He sang of being the "New Kid On the Block" on 1990's W.C. Handy Award-winning album "Harp Attack," recorded with his mentors James Cotton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell. But Billy Branch is no kid anymore. And the recent death of Wells, and the questionable health of Cotton and Bell point to the probability that Branch might well become an elder statesman of blues harp long before he even wants to be one.
Branch was a young college student at the University of Illinois Chicago when the door to the blues world opened for him. He loved the harp upon sight as a boy, and was proficient on the instrument long before he hit campus. Sharpening his skills by playing at every opportunity while in college, Branch was eventually taken under the expansive wing of Willie Dixon in the 1970s.
Since that time without a break Branch has been paying his dues, learning more about the music from Chicago greats including guitarists Buddy Scott, Buster Benton and Johnny Littlejohn, as well as harp legends Bell, Wells and Big John Wrencher.
Branch, one of the blues' most articulate spokesmen, addresses the music with great reverence. His love for the blues and its artists defines his life. And his dedication to the music is reflected, in part, in his recordings, his zest for live performing and in his maintenance of a tough gigging schedule.
While still learning at the feet of Dixon, Branch formed the Sons of Blues the SOB's. The band immediately began exporting blues to Europe as new bluebloods. The SOB's also re-introduced the blues to young, black audiences at clubs on Chicago's South Side. The band continues these missions today, with Branch going a step further and passing blues on to even younger generations through the Blues In the Schools program he helped found in 1978.
Throughout his career, Branch has enjoyed his share of rewards. He received Most Outstanding Blues Harp Player from Living Blues in 1982 and 1993. In addition to the Handy for "Harp Attack," Branch was presented with a Handy Award in the "Keeping the Blues Alive in Education" category in 1990 and 1994. He has also been a part in the PBS documentary "Precious Memories A Tribute To 47th Street" that won an Emmy and others that have been nominated for Grammys. Branch has been featured on NBC's "Today Show" and on "Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt." He has also appeared in two movies, "Adventures In Babysitting" and "Next of Kin." He has a speaking role in the latter of the two.
But for all of his seriousness onstage and when he discusses blues, Branch can be a mischievous, fun-loving, even zany character.
It's a Sunday evening in February 1997 in Chicago when the interview tape for this story stops rolling. Branch has had a rough last couple of weeks. He's been playing into the wee hours of the morning frequently at Kingston Mines, Blues Etc. and Artis's on the South Side. In addition to that, just days ago, his close friend Junior Wells died. So Branch does what has, historically, come naturally to many great blues harp players. He has a few stiff drinks. "Corvoisier it's the flavor of the month," he says sipping cognac from a small snifter. He bangs away briefly on the piano at a friend's apartment he's a decent piano player. He then heads out for the night to perform at Blues Etc.
On the walk to the club, where he and the SOB's hold down a regular Sunday night gig, Branch starts letting off steam. Suddenly his eyes bug from his head. Fans who have never met Branch would be surprised to hear it when he bursts into a startlingly accurate and boisterous impersonation of Cornholio, the over-caffinated alter-ego of Beavis, the adolescent moron from MTV's "Beavis and Butthead." Branch is a huge fan of the show.
"I am Cornholio! I need T.P. for my bunghole! Are you threatening me?!" Branch squaks to no one in particular. He continues down the street, oblivious to the looks from passersby. Luckily it's not a long walk to the club and Branch attracts little additional attention from the street's cast of full-time weirdos.
Once he hits the stage at Blues Etc., however, Branch closets Cornholio and again assumes his grim, menacing game face. In concert this night, Branch is again able to enthrall his audience. With backing from drummer Mose Rutues, bassist Nick Charles, and new guitarist Giles Correy, he blows allusions to Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Junior Wells, all the while making certain his own creative spirit dominates the mix.
Branch's mischievous side comes out a few days later, however, when, in the spirit of great harp players before him namely Sonny Boy Williamson II he makes it difficult for this interviewer to pin down his actual birthdate. In fact, it turns out that three prominent blues reference books among them "The Big Book of Blues" by Robert Santelli and the respected "All Music Guide to the Blues," list different dates and even years of birth for Branch.
"Yeah, everyone's curious about that," Branch says with a laugh. "Nah, I ain't gonna tell ya. Why? 'Cause I like to keep some shit flyin'! I'm just carryin' on the tradition. The old timers used to do that!"
A bit of detective work and some connections, however, reveal that Branch's official birthdate is listed as Oct. 3, 1951. He was born at Great Lakes Naval Hospital near Waukegan, Illinois, the oldest of four children.
Branch recalls that, at about age four, he and his family left their home in Chicago for Los Angeles.
"We packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies. My grandmother bought a station wagon. I'll never forget that, a '55 Nomad station wagon," he recalls. It was in Los Angeles, at age 11, that he discovered harp.
Branch stayed in Los Angeles until 1969. And after finishing high school in Los Angeles, he returned to Chicago and the university, and little did he know then, a lifetime in the blues.
Click here to read part one of Sharp's interview.