There are no six degrees of separation between the Siegel-Schwall Band and the Chicago bluesmen who so powerfully influenced rock 'n' roll. Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall, white college students in the early 1960s, honed their craft listening firsthand to the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Little Walter. And they didn't just listen to the masters: by the mid-1960s they were sharing stages with their idols in clubs on Chicago's South Side. Siegel, who can bend a note on the blues harp farther than some politicians can bend the truth, and Schwall, who developed a unique guitar style that drew on numerous influences, quickly became popular in Chicago, toured widely, and recorded for Vanguard and RCA. They played raucous, authentic versions of blues classics, like Muddy Waters's "Got My Mojo Working," and originals like Schwall's "I Think It Was the Wine," a hilarious morning-after hangover lament.
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. Performances followed with many other famed orchestras, as did a recording on the prestigious classical label Deutsche Grammophon.
Siegel-Schwall disbanded in 1974. Siegel continued with performances and recordings, including another release with Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony. Since 1988 he has also been writing, touring, and recording what he calls chamber blues — music for classical string quartet, tablas, blues harp, and piano. Think Mozart meets Muddy Waters: not the blues backed by classical instruments, but a true synthesis of classical and blues forms.
Schwall, meanwhile, earned a doctorate in music, became a successful photographer, and has been active politically, running for mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, and working on housing for the homeless. But the blues beckoned. The live recording of Siegel-Schwall's 1988 reunion concert showed that they could still wail with the best of them, and that audiences still loved their blues. So they returned to the road with longtime bandmates bassist Rollo Radford and drummer Sam Lay, a stellar rhythm section whose roots go back even farther than Siegel and Schwall's. Radford has toured and recorded with, among others, Dinah Washington, Martha and the Vandellas, and Sun Ra, while Lay — the drummer who backed Dylan in his notorious electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival — has played with most of the top names in blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll and has been inducted into all three halls of fame.
The Siegel-Schwall Band returns to the Ark on Saturday, July 17.