Cover photo by Bob Kieser© 2014 Blues Blast Magazine
Featured Blues Interview – Barrelhouse Chuck
There are several things that the average person might expect to find waiting on them at home after a long day’s work.
A good hot meal, the embrace of a loving spouse and perhaps the local news on TV are a few of those things.
However, Barrelhouse Chuck is by no means your average person, and upon his return home one evening, he found none of the above. Instead, he found a snoring and drunk Detroit Junior just inside the door on his fold-out couch.
“I got home from a gig at about 5 a.m. and there was about 10 of these Jewel (grocery store) bags with the handles all taped together and he (Detroit Junior) was laying on my couch, passed out, with about seven or eight of my bottles of liquor sitting there and he had a bunch of butts in the ashtray,” laughed Chuck “And I said, ‘Yeah! I got him now.’ And he lived with me for a couple of months after that. He was homeless (at the time) and I took him in. My girlfriend had called me on the way to my gig that night and said, ‘Detroit called and wanted to know if it would be OK if he dropped some stuff by.’ And that’s what I find when I get home. But man, those were really great times.”
Most people might have balked at having Howlin’ Wolf’s former pianist living on their couch for a few months, but not Harvey Charles Goering – aka Barrelhouse Chuck. Instead of freaking out about such situations, he simply embraced and enjoyed them.
“Detroit Junior (Emery Williams) had a really unique gift. Almost no other Chicago blues piano player I have ever met has written so many different kinds of songs, with such great lyrics, like: “If I Hadn’t Been High,” “Call My Job,” Money Tree,” “Had to be a Miracle” and “Christmas Blues,”” said Chuck. “He could sing and play great rock-n-roll and R&B piano … he was more than just a blues player. And he was a great entertainer. I had to follow him at the piano night after night and it was difficult to follow him with he was done. He would crawl under the piano so all you could see were his hands!”
One would be hard-pressed to come up with many more alive-and-kicking purveyors of the authentic Chicago piano blues than Barrelhouse Chuck. That much is obvious from his recent nomination for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year award at the upcoming Blues Music Awards (BMA). Sure, to be fair, there are others that currently play Chicago piano blues, but none have lived it, breathed it, tasted it and experienced it like he has. And unlike a lot of the pack, he undertook his studies not from a textbook, but rather from a seat pulled right up next to the bandstand.
“I never really sat down with books or listened to records over and over and over to learn how to play. I never was good enough to copy records. But the key (to learning and then developing your own style) is you have to listen to the right guys,” he said. “When I figured out who the right guys were, then I learned to watch those guys live. I would look at their hands and fingers on the piano and I would try to steal one lick every night. I would get right up behind them on stage and watch them solo. One lick a night is what I would freeze in my mind and then walk away. But after that, you have to be able to put your own stamp on things.”
Since blowing into the WindyCity nearly 40 years ago, Chuck has surely stamped the Hell out of things. He’s played with and lent his enviable piano skills to a cavalcade of blues stars – past, present and probably future, too. Currently, he’s supporting his latest release with Kim Wilson’s Blues All-Stars, titled Driftin’ From Town to Town (The Sirens Records).
“I really want to thank Steven Dollins (The Sirens Records). He’s devoted his label to blues piano, boogie woogie, gospel and Hammond B3 organ music,” Chuck said. “Without his support, I wouldn’t have my music out there like I do. He believed in me and recorded me as a bandleader when no one else in Chicago would.”
Driftin’ From Town to Town was just nominated for a BMA in the Traditional Blues Album of the Year category.
“We recorded that album – knocked it out – in about four hours. It’s all one take. It’s just a really tight, fun CD. I have had the opportunity and privilege to play with almost all the legendary harp players – the living and contemporary, as well as the dead, except for Sonny Boy and Little Walter – and now I’m playing with the greatest of them all, Kim Wilson,” he said. “Kim Wilson has done more for my career, getting me out there nationally, putting me on Cadillac Records (2008 soundtrack to the movie about Chess Records), putting me on tour and playing things like the first inauguration for President Obama. And we did the Howlin’ for Hubert thing at the Apollo Theater with Clapton and Keith Richards and Billy Gibbons and James Cotton and all those great players; all that is through Kim Wilson. He is the greatest bandleader I’ve ever played with. And he’s just the nicest guy in the world, too. With Kim, there’s no setlist. We just go out there and wing it every night. He hollers out a key and I’ll just start playing. Some of the most fun times I’ve ever had is playing in this band. We’ve been playing and touring together for nine years.”
