Sharp: So what are your earliest recollections of hearing blues?
Branch: Well, really, in L.A., the only blues I vaguely remember was Wolfman Jack.
Out of Mexico.
Branch: Right, right. And I wasn't into it at all. I didn't like it. I mean, it wasn't that I didn't like it, it was that I didn't know it. There was no reason for me to relate to it. There was nobody around in my house (who was into blues). Although I found out later my mother is one of my biggest fans. She was a blues lover in her younger years. She was born and raised in Chicago. But there wasn't any blues influence there.
Does anything stick out in your mind about your time listening to Wolfman Jack? Do you have any specific recollections of hearing Sonny Boy (Williamson II) or anybody else?
Branch: No, no. That was the last year in L.A., when I was 17. Then I came here, to Chicago. But no, I vaguely remember the name Muddy Waters, but I couldn't associate it with it being a person. In other words, I had no knowledge of blues, whatsoever. It was funny. I remember my senior year in high school, we had this report to do on revolutions, it was like a committee thing, oral report. And I got elected head of the committee and we couldn't figure out what to do. Everybody was doing, like, the French Revolution, the Civil War. So I kept goin' to the teacher, he was hip Jewish cat, and he said, "Mr. Branch, do you like music?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I didn't say what kind of revolution!" And I said, "Well, cool!" So I built this light box, and we got together and we put our report on a tape recorder and, to best of my recollection, I know we did Jimi Hendrix. We did Janis Joplin, and I think we did Chuck Berry. And the class loved it. We opened up with "Voodoo Chile Slight Return." And so afterwards, we went to the teacher and I said, "So how did you like it?" And he said, "Well, it was cool. But I thought you were going to do, like, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf." And I said, "Oh man, we're not into that." You know? But lookin' in retrospect, it was just callin' me. See, I picked up harmonica at 11 years old. Never heard anybody play one song or note. I could play it as soon as I put it in my mouth just folk songs and stuff like that.
What prompted you to pick it up?
Branch: See, my mother, she used to bowl a lot. We grew up in a bowling subculture. My mother was bowling and we were next door to a Woolworths, and I'd look in and it was shiny. And when she would bowl, she would give me money to play this little machine. And I looked at it, and I kept starin', and I said, "I can play that thing." And I used to tinker around with the Magnus Chord organ my father owned, that I inherited from him that he had as a kid. Then my grandmother, who raised me, bought me a bigger organ, you know, the little organs they had with the little buttons and stuff. So I developed a good ear, because I would just tinker around, and I could figure out songs. I remember playing "Knock on Wood." I remember playin' the Four Tops' "I'll Be there." And whenever I would go to anyone's house who had a piano, I could just sit at that piano for hours, as long as we were there, and I just had so much fun. So I had a sense of the musical scale. So when I put the harmonica in my mouth, it was there, right away.
Where were you living in Chicago when you were a youngster. Where on the South Side, exactly?
Branch: We were living in Woodlawn 51st and Drexel. And we lived at 65th and Langley, I believe.
And when you returned in your late teens, after living in California, where were you?
Branch: I lived in Lake Meadows. I lived with my father and my stepmother. We lived in the 30s around King Drive the nice apartment complexes Prairie Shores, Lake Meadows, the high rises over there.
So, talk more about your early encounters with harmonica. You saw it in the store window and you were able to play it pretty readily.
Branch: Now this is L.A., I'm like 11 years old , or so. And then I'd play it and it would wear out and I'd go back and buy another one.
So how did you become a blues harp player in Chicago?
