Roots And Branches: The Songs of Little Walter
Billy Branch was born in Chicago in 1951, and raised in Los Angeles. In 1969 when he was eighteen Branch moved back to Chicago to attend The University of Illinois. That summer he attended the first Chicago Blues Festival, produced by Willie Dixon, and witnessed the Dixon led All-Stars as they backed Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Bo-Diddley, Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker. Branch was an amateur harmonica player at the time and quickly became a convert immersing himself in the Blues and studying firsthand with the city’s iconic harp players including James Cotton, Junior Wells, Big Walter Horton and Carey Bell. Branch’s big break came in 1975 when he entered a harp contest against veteran harpist Little Mac Simmons. In the audience was Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer.
Branch began sitting in at Chicago venues and Dixon invited him to join his “Chicago Blues All-Stars” where he was groomed to replace his mentor Bell. When Branch wasn’t on tour with the All-Stars he performed with his own band, “The Sons of Blues”. In 1978 “The Sons of Blues” made their recording debut playing three tracks on Volume III of the Alligator Records Grammy nominated series “Living Chicago Blues”. Branch has since recorded eleven albums under his own name and has garnered twelve Blues Music Award nominations winning three times. His first win in 1991 was for his appearance on “Harp Attack!” with James Cotton, Junior Wells, and Carey Bell; Branch refers to the album “as my diploma. My PhD”. Branch also won in 2005 for “Double Take” recorded with Kenny Neal; and again in 2012 for his participation on “Chicago Blues A Living History the (R)evolution Continues”. Branch also has three Grammy nominations. His last album recorded with “The Sons of Blues” was 2014’s “Blues Shock” on Blind Pig Records.
The current line-up of “The Sons of Blues” includes Branch, harp and vocals; longtime pianist Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi; Delmark recording artist and guitarist Giles Corey; and the rhythm section of Marvin Little, bass; and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas, drums. The album is co-produced by Branch, Ariyo, and Rosa Enrico Branch.
Little Walter Jacobs died in 1968 so Branch never got to witness his performance. He remains one of the most influential harp players who ever lived and an architect of the Chicago Blues sound. This tribute album features fifteen songs, either written by Jacobs or made famous by him, that are re-imagined by Branch and company. Branch, whose own career now spans forty years, states “we were determined not to make this a “typical” Little Walter tribute recording. We are proud to present an album with elements of soul, funk, and even a little bit of gospel. Our goal was to competently and respectfully produce a Little Walter-themed recording with a different twist, while preserving the integrity of Little Walter’s innovative style.”
”Nobody But You” opens the album and we get to hear Branch’s vocal clarity and harmonica, with additional soloing from guitarist Corey and pianist Ariyo. The original versions of most of these songs appear on the 4-cd retrospective “Little Walter: The Complete Chess Masters: 1950-1967”. Instead of recreating Little Walter’s tunes verbatim Branch gives us a Contemporary blues album that never compromises the spirit and energy of the original recordings.
The album closes with a few anecdotes from Little Walter’s daughter Marion Diaz. Branch remains the heir apparent to the great Chicago blues harmonica tradition. This new album from Branch should be heard by every Chicago Blues enthusiast.