The Windy City guitarist reflects back while looking ahead in this exclusive chat
Chicago blues guitarist Dave Specter celebrated a 30-year relationship with noted blues label Delmark Records in 2021 with the release of Six String Soul, a two-disc compilation album that offers up 28 red-hot songs chosen from among the dozen albums he’s recorded for Delmark over the past three decades.
Considering the wealth of music he’s recorded for the label, how did he whittle his impressive back catalog down to slightly more than two-dozen songs for the compilation?
“Elbio Barilari, Delmark’s Artistic Director and I started at the beginning with my first album and worked our way through my entire catalog as a bandleader, producer, guitarist, vocalist, and sideman,” Specter replied via email. “It was easy choosing most tracks, but hard to leave some out. The project started as a single album idea but, after realizing how much material we had, it was clear we needed to release a double album.”
Like many blues artists, Specter began as a fan, immersing himself in performances by legends like Otis Rush, Junior Wells, and Magic Slim as a teenager. Once he began playing, he apprenticed with artists like Sam Lay (from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band), Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime guitarist) and Son Seals. After four years of performing as a sideman, Specter put together his own band, the Bluebirds, in 1989. The group quickly made a name for itself on the competitive Chicago blues scene, signing with the legendary label. How did Specter get that first record deal?
“Delmark was starting to get active recording again in the early ‘90s,” says Dave, “and I asked Bob Koester to come out and hear my band at a small club outside of Chicago called The Tip On Inn. He must have liked what he heard, and signed me to a two album deal in 1990.”
The label subsequently released Specter’s debut album, Bluebird Blues, in 1991, and he’s stayed with them ever since. What’s the best thing about recording for a historic, independent label like Delmark?
“Well, first of all, Delmark’s blues and jazz history is so rich with great recordings, including some of my favorites, classic albums like West Side Soul and Hoodoo Man Blues,” says Specter. “Getting signed to the label when I was 27 was a real thrill and definitely carried some weight to it. Secondly, Delmark has always given me the artistic freedom to pursue a wide variety of recordings with a long list of blues and jazz musicians over the past 30 years.”
Six String Soul offers a representative cross-section of Specter’s three decades with Delmark, beginning with the swinging album-opener, “Buzz Me,” with vocalist Barkin’ Bill Smith and featuring guitarist Ronnie Earl playing alongside Specter. It’s the first of three selections from Specter’s debut album, Bluebird Blues, the third of which – the seven-minute “Railroad Station Blues” – provides a fine showcase for Specter to stretch out and display his significant six-string skills while Smith delivers a torch-song styled vocal performance. Two songs on the first disc hail from Fortune Tellin’ Man, a 1992 album Specter recorded with Chicago blues legend Jesse Fortune. That album’s title track allows the singer to really roar, showing why he’s held in such high esteem in the Windy City, while Specter and the Bluebirds rock ‘n’ roll behind him.
Singer Tad Robinson came into the Bluebirds fold for the 1994 album Blueplicity and hung around for the following year’s Live In Europe, “Sweet Serenity” displaying Robinson’s warm, soulful vocals above a walking rhythmic backdrop, with Specter’s filigree guitar licks threaded throughout the performance. The 1995 album Wild Cards offered a sort of ‘Chicago blues all-stars’ line-up with Specter, Robinson, bassist Willie Kent, and guitarist Al Miller, “Can’t Stay Here No More” providing what is practically a master class in the Chicago blues style, with a sturdy rhythmic soundtrack peppered with funky brass and Ken Saydak’s Stax-styled keyboards, then embroidered with Specter and Miller’s dueling fretwork.
Lenny Lynn was one of the most talented, yet underrated singers that Specter has worked with, as evidenced by the late-night blues vibe of “Blues On My Mind,” a subtle, smoldering ballad with Lynn’s smoky vocals floating above Specter’s gossamer solos and Rob Waters’ nuanced keyboard accompaniment. The guitarist entered the new decade with the critically-acclaimed 2000 album Speculatin’, represented here by the rollicking instrumental “Texas Top,” which includes two talented keyboard-bangers, both Saydak and Waters, chiming in alongside Specter’s imaginative fretwork. There’s also only one track from Specter’s 2005 collaboration with guitarist Steve Freund, Is What It Is, but it’s a good ‘un, the instrumental “Riverside Ride” buzzing with energy from the two guitarists’ unique playing styles.
