Wooden Nickels, Golden Blues

The Siegel-Schwall Band revisited

Siegel-Schwall concert poster

The Siegel-Schwall Band is, perhaps, the great lost blues band of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

They brought a different perspective to the genre, incorporating elements of folk, rock, jazz, and country music into their traditional Chicago blues sound. They never became as acclaimed as their contemporaries the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but Siegel-Schwall was a hard-touring outfit for the better part of a decade, releasing ten innovative albums that explored a wide range of blues-based music. For a short while, they were also the most popular performers in the Windy City, outdrawing even Butterfield’s crew.  

Music industry veteran Cary Baker, founder of the boutique publicity firm Conqueroo, grew up in Chicago and got his start in the biz writing for local publications. Of the Siegel-Schwall Band, Baker remembers “they were ‘the’ band in Chicago when I was in high school (1969-73). The best shows I saw by them were at The Quiet Knight (Chicago’s Greenwich Village-like folk establishment, which had a ‘minors section’ where nothing stronger than Coca-Cola was served) and at coffeehouse (when coffeehouses were coffeehouses) Alice’s Revisited in Lincoln Park. I was an impressionable 14-15-16-17 years old, and Siegel-Schwall was at the height of its powers. Corky’s singing and harmonica fit the tenor of Chicago at that time. Schwall’s guitar work was always on-point, and tall and lanky Rollo Radford loomed over the proceedings with his melodic bass lines.”

Pianist and harmonica player Mark “Corky” Siegel met guitarist Jim Schwall when both were members of the Roosevelt University Jazz Band in Chicago, and they formed the first incarnation of the Siegel-Schwall Band in 1964. “I had no thoughts of performing necessarily as a profession,” Siegel said in a 2015 interview with writer Jessi Virtusio, published by the Chicago Tribune. “We hit it off musically,” Siegel remembers. “We immediately put a repertoire together and went out on the South Side of Chicago. We ended up (playing) at the premier blues club in the world without knowing it.” The band initially also included bassist Jos Davidson and drummer Russ Chadwick before settling into a creative groove by 1970 with bassist Rollo Radford and drummer Shelly Plotkin.

The Siegel-Schwall Band’s second self-titled LP

By 1965, the Siegel-Schwall Band had become the house band at Pepper’s Lounge on Chicago’s South Side, performing behind legends like Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Spann and Muddy Waters, among many others. They were part of a generation of young white blues artists that included talents like Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and Nick Gravenites, who were redefining the genre for young rock audiences. “Looking back, it doesn’t feel like I had anything to do with it,” Siegel told the Chicago Tribune of the Siegel-Schwall Band being part of the late 1960s blues revival. “It feels like I was there, but I guess just being there means you’ve had a lot to do with it. I was just there when the explosion was happening.”

Coming to the attention of producer Sam Charters, they signed with the folk-oriented Vanguard Records label, which was moving decidedly into blues music in the mid-‘60s with artists like Charlie Musselwhite and Buddy Guy. The Siegel-Schwall Band released its eponymous, Charters-produced debut album in 1966 and followed it up a year later with Say Siegel-Schwall, about which musician, critic, and blues fan Cub Koda wrote for All Music Guide, “for all parties concerned, this was the group’s breakthrough album. Corky Siegel’s emotional harp work and foxy, sly (almost cutesy) vocals, coupled with a hot rhythm section and Jim Schwall’s cardboard sounding acoustic with a pickup guitar work made this the one that connected big with white audiences. Some of it rocks, some of it boogies, some of it’s downright creepy and eerie.”

Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra

It was evident from the beginning that the Siegel-Schwall guys were no ordinary blues band. In a 2004 article published by the Ann Arbor Observer, Sandor Slomovits wrote of the band, “early on, they distinguished themselves from other bluesmen, black or white. Encouraged by the famed conductor Seiji Ozawa, who was a big fan, they premiered a work in 1968 written expressly for them, William Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra, with Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony.” After several performances of the classical/blues hybrid through the years, the band recorded the work with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Ozawa, with the resulting album becoming one of Deutsche Grammophon’s best-selling records.

