Barrelhouse Chuck

by Dave Leucinger
July 2014

Barrelhouse Chuck

Barrelhouse Chuck

In any conversation with blues piano master Barrelhouse Chuck, finding a topic to discuss is remarkably easy – as long as it relates in some way to blues piano or organ. Fueled by an unmatched zeal and boldness, he has crafted his career through repeatedly seeking out his idols –and then asking for their mentoring.

The keyboard instruments have been a part of his life from the start. “As a young kid, my mother had a piano. She played church hymns,” Chuck said. “At age 3, 4, 5 – there was always a piano around. And we had an old pump organ in the basement.” But his mother’s sacred music didn’t form Chuck’s direction. “I just made up songs; I never really had any gospel influence in my music,” he said. “It was just the instrument. When you have an instrument in the house – you just sit around and doodle. I don’t read a note and never had any lessons.”

One moment of epiphany for Chuck came in his third grade class. “I had a Scholastic book titled ‘American Pop’ – and after the pictures of rock stars there was a picture of Muddy Waters,” he said. “When I saw his picture and read his name, that sounded really cool to me. I said if I ever saw one of his records, I was going to get it.” Not long thereafter, the opportunity came. “I came across an 8-track of ‘Brass & the Blues.’ When I played it, I heard Otis Spann on piano – and said to myself, ‘I’m gonna play piano like that!’”

At age 12, Chuck moved from Ohio to Gainesville. Florida, where one chance encounter and one intentional trip both paid huge dividends. “One day on the bus, I met a blind tenor sax player, Robert Hunter,” Chuck recalled. “He had previously toured with Ike & Tina Turner and BB King. He could also do every blues and R&B artist dead on. I went straight to playing with him when I was 16 or 17 years old.”  Around that same time, Chuck made his first of many ventures to seek out his musical muses. “I heard Bo Diddley lived 15 miles away in Melrose,” he said. “I followed directions out to a double-wide with ‘McDaniel’ on the mailbox. I walked to the door and asked if Bo Diddley was in. His wife told me to wait, and she went and got him.” After signing some records, Diddley heard Chuck tell of his love of piano and Chicago blues. “So he said I could come over and jam. There I was, a teenager playing with Bo Diddley. A few months later, he came down to see me play at a Farmer’s Market. I couldn’t believe he came to hear me. But he inspired me by saying that I ‘had that Chess sound.’ He remembered me years later when we were both in Chicago.”

At 17, Chuck’s first big gig was opening for BB King in Orlando with Hunter. “That’s when I learned [Hunter] was telling me the truth about having played with King,” he said. Chuck also became a frequent disciple of the icon whose photo he saw years earlier. “I followed Muddy from town to town all over north Florida, he recalled. I would always look for Muddy’s van – it was white with Illinois plates. When the van arrived, out would come Pinetop (Perkins), Willie (“Big Eyes” Smith), Jerry (Portnoy), Fuzz (Calvin Jones), (Bob) Margolin, and then Muddy himself. They knew why I was waiting – so I could go in with them through the back door, because I was too young.”

By 1979, Chuck moved to Chicago, where (save two years in the Pacific Northwest) he has stayed since. “After driving for 24 hours straight from Florida, I checked into the Tokyo Hotel at Ohio and State – where I stayed for months at $24 a week,” Chuck recalled. “I came to Chicago hoping to meet Sunnyland Slim. So I go in the front door at the hotel – and looking right at me, as though he was waiting for me, was Sunnyland himself.” This serendipity led to a 16-year apprenticeship by Chuck under the legendary patriarch of Chicago pianists, who passed away in 1995 at age 88. “I didn’t want him to think I was trying to steal his licks, even though I was,” Chuck said. “I just wanted to be seen as a fan first. So I’d follow him to Florence’s, or to Blues on Halsted.” 

Chuck’s then-girlfriend, Hoodie, helped bring Chuck into the broader fold of Chicago blues pianists. “She got me an audition at the Cornell Lounge in Hyde Park; after one minute the lady said I was hired,” Chuch said. “It was a great lineup - Monday was Erwin Helfer; Tuesday was Jimmy Walker; I was on Wednesday, and Thursday was Sunnyland. After a month of playing on Wednesdays I came down on a Thursday with Sunnyland – and that’s how he finally learned I was a piano player.”

Another esteemed member of Chicago’s blues piano community also became a mentor to Chuck – Little Brother Montgomery. “The only guy who was senior to Sunnyland was Little Brother,” Chuck recalled. “I took care of him during the last three years of his life. And every Friday, I’d bring over fish.” A native of Louisiana, Montgomery had a vast repertoire that extended far beyond jazz and blues. “He knew at least 5,000 songs,” Chuck recalled. “His whole family was musical – his brother Tollie taught Otis Spann, and his other brother Joe played with J.B. Lenoir. His sister Willie Bell also played.” Montgomery also had another credit to his name. “Once, BB King told him that (Montgomery’s) ‘Vicksburg Blues’ was the first record he ever owned.”

Chuck’s mastery of Chicago blues piano includes the ability to replicate the varied styles of the Chicago legends. That ability hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Chuck was brought in to play on most of the tracks for “Cadillac Blues,” the adapted-for-film story of Chess Records. “We recorded at the Avatar Studio where so many hits were made,” Chuck recalled. “And as I’m playing Keith Richards came in and right away said ‘that sounds like Otis Spann,’” Chuck said. “A bit later, Eric Clapton listens and says to Keith, ‘listen, that sounds like Big Maceo.’” Yet another artist who was recording in an adjacent studio also ducked in to listen, Chuck said. “Bruce Springsteen just said, ‘that’s great piano.’”

As reverent as Chuck is towards his Chicago forerunners, he also exalts the talents of organist Steve Winwood. “I listen to Winwood just about every other day – I’ve been influenced by Traffic since second or third grade,” he said. Winwood’s prodigy status and vocals appealed to Chuck. “He was playing like Oscar Peterson at age five; at twelve he was in his dad’s jazz band. But he’s different from other jazz players. He’s grown to combine elements of all kinds of music.” Unlike Winwood, Chuck’s fleet of organs includes everything BUT the exalted Hammond B-3. “I have 18 different instruments,” he said. “So I use a Farfisa to play ‘96 Tears’ (the ? and the Mysterians classic) – I love that song. Even blues guys like Otis Spann and Big Moose Walker recorded on Farfisas. So I always do at least one organ track on my recordings.”

In recent years, Chuck has been a go-to blues session musician (along with guitarist Billy Flynn, with whom he’s made an estimated 35 sessions). Chuck’s most recent work is part of ongoing blues collaborations with Kim Wilson, co-founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. “The owner of the Sirens label asked me to get someone famous for my ‘Got My Eyes On You’ release. I was to call Kim, but I was intimidated, Chuck said. “It took me two months to call. After I finally got up the nerve, his first words to me were, ‘I always wanted to record with you.’ Kim is by far the greatest bandleader and harmonica player I’ve ever worked with. He can sound like anyone he wants to, and will just call keys off the top of his head and you just fall in. But he knows the limitations of the people he plays with and won’t ever throw you under the bus.”

For all his experience, there is something that worries Chuck about the future of blues piano – even though it’s a part of his routine touring ensemble. “I hate electric piano,” he admits. “As a kid I carried a Steinway to each gig. Even now, half the electric pianos sound like they’re made for kids. Just try to find places with a real piano. Take Johnnie Johnson or Otis Spann off the Chuck (Berry) or Muddy records – they don’t sound the same. The piano was the glue that held them together. And if it’s up to playing digital piano, blues piano will die.”

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