Branch: Well, I went to this festival in '69 in Grant Park and, ironically, Willie Dixon was the producer of this festival. On it, to the best of my recollection, was probably everybody. Because I didn't know blues, I can't really recall, but I'm sure Junior Wells, and Muddy, and maybe Big Mama Thornton, and Koko, and everybody was there. And it just blew me away. I just went, "Wow." And I didn't know anyone in the city. I was kinda like, by myself. I was in a kinda very introspective state of mind, kinda isolated. I had the blues, because I didn't know anybody in this town. And I was goin' to college here at the Chicago Circle Campus and it was, like, the coldest place even the architecture was just... cold. The atmosphere was cold. And so I was just, like, "I'm just out here." And I heard this (music), and I rushed back home, 'cause I had that one album that I got when I sent some film to be developed. Then they sent you a free record. And it was John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. And I remembered it had harmonica on it. And I kinda played it and it was no big thing to me. But after I went to the festival, I went, "Shit!" And rushed home and I pulled out that record and I grabbed my harmonica and I couldn't figure out why I couldn't play along with that record. I didn't know that harmonicas came in different keys.
When did you have contact with some harmonica teachers?
Branch: The first guy I met, that kinda played blues when I was living in Lake Meadows... See Lake Meadows was kinda like a little middle class enclave that was typical of Chicago South Side, you know. You walk three blocks and you're in the hood! So there was this little liquor store and I used to drink just a little wine, a little beer. And I'd walk down there, and there's a library on 35th and King. And there were these guys, they were jammin', and I heard harmonica and they were playin' congas and shit. And I said, "Yeah, harp. Yeah." And this brother, this cat was playin'. And his name was Rahsaan and he said, "You play harp?" And I said, "Yeah." So I pulled out my harp and played. And he said, "Yeah, but can you play blues?" And I said, "Yeah, I can play blues." And I blew. And he said, "That ain't no blues." I said, "What you mean, that ain't no blues?" He said, ''Ain't you hip to Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter?" I said, "No, man." So he lived in the projects, and I think that was the first night I ever got drunk in my life. We were drinkin' white port and Kool-Aid. The brothers call this it's very legendary it's called Shake and Bake. And I got drunk. I hung with them guys all night. So this guy, we kept in touch, and I'd go over to his house and he had Sonny Boy's "Bummer Road," and he would show me and explain. And ironically, I think it was before this, one of my cousins I got a lot of cousins here took me to a place called the Five Stages and they had a tribute to Otis Spann. And Muddy Waters was playin'. And this guy jumped out of the audience and grabbed the mic and started playin' the harp. And Muddy stopped the band and said, "No, no. We don't do it like that here." And this was the guy. This was the cat. And I said, "Yeah, I remember you jumpin' on stage." And, you know, harp players are like that. Harp players tend to be frantic. The harp, you know, it's so easy to get carried away. I mean, you've seen guys, and they ain't blowin' doodley squat. We've all been through that. But it's something about that, that harp. But those were my beginnings.
Now when you met up with this guy, Rahsaan, and you were drinking Shake and Bake, that was what, about '70?
And how did you evolve from there. What were your contacts after that? I'm waiting for a (well-known blues) figure to come in here.
Branch: OK. Well, a guy that would later be my best friend, Lucius Barner, he wrote the song "Tear Down the Berlin Wall," he was Junior Wells' stepson. Some of his brothers are Junior Wells' sons. So I hooked up with Lucius. So he took me down to Theresa's, and I remember it very clearly because Lucius knew (Junior Wells). And here, I'm this little square kid with this big afro. And Junior's lookin' at me like, "Yeah, OK." And Junior would let us both in. And I'd sit in... and one of the first North Side clubs was Alice's Revisited, 950 W. Wrightwood, and Short Stuff used to play there. We'd always go down there to see Short Stuff. And Carey Bell used to play there and (Charlie) Musselwhite. Jim Liban was one of the first cats that used to call me up. Jim Liban, Lefty Dizz, Junior, Buddy Scott, these were the guys that gave me my start. So Lucius brought me in on the scene. And me and Junior laughed about it years later. Because I remember (Junior) looked at me sideways. But see, I kept at it. I had this hunger for it. It's really uncanny. And I look at it, and I'm a firm believer in the creator and I know the name is Yahweh, and I look at it as a divine intervention. Because, why in the hell should a young kid, a little shy and nerdy honor student be into the blues in L.A., Calif.? There's no reason for that. Why in the hell did I pick the goddamn harmonica? Why?
