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."
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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.