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Corky Siegel (blue shirt) will open up the Live at Peck series on Tuesday, July 22.

A chat with chamber blues creator Corky Siegel

All musicians create new music. Even the most derivative Top 40 hit features a new combination of notes and lyrics. Very few, however, can claim to have come up with a whole new genre of sound.

Chicago bluesman extraordinaire Corky Siegel is one of those few. By combining the seemingly incompatible worlds of blues and classical, Siegel created chamber blues, a fresh new hybrid genre that pulls together the two disparate types of music without losing the sounds and elements that fans love about each on their own. He's been quietly spreading it across the globe since he founded his band, Chamber Blues, in 1988, and now Milwaukee is next on the list.

Siegel will kick off the Marcus Center's Live at Peck series with a performance Tuesday night. Before then, however, chatted with the legendary blues innovator about his unique brand of music, his memories of his Siegel-Schwall days and being "pleasantly famous." How did you come up with the idea for chamber blues, and how did it develop over the years?

Corky Siegel: Okay, let me take you back to when I first started playing, which was in 1965. Jim Schwall and I got our first professional gig at a place called Pepper's Show Lounge. We were the only two white guys for miles around, and we were hired to play every Thursday night from about nine at night to two, three, or four in the morning.

I didn't know this, but all of a sudden, who shows up? Howlin' Wolf shows up to sit in with us. Muddy Waters shows up, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, even the young guys like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton and Otis Spann. All these blues masters that took us under their wing. So that was one bit of history that has contributed to the chamber blues concept.

The other side is when my blues band went from Pepper's to the north side of Chicago to a place called Big John's, where what is called the blues rock explosion took off. We're playing there a lot, and this one guy used to come hear us all the time over and over and over and over. He's a big fan, and one night, he comes up to me and says, "Corky, I would like your band to jam with my band." Now this is 1966, and I said to the guy, "Who's your band?" And he said, "The Chicago Symphony Orchestra." He turned out to be Maestro Seiji Ozawa, at the time one of the top ten conductors in the world.

We created, with William Russo, a piece called "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra," which I was very much involved in the composition process, though I wasn't the composer. It was a major success, so I started playing with all the major symphonies in the world.

Seiji Ozawa used to say to me, "You must pursue this form of music. It's extremely important for the world. It's important for world peace. It's important for classical music. It's important for music." I actually didn't pursue it, but it pursued me. I started getting calls from symphony orchestras wanting me to compose symphonic music the juxtaposed blues and classical music.

OMC: You mentioned all those famous blues masters you've met. What's been the most meaningful interaction you had with one of those legends?

CS: I really have to say all of them because they all had something different to offer. But Howlin' Wolf was really the main guy for me. That was before I ever met him and before I even played the blues. He was the one that really knocked me out. When I saw him perform, I just saw this incredible artist who gave his whole self to the music and was uninhibited and just was amazing. He was always my guy.

He turned out to be the guy that actually followed us to the north side and sat in with us. He asked us to go on tour with him. He used to knock on my door every morning at 8 o'clock when we were in New York, and we'd take walks in the village every day. He was a guy who actually loved how Siegel-Schwall played.

He and Muddy really loved that we were an anomaly. In those days, we really weren't trying to copy the masters. My feeling is I tried and failed, and they loved the failure. (laughs) Everyone says we had our own style. No, that was me trying to figure out how to play the blues that fit with my still and comprehension. So I altered it in a way that fit with me, rather than trying to play it in a way the masters played it. I would've loved to sound like Howlin' Wolf and live in that artistic world, but it just wasn't going to happen.

OMC: You say you didn't pursue chamber blues; it pursued you. When did you really begin to pursue this form of music?

CS: All of a sudden, on one of the commissions that I was working on, I really, really fell in love with the concept. Up until about 1983, the concept pursued me. But in 1983, I really fell in love with it, and that's when I started writing chamber blues. In 1987, I premiered chamber blues, and I've been doing it ever since.

OMC: What was really the appeal to you of this new genre?

CS: When I looked at working with blues and classical, these two seemingly opposing forces actually worked together side by side, the key was maintaining their characters. Artistically, it was really exciting and fresh and new, and it was also really easy. Those two forms of music offered so many possibilities, and anything you would write with that intention in mind just came out really cool.

I thought the critics were going to hate it, and I was going to be walking around with a big target on my back, but as it turns out, to my ultimate surprise, the critics really, really loved it and supported the project. So I got my cake and ate it, too. I thought I was going to have to struggle performing this thing, but audiences love it, and critics love it.

But it's never become a household word, and I guess that's sort of a good thing because I get to continue to go out and surprise people. If everybody knew about the project, it wouldn't be as much fun to bring it somewhere and really surprise people.

OMC: Why do you think that is, that this mixed genre hasn't really caught on on a household level?

CS: Well, I'd say about 90 percent of it is marketing. A friend of mine – a famous Bollywood singer – said to me after she understood my situation. I explained that I'll go to a restaurant, and I'll sit there and look around to see if anybody recognizes me. Every once in a while, somebody will come over and ask, "Are you Corky Siegel?" (laughs) And I'll gloat and they'll say I really love your work. The great thing about it is that I never feel pestered or overwhelmed. When somebody recognizes me for my work, it's always a really positive thing; it's never an annoyance. And this person said, "We call that pleasantly famous." (laughs)

There's a positive side to having just the right amount of recognition, and why would someone want more. It was that way with Siegel-Schwall. We were just having such a great time, and people wanted to know why we didn't get a manager or an agent. We were having so much fun; why would we want to ruin that? (laughs)

OMC: What is your fondest memory of those Siegel-Schwall days of the '60s and '70s, those prime years for you guys?

CS: Well after the blues masters thing, the vision that comes to my mind is when we were managed by the guy who started the whole San Francisco thing, Chet Helms. I just got that visual of the San Francisco scene and how we were right in the middle of it. Of course, we didn't follow through. We were invited to be the headliners at the Monterey Pop Festival, and instead we went to the Newport Folk Festival. (laughs) We sort of missed everything.

OMC: Do you ever regret doing the folk festival over Monterey Pop?

CS: I've had moments. We were promised by Chet Helms that we were going to be major stars if we played Monterey. He was begging us; he actually, and I'm not kidding, got down on his knees and said, "I'm begging you to do Monterey. You're gonna be major stars if you do Monterey." And we didn't do it.

But our motivation wasn't stardom. It doesn't mean we would have turned it down on purpose, but it wasn't such a regrettable thing. Jim and I never set out to even have a career playing music; we set out to play music. We set out to play music that uplifted us and play music that interested us. We had no conscious intention of trying to do something that somebody else might like. We were just doing stuff for ourselves. Of course, we cared about the audience, but we knew that our job wasn't to try and figure out what they wanted, but to try and figure out what we wanted.

We were so focused on that; the whole group was. It was amazing. We really were a bunch of hippies. We really were thinking about having a good time and playing the music, and we turned down a lot of stuff people thought we were really crazy for turning down. The reason we turned it down, though, was because we thought it would hinder the enjoyment we were experiencing touring the way we did and playing music.

There's really no regrets. I think things happen for a reason. I live a very happy life, and who knows what it would be like if it was different.


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