Going back to Theresa's, was that the first place you ever hopped on a stage and sat in?
Branch: It might have been... it probably was.
Can you remember an instance, one of your earliest recollections of sitting in?
Branch: With Junior. But see, what I would do is, I would go for awhile and then I would disappear for maybe a couple months so they'd forget who I was. So this went on and on for years. I'd go everywhere there was blues Florence's, that was a club on 69th and King, and then Alice's. And we'd go and we'd go. And when I was in college, any band that played in college, I was sittin' in with them, 'cause my buddies were like, "Get Billy on the stage! Get Billy on the stage!" It could have been (the band) Chicago! Whoever played, I was playin' with 'em. And all my friends, they used to say, "You take us to the nastiest little funky dives!" I had all of them with me. I'd go wherever, and they'd be right there with me.
Talk about the legendary "Little Mack (Simmons) Harp Battle."
Branch: "This was my discovery period. Little Mack was on WVON. He had a commercial, and in it he said, "I'm the world's greatest harmonica player. I challenge anybody to beat me playin' harmonica. I'll pay to anybody can beat me playin' harp." So I belonged to this it's not a religious affiliation but it's called The Institute of Divine Metaphysical Research. And I went there they had classes on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, and this was a Friday, and I said, "Y'all think I should go?" And they said, "Yeah man, go." And the rap was, that they wouldn't let Big Walter Horton in. James Cotton and Junior said, "Awh, the hell with Mack, he's talkin' noise." So I came in there. I got on overalls, I got a afro this big 10-inch afro. I get up there, place is packed I think it was to get in. There was me, a guy named Sonny Boy Wilson I haven't seen him in a long time - and a young guy, and I can't call his name, a black cat. And they played. And I got up there, played one song, and the crowd said, "Give him the money!" So Mack said, "Nah." Mack had a hit on an instrumental version of "Rainy Night in Georgia" and Mack played it. I'd been hearin' it on the radio. So I played it (also) and Mack said, "No, he didn't play it note for note." So then he played "Ain't No Woman Like the One I Got," the Four Tops song that was the flipside. And I started playin' it and I stopped the band and I said, "Wait a minute, I can't play this note for note. But if I can play something and then Mack plays something..." And Mack ran out and said, "The boss said it's closin' time!" And the whole place it was pandemonium! People were screamin'. It was like a riot. Jim O' Neal, the founder of Living Blues, Amy O'Neal, and Bruce Iglauer, all the blues people in Chicago were there, black and white. And I was just...cool. "Well, OK." I was cool. And that's when they quote unquote discovered me. 'Cause, like Bruce and Jim O' Neal, they figure they know everybody in the blues, and where did this cat come from? And by then, I could play decent.
When you were going out clubbing as a young man, did you find yourself focusing on places that would feature harp players?
Branch: No, I would play with any damn body. I used to play on the El. I used to play on the street. I even played in the movie theater, during the intermission. Me and my college buddy, we were some wild cats. We were the party animals. I would just pull out the harp, "Hey!" We'd be just groovin'! I'll never forget. We were downtown at one of the movie theaters and a little old black man came up and said, "Don't do dat." I said, "Well, man..." He said, "I don't care what you're doin', just don't do that no more." It was just anywhere. I would play on the microphone at Jack-In-the-Box and Burger King! I grabbed the mic. At all the parties, when we'd go in our college days, I would pull out the harmonica. All my extended family, my sisters, they'd be like, "Billy, awh, that damn harp." They would hide my harmonica. I only had one. I'd say, "Where's my harmonica?" And they'd say, "Uh, we don't know." Because I'd just play, play, play, play, play. At Circle, at U of I, they used to have TV rooms on the fourth floor. They vandalized the TV's, so they put in pianos. So there was like, five piano rooms. So, consequently, we had jam sessions every day, every single day for three years or so. We didn't go to class. From nine in the morning 'til the campus was closed, we would just jam. And everybody who had an instrument, whether it be tuba, flute, piano, or if they could sing, we just jammed, jammed, jammed.
