Chicago Blues All Stars Are Creating a Bold New Vision for the Blues

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Chicago has long been considered the most formidable city to ply your talents as a blues-man. While its streets can be unforgiving, the blues community has become more progressive. These days, a blues lover can walk the streets of Chicago, venturing from club to club enjoying classic blues, blues-rock, soulful blues, funky blues, and of course, the always popular “Chicago Acoustic” blues. Yet even as recently as 25 years ago, those involved in the genre recall a blues scene that was radically different.

Daniel Ivankovich, aka, Chicago Slim, aka, Dr. Dan, remembers vividly, how things used to be. Born in Zagreb, Croatia in 1963, he arrived in Chicago in 1965 after his family defected from the former Yugoslavia. Growing up in Chicago, young Dan was exposed to all forms of music. Trained in classical music and playing the violin in school, he became enthralled with the blues. After a career-ending basketball injury squashed any NBA aspirations, Dan picked up the guitar, beginning a life-long love affair with the Blues.

Along the way, the then 17-year old Ivankovich befriended “Killer” Ray Allison, the drummer for Muddy Waters. The two quickly become brothers in the blues. They worked hard to hone their craft and collaborated to make some headway on the music scene. “In the ’80s, the odds were stacked against any new and original band trying to break into Chicago’s blues scene,” says Ivankovich. “Despite this, there was great opportunity to be had playing alongside the plethora of legendary Chicago blues artists. I had the good fortune to study with Eddie Taylor Sr. and the towering Magic Slim (who bestowed the Slim handle on the young Daniel). I eventually got a life-changing opportunity to play in Otis Rush’s band as his guitar player and protégé.”

Despite the talent in Chicago, only a limited number of blues venues would allow new artists to stretch out with originals and unique interpretations of standards. In the 80’s and early 90’s the premier live music venue in Chicago was Biddy Mulligan’s, predating Buddy Guy’s Legends. “It was a huge room, holding just under a thousand people and we were pretty much the house band. It drew a huge contingent of students from Loyola & Northwestern Universities, so we were able to do more bluesy rock interpretations as a trio, as well as high-energy originals. As a two-piece and using a variety of bass players to round out the trio, Ray and I got to open for dozens of national touring acts like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Bo Diddley, Rare Earth, Gil Scott-Heron, Leon Russell and the Ohio Players. The kids loved it.”

Even though the college crowd demanded a new sound to define their blues, “progressive blues” was more the exception than the norm in many of Chicago’s traditional blues clubs. Although the blues scene was changing nationally, legendary local blues clubs had to maintain a balance between cultivating new fans and trying to please long-standing blues lovers and musical tourists. Dan sighs deeply, remembering the challenges that new artists had to overcome and he and Killer were no exception. “Even though places like Austin, Memphis and New Orleans were more progressive at the time, Chicago wasn’t able to take the lead in this regard. When people came to the city to hear ‘real’ Chicago Blues, they wanted blues that represented the golden era of Chess, Cobra & Vee-Jay records.”

Many thought the death of Muddy Waters in ’83 signaled that the torch was ready to be passed to a younger generation of blues artists. Despite no shortage of interest, Chicago continued to lag behind the rest of the country as younger listeners professed a love for an edgier kind of blues, the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan. “Ray and I had a great project that was really well received across the board but Chicago clubs and blues labels continued to focus more on traditional blues artists. I was in my 20s, and they would always greet me with, ‘Yeah, you’re a nice kid and play really well, but call us when you and the band ‘mature’ a little bit more.'”

Opportunities were few and far between for a renegade blues guitarist trying to redefine his favorite musical genre. So, a young Chicago Slim decided to forge a different path. He focused on all avenues that led to music including recording, mixing, and producing. He understood that labels were still the main option to put out a project on vinyl, or CD. Slim laments, “We didn’t have iTunes. Sure, we could press a bunch of discs, but in terms of real distribution, without a touring gig, distribution was next to impossible. Ray and I were in a real catch-22.

“Rather than see this as defeat, I continued working as a FM radio announcer and even syndicated my radio program, Out Of The Blue, to over 60 stations across the country. I also got really busy as a recording engineer at Universal Recording Company and Chicago Trax. It was there that I was exposed to Industrial music and worked with Ministry, as well as Al Jourgensen’s many offshoot projects. Trax, in particular, opened my ears to House music. I got to assist on recordings by legendary Chicago House music artists like Frankie Knuckles, Vince Lawrence, Steve “Silk” Hurley & Marshall Jefferson. While the Chicago market was constantly evolving the rules were not changing as quickly as we had hoped so I continued to focus on commercial recording and remixing dance music during the day while Ray & I played the blues clubs at night.”

Killer Ray was holding down the drum throne for the elite of Chicago’s Blues. When Buddy’s Damn Right I Got The Blues began to take off, Ray was booked out months at a time. “We would have to squeeze in local shows when he got a couple of weeks off.”

Once again, Dan took this time to forge his path by finishing medical school and earning the title Dr. Dan. As an Orthopedic Surgeon, his days were filled seeking a solution for the abysmal quality of healthcare in Chicago’s under-served communities. “I took this opportunity to provide medical care to Chicago musicians, especially in the blues community, because they all knew me and trusted me as their friend and fellow musician. I’m very proud to have created a solution for accessible healthcare that predates the Affordable Care Act by decades.

