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Musician Corky Siegel turns 80

Corky is a child’s name, and the only Corky I have ever known has been childlike in his energy, enthusiasm, and worldview.

My Corky might actually be your Corky, too, because Corky Siegel has been and continues to be a part of the local and international music scene for a long time.

With his 80th birthday coming up in a few days, he’s coming up with a couple of concerts as a solo artist, on Oct. 24, with his Chamber Blues at City Winery on Oct. 22, and at the Acorn Theater in Three Oaks on Nov. 11. Michigan.

In the face of this calendar turning point, it is impossible to resist the pull of memory, of some details of the past.

Mark Paul “Corky” Siegel is a South Side kid who first heard the blues on his home radio and on 45-rpm records given to him by his sister and uncle, who ran a Tastee-Freez at 63rd Street and Stony. Island Boulevard.

Although he was drawn to some of the exciting rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the time – Elvis, Chuck Berry et al. – and in his youth he played the saxophone for a while, becoming increasingly interested in the blues and harmonica. She found a young man with similar inclinations when she met guitar-playing Jim Schwall in an elevator while they were both students at Roosevelt University.

The two drove around looking for music clubs in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Of course, they were looking for places where the blues was prominent. But they were after something more. “Our parents told us that America was a country that treated its Black people fairly,” Siegel told me. “We looked out our window and saw unbearable injustice. “I think we wanted to be a part of this culture, not just because we love it, but because we want to stand for what is good and right.”

In 1965, the duo found Pepper’s Show Lounge near the corner of 43rd Street and Vincennes Boulevard. They walked in and asked owner Johnny Pepper if they could play. “Okay, but you have to audition,” he said. They did this for a handful of customers at the club.

“I had only been playing the blues for less than a year, so I was a beginner, and to some extent so was Jim,” Siegel said.

But Pepper hired them as the Thursday night house band, playing from 9pm to 3am. Great blues musicians such as Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Spann were often joining the stage. , James Cotton, Junior Wells, Lefty Diz, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim and Muddy Waters.

Decades later, Siegel said: “It was magic. I owe my entire musical life to that experience, to the blues masters and to Johnny Pepper, who was open-minded enough to bring us beginners out on that stage every night.” They formed the Siegel-Schwall Band and played clubs like Quiet Knight and Big John’s, touring the country and billing Janis shared with Joplin and Joni Mitchell; recorded studio and live albums; was the first blues band to perform with a symphony, playing “Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra” with the San Francisco Symphony and elsewhere. Billboard magazine called them “one of America’s best bands” ” but they separated in 1974 without any issues or anger.

Over the years, they would occasionally reunite, as Schwall moved on to a relatively quiet life in Wisconsin and Siegel continued to do so. He played solo in clubs and played keyboard and harmonica in albums. John Prine and Steve Goodman, and have played with major symphony orchestras here and in Europe. He would become a member of the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame and is considered one of the world’s greatest harmonica players. He spent much of his creative time with the Chamber Blues, an engaging and highly entertaining band he created, a lively blend of classical music and blues.

The crowd listens to the big sound of Corky Siegel at Chicago's Equitable Plaza (now called Pioneer Court) on August 10, 1977.

He never forgot his beginning on this path and told me: “It all started with, without Pepper’s it would never have happened. With these blues masters coming and going all night long, it became clear to me how lucky I was to be able to be on stage every week. I feel Pepper’s strong connection when composing and/or performing with symphonies or chamber groups. It’s the fuel behind everything I do.”

When you live long enough there is a list of losses, and Siegel has a long list; A list of friends and collaborators that includes Goodman, Prine, Sam Lay, Ernie Watts, and many of the bluesmen who ignited and nourished his career. and enriched his life.

Jim Schwall He died in 2022, and Siegel told me at the time: “I realized that in the 60 years we knew each other, made music together, there were only two disagreements, and each of them lasted a minute. In some of our last conversations, I talked about how much I loved him and how much he meant to me.” “I made it especially important to tell him that it was.”

I don’t know what special things Siegel’s wife Holly has planned for this birthday celebration. Let it be a surprise. But I asked Corky how he felt about it.

“I think the title of my memoir will be ‘My Memory is in the Past, the Future is an Unopened Present.’ This is how I feel about turning 80.

“When people at the pharmacy or doctor’s office ask me my birth date, I always say: ‘Wow, that was so long ago. Let me get my rolodex.’ I will also share my experience that my body has always obeyed my every command throughout my life and now it is starting to protest a little.

“All I can say about what’s going on in this world – and it only took me 80 years to realize – is that there is only one meaningful reason to survive on this planet, and that is to bring only goodness and kindness to this world with every action, thought and breath.”

Here’s my Corky. Happy happy.

Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St.; tickets are $35-$48 and call 312-733-9463. citywinery.com

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

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