When did you meet up with Willie Dixon?
Branch: There was a girl on campus that worked as a secretary at one of the offices, her name was Sarah. And we got to talkin'. But she did secretarial work for Willie Dixon and I used to always say, "You work for Willie Dixon?" Because, by then, I knew who people were. And I'd say, "You gotta hook me up!. You gotta hook me up!" So, finally, she gave me the number and I called him. I said, "Hey Willie, I wanna play harp, man." He said, "Well, come on down sometime." And to the best of my recollection, he had the studio it was at 7711 Racine he had a recording studio. They're in rehearsal Lafayette Leake, Buster Benton, Clifton James. And Willie said, "You got a harp?" I had one harp. I think it was the oddest key you can imagine F-sharp. It happened to be in the key of the song they were rehearsin'. Carey Bell was out of town. They were doin' "The Last Home Run," which was a tribute to Hank Aaron breakin' Babe Ruth's record. It was just before Hank hit the home run (on April 8, 1974). McKinley Mitchell was the singer. So, Willie says, "You got a harp?" I says, "Yeah." I practice it with the band. Willie says, "Come on down to Chess studios tomorrow. You know where Chess studios is."I went down there the next day and made and that was my first recording session... I still got a few of those 45's. It was on Yambo Records. "The Last Home Run." And on the flipside, I think it was "All Star Boogie," with Big Walter Horton.
You were good friends with Big Walter Horton.
Branch: Big Walter he was my buddy. I didn't hang out with him as much as I should have, you know, could have. Because one time Big Walter said, "I wish we could be together every day." He was just a great! You're not gonna hear that anymore. I missed Little Walter. I missed Sonny Boy. I met Jimmy Reed one time, never heard him perform, but I met him at a party at Jim and Amy O'Neal's house. Me and Jimmy Reed and Big Walter and Honey Boy Edwards, I think it was. We passed the harp around, standing around at a party. I hung with guys like Dizz and Junior and Cotton, and Jimmy Walker and Sammy Lawhorn and Johnny Littlejohn. These guys befriended me. You know...Buddy Scott when I was a kid. Here I come playing, sitting in with him. It was amazing, you know, what a great talent (he had) that was (never recognized). He was a great vocalist, great guitar player sang and played everything, you know, and no recognition, no money. I've always bonded with the old timers. Jimmy Walker was the first guy I professionally played with. Me, him and Pete Crawford formed the Jimmy Walker Trio. That was in (the mid-'70s). We worked for Gilmore's first club Elsewhere's on Clark. Then he moved to Lincoln. We were a trio harmonica, guitar and piano. Then about a year later, I think, we added Steve Patterson who's known as Twist Turner now. Then we got a bass player, Steve Milewski. We used to play for pass-the-hat money. We used to split. We'd leave with six, seven, eight dollars apiece and all we could drink. We were just happy to be playin'.
Can you elaborate on your time with Willie Dixon? You became a member of his All-Stars in '79, right?
Branch: Yeah, approximately '79. I did that session at Chess and I'd stay in and out of touch with Willie. And I don't know if Willie called me, or I if I called him. But he said, "Hey man, we're goin' on a tour. We're goin' down on down to Antone's, we're goin' to the West Coast, we're goin to Canada. We're goin' out for six weeks. You wanna go?" I said, "Yeah. When do we leave?" He said, "Tomorrow at 12 o'clock." So I packed my shit. And, at that time, he knew Carey Bell was about to leave the band. Now Carey Bell was my closest mentor.
I can hear it.