It’s for good reason that the band accompanying Chuck on Driftin’ From Town to Town is labeled as an ‘All-Star’ band.
“Oh my God, Richard Inness (drums) played in The Hollywood Fats Band and played with Little Richard when he was just a kid and let me tell you, he’s one of the greatest drummers I’ve played with in my life. He played with Otis Spann when he was just 16 and is the closest thing to Earl Palmer or Fred Below you will ever hear play the drums. And Larry ‘The Mole’ Taylor, he plays bass in this band and when he was a kid, he played with Jerry Lee Lewis. He was 15 and got to go over to Elvis’ house and have dinner with Elvis and Jerry Lee, twice. (Taylor also played for Canned Heat and was at both the Monterey Pop and Woodstock Music & Arts Festival with the band). And on guitar we’ve got Billy Flynn, who can play anything by anybody – he’s just the greatest and is so dead-on. We’ve played more than 30 sessions together. Then there’s Jeremy Johnson, a fantastic guitar player, and the greatest saxophone player on the planet – Sax Gordon. He takes a solo and it’s all over, man. It’s like a dream team. We just walk in the studio and knock out 24 songs in four hours, that’s how good those guys are.”
Chuck can be found locally playing a solo piano gig just about every Wednesday at Barrelhouse Flat, a club located on North Lincoln in Chicago (“All the old blues haunts are right down the street and it’s literally across from Alice’s, where Howlin’ Wolf used to play,” he said.) He’s also been spotted regularly on Monday nights at Katerina’s, where he plays with his favorite piano player and label mate, Erwin Helfer. Helfer also joins Chuck at Barrelhouse Flat a couple of times a month.
“I met him when I was 19 at the Cornell Lounge, which was the first gig that I had in Chicago. And back then, Erwin, who was about 40 at the time, sounded like an old man. He was playing Speckled Red and Jimmy Yancey. He took a liking to me and the way that I played and we’ve been best friends ever since. He can play “In a Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington) and leave tears in my eyes. He’s just so beloved in Chicago and even has a street named after him – Erwin Helfer Way. He’s really the oldest living blues piano player we have left here in the city. He still teaches piano out of his home … I love Erwin.”
Helfer, Pinetop Perkins, Detroit Junior and Chuck recorded 8 Hands on 88 keys (2003 The Sirens Records release) together. “What a fun time we had … a true classic session,” he said.
Scott Grube, another talented piano player and friend of Chuck’s also frequents Barrelhouse Flat every other Tuesday, truly making Chicago the epicenter for authentic piano blues. “He plays Roosevelt Sykes and can bang out many of the old classic blues pieces, some that even go back to the 1920s,” Chuck said.
Chuck’s musical tutelage came via an amazing who’s-who of the most legendary and influential piano players to ever walk this earth. Hall of Famers, Grammy Award winners and even some that were criminally under-rated on the national radar – Chuck picked up something from them all; cats like Pinetop Perkins, Sunnyland Slim, the afore-mentioned Detroit Junior, Blind John Davis and Little Brother Montgomery … to just barely scratch the surface. Put it this way – it’s highly unlikely that there’s been a piano player around the Chicagoland area for the last 40 years that Chuck has not shared the bandstand, or maybe even a nip out of the bottle, with. But his relationship with those iconic ivory-ticklers on the stage is just a small part of his story. Because as much pride as he takes in the lessons he learned, which is considerable, Chuck takes double that pride in the familial bonds he formed with those gentleman.
“I would go and drop my girl off at the Hancock (Center) and then I’d just go and spend the whole day at Little Brother Montgomery’s house. And eventually, I had the key to his house and even took care of him the last few years of his life,” he said. “And Big Moose Walker (who played with Earl Hooker), I used to play the left hand for him after he had a stroke. There were just so many people that were so important to me; so many that I considered to be my family.”