“As Chicago Slim, I continued to polish my musical skills, work with other musicians, and was always scoping out the blues scene for a new opportunity to present my vision of the blues to a wider audience. When Buddy Guy opened Legends, it dramatically impacted the blues genre and positively reshaped the Chicago music community. It paved the way for musicians and fans both in and outside of the genre to experience and fall in love with the blues while encouraging musicians to erupt with creativity. Fortunate to be among the early artists to consistently play at Legends, Killer and I put many things into motion twenty-something years ago that fostered the changes we were hoping for.”

In time, the concept now known as the Chicago Blues All-Stars began to take shape. “Killer and I had many heart to heart conversations mapping out a direction for the vision of our new band. Slim and ‘Killer’ had to step up as the face and voice of the band. While Killer was a celebrated drummer, elected to the Blues Hall of Fame, playing on over 100 albums, people were hesitant to accept him as a guitar player, which is what he wanted most. We pushed the musical envelope by writing original songs in hopes of attracting a younger fan base interested in blues.

“Since the Chicago scene is known for bandleaders with 3-4 sidemen, our goal was to make it a full-on review, where every member was a star. We wanted to create a show so captivating that only the excitement of the Chitlin’ Circuit’s Johnny Otis’ and Ike & Tina Turners’ reviews could rival the experience, while incorporating the latest in beats and sounds to showcase a progressive, modern era blues.” This is precisely what the CBAS have done. Each show is a visual and an auditory experience enjoyed by all.

With their review style presentation, the band is able to actively engage the audience in a level of participation so involved; each show is truly an interactive event. Along with Killer and Slim, Miss Anji Brooks adds her lively vocals and animated stage presence, Johnny Cotton leads the All-Star Horns to proffer a sweet, soulful touch for listening pleasure. On the album, the rhythm section of Johnny B. Gayden on bass, and Jerry Porter on drums captivates listeners while live, C.C. Copeland holds down the bass groove and Casper lights the drums on fire. To satisfy the young at heart, the newest addition to live shows is Halve Past as MC/Percussionist.

As far as making this album, Slim and his band mates knew what they were looking to accomplish. “We wanted to record in a non-traditional sense. Each Tuesday we would gather at Rax Trax, owned and operated by my good friend Rick Barnes. I told Rick that we wanted to record and jam in a casual atmosphere and whatever happens… happens. We weren’t trying to sound like anyone but ourselves, yet along the way, we realized that our sound was evolving. So, instead of focusing on our originals we focused on interpreting blues classics in a contemporary, signature way that fans could embrace. As direct disciples of Chicago’s blues greats, we are all respectful of the fact that we could never do Muddy, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter better than the originals, so why try?”

As expected, breaking with blues tradition, the band will be pushing the envelope and issuing remixed singles for a new audience in several alternate forms, i.e., funk, house, dub-step, hip-hop, neo-soul, industrial and more. In addition, fans will also be able to submit their remixes of CBAS’ music to be shared on the band’s site. This brings fan interaction to a whole new level, allowing all interested blues lovers to be part of the creative process. “Our ultimate goal is to continue evolving as a contemporary music revue, focusing on original material. The feedback from our fans inspires us to continue this path. We want to make it high energy and make it funky; something that fans both young and old can connect with. We want our show to be as equally well-received at a juke joint or frat party, as it would be at a corporate event or major festival.”

To realize this vision, the band invests heavily in the modern-day musicians’ toolbox: iTunes, ReverbNation, Facebook, Twitter, etc. This gives direct access to millions of receptive young listeners. This social media pipeline also allows the Chicago Blues All-Stars to compete internationally with large labels and established artists.

As it turns out, Killer and Slim were right to travel their own road. Self-issued on their own Azure Music label, Red, Hot & Blue has been released to enthusiastic reception by audiences everywhere, including Europe and the Far East. Alongside steady rotation on SiriusXM Bluesville, CBAS has received radio play on over 200 stations in 22 countries. Since the album’s release in December 2013, CBAS has been sitting on top of ReverbNation’s Chicago and US blues charts. “Red, Hot & Blue” broke Top 25 on Living Blues Radio Report, as well as reaching Top 30 on the Roots Music Report. The album is also currently listed as number 35 on AirPlay Direct’s – All Time Top 50 APD Blues/Jazz/Reggae Albums. Quite impressive for a debut release by an Indy artist!

The Chicago Blues All-Stars are breathing new life into a historic genre as they convince audiences everywhere to give blues a try! While this new found success is great for the band, it benefits the greater Chicago blues community. The proceeds from the sales of “Red, Hot & Blue” have been pledged to help fund a musician’s clinic at One Patient Global Health Initiative, a nonprofit organization committed to providing resources for accessible health care in under served populations. In 2014 alone, CBAS has raised over $10,000 to help improve the lives of blues musicians who are unable to access vital healthcare resources. CBAS’ approach is fresh, innovative, fluid, and alive. Join them on a journey of discovery to see where they will take the blues next. It’s going to be quite a ride.

Chicago Blues All Stars