Branch: And again, when I talk about the unsung heroes who can play the blues and chromatic harp, too, ain't nobody gonna touch Carey Bell. Nobody. He's probably the strongest Chicago blues harp player that there is. Cotton and Junior got recognition, and Carey is still very creative. But Willie knew Carey was gonna leave, so it was deep. He brought me along as an apprentice. So here's Carey Bell and here I am. You know, I wasn't makin' any money. Maybe I got food and lodging. And every once in while, I got to play. And, at that time, and with that kinda band Buster and Lafayette Leake. Lafayette Leake another one, another one of the unsung geniuses. I mean this guy was just so... dynamic. And he always wore a Hawaiian print shirt, low cap tipped to the side. Showed no emotion, never. He'd just sit there. We'd be gettin' down he never smiled. Just like that. He was the professor. Lafayette Leake knew theory. Because he used to teach piano. And even Carey Bell said he could play harp. And he was able to teach theory on harp. And Carey used to say he learned stuff from Leake. Leake used to mess with me 'cause I was young and tryin' to get it. He would say, "I wanna hear you playin' that flatted fifth like Big Walter. I wanna hear that flatted fifth and that flatted third!" And I'd say, "What you talkin' 'bout Leake?" And he would would just philosophize. We'd be in the band and Leake would create arguments and then laugh at us. He was like a philopsopher, Plato or Socrates or some damn body.
Can you talk about what Carey Bell gave you technically?
Branch: Well, not so technical, because I never had a technical approach with the blues. I never approached it from a technical standpoint. Never.
But you did adopt some of his sound... when I listen to you play, Carey Bell comes through in your sound.
Branch: And you can hear Little Walter. And you can hear Sonny Boy.
Of course. But Carey Bell more than anybody.
Branch: Well, he was the cat. I play some of his licks.
Do you remember when Bell left the All-Stars and you were made a full-timer?
Branch: One night at Wise Fools, Willie Dixon was there and Carey Bell wrote a note, or had his wife write the note, and had it passed to Willie Dixon and it said, "I quit." And he came to me and said, "You got it." I said, "What?" He said 'You got it, MF'er." So that's when I got the job. And it was hard. Because I was young, hot, and I thought I had this shit together. "I got that!" Well, number one, I had the shittiest amp. I had that damn Sears Silvertone amp, like from the old days, 'cause I didn't own an amp. This was from Willie Dixon. Buster Benton's got one of them customs, like, 300 watts. I got like, 30 watts, or something. So we go on tour and I'm blowin' so hard my lips are bleedin' every night. And I just didn't know. And Carey, everywhere I go, people are like, "Where's Carey Bell? Where's Carey Bell?" And I found out I wasn't as good as I thought I was. And I remember Willie tellin' me, "I talked to the club owner and he said, 'This harp player you got..." But Willie said, "He'll be alright." Because Willie had a theory. He told me, "I'd rather take a young guy who doesn't know so much than somebody who is experienced, who knows everything, and I can't tell 'em anything." 'Cause one thing about me, I always listened. If they told me to do X,Y, I did it, to the best of my ability. But it was hard. It was hard. At first, it was cool, 'cause the blues has so many subtleties. There are 12 bars and three chord changes. Easy. Anybody can play that shit. But to really play it and make the statement. To create that feeling, you gotta know what the hell you're doin', and it comes from the South. It's a tradition, and I was fortunate enough to be be around the old timers. I'd go to their houses. I'd play with them.
What are some of your recollections of Willie Dixon?
Branch: Willie was the great philosopher. Willie had a very astute consciousness about his mission in the blues and he always expressed it in its respective historical and political contexts. He was always, you know, preachin' the blues. You know, when I do the Blues In the Schools program, we have a slogan that we do every day, every class session, and two quotes are from Willie Dixon. I say, "Why are we here?" Then I have the kids do it. Then I say, "To sing and play the blues." "What are the blues?" "The facts of life." That's a Willie Dixon quote. Then the third question is, "What makes the blues so important?" And the kids respond, "They're our history, our culture and the roots of America's music."