As a part of that extended family, Chuck got the rare opportunity to hang out with those cats at the very spots where they created some invaluable works of art, art that is still treasured and held in high esteem to this very day.
“I used to take Little Brother to the Furniture Mart (on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago), where he had recorded “Vicksburg Blues” in 1929 and I’d take Hubert (Sumlin) to Chess Records and we’d be sitting out there at 2120 South Michigan drinking whiskey at 4 in the morning, listening to The Wolf,” he said. “He’d be telling me stories about how they used to hang out at the Blues Room down the street on the corner until they’d send for them (to go into the studio). I heard stories about guys waiting to record at the Furniture Mart and how they’d be passed out in the hallway and how you’d have to step over them to get in the studio. And Little Brother told me that he used to walk down Michigan Avenue with Fats Waller on one side and Louis Armstrong on the other … just some amazing, amazing stories. But I knew the histories about all those guys and I’d always ask questions. I’ve always been fascinated to learn about the guys that I admired from people that were really there.”
To most, names like Big Moose and Blind John and Little Brother are just words seen in history books about the blues or perhaps on the back of a CD case, but to Chuck, those names – and the men they belong to – are integral attachments to his very being. You can almost feel the core of his soul when he relates the stories that once filled every hour of his every day.
“I used to sit outside of Little Brother’s house at 3 a.m. and listen to his tapes and at 5 a.m. his light would pop on. I’d knock at the door when I saw his light was on and it would be slightly open and he’d have five hot dogs boiling madly on the stove,” he said. “He’d look at me and say, ‘I figured you’d be here.’ You know, sitting out in front of this man’s house, listening to his music and waiting for his light to come on … I was just in awe of him.”
Little Brother not only played the piano for Chuck, but he showed him the keys he could play in and even let Chuck record him.
“I must have over 100 hours of tapes of Little Brother. His two brothers – Tollie and Joe, along with his sister, Willie Bell Montgomery – would also come over and everyone would take turns playing piano,” he said. “Tollie taught Otis Spann and you could hear it in his playing. And Joe, who played a little like Fats Waller, played piano on sessions with J.B. Lenoir; Willie Bell played church hymns.”
Not only was Chuck in awe of Little Brother Montgomery, he was also in awe of Little Brother’s friends.
“I’d be over there and he’d say, ‘Lafayette Leake is coming over.’ Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters would drop by. And one day, Jay McShann was over there. And McShann was sitting there with a TV trey in front of him with a gallon of vodka on it. I walked over and said, ‘It’s an honor to meet you, sir.’ And he had a piece of pizza in his hand and was about to take a bite,” said Chuck. “Well, less than 20 seconds after I walked in, Brother said, ‘Jay, play Chuck a blues.’ And he tossed that pizza down on the TV tray and got up to go over to the piano. I said, ‘Hey, Jay, you can finish your pizza first.’ But he jumped up on that piano and played “Confessin’ the Blues.”
Chuck also managed to catch the eye of Big Walter Horton, which depending on the day, could be either a good thing or a bad thing.
“Well, he pulled a knife on me one time. But he used to give me the chord every time I saw him play and I must have saw him over 30 times. Didn’t matter if I was 100 feet from the bandstand or not. My friend was Little Joe Berson and Joe was his protégée, so I think Walter was just messing with Joe and would give me more attention than him,” laughed Chuck. “But for some reason, he liked me and would come up and give me the cord. He’d rub his whiskers on the side of my face and blow this freakin’ harp in my face until the top of my head went numb. But man, you talk about tone … you know, ‘No tone, stay at home.’”
Little Joe, Chuck and Big Walter would hang out at the Tokyo Hotel and one evening at B.L.U.E.S., they played a game of ‘which Walter is it?’ “Big Walter was standing next to me and we were listening to Little Walter on the jukebox. Walter says to me, ‘That’s me!’ I said, ‘Excuse, me, but isn’t that Little Walter?’ And he goes, ‘No! That’s me playing.’ So, I go, ‘Oh, OK.’ Then Big Walter said to me, ‘Aren’t you glad you can play?’”
It was his good buddy Little Joe Berson that stuck the ‘Barrelhouse’ tag onto the front of Chuck’s name.