After recording a total of four albums for Vanguard, the band returned home. Baker remembers “Siegel-Schwall had completed its run with Vanguard and were signed by Wooden Nickel, a Chicago-based label owned by Bill Traut (who’d had Dunwich Records, home of the Shadows of Knight), for whom they recorded a few potent albums that captured their formidable live sound better than the Butterfield-esque Vanguard albums had.” Distributed by RCA Records, Wooden Nickel specialized in Chicago-area artists like the Siegel-Schwall Band, James Lee Stanley, and Styx, who would later become the label’s best-selling act. “Wooden Nickel struck gold eventually with Styx, whom they developed for years,” says Baker, “and Styx repaid the favor by leaving for A&M!” The label sued the band for breach-of-contract after Styx bolted in 1975 but by 1977, Wooden Nickel had closed up shop.  

Siegel-Schwall on the Wooden Nickel label

The Siegel-Schwall Band’s five 1970s-era Wooden Nickel albums were recently reissued by archival label Wounded Bird Records. Like most Wounded Bird reissues, the albums are no-frills affairs with a lack of bonus tracks and no new liner notes – just the original music, and the (often fuzzy) album artwork reduced to the 5” square dimensions of a compact disc. This meager presentation does the band a disservice, but the music speaks loudly, and all five Siegel-Schwall Band albums are worth rediscovering.   

The band’s 1971 label debut for Wooden Nickel, The Siegel-Schwall Band is a little lean in running time, clocking in at less than 40 minutes, but the self-titled disc’s seven songs nevertheless display the band’s talents in the best possible light, with four tracks recorded live at The Quiet Knight. Album-opener “(Wish I Was On A) Country Road,” co-written by Siegel with singer/songwriter Jim Post, a Windy City immigrant from Texas, is a rollicking boogie-based slab of classic Chicago blues with stinging guitar, honky-tonk piano, and a foot-shuffling rhythm.

The country music fan in the band, Jim Schwall’s “Leavin’” offers a bit of twang with the guitarist’s mesmerizing chicken pickin’ and Siegel’s country-jazz piano fills. The band’s reading of the traditional “Corrina,” performed live, is pure gutbucket blues with a low groove courtesy of the rhythm section and Schwall’s soaring fretwork while Siegel’s “I Won’t Hold My Breath” is part New Orleans rave-up and part gospel fervor with fleeting piano licks and light-hearted vocals. The album closes with a rowdy cover of the Jimmy Reed gem “Hush Hush,” which showcases Siegel’s wizardry on the mouth harp. Throughout the album, Schwall’s stellar fretwork proves him to be an underrated player on a Chicago blues scene that, at the time, boasted of talents like Michael Bloomfield, Harvey Mandel and Elvin Bishop.

Surprisingly, The Siegel-Schwall Band won a Grammy Award in 1973 for “Best Album Cover” for artist Harvey Dinnerstein’s rustic illustration and Acy R. Lehman’s art direction. Siegel-Schwall released Sleepy Hollow a year later, the album a fine set of nine original tunes that would see the band incorporating more rock and country influences into their native blues sound. Siegel’s “Something’s Wrong” rolls like snow after an avalanche, the song’s breakneck instrumental changes, jaunty rhythms, and lively guitar licks making it a favorite in a live setting.

 

 

The Siegel-penned “His Good Time Band” is a rockin’ jump-blues styled raver with biographical lyrics that speak of the pure joy of making music. Schwall’s “You Don’t Love Me Like That” is more of a traditional blues stomper with Siegel’s wailing harp dancing atop a walking bass line and subtle percussion. Siegel’s “Hey, Billie Jean,” another co-write with Jim Post, moves the band into shit-kicker territory with raging, Deford Bailey-styled harp blasts and foot-stomping rhythms. Overall, Sleepy Hollow is an interesting and entertaining collection that builds upon the artistic success of the band’s previous LP.

The band’s third album for Wooden Nickel, and their seventh album overall, 953 West was released in 1973. The album’s title is a nod to The Quiet Knight, the club longtime supporters of the band. The Quiet Knight was located at 953 West Belmont Avenue in Chicago and the album’s cover art, by Eddie Balchowsky, is a pen and ink drawing of the platform at the nearby Belmont train station. 953 West spreads the songwriting chores around a bit more, diversifying the band’s sound with other creative voices. Radford and Plotkin each contribute a song, Siegel pens four (one with Danny Glicken), and Schwall contributes a pair of songs as well as adding lyrics to a cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s “When I’ve Been Drinking.”