Willie always preached that the blues are the facts of life and the roots of America's music... I remember we played the Rising Sun Club in Montreal, and there'd be lines around the block to see Willie Dixon. And Willie would say, "Man, you know, there was time when this used to be your folks in line for the blues." Because now it's the young white people who are the audience. But Willie went so far as to send that tune he made "It Don't Make Sense, You Can't Make Peace," to Congress and to the president. And also he had a typewritten letter mimeographed, numerous copies, and he said he sent that to every member of Congress, saying that there was a conspiracy to keep blues off the radio. And it was deep, his understanding and his analysis. And it made a lot of sense, because, see, I came to understand that the blues is not only the roots of America's music. All of the history is in the blues. You know, if you could (summarize) the plight of the black civil rights struggle to this day, you'd say, "It's the blues." 'Cause, see, to this day, black people are still fighting for equal opportunity and equal rights.
And what Willie was sayin' to me we were sittin' in the airport in Mexico City and what he was sayin' to me was that the basis of racism is, of course, ignorance. It's the misconception that black folks have not done anything but just sang and danced. Black folks have built this country. And they were inventors and scientists and there were literally thousands that were omitted from history books. We didn't learn anything about that until I got to college and learned about black history. But Willie said, and it was such a deep thing, he said, "Well, if it becomes known that my culture is just as rich or even greater than your culture, then what basis do you have to put me down?" And all of this is kind of tyin' in with the group. An so, therefore, if I start playin' the blues, then people say "Hmmm...Howlin' Wolf, the Rolling Stones, huh." Then people are gonna start getting into the history. And when you start getting into history, then you say, 'Damn, black folks really did make major contributions. Not only in music, but in science and industry and in engineering and in all fields. So, I thought it was amazing that he was able to make that connection with the music and to discrimination.
Can you discuss the genesis of the SOB's?
Branch: We were recruited in 1977 to appear at the Berlin Jazz Festival at which they normally don't have blues. And we were, like, the answer to the question "Are there any young black guys playin' blues?" So Jim O' Neal was commissioned to assemble this aggregation of young, black blues musicians. I think there was 13 of us and we comprised about three bands. It was James Kinds, Dead Eye Norris, Bombay Carter, Harmonica Hinds, and a brother from the West Side, a tall, light-skinned cat, Vernon Harrington.
So you're over in Berlin and that was one of the first times that you played together as the band known as the SOB's?
Branch: Jim O'Neal said, "Well, it would be good if you could go." And, naturally, Freddie Dixon was going to be the bass player and we didn't have any ideas for a guitar player, so, Jim suggested Lurrie (Bell). And I remember I went by Lurrie's house and talked to Carey and asked him if it was OK, because Lurrie was 19. And he said, "Yeah, I guess it would be all right. But just take care of him now, just take care of him." I said, "Yeah, I'll take care of him." And then Clifton James' son, Garland Whiteside, was our drummer, but just for that gig, because Jeff Ruffin recorded.
I remember seeing you guys on PBS not too long after that.
Branch: Yeah, singin' "Tear Down the Berlin Wall," because my buddy Lucius Barner wrote that tune and he said, "I can't go, but I'm gonna go in spirit." So he wrote the words and I kinda put the music to it and arranged it and that's when we did "Tear Down the Berlin Wall." And Willie did a little rap thing over it, that went, "If you hear the holler, answer the call, 'cause we gonna tear down the Berlin Wall!" And we were singin' "Berlin Wall," and Willie's got his cane no he got his crutches! And he's doin' this little step, and we got behind him doin' this circle around him.
Now when you came back to the United States, the band just stuck together and started gigging?
Branch: I think it was concurrent with working with Willie Dixon. You know, I think when we be home, we started bookin' a few little gigs, you know, on our own.
What was runnin' through your mind at the time, as far as how you perceived yourself as young blues artists? Did you feel like you were this new generation?