“The first song I ever learned to play was “Barrelhouse Woman” (Leroy Carr) and I’ve played it twice a night, every night of my life since. It’s my favorite song, to this day,” he said. “And Little Joe Berson heard me playing and singing this song and he just started calling me Barrelhouse Chuck and it just stuck. I didn’t ask for it, he just called it and that was it.”
Berson was like a big brother and was the guy that Chuck first came to Chicago to play music with. “He was Jimmy Rogers’ harmonica player in Chicago. Joe had the harp mic passed to him from both of them (Big Walter and Jimmy Rogers) and when Joe was playing, you couldn’t tell the difference of who was playing,” Chuck said. “His tone could sound just like Big Walter or James Cotton or John Lee (Williamson, Sonny Boy I) or Rice Miller (Sonny Boy II). Joe died on Dec. 2, 1988 and it still hurts my heart to this day that he’s gone. I never really got over his passing.”
Sunnyland Slim was known as an enormous magnet for blues men and women – regardless of their instrument of choice – and he was also a regular visitor at Little Brother’s place.
“Every Friday, Sunnyland would come over and it would be just Sunnyland, Little Brother and myself for the first year of me going over there – just us three – and we’d hang out. Sunnyland would bring Brother fish every Friday,” he said. “And Sunnyland never once got mad because I liked Brother so much. It was funny, but he’d say to me behind Little Brother’s back, ‘You know, Brother can’t sing.’ And Brother would say to me behind Sunnyland’s back, ‘Well he’s good for the two or three songs he can play.’ And through Sunnyland, I met Memphis Slim and Eddie Boyd and got to play with 100 of the greatest blues artists at B.L.U.E.S. on Sunday nights. I played there with Big Smokey Smothers for three years; the Sunnyland Slim Band would follow us. But can you imagine all these guys when they’d get together? One night at a club you might have S. P. Leary, Fred Below, Floyd Jones, Sunnyland, Big Walter, Eddie Taylor, Hubert Sumlin, Willie Johnson, Johnny Little John, Henry Grey, Jimmy Walker and then you’d have Fuzz (Calvin Jones) or the great Bobby Anderson on bass. They’d get up and play and they’d sound just like they did on those Testament or on those Chess Records. And then, Slim would make me follow him on the piano. They just had the magic and to witness those guys up on the bandstand 30 years or so after those records were made was just amazing. That’s what really re-charged my batteries and inspired me.”
It was simply with the sole intention of meeting the great Sunnyland Slim that brought Chuck from Florida to Chicago back in 1979.
“I drove 24 hours straight from Gainesville to Chicago and opened up the door at B.L.U.E.S. and there sat Sunnyland. I said, ‘I just drove 24 hours to meet you.’ He goes, ‘How you doing, son? Come on in.’”
While that trip proved worthwhile since he got to meet and hang with his idol, and he also landed a gig at the Cornell Lounge in the process, the trip didn’t last as long as he may have preferred, when – as they are prone to do in the world of playing the blues – times got really tough for Chuck.
“Well, I got evicted from my hotel because I didn’t have any money and I worked for a guy and at the end of two weeks, he didn’t pay me. So I ran into some really hard times,” he said. “I was homeless and hungry in Chicago. I stayed up all night and then just walked around during the day … I literally did not have any money. Finally, I begged my dear mother to wire me $50 and I got out of Chicago. I tried my best to make it, but it was just too much.”
Chuck moved to Seattle (and started a band called Blue Lights), then on to Alaska (where he ran off with a club owner’s daughter!) and then in 1982, made his way back to Chicago, this time to stay.
Something of a gifted musician from birth (he was the only student in his elementary school to score 100 on a musical aptitude test), Chuck first started out as a drummer, picking up the sticks at 5 years old.
Then, at age 9, fate, in the form of a Scholastic Book, stepped in.
“I saw this book with a picture of Muddy Waters on it and said, ‘Man, if I ever see a record by him, I’m gonna’ buy it.’ So I found a Muddy Waters 8-track, Brass & the Blues, and that’s when I first heard Otis Spann. And I heard that piano and said, ‘Man, listen to that. I wanna’ play piano.’ Later, the piano on “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had,” was what struck me.”
