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Blues with a feeling

Harmonica player Bill Lupkin on working with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and other Chicago blues legends

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


When harmonica player Bill Lupkin and the Chicago Connection take the stage at the First Annual Blues & Soul Food Bash at the Arts United Center on February 20th, they’ll be bringing a whole lot of history with them.

The Blues & Soul Food Bash — a benefit for the League for the Blind and Disabled — hopes to recreate the sound and vibe of the old Chicago Blues scene (minus, presumably, the haze of cigarette smoke and an occasional knife fight), and if that’s the case, they couldn’t have found a more appropriate musical headliner than Bill Lupkin.

Many people out there may know Lupkin as the owner and co-founder of William L. Lupkin Designs, a business that creates and restores stained glass and mosaic works for religious, commercial, and private clients. (Jack Cantey covered William L. Lupkin Designs for us back in FWR #52).

But Lupkin’s other life includes a serious apprenticeship with the blues as a harmonica player in Chicago during the late 60s and 70s, performing with a list of artists that reads like a “Who’s Who” of Chicago blues masters — Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells, Freddie Below, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy…

And Lupkin didn’t just share a stage with some of these guys: he knew many of them, personally and professionally, as a working musician in Chicago’s vibrant blues scene of the era. “Those older guys were still around then, still living and playing in Chicago,” he says. “It was a golden age, a timeless place almost, where all that music was still living.”

Lupkin discovered the blues as a kid growing up in Fort Wayne in the 50s and 60s. But whereas thousands of guys at the time first heard the blues via British bands like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds, Lupkin was already familiar with the music by the time the British Invasion hit the U.S. thanks to an older brother. “I first heard blues, really, probably in 1956, when I was just a kid,” Lupkin says. “My older brother was a teenager and was playing in a rhythm & blues band with some guys who went to Central (high school). It was a mixed band, black and white, which was kind of an unusual situation back in 1956.”

So when Lupkin started playing with bands in the early 60s — he was a drummer before picking up the harmonica — covering The Beatles and whatever else was popular at the time, he was kind of surprised to hear so many familiar tunes coming from the British bands. “I remember the first time we heard The Beatles do that Chuck Berry song (‘Roll Over Beethoven’),” he says. “And that first Rolling Stones album, it was all Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters, and I thought ‘man, what’s going on here?!’” Ironically, the bands Lupkin played with had been turning down his suggestions for covering classic blues songs like “Little Red Rooster,” only to embrace the same songs a year or so later as the British bands plowed through the Chess catalog.

As a high school student, Lupkin delved even deeper into the blues, scouring record stores and taking the bus to Chicago on weekends to buy records and visit Maxwell Street whenever he had the chance. He was too young to go into the clubs, so he and his friends used to stand outside and listen. “In 1966, a lot of the blues guys were coming to what was Old Town then on the Northside and playing at these places called Big John’s and Mother Blues, and we’d stand out there and listen to Muddy Waters and guys like that play.”

And Chicago wasn’t the only place he could hear the blues. “There was a bar out by the old Slater Steel mill. I forget the guy’s name who ran it — this big guy, tough guy — but he used to sell us beer out the back,” Lupkin laughs. “We were there one night, and in hindsight, I swear it was Howlin’ Wolf’s band playing. I was just in awe.”

Another “eureka!” moment for Lupkin happened in 1965 at a Fort Wayne record store located on Anthony a block or so south of Maumee. Lupkin saw the debut album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, recognized some of the names on the liner notes, and asked the owner to put it on. To say it made an impression on Lupkin is an understatement. Here was Paul Butterfield, a young white kid from Chicago, playing blues harmonica alongside some of Chicago’s finest musicians. “I started thinking, ‘well damn, if this guy can actually do it, I can do it’,” Lupkin says. “That’s how cocky you are when you’re 17, 18 years old.”

