Soon Bell was performing with his godfather's band at gigs in the little towns east of the Delta. A few years later, this same godfather convinced an 18-year-old Carey to move with him to Chicago to seek work and to learn from established blues players. Age kept him out of the bars at first, but soon Bell was learning from Little Walter Jacobs and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Big Walter Horton became a major influence, and Bell began to develop his own punchy "chopped" harmonica technique. He may follow in the footsteps of his mentors, but Carey is quick to point out that he plays his rough and tumble harp his way. Bell will most certainly put a personal stamp on the old school blues when he plays the Boulevard Deli Saturday.
"I'm not going to tell you [technique secrets], but I want to put my own thing in the songs I play," he says.
Competition among Chicago harmonica players in the 1960s was strong and even with a factory day job Bell had a tough time scraping up cash. He eventually decided to learn bass guitar to keep working the clubs. James "Honeyboy" Edwards' six-string guitar was Bell's first improvised bass.
"It was very hard," Bell says looking back on struggling days. "Harmonica players wasn't makin' no money."
When Bell returned to harmonica in the late '60s, he found work with guitarist Eddie Taylor's band. He recorded the first album under his name in 1969 before he hooked up with Waters in 1970 and worked steadily through the '70s with Dixon. The '80s blues resurgence meant even more work. Bell toured, recorded and led his own band as he gained name recognition during the next two decades. His sets now mix songs by his Chicago influences and his own originals, though he makes few songwriting claims.
"I never wrote no damn song," Bell notes. "I just made 'em up off the bandstand."
Bell recently recorded with J. Geils and earlier this month he toured Germany. He believes both he and the blues have a solid future.
"[Audiences before the 1980s] didn't know what I did years ago. but once they found out what I really did, all of them came out and I was workin'. Younger people is catchin' onto blues. That's what's keepin' me alive. S, I been workin', man. I'll play the blues until the day I die." S
Carey Bell plays the Boulevard Deli, 5218 W. Broad St., Saturday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. Pure and Sinful opens. Tickets are $8 in advance at the Deli and Plan 9 or $10 at the door. Call 282-9333.
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