Branch: Well, in a way we did. There was kind of a consciousness of that. I think, especially because we started workin' gigs where they normally didn't have blues. We converted lounges into blues bars. Then Lurrie left. We had a tour overseas and Lurrie left the band. Then John Watkins worked with us for a little while and, I think, Johnny B. Moore worked with us a little bit.
What lineup of the SOBs did you like the most? Which one worked best for you?
Branch: Well... man, it's hard to say. It was all good, you know... they were all good. But Lurrie, of course, you know, has that genius creativity and it was fun because I even listen to these records where he would hit these grooves and he'd make me play stuff that in a lot of instances I wouldn't play because of the way he would lay down the rhythm and the lead at the same time.
Were there ever any ego problems in the SOBs?
Branch: Well, in a sense, I think, when J.W. left the band, it was kind of a (situation like that) because he was a leader himself. In the latter years, because wherever we would go they would feature my name instead of J.W. Williams, and he'd been out there (working as a musician) before I was even thinkin' about it. But we parted on good terms, you know. He said, "I got to go." And I understood it, because he needed his own space. So we parted amicably on that note.
If the SOB's had a mission statement, can you summarize what it might be? What were the goals of the band when you first formed it?
Branch: Initially, all we wanted to do was play. It wasn't, what's the word?
Maybe it wasn't as "premeditated" an outfit as some people thought it was?
When I was a kid, I thought you guys were a gang or something!
Branch: Yeah! But it wasn't like this great consciousness... it developed later. At the inception, it wasn't like we were there trying to prove anything. We just wanted to play. But, as we continued to work, we became aware that we were, well, in many instances, bringing the blues back into the black community. For example, we played a place called Mother's Lounge over on East 79th for years. We played The Raven Lounge on 88th and Stony these were weekly gigs we did for years. And to this day, Artis's. And most of these clubs like Mothers and The Raven, they were local hangouts where they would have a DJ, but they never had bands before. And I remember, at Mothers, the reaction to us. They'd had some like jazzy combos. So we faced resistance when we came in. Mother and people were like, "Yeah, OK." But we hung in there, and after two or three months people were like, " Play the blues." This was a sophisticated black middle class clientele, so we had to kinda baptize 'em, and they became loyal fans and followers.
At that age, playing blues in the traditional way that you did, you must have freaked out a lot of black people on the South Side.
Branch: Yeah. But, you know you gotta remember that that's where I learned on the South Side. I was spendin' years of on-the-job trainin' at Theresa's and Pepper's lounges and the Checkerboard, and lounges on the West Side that I can't even remember now. I remember the Majestic Lounge...So we did kind of develop a consciousness that we were doin' somethin', 'cause we were changin' people's attitudes towards the blues.
Did any of the older guys like Lafayette Leake or Willie Dixon or Buster Benton in their later years convey to you any hope that they had for your bringing the blues into the future, and for you being a torchbearer of the music?
Branch: Well, Willie Dixon did. I mean, face it. We were young and crazy and we were doin' things that young and crazy cats did! And durin' those times, I'd get a summons, "Hey, Willie wants to see you." And I'd be like "Oh no, not now! Not now!" And I'd go into that dressing room and usually it'd be some, little, cold little cold six by eight, six by six square little box of a dressing room and Lafayette Leake and Willie would be sittin' there so somber and they'd say, "Hey boss, now, I told you. I told you, now. Just about everybody with me goes on and enjoys a good career. You got a great future. But you can't keep on this way." And Lafayette Leake too, he used to tease me, he used to say, "You are supposed to be the best. You are supposed to be the best. Look at Sugar Blue, he's gettin' a name, Big Walter Horton. You're supposed to right up there with 'em." So he was very encouraging and admonishing.
Willie had to be supportive of your working with kids in the blues.
Branch: Especially, in later years, even after I broke away, he would come to the school when I would do the Blues in the Schools on the West Side. He made a point to be there in the audience and he loved it. Because somewhere in there, he had the Blues Heaven dream in conjunction with some of the dreams that I had about spreading (blues) and teaching it to children.
