Heritage Blues Orchestra - Fresh take on the story of the blues

Bill Sims wondered what all the commotion was about. His wife had taken a phone call from their daughter, Chaney, and Sims could hear the whoopin’ and hollerin’ at both ends of the line. The news was beyond Sims’ wildest expectations – the Heritage Blues Orchestra, which father and daughter front with singer-guitarist Junior Mack, had just won a nomination in the 2013 Grammys for Blues Album of the Year for its debut album, And Still I Rise.

“I’m excited,” confirms Sims down the line from New York. “I’d probably be even more excited if I was twenty. But this is Chaney’s first album and I’m more excited for her than I am for myself. At the same time, it’s a reward for a lot of years’ work that led up to the album and we weren’t thinking about winning awards when we made it. We just wanted to make something that showed as much of blues history as possible, make it exciting and relevant for today’s audience, and it looks like we’ve done it.”

The idea for the Heritage Blues Orchestra resulted from a demo that Sims sent to producer Larry Skoller of Mack, Chaney and himself singing traditional blues songs, field hollers, gospel songs, folk tunes and spirituals to sparse acoustic and electric guitar accompaniment. Skoller, who is New York-born but lives in Cognac, France, loved what he heard and decided to add horn arrangements for extra, spirit of New Orleans flavour and recruit his brother Matthew on harmonica and Chicago drummer Kenny ‘Beedy Eyes’ Smith, son of Muddy Waters’ long-time drummer Willie Smith. A Franco-American blues phenomenon was born.

“We’ve gone over really well in Europe,” says Sims. “But what’s really pleasing is that American audiences are digging what we’re doing too. There’s a real interest in roots music across the board in America right now – it can be blues or bluegrass, people are turning out to hear it. And it’s not just a certain age group; we get all ages and they respond to the quieter, deeper if you like, songs as well as the partying, good time side of things.”

For Sims, the Heritage Blue Orchestra is a culmination – so far – of some sixty years of music making. He began playing boogie-woogie piano, taught by his preacher father, at the age of four in Marion, Ohio, the popcorn capital of the world, he proudly announces.

“Marion is basically a town in the middle of this huge cornfield,” he says. “My father had twenty-some brothers and sisters, so there was a built-in audience and we all played music. We’d play in church and then gather round on the back porch once the work in my folks’ fields was finished. Those were big fields and it was hard work, so I can sing field hollers with conviction.”

By his mid-teens Sims was playing at local dances, playing Hammond organ and saxophone, sometimes simultaneously, and honing a vocal style influenced by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy and a guitar technique drawn from his favourite, Albert King. He went on to play in blues bands, work in the backing band for soul singing group the Four Mints, play jazz in San Francisco and work on the music for an off-Broadway production that transferred to television before becoming a house husband for ten years after Chaney’s arrival.

“Once Chaney had grown up and I was able to go back to work, I decided that I should be the one outfront because I’d always worked in other peoples’ bands,” he says. He’s worked extensively on the New York blues and roots music scene and kept up his links with theatre by working on music for plays. He was also an advisor on Cadillac Records, the 2008 movie that charts the rise of the legendary blues label Chess, showing actors how to “play” their instruments convincingly and appearing as the bassist in Muddy Waters’ band and as Howlin’ Wolf’s pianist, having himself sat in with both of these stars back in the 1960s in Chicago.

The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s guest at Celtic Connections, Eric Bibb, whose song Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down appears on And Still I Rise, may well have provided the best endorsement of HBO’s music. “It sounds old but it sounds new and it sounds like the real deal,” remarked the immensely charismatic Bibb on hearing HBO’s first album.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” says Sims. “The blues never goes out of date because essentially these songs are about people telling other people what’s going on – right and wrong – in their lives. The first time I heard rap music, I thought, That’s the blues. It has a different rhythm but the words are telling a familiar story. We don’t do rap but we’re giving people the authentic black American experience from the old times right up to today.”

From The Herald, January 9, 2013.

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