Spann has always been held in high regard – and rightfully so – when it comes to the best of the best Chicago blues piano players. But according to Chuck, sounding like the late, great Spann is another matter entirely.
“A lot of young guys today think that since Otis Spann is the greatest piano player, that they’ll try and sound just like him. But I got news for you; Spann played so well because he was really living a life of the blues,” he said. “He was such in the gutter; the poor guy was living in Muddy’s basement and didn’t have any money and had cancer and drank a lot. But that’s how a lot of those guys lived and that’s one reason they played the blues so well. The played the blues, they lived the blues and they died at an early age. If you want to play like Otis Spann, you’ve got to live like Otis Spann and I don’t recommend drinking and living like that. I loved the way that Otis played the blues. Because of him, I try to play today. Otis, along with Leroy Carr, is to me, two of the saddest players to ever play the blues. Those guys paid a price to play like that.”
Out of that heavy price came some seriously heavy music, too.
“When you hear “Vicksburg Blues” or “Chicago Breakdown” (Big Maceo) or “Marie” (Otis Spann), those great instrumentals, those guys are playing their asses off and I would get a little bit from all those songs,” Chuck said. “I wouldn’t try to play the whole song, I would just get a little bit and throw it into another song, you know?”
He didn’t really seriously start pounding out the piano until he was about 16, but once he started, Chuck started by playing the Chicago blues and that’s the style that he still favors to this very day. That style developed quickly too, because he was playing with the great Bo Diddley when he was a still-tender 17 years old.
“He (Bo Diddley) told me, ‘Chuck, you got that Chess sound.’ And it was huge to hear that from him. But I’ve always been a Chicago-styled piano player; I’ve not ventured out to play much New Orleans style piano. A lot of the New Orleans style of piano seems to be right on the beat … it is a different style,” he said. “The structure, timing and feel with Cuban rhumba is different between Chicago and New Orleans piano, but of course some of the influences do cross over. I love listening to Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair and watching them play on videos.”
It was back south in Gainesville that Chuck got his first real taste of some red-hot live piano playing, courtesy of Jim McKaba and the Tampa Fred Blues Band.
“Jim played blues piano with Little Joe Berson until the end of the 70s and he played with Muddy, Big Walter and Jimmy Rogers in Chicago. He plays piano, foot bass and B3 and he still lives in Jacksonville,” said Chuck. “Muddy would say, ‘Let me hear you, Pinetop’ and it would be Jim, because Muddy couldn’t see behind the upright. Jim’s on that level, he can play Jimmy Smith on the B3 … what a talent. They guy is just so gifted and a great, great Chicago blues-styled piano player and I love the way he can sing, too. He really made me want to get up and play. We’re still best friends and when I’m in Florida, I see him every chance I get. These days, his band is called Jim McKaba and the After Hours Band.”
Once he did make the decision to get up and play, it’s been full-steam ahead ever since.
“I’ve been a musician for about 50 years and have been playing blues piano for 40 and right from the get-go I’ve been trying to carry on the rich legacy of all these wonderful guys that I was fortunate enough to play with and to know,” he said. “Every night on the bandstand I do “Call my Job” and say this is a Detroit Junior song and I talk about Leroy Carr and Sunnyland Slim and about all these people that were huge icons in my life. And my mission in my life has been to play the music of the people that I used to play with. So a lot of the songs that I play now, I used to play with the guys that wrote the songs and recorded them back in the day.”
The cool thing about the way that Chuck presents that material is that while he’s obviously paying tribute to the giants that forged it, he also manages to put his own little spin on the tunes, keeping listeners on their toes.
“Well, for example, my version of “Call my Job” – since Detroit Junior played with Howlin’ Wolf, I take “Shake it Baby” from The Wolf and mix that with a Jimi Hendrix’ “Killing Floor” bass line and put it all into ‘Call my Job,” he said. “Detroit Junior played it more straight, more of a slow blues thing. But it’s nice to remember and honor those people that were always so nice to me.”
It seems like these days, the entire live music scene is just not as vibrant as it once was, with people opting to stay at home and listen to CDs or watch TV instead of enjoying the experience that only seeing musicians do their thing in the flesh and blood can provide. That also has a bearing on passing down musical tricks of the trade from one generation to the next.