 

 

Siegel’s “I’d Like To Spend Some Time Along With You Tonight My Friend” opens 953 West, the song a boozy swamp-blues number akin to Dr. John but featuring plenty of serpentine guitarplay. Plotkin’s “Good Woman” is a barroom vamp with reckless instrumentation and a sound reminiscent of the Charlatans’ unique style of jug-band blues. The aforementioned Broonzy cover is performed as an acoustic country-blues, with high-lonesome vocals and some tasty harpwork. Meanwhile,Radford’s “Old Time Shimmy” is an interesting distraction; the song’s syncopated rhythms are punctuated by scraps of piano and muted guitar while the vocals sound like Tom Waits on an ether binge.

 

Although 953 West didn’t break any new creative ground, its innately bluesy undercurrents didn’t turn off any of the band’s faithful, either. Live: The Last Summer was recorded during the summer of 1973; comprised of performances from The Brewery in Lansing, Michigan and at The Quiet Knight, it was released in early 1974. It’s an unusual collection in that five of the album’s eight songs didn’t appear on any of the band’s previous albums, including a pair of new original tunes by the band’s namesakes along with a couple of high-octane covers. The band’s take on the B.B. King classic “Rock Me Baby” smolders just short of flashpoint and offers plenty of Jim Schwall’s stinging fretwork.

The Last Summer by The Siegel-Schwall Band

A pair of songs from Sleepy Hollow – “You Don’t Love Me Like That” and “Hey, Billie Jean” – benefit greatly from the live setting, allowing the band to stretch out the arrangements and show off their instrumental skills. They return to the Jimmy Reed songbook for the guitarist’s “Sun Is Shining,” delivering the song in as straight a manner as possible, i.e. old school blues with an energetic rhythm track, crackling piano-play, and wiry guitar. A new song by Schwall, “West Coast Blues,” is a mid-tempo blues tune that sounds like late night in a smoky bar while Siegel’s “Out-A-Gas?” is a driving rocker delivered with reckless abandon. Oddly enough, Live: The Last Summer doesn’t include any songs from 953 West, which was the band’s current album at the time.

R.I.P. Siegel/Schwall was the band’s swansong, of sorts. The Siegel-Schwall Band had broken up in February 1974, around the time of the release of Live: The Last Summer, but Wooden Nickel asked them to come up with one more studio album. The fittingly-titled R.I.P. Siegel/Schwall was released later that year; a collection of cover songs by the band’s favorite artists, the eclectic track list runs the gamut from John Prine and Little Richard to Little Walter, Muddy Waters and, of course, Jimmy Reed. Prine’s “Pretty Good” is bluesed-up pretty good with melodic harp-play that emphasizes the lyrics while Nappy Brown’s “Night Time Is The Right Time” offers red-hot rhythm and blues in a mighty fine performance.

R.I.P. by the Siegel-Schwall Band

After a decade on the road together, the band members decided that it was time to pursue other musical opportunities. R.I.P. Siegel/Schwall would be their last album for fourteen years; The Siegel-Schwall Reunion Concert, with the legendary Sam Lay taking over on drums, was released by Alligator Records in 1988. The band would also release a studio album of new songs titled Flash Forward on Alligator in 2005, and they’ve toured together as recently as 2014. The Siegel-Schwall Band may not receive the respect heaped upon similar blues-rock trailblazers, but their influence continues to resound with contemporary artists.

Nashville-based blues guitarist Mark Robinson grew up in Indiana, where he witnessed the Siegel-Schwall Band perform live. “I loved the power of Muddy and Howling Wolf, but I also loved the energy of Butterfield and Siegel-Schwall,” he remembers. “I felt that I might someday be able to play blues after hearing these younger guys doing it so well.” Robinson agrees that although the band “is not as well-known and not as influential as their contemporaries…their records were great and their performances were really strong. Elements of country-blues and jazz were more evident in their recordings than most of the other Chicago blues artists.” In the end, Robinson concludes, “I think their influence in Chicago and in the Midwest was considerable.”

 

The Siegel-Schwall Band’s Wooden Nickel albums are now available on CD from Wounded Bird Records

The new album Chug It Down and Go by Daniel Seymour and Mark Robinson is now available on Blind Chihuahua Records

 

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