I focus my writing activities on most of the primary roots music genres of the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that interest me the most: blues, R&B, doo-wop, country, rockabilly, rock and roll, and soul. I’ve largely phased out covering contemporary blues the way I once did, with a few notable artists who carry on the tradition being exceptions; I prefer interviewing still-active musicians from the eras mentioned above and documenting musical history to identifying the next trend. Although liner notes are my primary calling, I continue to write for various magazines and websites as well.
It all began with my
As the jukebox king of downstate Decatur, Illinois, he would hand me piles of scratchy 45s too hacked up to be of any further use on the Seeburgs and Wurlitzers he serviced. At the age of four, with the unstinting encouragement of my mother (whose tastes ran more towards Louis Jordan and Les Paul), I was seduced by Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Coasters, the Drifters, and Elvis Presley.
I would bring the precious records back home to Chicago (where I was born) and proceeded to spin them endlessly on my $29 record player, its leaden tonearm digging new gouges into the battered platters (I still can’t hear Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife” without anticipating the skip marring my original EP).
My musical education picked up speed as I squandered my daily lunch money inside the myriad record stores surrounding Metro High School in the Loop, always choosing to explore the past rather than listen to the latest FM rock hits like my classmates. As my ears opened ever wider, I progressed from Chuck Berry, Ricky Nelson and Carl Perkins to the Clovers, Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner to B.B., Freddy and Albert King to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. The melismatic intensity of soul music simultaneously invaded my expanding world: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding—and of course, the mighty Motown roster (Junior Walker and Marvin Gaye were my initial favorites).
At Columbia College, I was convinced Chicago would open its collective civic arms to a new blues and soul deejay (from youth springs incredible naivete), so I majored in radio. I conducted my first interview in 1975 with Roy Montrell, a veteran New Orleans guitarist then touring as a sideman with Fats Domino, airing the results on the college in-house “radio station” (where it was ignored by a half-dozen groggy students in the campus cafeteria). There have been a few hundred more since then. From 1979 to 1981, I deejayed for real at WVVX-FM, an oldies station in suburban Highland Park, holding down the Saturday overnight shift (midnight-6 a.m.!).
Since I always possessed a natural ability to write, it made sense to cover blues for the campus newspaper. After graduation, I submitted a record review to the Illinois Entertainer, a free monthly music publication. They never ran it but soon allowed me the opportunity to write numerous blues features and reviews. I free-lanced for the Entertainer from 1978 to 1993; for those last four years I did a monthly blues column for them as well.
Also in 1978, I began writing record reviews and features for Living Blues magazine, then headquartered in Chicago. Things were different then—you did it strictly for the love of the music, since there was no payment involved. But the connection offered priceless experience and an opportunity to learn more. I began writing on a regular basis for Goldmine, a national music collector’s magazine, in 1981, and from 1990 to 1997 I free-lanced extensively for the Chicago Tribune, writing a blues column for the paper that I was extremely proud of for four years (when they spiked the column, I quit the paper in protest). Those publications are now long in the rear view mirror for me, replaced primarily by Vintage Rock, a U.K. specialist magazine, and Blues Music Magazine.
I began writing liner notes for albums in 1985. Jimmy Johnson’s Bar Room Preacher on Alligator was the first to hit the shelves with my annotation, when vinyl was still the leading medium. I had found my niche. By the mid-‘90s, with the blessed advent of the compact disc, I was writing nearly as many liner notes as articles. I’ve written hundreds of liner notes for major labels (Universal, Rhino, Sony/Legacy, Motown, EMI, The Right Stuff, PolyGram, Arista, BMG/Buddha, Virgin/The Right Stuff, Concord) and top independent firms (Bear Family, Shout! Factory, Sundazed, Fuel 2000, Collectors' Choice, Ace, Delmark, Jamie/Guyden, Great American Music, RWA, Real Gone, Abkco, Brunswick, Airline, Sunset Blvd., Collectables, Westside, Earwig, Blue Bella, Varese Sarabande, Empire Musicwerks) located both here and overseas. Reissues are my primary focus. In addition to annotating blues, R&B, soul, rockabilly, and vintage rock discs, I’ve compiled or co-compiled CDs for Rhino, MCA, Fuel 2000, Sunset Blvd., Virgin/The Right Stuff, Hip-O, Great American Music, Bear Family, Ace, and Varese Sarabande.
In 1998, I was nominated for a GRAMMY® in the Album Notes category for my contribution to Rhino’s boxed set Ray Charles Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (my essay paid tribute to his legendary sax section). I co-authored the liner notes for all 14 of Hip-O Select's acclaimed The Complete Motown Singles CD boxed sets and wrote extensive notes for Bear Family’s boxed sets on Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, and two on Freddie King covering his entire career. I also produced and compiled Bear Family’s Plug It In! Turn It Up! Electric Blues 1939-2005—The Definitive Collection!, a four-volume set that won the 2013 Blues Music Award for Historical Album, as well as compiling and producing Bear Family’s 15-volume Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo Wop in 2013.
In 2000, I received a Keepin’ the Blues Alive Award for journalism from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. And in November of 2001, Krause Publications released Motown: The Golden Years, my first full-length book, with candid color photos by esteemed former Motown promo guru Weldon A. McDougal III. In 2016, I co-wrote The Art of the Blues, a coffee-table tome, with Chris James for University of Chicago Press, and the following year collaborated on the autobiography Survivor: The Benny Turner Story (Nola Blue).
After more than three decades off the radio airwaves (I played oldies on WVVX-FM from 1979 to 1981), I briefly revived my deejaying career in 2013 with a vintage soul program on WNUR-FM, then guested once a month on Leslie Keros’ WDCB-FM show Messin’ With the Blues from 2014-2016. I miss being on the radio immensely and hope to return one day if some enlightened program director has a need for a wide-ranging soul/R&B/blues show ranging from the ‘40s through the ‘70s.