BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Like many before him, Dave Specter is a global ambassador of Chicago blues. He regularly hops continents a few times a year to play to audiences he wants to grow, not just for himself, but also for coming generations of blues musicians.
“I tell people, ‘tell your kids about this music’. Not only do younger musicians need to get into it, but younger people need to hear it, and when they do, it moves them,” he says. “It changed my life when I was 18.”
Specter’s newest album, “Message in Blue” (Delmark), shows that while he can certainly play the role of a guitar stylist, capable of delivering a wide range of hammering blues riffs, his lasting impact includes warm guitar tones and nuanced jazz phrasing, both of which are infused with a deep blues feeling. The maturity of these new songs, many instrumentals, reflect a musician who has immersed himself into the stinging guitar style of classic Chicago blues, but who also instills the smoky playing established by such jazz guitar greats as Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery.
“Feeling is key,” he says. “But there are many different kinds of feeling you can play the blues with. Many blues people don’t even realize what a huge world of music there is within the blues.”
Specter is unique because he too is an instrumentalist, but on “Message in Blue,” he also wrote lyrics for some songs, and included some covers that are sung by guest vocalists, including Otis Clay, the great Chicago soul music legend.
A CD release show for the album is Wednesday at SPACE in Evanston.
Clay sings “This Time I’m Gone For Good,” the haunting burner of a song by Bobby “Blue” Bland, the soul great who was also his friend. Clay says he considers the Specter version a tribute to the late singer who died last year at age 83. The song was played at his funeral.
“When you’re at a Bobby Bland funeral, I don’t care if you’re at the Vatican, you can play his records,” he says, with a laugh. “I went to this big church and it was a full service with everybody making speeches. And they’re rolling the casket out and I hear this song on the speakers. I went home and said, ‘Hey Dave, let’s do that song’.”
Specter grew up in the North Park neighborhood to a family of musicians — his brother played harmonica, his sister the guitar, and his mother was a classical pianist. Because his grandfather was a Steinway dealer, a grand piano occupied space in the family home. The long-running radio show “The Midnight Special” on WFMT-FM brought country blues, gospel, and folk music into the home, and Specter soon became transfixed.
His father, a community activist who helped transform 24-acres of parkland formerly occupied by a tuberculosis sanitarium into what is now Peterson Park, regularly took Specter to see the blues stars of his day, including Bland and B.B. King. Soon, Specter was old enough to hit the clubs on his own, showing up at places like the Checkerboard Lounge on the South Side and Biddy Mulligan’s on the far North Side. He first met Clay when the singer played Blues on Halsted, backed by the Hi Records rhythm session. “I was a blues purist and had never gotten into soul music,” Specter says. “He’s as good as it gets.”
Once Specter started releasing his own music, he had already earned the endorsement of master players like Hubert Sumlin, Son Seals, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy. Over 10 albums, including “Message in Blue,” he’s proven that the blues is a strong foundation for delving deeper into other styles that can be infused with feeling of blues. The new album includes “Opus De Swamp,” haunting country blues instrumental, and “Jefferson Stomp,” and “Funkified Outta Space,” and “The Spectifiyin’ Samba,” whose titles speak for themselves.
Besides music, Specter is also a partner at SPACE, the Evanston music room where he advises bookings for blues, R&B, jazz, and New Orleans music, which explains why that club has such a rich array of each every month. He looks at the club with the eye of a musician, which is why details like lighting, sightlines, and even the green room, are finely tuned to provide an enjoyable experience for everyone on the stage and off.
“We are a serious listening room. We’re not a bar with televisions going while bands are playing … That’s pretty rare in Chicago,” he says.
He also teaches blues guitar privately and at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Collectively, his efforts work toward a single goal: to push the music forward for fear of it withering away. “I wish there was more younger artists that were playing the music,” he says.
The city has a lot to do with that. Chicago has long neglected its blues heritage; unlike other musically rich cities, you can’t find a museum, statue, signage, or much else that even recognizes the global force that incubated inside the blues and jazz corridors on the South and West sides.
“It’s disappointing the city doesn’t do more, especially with the money we spend on the arts,” he says. “It’s sad that when you go to Navy Pier, supposedly the biggest tourist destination in Illinois, and you hear today’s new country piped over the PA when you should be hearing Chicago blues and jazz and soul.”
Doing his part, Specter includes “Chicago Style,” a burly, hard-driving song with horns and Brother John Katthke on vocals who name-checks a gallery of Chicago blues greats. Specter says he wanted “to write a new Chicago blues theme.”
“We need it here,” he says. “One of the things I’m most proud of, as a native Chicagoan, is our musical history. It should never be overlooked.”