Bell’s blues: Guitar virtuoso faces his demons

By Mark Guarino

Judging by his guitar playing, Lurrie Bell must be feeling good. On “Let’s Talk About Love” (Aria B.G.), his new album, the Chicago native and blues guitarist makes notes jump with joy. Schooled in the nimble style of B.B. King, Bell is less interested in loud-and-fast runs or making dramatic statements to satisfy rock audiences. Instead, Bell is a virtuoso at making more with less, with short bursts of notes that almost seem to be snatched back the second after they’re played.

Plus, there is such optimism. “Let’s talk about love,” he sings. “It’s a wonderful feeling/and it’s never been explained.”

The sentiment might sound trite from any other singer, but to Bell, it is a testament of faith. In January his life partner and mother of his two-year-old daughter, the blues photographer Susan Greenberg, died of cancer. In May, his father and mentor, the innovative harmonica player Carey Bell, died of heart failure.

Their sudden and unexpected deaths followed what was considered a rejuvenating time for Bell. He had become a father, more prolific in the studio and was enjoying living after half a lifetime of battling clinical depression.

“Those were the most important people in my life, and a part of my life left when they died. And I said to myself, ‘Lu, what else do you have? You ain’t got nothin’ now, so it’s up to you to get out there and do something for yourself’ … I found myself picking up the guitar and playing music for a few hours before I would even put it down for a break,” he said.

Ever since he was five and his parents sent him from Chicago to their respective hometowns — first to Macon, Miss. where his father grew up and then to Lisbon, Ala., where his mother was born — Bell has long associated guitar playing as a tool for spirituality. He first played at age five at country churches, finding himself moved by the gospel choirs and quartets he heard week after week. He was also given stern warnings: “The blues is the devil’s music. But I said, ‘my dad makes a living in Chicago playing the blues!’ Why would they consider that the devil’s music, I don’t know.”

Bell’s dad, Carey, updated the sound of the blues harmonica, creating thick tones through electronic distortion that sounded more contemporary, becoming a transitional player between early veterans like Little Walter and Junior Wells and younger players like Billy Branch. His playing also brought him into the circle of first generation of Chicago stars, resulting in stints playing with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.

Lurrie remembers family gatherings filled with musicians, including Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Taylor, Roy Johnson and the pianist Lovie Lee, his father’s godfather and earliest mentor. When Lurrie returned home at age 11, he started playing immediately, first joining Lee’s band and later forming Sons of Blues, the well-regarded group that featured two other new generation stars, Billy Branch and Freddie Dixon. The band recorded for Alligator, which, for Bell, led to future gigs playing with Koko Taylor.

The immediacy of his success had a dark side. Starting at age 27 he realized he had trouble getting onstage, due to intense feelings of paranoia and depression. Years later, the feelings led him to temporarily drop out of the music scene in the early 1980’s when he became addicted to drugs, often pawning his guitar for money. His mother kicked him out of the house and he slept in homeless shelters and the YMCA.

“What a musician’s supposed to do, he’s at least supposed to keep a guitar and an amplifier and a way to get to the gigs. I lost reality on that whole thing,” he said.

His father helped get him into a hospital where he received medication that he credits as saving his life and that he continues to take to this day.

“Eventually I started coming back to myself. I started feeling better,” he said.

Although he hadn’t touched a guitar in years, the moment he picked one up, he felt his technique return.

The 1990’s were more prolific and happier. At Rosas’s, Bell met Greenberg, a local blues photographer known for her love of the Chicago scene. (“She was my soul mate,” he said.) Bell also released a run of well-regarded albums, both on his own and with his father, that certified his reputation as not just a singularly gifted guitarist but as an entertaining live performer. (He plays a CD release party at Buddy Guy’s Legends tonight.)

Two years ago, he and Greenberg had a daughter, Aria Bell Greenberg. With this new album — an idea hatched by Greenberg before she died — Bell will be traveling extensively throughout Europe where he discovered he has a loyal following.

At age 48, he is healthy and has success, which makes the pain of the last 12 months sting ever harder.

“I would go through changes of depression, but the thing is, I never did give up on my music … These days that’s all I want to do,” he said. “It’s my life — what else is there?”

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