Much of the second disc of Six String Soul features songs from Specter’s more recent albums, Message In Blue (2014) and Blues From the Inside Out (2019), both of which feature keyboardist Brother John Kattke, who has helped Specter take his muse into exciting new directions. From the former you have “Got To Find A Way,” with legendary R&B singer Otis Clay on the microphone, the song an old-school R&B shouter with scorching fretwork and blasting horns, and “This Time I’m Gone For Good,” which is a real barn-burner with powerful, emotional vocals; dense rhythms; and flamethrower guitarwork with diverse tones that range from B.B. King to Robin Trower. From the latter album, the title track offers a jazzy, roller-coaster performance with Specter’s first attempt at singing (note: he ain’t half-bad!), trembling guitar notes, and Kattke’s rolling piano-pounding. The instrumental “Sanctifunkious” is a red-hot slab o’ New Orleans’ styled funk a la the Meters or the Neville Brothers, with Specter’s fatback guitar notes and Kattke’s inspired keyboards.
Specter’s albums always include a diverse range of guest musicians, many of which are featured on the tracks included on Six String Soul. How does the guitarist choose the guests he showcases on his records? Says Specter, “every album has a different story, but so many of the guests over the years have been personal favorites of mine, with me just being a huge fan of their music. Otis Clay, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Johnson, Billy Branch, Jorma Kaukonen and so many more come to mind.” One of the most memorable moments to be found on Six String Soul is “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’,” which includes guitarist Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna) adding some choice solos alongside Specter while Kattke handles the microphone. It’s a rich, show-stopping performance.
There has also been strong demand for Specter as a sideman, and his elegant six-string work can be found on albums by like-minded artists as Lurrie Bell, Steve Freund, and former Bluebird Tad Robinson. The Bluebirds backed up Chicago blues giant Floyd McDaniel on his last album, West Side Baby, and McDaniel’s wonderful take on W.C. Handy’s classic “St. Louis Blues” benefits from Specter’s fluid guitarplay and the band’s rock-solid rhythm section. “You’re Gonna Be Sorry,” from Bell’s 1998 album Kiss of Sweet Blues, is fueled by the juxtaposition of Bell’s jagged, knife-edge solos and Specter’s silky, stiletto tones.
Like the vast majority of touring musicians, the past two years have been tough on Specter. “Dealing with the pandemic has been really tough on musicians and I’ve had tours postponed and canceled along with almost a year and a half without gigs,” he says. “It was difficult for me to find the inspiration to write but I did write and record ‘The Ballad of George Floyd’ early in the pandemic, and also wrote a few other songs including a couple of instrumentals. I was able to play some livestream shows, including a series I helped curate for Chicago Blues Network featuring artists including Jimmy Johnson, Billy Branch, Katherine Davis, and John Primer.”
Specter refers to “The Ballad of George Floyd,” a song that he released as a digital single in late 2020 and which is included on Six String Soul. The song offers a powerful social statement, blending Gospel furor with bluesy instrumentation, insightful lyrics sung reverently by Chicago bluesman Billy Branch. Specter’s mournful guitar playing is punctuated by Branch’s wailing harp. What inspired him to write the song and what sort of response did he get from it? “Watching the shocking and sickening video of the murder of George Floyd inspired me to write the song,” he says. “It started with the lyrics, followed by the music, and then I reached out to Billy Branch to collaborate on the recording. The reaction was mostly very positive, including quite a bit of radio airplay here in Chicago. The lyrics were chosen to be part of the exhibit, ‘Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom,’ at The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa; the exhibit is now on display at The Grammy Museum in L.A.”
With 30 years under his belt and the future wide open, what does Specter think is the state of Chicago blues today are where does he think that it’s going in the future?
“I think the Chicago blues scene is fairly strong,” he explains. “But I was spoiled coming onto the scene in the 1980s when you could hear so many giants of the music on an almost nightly basis – from Otis Rush to Junior Wells, Sunnyland Slim to Jimmy Rogers, Koko Taylor to Lonnie Brooks, Magic Slim to Otis Clay. Today’s scene is just not the same. It’s encouraging, however, that there are some good young players on the scene. I wish the audience was younger, too.”
It’s a sure bet that whatever direction the Chicago blues style goes in the future, Dave Specter will be leading the way.
VIDEO: Dave Specter ft. Jorma Kaukonen “How Low Can One Man Go?”