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Harmonica master Billy Branch celebrates 40 years leading the Sons of Blues

So many current stars have cut their teeth in Branch’s band that they could fill their own blues festival.

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Billy Branch - JOHNNY WHEELER
  • Johnny Wheeler
  • Billy Branch

Billy Branch has been paying tribute to elder statesmen of the blues for so long that he's become one himself. Born in 1951 in Great Lakes, Illinois, just north of Chicago, he grew up in California, returning in 1969 to attend college at the new urban campus of the University of Illinois. He'd been toying with a harmonica since childhood, and that year he finally found the inspiration to pursue it as a career: he attended a ten-hour free concert in Grant Park called "Bringing the Blues Back Home," copresented by songwriter, bassist, and producer Willie Dixon and featuring such harmonica maestros as Junior Wells and Big Walter Horton. Soon Branch was sitting at the feet of some of the same hard-bitten veterans who'd awed him in the park, absorbing musical and life lessons—an experience he recounts in the song "New Kid on the Block," on the 1990 Alligator release Harp Attack!

In 1977, Living Blues magazine cofounder Jim O'Neal invited Branch and about a dozen other young Chicago blues hopefuls to appear with Dixon at JazzFest Berlin as "The New Generation of Chicago Blues." Out of this gig evolved the lineup that would become Branch's band the Sons of Blues, whose 40-year run this set celebrates. The original roster did in fact include three musicians whose fathers were established Chicago bluesmen: guitarist Lurrie Bell (son of harpist Carey Bell, another of Branch's mentors), bassist Freddie Dixon (son of Willie Dixon), and drummer Garland Whiteside (son of drummer Clifton James, a well-known studio musician and sideman).

In the late 70s, Branch took over the harp spot in Dixon's Chicago Blues All Stars, but by the mid-80s he'd returned to his position as full-time leader of the S.O.B., where he's stayed ever since. Over the years he's recorded not just with the Sons but also with other prominent blues artists, proving himself just as convincing on traditionalist acoustic fare as he is on hard-driving electric blues rooted in the postwar Chicago style and spiced with R&B, pop, and jazz fusion. He's helped sustain the blues both as an evolving contemporary genre and as a meaningful market segment.

Branch has also cultivated an international reputation as an educator through decades of work with Blues in the Schools, and in his teaching and his performances he stresses that the blues are first and foremost a form of living black history—that their musical syntax must be understood in this context and tapped from this source. Though his arrangements for the S.O.B. can lean pretty far toward funk or rock and many of his lyrical themes belong to the present day, Branch consistently summons his mentors' voices, not only in his grits-and-molasses vocals but also in his harp work—he makes references to their styles and quotes their trademark riffs and solos, even as he throws in enough embellishments to satisfy his own ambitions and his forward-looking listeners. The stories in his songs sometimes invoke this heritage as well: "Going to See Miss Gerri One More Time," from 2014's Blues Shock (Blind Pig), tells the tale of Gerri Oliver, proprietor of Bronzevile's storied Palm Tavern—the life trajectory of one remarkable woman becomes a metaphor for the African-­American Great Migration.

By now, so many artists have cut their teeth with Branch and gone on to establish careers as bandleaders that you could fill an entire blues festival with them. This tribute performance features Lurrie Bell and Freddie Dixon from the Sons of Blues' original late-70s lineup; bassist J.W. Williams, an early Son who's now a stalwart on the Chicago scene; and guitarists Carlos Johnson and Carl Weathersby, both of whom spent years with the S.O.B. and are now internationally recognized front men. Also pitching in are two longtime Branch collaborators: veteran blues, jazz, and R&B vocalist Mae Koen, who's joined by a group called the Lights, and trombonist Bill McFarland, who leads the Chicago Fire Horns, one of the city's most respected and versatile horn sections.  v

Billy Branch & the Sons of Blues perform Friday, June 9, at 7:20 PM at Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Special guests for this set include Lurrie Bell, Freddie Dixon, J.W. Williams, Carlos Johnson, Carl Weathersby, Bill McFarland & the Chicago Fire Horns, and Mae Koen & the Lights.

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