Cocky or not, Lupkin decided see if he could hack it playing blues harp (that’s harmonica). After traveling around a little after high school, he moved to Chicago in September of 1969. He had made a few contacts in the music scene there over the years, and through them heard that the band at a club called Wise Fools was looking for a harp player. When Lupkin showed up to audition, he was stunned to discover who else was in the band: the front man was guitarist and mandolin player Johnny “Man” Young, and the rest of the group was the legendary Aces — Louis and Dave Meyers, and drummer Freddie Below — who had served as Little Walter’s backing band.

Lupkin was even more stunned when he got the gig. “Here I am, this kid from Indiana, and the first band I get in used to be the backing band for probably the best harp player that ever lived!”

“I was terrified! But it was fabulous. I learned more in the months I played with those guys… that whole experience was like a college education for me.”

Indeed, at the time all the major musicians that had defined “Chicago blues” were still in the city, gigging and working regularly. Lupkin found himself not only backing some of these musicians on stage, but sitting next to them at the bar afterwards for a talk and a drink. Lupkin was a part of several combos performing at various bars and clubs all over the area, and eventually, he began what was to become a long professional relationship with guitarist Jimmy Rogers. “Jimmy was special,” Lupkin says. “He kind of took me under his wing, and he helped me understand what I was supposed to be doing musically.”

Though not a household name, Rogers is worshipped by blues guitarists and fans of the classic Chicago blues sound. He was a part of Muddy Waters’ band in the late 40s and early 50s, and recorded several of his own records for Chess in that era. After a stint with Howlin’ Wolf in the 60s, Rogers retired from music for several years, and had recently returned to performing when Lupkin hooked up with him. “The thing with Jimmy Rogers is when we really started to click,” Lupkin says. “We picked up this gig at this club called Ma Bea’s. We were working Sunday and Monday, when everybody else was off, so we got to back everybody — Junior Wells, Homesick James, Willie Dixon, everybody.”

And right down the street from Ma Bea’s was Duke’s Blue Flame Lounge where Howlin’ Wolf often played. Lupkin says it had to happen, and indeed, one night while the band is on stage, Wolf comes in and sits at the bar. A big man with an outsized personality, Wolf was a pretty intimidating figure. “He just had that presence,” Lupkin recalls. “He came and sat about 20’ away from where I was, and he was just looking right into my eyes and I was just scared to death. We had met him before and talked to him and seen him play, but to have him sit there, and watch you play, knowing this is one of the greatest blues men that ever lived…” But Wolf got up and did a set with the band that Lupkin calls one of the musical highlights of his life.

As special as that set was, though, the way Lupkin describes the scene then, those kind of happenings weren’t all that unusual. “We were doing these special shows at Alice’s and Kingston Mines. The shows would go from early afternoon to late at night, and we backed Otis Rush, Buddy Guy… just everybody. We finally backed Muddy (Waters). The first time was at Alice’s, and it was the first time Muddy and Jimmy (Rogers) played together since they split up, and they just never skipped a beat.”

There’s a cliché that’s sort of associated with bluesmen — that of the musician sort of shuffling into gigs, playing off the cuff, often sloppy, with a bottle in his pocket — and Lupkin says he saw a little of that. He worked with Jimmy Reed, one of the most successful blues musicians of the late 50s/early 60s. Reed actually scored two Top 40 pop hits (“Honest I Do” and “Baby, What You Want Me to Do”), but found his career crashing through bad management and medical problems exacerbated by alcoholism. Lupkin remembers playing a gig with Reed on the bill and watching the musician slam back almost an entire bottle of booze.

On the other hand, people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were consummate professionals. “Both Muddy and Wolf knew exactly where they were,” he says. “Muddy was extremely hip to the audience he was playing to at the time. Muddy was doing his old material and becoming successful reliving his past stuff. But Wolf’s music was very contemporary. It never left his roots but always kept going forward. That’s why his later stuff, like ‘Killing Floor,’ are so good, because it just never stopped. But they were both extremely professional. Nobody got the best of them.”

