Interview by Allen Weissman – Photo by Gene Steinman
(In 2015, I interviewed Chicago Blues Hall of Famer, J. B. Ritchie, on my radio and TV show, In a Nutshell with Al Weissman. I subsequently met with him on a few more occasions in late 2015 and early 2016 when he provided some additional information. The following is an edited compilation of those discussions.)
Q- When and where were you born?
A- Chicago, in 1952.
Q- Can you tell me something about your parents?
A- My dad was born and raised in Oklahoma. He was part Cherokee and part Blackfoot Indian. My mom was from Chicago and traced her ancestry back to the Pilgrims crossing on the Mayflower.
Q- Wait a minute, you’re saying that your parents were, cowboys and Indians?
A- You could say that. (laugh)
Q- Sorry, go ahead.
A- So, my parents divorced when I was a baby and my dad moved to California. I never really met him until I was 15 when I took a trip out west to meet that part of the family. When I was out there my mom became concerned, so she drove all the way out west from Chicago to pick me up and make sure I got home.
Q- What was your first musical instrument and when did you start playing?
A- I bought my first guitar, a “Kalamazoo”, when I was 14 or 15. I had been playing guitar for about three weeks when a guy I knew in a band said, “Well, if you get a bass we’ll teach you how to play it and you could be our bass player”. I spent $60 for a “Kalamazoo” bass which matched my guitar. They taught me how to play bass, though I would rather have played guitar. I became a member of the band and we played gigs.
Q- You are known for your use of a guitar slide. Can you tell me about that?
A- A slide acts as a movable fret. I started using a slide early on because I liked its unique sound. I made one and used it to tune my guitar to a chord. Different slides have different tones. Glass is more mellow – sounds nice with acoustic, metal sounds more harsh. Mississippi Fred McDowel used a hollowed out beef bone for a slide. I’ve seen some use a shot glass.
Q- Do you recall the first slide tune you learned to play?
A- “Rolling and Tumbling”. I learned it by listening to a vinyl version of Muddy Waters’ record album, After The Rain.
Q- Were there any venues you frequented as a teenager that you think are worth mentioning?
A- In high school I went to a place called, “The Cellar”. It was pretty popular and not too far from where we lived. I got to meet some of the performers there including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Meeting those guys and listening to their music kind of inspired me to get into the blues. The Cream played there at one time, Three Dog Night, Steve Miller and many, many more incredible musicians. It costs $2-3 to get in. “The Cellar” didn’t sell alcoholic drinks, so I could go there when I was 15-16 years old.
Q- Are there any events you were involved with that you felt were particularly noteworthy?
A- Well, the first time I sang in public was when I was about 20 yrs old and I opened for Ted Nugent at the Aragon Ballroom.
Another time, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones was hired to perform with his band (not the Stones) at a venue called “Shades” in Prairie View, IL. Taylor got sick. I was there, they were looking for someone to finish the set, they asked me and I did.
Q- The Chicago blues scene in the 1970’s was going strong. That would have been when you were in your late teens and twenties. Can you tell us about some of your experiences at that time?
A- In the 70’s, some of the popular blues venues were Alice’s Revisited and Eddie Shaw’s New 1815 Club, in Chicago. At Alice’s Revisited I got to see and meet many musical artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Jimmie Dawkins and Buddy Guy. At Eddie Shaw’s New 1815 Club, I sometimes hung out with Andrew “Blueblood” McMann and Eddie Taylor and sometimes played with Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin. Alice’s Revisited was the kind of place where I could sit right in front of Muddy. They didn’t sell alcohol, no chairs – sat on the floor. I was able to go back stage after a performance and talk about playing guitar. It was the first place I ever saw Buddy Guy perform.
Q- Who have you played with or opened for over the years?
