What happens when an ace Chicago blues guitarist meets up with a scorching Chicago soul singer?
Fire meets fire.
You can hear it on the key tracks of Dave Specter's deeply satisfying, jazz-tinged new album, "Message in Blue" (on Chicago's Delmark Records). The man's incendiary guitar lines inspire dramatically charged singing from an already famously charismatic vocalist: septuagenarian Otis Clay.
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Though Specter's release, his first in four years, offers ample pleasures – including a catchy new anthem titled "Chicago Style" – it's the collaboration between Specter and Clay that sears our perceptions.
"He's known as one of the great soul singers on the planet," says Specter, referring to Clay, but "he also has a great knowledge and feeling about the blues.
"I've been wowed by him for 25 or 30 years. He's got so much feeling and passion in his singing."
That's understating the case. When Clay sings – as he'll do on Wednesday night when he and Specter perform at SPACE in Evanston – you can hear a vast sweep of African-American cultural history. Blues, jazz, gospel, soul, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Thomas A. Dorsey, Sam Cooke – it's all there, to one degree or another, evident in the way Clay turns a musical phrase or growls a lyric.
Having grown up in Mississippi hearing everything from blues pioneer Sonny Boy Williamson to the Grand Ole Opry, from Hank Williams to Rosemary Clooney, Clay learned early on that music knows no boundaries. His early years singing gospel with the Golden Jubilaires and various genres with Charles Bridges and the Famous Blue Jay Singers made Clay a performer for all occasions.
But not necessarily an obvious partner for Specter, who grew up on the northwest side of Chicago and didn't start playing guitar until he was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – not exactly the Mississippi Delta.
That these two men from starkly distinct backgrounds can collaborate so viscerally perhaps should teach us a few things about the nature of music and heritage.
"I think we need to move beyond the divisions of race and realize that it's music, and the blues is really universal," says Specter. "I play all over the world. I meet musicians from South America. I meet musicians from Europe. I meet blues musicians in Israel, in Mexico and we all share a great love for the music, and that's what it's all about."
Inarguably the blues originates in the African-American experience and remains immutably bound up with it – but others draw from this wellspring.
Why was Clay willing to join Specter on this journey?
"He's a great guitar player," says the singer, matter-of-factly. "We've had a working relationship for years....
"It's just a bunch of guys getting together and having fun and making some music, and that's what you're hearing in the session, all the way from the engineer to the old warhorse Bob Koester," adds Clay, admiringly referring to the man who founded Delmark Records and made it a Chicago institution.
That Clay should crystallize so much of black musical vernacular seems perfectly natural, considering his autobiography and musical gifts.
But Specter's journey has been more circuitous. Because his parents were devout followers of "The Midnight Special," the long-running eclectic music show on WFMT 98.7 FM, Specter early on encountered the sounds of Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Mahalia Jackson and other musical icons with deep ties to Chicago.
Specter's older brother played blues harmonica, would attend shows by Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and report back about the wonders they achieved.
"Between the country blues and acoustic blues my parents listened to and what my brother was telling me about, the power of the blues hit me at a very young age," says Specter. "It just sounded like nothing else I was listening to."
About the time he first picked up a guitar, at the U. of I., he also started discovering the music of Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor and Otis Rush, and "that changed my life," says Specter.
What was it about the blues that was so transformative?
"The power of stinging blues guitar or the deep blues vocals," says Specter. "It just moved me, unlike any other music. I listened to a lot of rock and roll, and some of my favorite rock and roll, like the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers, was so heavily blues influenced, so I went to the sources. I wanted to see where Eric Clapton got his influence, and Duane Allman and Keith Richards.
"It turns out a lot of that music was in my back yard all along."
So at 21 Specter moved back to Chicago and started working low-level club dates as sideman. He found the blues scene surprisingly open to a kid who had a lot to learn but loved the music unabashedly.
"One of my favorite things about the blues scene growing up in Chicago was how accepting and encouraging the musicians were," recalls Specter, winding up to recite an honor roll of blues eminences who encouraged him.
"People like Hubert Sumlin and Sunnyland Slim and Pinetop Perkins and Son Seals and Jimmy Rogers, who I got to play with and tour with. If you could play and you showed interest in the music, they were very welcoming and encouraging. That was an important reason that someone like me was able to break into it.
"I feel very lucky to have grown up in Chicago. If I'd grown up in Omaha, I probably would be a teacher or a lawyer."
That Specter made a better choice for him, and for us, is apparent throughout "Message in Blue." Listen to his tautly coiled riffs behind Clay on "Got to Find a Way" (complete with jazzy horns and saucy backup vocals), his guitar laments alongside the singer on "This Time I'm Gone for Good" and the way Specter's guitar dovetails with Clay's vocals on "I Found a Love," and you're hearing a musical chemistry born of mutual admiration.
But Specter emerges as much more than just adept accompanist here. His sinewy sound and swaggering rhythms on "New West Side Stroll," unhurried but unstoppable rhythmic drive on "The Stinger" and sleek phrase-making on "The Spectifyin' Samba" – all Specter originals – point to a musician conversant with jazz syntax.
Not that the journey has been easy.
"It's a challenging career path, no doubt about it," says Specter. "But it's such a big part of me that sometimes (when) I think about pursuing other careers … I just don't see it ever happening."
Even so, Specter has branched out to become a partner at the aforementioned SPACE, which he helps program.
As for "Message in Blue," Specter is right in calling at "really a Chicago music album." Its muscular approach and unvarnished sound are steeped in this city's blues aesthetic and make no concessions to musical fashion or commercial interests.
Just raw Chicago blues, with a touch of soul and jazz.
Dave Specter and Otis Clay perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; $15-$27; 847-492-8860 or evanstonspace.com.
Bobby Broom and friends
The leading Chicago guitarist Bobby Broom will perform with students from the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts and the Chicago High School for the Arts in a concert organized by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a major jazz advocacy organization. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Columbia College Concert Hall, 1014 S. Michigan Ave.; admission is free; visit bobbybroom.com or monkinstitute.org.