“Today a lot of these kids don’t want to come down and hear people play like I used to do. People ask me if I teach. Well, first of all, if you want to learn from me, you should come down and hang out, buy some of my CDs and watch me play for awhile,” he said. “And then maybe I’ll help you out. But a lot of the young players coming up are mostly interested in playing blues/rock and that’s really not my thing. I never got away from the Chess sound. Anything on Chess Records is what I love. I’ve always been locked in a time zone with my music. I have almost every blues and rock-n-roll release that Chess/Checker Records ever made in my collection.”
Not that Chuck has anything against blues/rock, or for that matter, straight up rock-n-roll in general.
“I still love rock and grew up with it. Everybody knows one of my favorite guys in the whole world is Stevie Winwood. He can play 12 different instruments. I love all his stuff … Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith, his solo stuff. I know him and love him and have everything he ever did,” he said. “He took jazz, blues, folk, Irish and blended it all together in Traffic and it was the greatest thing. And I love Hendrix. I’m his biggest fan. But I don’t want to hear anybody else playing Hendrix. I want to hear him. And those two guys (Winwood and Hendrix) can just sing so unbelievable – I could never sing like that.”
One legend often cited by Winwood and Hendrix alike as a musical hero was the father of electric Chicago blues – Muddy Waters. And it turns out that as a young man, Chuck was also smitten with the power and presence of the man from Clarksdale, so much so that just as ‘Deadheads’ followed the Grateful Dead from town to town and show to show, Chuck did the same thing with Muddy. Just call him a ‘Mudhead.’
“Well, it was the greatest time of my life. I’d follow them around and wait for the van with Illinois plates to pull into the parking lot. Willie Smith or Pinetop would spot us, wave their hand and say, ‘Come on!’ We would walk in with them and get right backstage and see the show, and then the next morning, have breakfast with Muddy and Pinetop. Live at Mr. Kelly’s (Muddy Waters live album from 1971) was a great learning tool for me to learn Pinetop’s style of piano. I saw them (Muddy and Pinetop) live probably 25 times and each time I was lucky enough to be alone backstage with Muddy, right up until the announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentleman – star time.’ And then they’d call Muddy up,” he said. “And Pinetop was just as nice as anyone could be. I’d go see him when he was under house arrest and bring him cigarettes and Courvoisier and beer and hang out. He’d go, ‘You better bring me a half-pint of Courvoisier or I’ll beat ‘ya.’ I was just in Heaven. Muddy would walk me to my car and thank me for coming down to hear him play. But those guys were just so accessible. You could walk up to any of them and they were really nice guys. But that’s the difference between the blues guys and this newer generation of young kids that are million-sellers. Can you imagine walking up and trying to talk to some of them?”
There’s an old saying about how behind every broke musician, there’s a good woman. In Chuck’s case, that would be his wife Betsy.
“I was so lucky to meet Betsy some 30 years ago. We met at U.S. Blues on Wells Street. I was playing, she walked in and it was love at first sight. She kept me alive after I had a heart attack … she got me a job, loved me and helped me when I was broke and down-and-out,” he said. “She’s met almost every blues artist I have ever known in Chicago. She helps me write some of my songs and is just about the sweetest lady you could wish for and is a lot of fun to be with. Everyone loves her – she’s the best.”
Fittingly enough, Chuck’s very first CD was titled Salute to Sunnyland. It featured S.P. Leary (his last recording session) as well as Harmonica Todd Levine, the great Calvin Jones, Hash Brown, Billy Flynn, Willie and Kenny Smith and John Carpenter.
“I tell you, Todd has helped me along the way through the years as much as anyone ever could. He paid for and arranged that session and has designed a lot of my posters and art work for my discs and has been a best friend,” said Chuck. “We still play gigs when we can get together.”
Chuck’s entry into the deep and rich world that he would eventually share with his mentors began more as a fan wanting to hang with his heroes than it did as a budding, young musician looking to learn a few licks.
