Blues Speak: The Best of the Original Chicago Blues Annual

Chris May By

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Blues Speak: The Best of the Original Chicago Blues Annual
Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr. (editor)
192 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03440-4 cloth
ISBN: 978-0-252-07692-3 paper
University of Illinois Press

Launched at the 1989 Chicago Blues Festival, Original Chicago Blues Annual was the brainchild of writer and blues musician Lincoln T. Beauchamp. Also known as Chicago Beau, a name he was given as a teenager by guitarist and singer Muddy Waters, Beauchamp published six more editions of the magazine before closing it in 1995. From the outset, OCBA was special: a title which gave voice to blues men and women unmediated by the predominantly white-owned blues publishing and recording world. In addition to interviews with musicians, OCBA published fiction, faction and poetry written by insiders, some of them—such as harmonica player Julio Finn and reed player Joseph Jarman—better known as musicians.

Blues Speak: The Best of the Original Chicago Blues Annual collects highlights from each of the magazine's seven editions, presented chronologically and with brief prefaces by Beauchamp. The OCBA salon included some of Chicago's most talented and lively-minded blues practitioners, along with Jarman and several other members of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and their contributions—either as essayists or interviewees, and sometimes as both—still make for engrossing reading. Blues Speak includes valuable interviews with singer Koko Taylor, pianist Pinetop Perkins, percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, trumpeter Lester Bowie and harmonica players Billy Boy Arnold and Junior Wells, among others.

Beauchamp's core founding concept for OCBA was to remove artists from under the microscope of critics. In his words, it included "no record reviews, performance reviews, or gossip written by individuals whose backgrounds and lifestyles rarely, if ever, touched the lives of Black people." Inevitably, this meant that most of the contributors were black, but OCBA was not racially exclusive: Beauchamp also included the work of white contributors and blues insiders. The several examples in Blues Speak include a sympathetic 1990 interview with Alligator Records' founder Bruce Iglauer, published to celebrate the label's 20th anniversary, and an essay by the veteran jazz writer Mike Hennessey (author of definitive biographies of drummer Kenny Clarke and tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin), on the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

OCBA interviewees were candid on the issue of race and their own experiences of racism, talking more openly to Beauchamp than they typically would to white journalists. Lester Bowie's interview is particularly useful, as is one with Beauchamp himself, conducted by Julio Finn. Bowie's interview concludes with some colorful opinions on the Rolling Stones—"I think the motherfucking Rolling Stones ought to build a six-block recreational cultural facility for Black folks on the West Side where they made their money from...(the group) needs to go down to them joints with a basket of money and pass out a few million dollars"—but Bowie's own early experiences, and defiance, of racism make for the most telling reading. Also memorable are his recollections of life on the road with his first wife, singer Fontella Bass, then, in the mid 1960s, riding high on her hit single "Rescue Me," and the early years of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Blues Speak includes 61 photographs of OCBA subjects and contributors, most of them taken by Beauchamp. Along with the text, they evoke a raw and vivid portrait of the blues, its history and practitioners. Even those blues enthusiasts already versed in the music's literature are likely to gain new insights from the book; newbies couldn't begin their studies with a better guide.

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