It's becoming easier to see how you became this personality that you are this hard-driving, staunch purveyor of blues. At least that's how many people view you. It's a hell of a nice way to be thought of you know.
Branch: (Laughing) Well, you know what? Like I say, the last thing, probably, logically, that I should be doin', is what I'm doin'. I was an honor student in school. I had perfect attendance, probably, almost all the way through high school. And I was, basically, kind of a shy guy. I grew up in L.A., and I remember when I played with Willie Dixon, I went back to L.A. and I tried to get my friends to come and none of 'em showed up except the father of one of my best buddies. He said, "Yeah, I'll go witcha." It was Mr. Martin. So Mr. Martin came out there. We rode out there and he dug it. And on the way home he just shook his head and he said, "Man, if you would have told me you were going to be a preacher, I would have believed it. If you told me you were gonna be a doctor, I would have believed it. If you'd have told you were going to be a lawyer, I'd have believed it. But a blues singer..." This was so alien to him. And because I came to see the beauty and the power of this music, it almost compelled me to be a spokesperson for it.
For example, for the Howlin' Wolfs and the Muddy Waters, well, this was their life. I mean, it wasn't no big thing to them. In the early years they weren't sure this was some revolutionary thing. They were tryin' to make a livin'. But man. Man, this is some powerful stuff. And then with the history. And for me to come to be befriended by the legends the Detroit Juniors, Sunnyland, Cotton, and Lefty Dizz and Floyd Jones and all of these cats, man, you know... and I started to see, to get a sense of the disparity. And to see these guys here, living in poverty, only heralded probably when they go out of town, or on a small basis, in their own city. But the fact that these guys were such masters, and geniuses, and not getting the accolades, not getting the recognition, not getting the money, you know, and that was a compelling revelation. And I think that during the course of playing I also felt a mission to, in whatever little way I could, to try to correct that.
Have you sat down and strategized how you are going to go about keeping the blues alive in your own way. Or are you so busy, and do things just keep clicking, and days keep going by so you don't really think about it?
Branch: Well, I do think about it, but sometimes you do get into the grind. I've said for a long time that I wish I could just take six months off.
Have you ever taken a vacation?
Branch: Well I have a couple of times up to two weeks, you know. But I need a Germany. I need to sit back and collect thoughts. Because, you know, the blues is so open right now and there are so many possibilities. And I've got a lot of contacts that I've neglected to tap and it's time.
Can you be more specific about what you would do if you had time off?
Branch:Well, I'd probably write more songs. I probably would be more direct in my approach, rather than from night to night.
Would you leave the country?
Branch: You know, I've thought about that. I've always had the feeling that I would never leave Chicago, but it's changed now. And for the first time I'm actually looking at that idea as an option. The reason I didn't want to leave is because I couldn't get anywhere else the things that I could get here and the reason was the old timers. But the old timers are dyin' and you know, it's not the same as when Dizz was here and Blues Mondays at the Checkerboard. And Cotton was a part of it and Junior and Carey Bell and Big Walter and my best buddy, Jimmy Walker, who just passed.
So it's a transition now. You got the new bloods. You know, Carl (Weathersby) said it right when he said (in Living Blues), "It's a new blues." It is which I respect and which I enjoy playin' to a degree. But the cats are gone. Sunnyland is gone and I love playin' the classic stuff and I like playin' the new stuff... here, guys are playin' the blues, but, I don't know, maybe I'm an old fogie or somethin'... I love that classic, old stuff when it's played well. You know, you can't play "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Hoochie Coochie Man" and all of the standards all night anymore. But when those guys like Big Walter and Louis Myers and Sammy Lawhorn would play I mean that was classic stuff, man. And again, these guys died unheralded, they died in poverty and now, the new breed, they're not pickin' up on it, on the nuances, the subtleties. It's almost a lost art.