In 1972, Lupkin, Rogers and the rest of the band went out to California on what was supposed to be the start of a big tour. They kicked it off with a week’s worth of gigs at the Ash Grove, booked by a relative of someone at Cobra Records. “When we showed up in California, all the rockers came out of the woodwork,” Lupkin says. “The first night we played Ash Grove, Canned Heat was there, John Mayall was there… all these people.”

“The Rolling Stones came and saw us there,” he continues. “That was hilarious, because the whole club was going gaga. Mick Jagger was there, and Mick Taylor, and one of the other ones — I forget who. So we’re done with our set and Mick Jagger is standing there: ‘oh, I love your band.’ They wanted to meet Jimmy, of course, but Jimmy had no idea who they were. They wanted to take us to this party afterwards, and all us young guys were going nuts… oh, man, we couldn’t wait. But Jimmy wanted to go somewhere else.”

Unfortunately, the gig at the Ash Grove turned out to be the beginning of the end of the tour. The guy who had booked the Ash Grove couldn’t find them anymore gigs. They recorded the album Gold Tailed Bird for Shelter records, but the album wasn’t very successful — Chess records had just released their vintage series of records, which overshadowed any new Jimmy Rogers material. Besides that, Lupkin says the album just wasn’t as good as it could have been. “But Capitol recently brought it out on CD, so now it’s actually getting some good reviews,” he says. “So, it just takes 30 or 40 years…”

The band eventually made their way back to Chicago… and then broke up. Lupkin explains that money had become an issue — some things had begun to change for some of the band members — and there were some feelings. But while the band had been stranded in California, Lupkin had struck up an association with Bob Hite of Canned Heat. When Canned Heat came through Chicago, Hite talked Lupkin into coming back out to California and even recording with the band. “The problem was, I don’t think he explained that to the rest of the band,” laughs Lupkin.

But the gig with Canned Heat didn’t work out for other reasons. The Chicago blues scene Lupkin had come up in was a pretty disciplined environment; Canned Heat could afford to take a more… relaxed approach to their work. “That first session, I don’t think they got their instruments out,” Lupkin says. “I was used to a more… realistic urban environment. Music was not their primary focus at that moment, you know?”

Lupkin stayed out in California and convinced his brother to join him. The novelty of being a “real Chicago blues band” in California earned them some work, and they found themselves backing a lot of the old West Coast blues musicians — Roy Milton, Lowell Fulsom, Big Joe Turner, and T-Bone Walker. But soon, Lupkin says they became just another L.A. band like a million others, and by 1976 it was basically done. Lupkin came back to Fort Wayne and got out of music for about 10 years.

Lupkin says he picked up his harps occasionally, but didn’t perform until he happened to run into Tim Wire, a piano player and an old friend whom Lupkin had played with back in high school (Wire is playing the Blues Bash with Lupkin). “He said ‘why don’t you jam with us?’ and like an idiot, I said yes,” Lupkin laughs.

Since then, Lupkin has been performing regularly and has released several CDs, including Live at the Hot Spot (1999); Where I Come From (2006); and Hard Pill to Swallow (2007), and has playing on several other artists CDs.

“No, it didn’t take long for the disease to resurface,” Lupkin jokes as he talks about his music-related work of the past decade or so.

Well, if that desire to play the blues is a disease, then we can all be grateful that Lupkin has got it. Lupkin loves talking about his stints in Chicago playing with the blues legends, but he doesn’t rest on his laurels. As a performer and a musician he’s as sharp and fresh as he ever was, and there’s a whole lot of history behind everything he does.

Fort Wayne Blues Bash
A benefit for the League for the Blind and Disabled
Saturday, February 20 at 7 PM
Arts United Center
303 East Main
Tickets: $10
Food by C & R Soul Food from Indianapolis. There will also be a silent auction.

For tickets and more info, visit www.fortwaynebluesbash.com
For more info on Bill Lupkin, go to www.billlupkin.com

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