Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book The Time!! How Willie "Big Eyes" Smith Got Me to Start My Own Record Label.

Bob Stroger, Liz Mandeville, Willie Smith
at the 2010 AK Blues and Heritage Fest.

Sitting around waiting for your life to begin? I'm here to tell you CARPE DIEM! Seize this day and make your dreams happen.
Nobody is promised a tomorrow. Wouldn't you hate to wake up dead only to find you'd blown your chance to be what you could've been?
Don't wait for somebody to discover you! You have to discover yourself before other people will recognize what a truely amazing being you are!

Here's the true story of how my friend,
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith 
helped me do just that:

One night, early last spring, I went to Rosa's Lounge where I'd been invited to help Amy Bratt celebrate her birthday. Amy was radiant, her favorite music was playing and her favorite cupcakes were being consumed.

It was a star studded night, Debby Davies band was headlining, with Tony Rogers, Nora Jean Wallace and her manager Lois in the audience.  Mama Rosa was doing a brisk business as Joined At the Hip's Robert Stroger and Willie"Big Eyes" Smith were also there celebrating their Grammy win that night with (long-time Legendary Blues Band Guitarist) Billy and Mary Flynn along with a jovial bar crowd.

Bob, Willie and I had a long and storied history. I'd met and played with Bob Stroger back in the 80's when I first happened on the Chicago Blues Scene. Bob Stroger, with his red Custom bass rig and unshakable groove, could  make any band sound tight. He still does, as he proved later that night when he and Willie took the stage with Debbie and her assorted special guests.

Back in the early 90's, when guitarist Billy Flynn had taken a sabbatical to help Mary raise their daughter, my then husband, Willie Greeson, had left our band to fulfill a life's dream: he joined the Legendary Blues Band. I got to know the Smith family during those early mornings when I'd drive down to the south side to drop my husband off at their crib before the bands' many road trips. The house was always neat, warm and welcoming and filled with the aroma of Lou's fried chicken getting it's last browning before she packed it up for her husband to take on the road.

Later, when I was playing with Aron Burton's Band at Blue Chicago, Willie Smith would sub for his son Kenny, who at that time was our regular drummer before Dave Jefferson joined up following Albert Kings' demise. I was there the night Jude Curio (Aron's GF at the time and an avid blues fan and documentarian) re-named a then 19 year old Kenny Smith.
"So what's your name and who are you?" Jude demanded.
"I'm Kenny Smith, Willies son" Kenny explained.
"Well if he's "Big Eyes" that must make you "Beady Eyes!" Jude proclaimed.
Although I'd hardly call Kenny Smith "Beady" eyed, the name stuck and there it is.

Willie Smith's brilliantly sloppy yet somehow solidly in the pocket shuffle, his down to earth attitude and professionalism always made him a pleasure to play with and to be around.

But back to Rosa's. I walked over to my two long time friends, Willie and Bob, and offered to buy them a celebratory cocktail.
"Man, " I said to Willie, "I want to win a Grammy, what do I need to win a Grammy, Willie?"
Without blinking an eye he answered "Patience!"
We all laughed, then I said "Willie, I suggested to Michael Frank back in '98 that I wanted to make a record with you, Willie Kent, Allen Batts and George Baze. He nixed it. He said I'd be over shadowed by my side men."
Willie looked incredulous, he said "Well, first I don't know how you could be over shadowed by the guys playing with you, and besides that, all them cats but Allen is dead!"
"Well," I went on, "I still want to make a record with you."
Willie didn't hesitate. "Book the time!" he said. "Look, I never made a dime in the music business until I started making my own records. Last year I did good business, my son helped me and we did it all ourselves. If I can do it, you can. And you should!"
He was very emphatic and actually named some pretty impressive figures. He said "Kenny's pretty savvy, he'll help you. Give him a call, I'll help you too! Book the time!"

The very next day I called my friend Jim Godsey, who's engineered on all my recorded work. I said "Jim, I want to get back in the studio. I need a good sounding live room where I can record all the rhythm tracks at the same time, like back in the day. I'm paying for this out of my own pocket, so I need a guy that'll work with us"
Jim said "Give me a few days, let me make some calls."

Less than a week later he called me and said "There's a guy in Palatine in the basement of the old Harris Bank building who's got what we need."

I trust Jim's judgement so we went on and booked two afternoons at Planet10 in Palatine where a smiling Jimmy Johnson greeted us with steaming hot coffee and a warm, organic sounding room. Willie Smith,  Darryl Wright (Bassist/arranger) and I went in and knocked out 5 tracks that first afternoon.

It's a good thing I didn't wait around because, as most of you blues folk know, Willie Smith was laid to rest before 2011 was out. Thanks, Willie, it would never have happened without you.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Best Eggs in the World are from Zottegem Belgium!