A- Ted Nugent at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, Leon Russell at Haymakers in Chicago and John Lee Hooker at Headliners in Madison, WI. I opened for The Ozark Mountain Dare Devils, The Kingsmen, Pat Trevers, Lonnie Mack, Junior Wells, David Johanson, Buddy Miles, Luther Allison, Tinsley Ellis, Coco Montoya, Koko Taylor , Steppenwolf, Leon Russel, Otis Clay, The Kinsey Report, John Primer, Eddie Clearwater, Papa John Creach. Mick Taylor (formerly of the Rolling Stones ) and The NightHawks, Pine Top Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Willie Dixon and lots more that I can’t think of off hand.
Q- Have you recorded any music?
A- I worked as an audio engineer at Rainbow Bridge Recording Studio in Libertyville, IL from 1983 until the place shut down in 2014. In 1997, I recorded my own album “Power Blues” there with Marty Binder, formerly of Albert Collins’ band, on drums and Frank Bandy on bass. I performed on it, produced it and did the sound engineering.
Q- Have you done any other recording or music publishing work?
A- I played on an Album by a band called The Deadbeats. I engineered two or three albums by them. I also worked a CBS project by The Mirrors and I recorded some stuff with Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine for the movie soundtrack for “Spawn”.
In 2003, I was contacted by someone from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties (IL). They asked me to help out with a fund raising project they were working on to help raise money for their childens’ programs. They were soliciting music from various artists and I let them use my song, “Nervous Breakdown”.
Q- Did you ever play at the Chicago Blues Festival?
A- I opened the Blues Stage at ChicagoFest on Navy Pier in 1982 and I also played Chicago Bluesfest in 1999, 2002 and 2008.
Q- What do you listen to when no one else is around?
A- That depends on my mood – Bob Marley, Hendrix, Nora Jones, Van Halen, Santana – not just blues. Miles Davis. I listen to everything.
Q- When were you inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame?
Q- Congratulations on that.
A- Thank you.
Q- Any other experiences you would like to share?
A- There was one life changing experience that I didn’t yet mention.
On July 27, 1995, I was driving home from a gig in a state of intoxication on Interstate I-290. It was very late at night. My car ran out of gas, so I grabbed a can from the trunk and started looking for a gas station. At some point while walking along the highway, a guy in a white Cadillac pulled up and told me to “get in”. The guy was impecably dressed in a beautiful suit and talked like a member of “da family”. We got to the first ramp and exited the Interstate. He dropped me at a nearby gas station, told me to fill my can, said he “had a few things he had to take care of” and that he would be back to give me a ride to my car. I figured I wasn’t going to see him again. I filled the can, called a friend and asked her to come pick me up. While I was on the phone, the mysterious man in the Cadillac returned. It freaked me out! In shock, I hung up the phone. He offered to give me a ride back to my car.
During the ride from the gas station to my car, he told me things about myself, I mean, information of a highly personal nature concerning my life and activities of which a stranger, without access to my most intimate thoughts and involvements, would not have known. When we got back to my car, I poured the gas into my tank and started it up. I looked away for a second and when I looked back the guy and his Cadillac were gone. After I put the can back in my trunk, when I opened my car door again, I found a bible on the driver’s seat. Keep in mind that no one had been in the car between the time I exited the vehicle and the time when I returned. Written inside the bible were the words, “J.B., read this. It may help you.”
I took this as a mystical experience telling me to stop using intoxicating substances. I stopped and have been substance-free since July 27, 1995.
Copyright 2016 Allen Weissman. All rights reserved.
Mr. Ritchie can be seen performing at the following venues, dates and times:
The last Sunday of each month at Mac’s on Slade in Palatine, IL; every Tuesday at Cuda’s in Antioch, IL; June 11 at Buddy Guy’s in Chicago, from 1-2:30; June 11 on The Windy City Stage at Chicago Blues Fest in Chicago, from 5:30 to 6:30; June 28 7:30 PM at the Chicago Botonnical Gardens in Chicago; July 1, Mac’s on Slade; and, July 2, House Pub in St. Charles, IL