Corky Siegel is a co-founder of the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, one of Chicago's amazing second-generation blues bands in the 1960s. (Chamber Blues)
Blues musician Corky Siegel says the “Chamber Blues” concept he’s bringing to the Ark in Ann Arbor on Sunday — a “revolutionary blues-classical fusion” — isn’t so much a genre that he pursued, as one that pursued him.
A co-founder of the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, one of Chicago’s amazing second-generation blues bands in the 1960s, Siegel and Jim Schwall first got together in Chicago in 1965.
“Our first gig was the Pepper Show Lounge, every Thursday night,” says Siegel, 70. “Amazingly enough, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and Willie Dixon would come and sit in with us. That’s how we got our start.”
A year after that, the group was playing at Big John’s on Chicago’s north side when they noticed one particularly avid fan who was there every night. The fan approached, finally.
“He said that he’d like my band to jam with his band,” Siegel says.
The “band”? The Chicago Symphony.
“It was maestro Seiji Ozawa!” Siegel says. “So we got William Russo, the Chicago composer who’d written for Leonard Bernstein, but was also (jazz pianist) Stan Kenton’s arranger, to work on a piece, and we premiered it with the Chicago Symphony in 1968. Seiji used to say it was very important that I pursue this juxtaposition of blues and classical, that classical needed a fresh spark.”
How exactly do you fuse the blues and classical music? “The first thing we decided is that we shouldn’t worry about what people think, this is a new frontier, just jump in and do it. Have something for everybody to not like!” Siegel says with a laugh. One way they’d do it was to have Siegel-Schwall play a blues shuffle “while the symphony played some symphonic melodic phrasing, not even in tempo.”
“The idea is to try to utilize the different flavors of classical music and blues so they don’t blend, but are working side by side. Both are maintaining their character. I mean, you can hear the blues and classical at the same time — it’s already been blended! It’s called jazz,” Siegel says.
For the Ark show, Siegel and the Ensemble are teaming up with a Detroit-born singer, Marcella Detroit, which adds “an R&B flavor,” according to Siegel. As Marcy Levy (her birth name), the singer grew up in Oak Park and sang backup first with Bob Seger, then Eric Clapton, with whom she co-wrote the hit song “Lay Down, Sally.”
Well known in England because of her late ’80s pop group Shakespears Sister, Detroit/Levy starred in a 2010 British reality show, “Popstar to Operastar,” in which she delivered some impressive vocals on difficult arias.
Siegel and Detroit/Levy met at the Chicago Blues Reunion a few years back, and he has performed with her several times. “Every time she put the microphone down, the audience stood up. Which is the way it should be.”
For the Ark show, the singer is choosing most of the material. “I’m arranging tunes that either she’s written or chosen,” says Siegel. “We’re doing ‘Cry to Me,’ by Solomon Burke. We do a chamber blues version of ‘Lay Down, Sally,’ as well as some other tunes (Levy/Detroit) wrote that aren’t known, and I think we’re going to do a really amazing arrangement that I didn’t write, a very avant-garde verson of ‘My Funny Valentine.’ ”
Corky Siegel and the Chamber Blues Ensemble
featuring Marcella Detroit
7:30 p.m. Sunday
The Ark, 316 S. Main, Ann Arbor
Tickets $25, available at the Michigan Union box office, 530 S. State; charge by phone at (734) 763-8587, or at the Ark box office at 316 S. Main