Welcome to 2012! If the Mayans and the Hopis are right we will all be profoundly changed by the end of this year. I look forward to change, what choice do I have?

Acording to my wise friend, Erwin Helfer, one of the cornerstones of life is impermanance. (More on my 7 hour intensive chat with the great Chicago Pianist and Sage later) All we can do is live and try to learn from our experiences. Behind every success are a host of failures. The difference between winners and losers is the former have fallen, gotten up, dusted themselves off and tried again and again. Enjoy your challenges, be bold and I'll tell you some stories.

I've had Europe on my mind lately, my many interesting friends there, who have all contributed to my good life and long memories! It all started for me in Belgium, well, actually it started at Blue Chicago where I was the Tuesday night Diva, singing with Aron Burton's Band. Unbeknown to me, a wild and crazy Belgian entrepreneur named Filip Moore had come to the Chicago Blues Festival and on to Blue Chicago afterwards to see my show.

We had a hot band back then, regular members included Allen Batts (who'd played with Aron in Albert Collins band during their Alligator years) on keys, Jr. Wells bandleader, George Baze played guitar and after George passed Michael Dotson took his place (before leaving to tour the world with Magic Slim). We had Orlando Wright (now Buddy Guys bass player) and either Willie or Kenny Smith. Everybody sang, everybody shined, it was a HOT band, one of those times in life you look back on with amazement. The band is documented, BTW, on the 1996 Earwig release Aron Burton Live from Legends, but that's another story.

The first time I went to Europe Filip Moore brought me to Belgium to play the 1995 Moore Blues Festival in Zottegem Belgium with headliners John Primer, Albert King, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Fliers and Tom Principato. We were all staying at the same family run hotel (except Albert King, who found it beneath his level of stardom, and he was moved to a Hilton or some such in Brussels, far away from the fun. Later, I ended up working with his drummer, Dave Jefferson, but we didn't meet at that time.) and after the last night of the festival we all sat together out in the garden, (except Rod Piazza who was feeling ill) looking up at the stars, enjoyng the company, telling jokes and smoking immeasurable quantities of hash before having to submit to airport security the next day. Have you ever drunk yourself sober? Well, we smoked ourselves straight, I've never really liked hash after that, except this one time in Germany, but that's another story.

As a festival and first trip to Europe, it was an amazingly successful time. Great crowds of blues loving fans packed the countryside for the entire weekend, drinking the staggering variety of Belgian Beers, eating the wonderful, fresh food, and listening! The music sounded great, everybody was on time and in tune. It was so successful, in fact, that Filip brought me back the following February for another short tour.  

Because everything in Belgium is driving distance from everything else in Belgium, I was lodged in a studio apartment about 5 miles out of Zottegem (which I'm told is Flemmish for 'Town of Fools') on the property of two good friends of Filips, who lived with their two small children in a converted school building across a stone courtyard from my accommodations. When it was time for the gig one of the band would come collect me, drive me to the show and then see me home after, quite convenient and more logical than a hotel.

The studio was an ancient stone building and the whole place was situated on an old stone road built centuries earlier by invading Romans. Outside my window was a cow pasture, down the old Roman road one could walk past family farms with Brussels Sprout bushes growing in their front yards and plow horses stamping in the back. They really DO eat Brussels sprouts here and lots of Belgian endive, cooked every way possible, but I digress.

I walked down this road one day, without a map, a phone or any knowledge of Flemmish, which is what people spoke around those parts, and found myself in a small Medieval town. Most of it seemed closed, but I did find my way to a museum with archaeological artifacts from the surrounding area. Piecing together the French, Latin and Flemmish descriptions I came to understand that the whole area had been under Roman occupation at one time and all the peasants thereabouts beholden to Caesar. Hmm, interesting, but the snack shop was closed and I was actually looking for some food. Behold, another turn and there was a tiny store with just eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese. I bought one of each and walked back to my ancient digs to eat them.

Without condiments or butter, without, onions or veggies, I was not too excited about eating these boiled eggs, but let me just tell you: I never had eggs before I had those fresh from the farm, Belgian Eggs!
I've had eggs in New Orleans at a famous breakfast establishment; not nearly as good.
I've had eggs in Iowa, supposedly laid in the hands of pure of heart Amish Folk, they don't hold a candle. These Belgian eggs had yellows that were nearly orange! They were so full of flavor, the whites actually had personality!!

I began to wonder what the heck we're doing to American eggs to make them taste so bland and watery?

Somebody once said "You might not remember what somebody said, but you remember how they made you feel."  I guess the Belgian eggs were such a sensory delight that I've never forgotten them, they almost overshadow the strange supernatural events that began to transpire the moment I stepped foot in that ancient studio, but that's another story.