonnie Brooks, Otis Clay, Ronnie Earl and many more.
He has worked on over 40 albums and DVDs, as a guitarist, bandleader or producer. Specter is a partner at the acclaimed music venue SPACE in Evanston and he hosts a podcast Blues From The Inside Out, which is also the title of his most recent, chart-topping album on Delmark Records.
Specter recently released a new single on that venerable label, “The Ballad of George Floyd,” available for streaming or download.
Chicago Blues Guide editor Linda Cain caught up with Specter for an online interview about his new social justice song and the current state of affairs for the music business during the pandemic.
Q. You primarily have been known as an instrumentalist throughout your career. You wrote and recorded songs that were either instrumentals or sung by guest vocalists. Last year you sang for the first time on your Delmark album, Blues From The Inside Out.
Has becoming a singer changed your perspective as a lyricist and songwriter, now that you are writing stories told in your own voice?
Good question and yes my writing definitely changes the perspective when I’m the singer as opposed to me writing for other artists. Interesting changes from telling a story with my guitar playing to conveying a story with my voice.
Q. Your new protest song, “The Ballad of George Floyd,” features both you and Billy Branch on vocals. When you started writing the song, did you envision just one voice, or always as a duet?
I first envisioned the song having only one voice but then thought that Billy (who I’ve wanted to record with for years) would be a perfect fit to collaborate with on the tune.
Q. What moment in time during the turbulent events of 2020 prompted you to pick up your guitar, put pen to paper and start writing this song? What specifically inspired you? Watching the news? Attending a protest march? Looking at the boarded up storefronts in Chicago after the riots?
I wrote the lyrics first, just a few days after George Floyd was killed. The video was so disturbing and sickening that it moved me to write. A few days later I picked up my guitar and put music to the lyrics. I added the bridge a few weeks later. I marched a couple times in Chicago and seeing the contrast between boarded up businesses, empty streets and outdoor cafes filled with well to do citizens oblivious to the pandemic and turmoil felt surreal.
George Floyd didn’t die in vain. He helped spark a worldwide movement for justice and change. I’m proud to collaborate with the great Chicago bluesman Billy Branch on this tune. We share the same vision and are inspired by the words of the late John Lewis: “If it hadn’t been for music, the civil rights movement would’ve been like a bird without wings.”
Q. What audience did you have in mind? Blues fans? Or a broader audience?
I hope the song reaches a wider audience. That’s always my goal. Categories often hurt music and musicians more than help.
Q. Has George Floyd’s family heard your song?
Not sure but I hope they have. That would mean alot.
Q. Is this song destined to be on your next album?
Good question and at this time I don’t really know. No plans for a new album anytime soon but I’m continuing to write so maybe next year?
Q. The video you produced for the song is also very powerful, with footage from the marches as well as artwork that was painted onto the boarded up windows interspersed with clips of you, Billy Branch and Brother John performing together. How did that come together, especially finding news footage that you could use?
The live performance used in the video was filmed by my friends at HMS Media which is the same video crew that records our livestream shows for Chicago Blues Network. The video was edited by Orel Chollette and Jazmyne Fountain and they chose and added the images and other footage in the video.
Q. Do you have any favorite songwriters who wrote social justice and protest songs, such as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash or Woody Guthrie? Willie Dixon and Marvin Gaye wrote protest songs as well.
Definitely. Pops, Mavis and The Staple Singers are big inspirations along with Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Woody Guthrie, Neil Young and CSNY. Can’t forget Joe Strummer and Patti Smith as well.
Q. The pandemic has devastated the music business. You are a performing, recording and touring musician as well as a music venue owner. Please tell us how you have been dealing with the shutdowns and the virus on both fronts.
Your club SPACE put up a tent and had outdoor shows for the summer months. But the tent will be shut down soon. There have been no shows inside SPACE since last March.
What creative solutions have you and your team come up with to get through the winter?
It’s been a challenge like none of us have ever experienced before. From a musician’s perspective it’s the longest I’ve gone with so few gigs in my 35 year career. I’ve played a small amount of stripped down duo or trio outdoor gigs and live streaming shows but have only played 1 full band show since March. The Trading 4s livestream shows I’ve been curating/playing for Chicago Blues Network have been a highlight. I’ve had gigs canceled or rescheduled from Switzerland to Italy, Memphis to New Orleans. Been trying to write and practice but sometimes it’s hard to find the inspiration. Our venue has been putting on private outdoor shows since the spring and opened our SPACE Summer Stage tent for three months starting in the late summer. Having the club closed since March has been brutal but we’re trying to keep on presenting music any way we can – and our audience has been very supportive and appreciative.
Brother John Kattke & Dave Specter on the SPACE Summer Stage 2020
Q. You have performed for many online broadcasts. Please tell us about those and how that worked out financially. Bands usually play online for donations.
It’s been a big adjustment playing in your living room, empty club or theater looking into an iPad or video camera without an audience but I’ve tried to remain positive and realize that people are welcoming us into their homes and really want to see and hear us play. Some streaming shows have been financially rewarding, others not so much. Really no comparison to playing live shows.
Q. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for your fellow musicians and venue owners who are getting desperate?
Incredibly challenging times for so many in the music business but the light at the end of tunnel that I often think about is the excitement and relief we’ll all feel when shows and festivals start up again. It’s going to be a very special and powerful time for us all.
Q. You have a podcast, Blues From The Inside Out, where you interview noted musicians as they come through town to play at SPACE. Are you still recording new interviews via the internet?
Yes! I’ve been doing bi-monthly podcast interviews via phone or Zoom. Guests have included Jorma Kaukonen, Rick Holmstrom, Elvin Bishop, Dick Shurman and many more.
Thank you for your time and best wishes to you and to SPACE.
My pleasure and thanks for the interview and all you do at Chicago Blues Guide.
To view the “Ballad of George Floyd” video: CLICK HERE
To stream or download the song:
About the author: Linda Cain is the founder/managing editor of Chicago Blues Guide.