“When I first met those guys, I didn’t tell them that I played piano. I just hung out … I was a fan. It took awhile for them to figure out I was a piano player. And then, one by one, I won their trust. I was going to move in with Blind John Davis after he got back from a trip to Europe and he was going to teach me. He had a thunder-like left hand. I loved and had all the early recordings he made with Sonny Boy, Dr. Clayton and Tampa Red. And I just couldn’t wait and told him that I would pick him up at the airport. Well, he died on his way to the airport in a cab, so I could have learned it all, but it just wasn’t to be. But all these guys, I would get to know them, drive them around, drink and party with them and then little by little they started to take me in. I was going to every single gig that I could and befriending these guys.”
In addition to being something akin to a walking Encyclopedia Britannica, with an amazing recall of dates, people and events all floating around his brain in a very impressive fashion, Chuck also has quite a physical collection of the history of the blues – a veritable blues museum full of exquisite memorabilia. He’s got the electric Wurlitzer that Sunnyland played on Maxwell Street; he’s got the microphone that Big Walter Horton blew through on Maxwell Street; he’s got Little Brother Montgomery’s PA, along with autographs, pictures, posters, articles of clothing, 78s, 45s … well, you get the picture.
“I never set out to be some historian or a guy that would preserve the music … I just ended up that way. When I got here (Chicago) I got in on the last of the last great Chicago blues piano players. Two year’s difference made all the difference in the world,” he said. “I mean, I got to see Big Walter and Lee Jackson a week before he was murdered. My favorite bands were Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy, Jimmy Reed and I got to work with nine or 10 members of those bands. Guys like Eddie Taylor and the great Jody Williams – who is still around – Hubert and all the Muddy Waters’ sideman. It was a great time when you could see all those guys that played with the icons. Guys like S.P. Leary, who I was lucky enough to have played 100 nights with, would say, ‘I’ve done it all; I’ve played for five Presidents. And now, I want you to have yours. I’ve lived my life and had mine, now I want you to have yours.’ He was like family to me and I went over to his house for 18 years. Those guys really, really wanted me to do well. Most of them were such nice guys and they’d do anything for you.”
Those ranks are even thinner today, due to the recent passing of a pianist that was not universally known outside of Chicago, but inside the city, he was hailed as an important piece of the blues – Aaron Moore.
“I just attended his funeral on the southside of Chicago. I can’t believe that he wasn’t more famous than he was. He was a really, really sweet and wonderful guy,” said Chuck. “The thing he did so well was just to play enough to leave open spaces and air … that Roosevelt Sykes style. And his singing was amazing. He had this great big, loud voice. The first time I heard him play was just incredible. He’s one of the last guys of that era from Sykes to Sunnyland to Memphis Slim. He just loved to play the piano. It’s really sad when you stop and think about just how many of our heroes are gone.”
The loss of those men that were at once his friends, idols and musical companions is what Chuck is most reflective about.
“Now they’re all gone … I mean, I went to see Sunnyland when he was in the hospital and I was with S. P. Leary when he died and I found Little Brother minutes after he was dead at the hospital … I was with him the night before, holding his hand when he said, ‘I’ll never get out of here alive.’ I mean, those experiences play into my music and into the feeling that I put into my music,” he said. “I saw those guys go from being healthy, strong men to the point where they were just so, so old and tired. They all kind of stayed about the same age for so long and then all of a sudden, they were bigger than life, you know? They were the mighty oaks in the forest. I still have tears come down my face when I hear “Vicksburg Blues.” It’s the voice that you really miss.”
Whether he was anointed, chosen, in the right place at the right time, or just on the right side of a fortuitous draw of the cards, it just seems right that Barrelhouse Chuck would somehow find his way to Chicago and carry on in the footsteps of those that inspired him to play the blues as a youngster.
“Well, locally, there just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of young piano players that were interested and learning the Chicago blues when I came up; there was just a few of us. There was Ken Saydak, Mr. B (from Michigan) and in later years, David Maxwell, Ann Rabson and Scott Grube, but I just seemed to be the guy to do this. I was just on a mission to do this from so long ago. I mean, I left home at 17. I went from Florida to Virginia … town to town to town …to Alaska to Seattle and to Chicago. It was just driven in me. I just knew that I had to get to the Windy City and meet all those guys.”
Visit Chuck’s website at: http://www.barrelhousechuck.com/
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2014 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.