"Paying your dues" is just a casual catchphrase for most of us, but for Carey Bell it signifies much more. Although he's now a renowned patriarch among blues-harp players and has, as a leader, released six acclaimed recordings since 1990, Bell spent most of the previous four-plus decades as a backing musician. When harp gigs became scarce in the '60s, he even gave up the harmonica for a time to play bass behind such legends as Robert Nighthawk and Big Walter Horton.
Born in Macon, Mississippi, in 1936, Bell became a Chicago-blues stalwart when he moved there in 1956 with his godfather, pianist Lovie Lee. The timing was critical for his development as a blues-harmonica stylist. Bell had the chance to learn firsthand from Little Walter Jacobs, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Horton, all of whom influenced Bell's distinctive sound: compact, stinging licks, often introduced by bloodcurdling moans.
Bell's virtuosity will be on display this Saturday night at BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups from 10 p.m. until 2:30 in the morning. It's the kickoff gig of a tour that will take Bell and his band across the Midwest and South (and even to Las Vegas) throughout January. If you're into blues harp, don't miss this one. When Carey Bell hits a solo, it's like a hot-wired connection to the roots of Chicago electric blues.