Father-son blues duo reunites

After years of turmoil, Carey and Lurrie Bell are together again

Chicago Tribune

August 29, 2004

By Steve Knopper

Lurrie Bell turned 21 on Dec. 13, 1979, at Chicago's Wise Fools Pub, and he celebrated like the blues guitarist he was. "You sat at the bar," recalls his father, the great harpist Carey Bell, "and you got drunk."

"Right! I got kind of loaded," Lurrie says, with a sheepish cackle. "That was an honor to me, to be able to socialize like everybody else. So it was cool."

This rite-of-passage reminiscence is a warm moment between the Bells, now 45 and 67 years old and living in different states, during a recent three-way phone interview. But the moment also belies an unspoken sadness. For five years, starting when he joined his father's bar band at age 16, Lurrie Bell spent his break time in the basements of clubs such as Wise Fools and Biddy Mulligan's. He always drank alone.

"That did worry me a lot, but I still took it," says Lurrie's mother, Sally Bettis, who divorced from Carey Bell in the '60s. "Lurrie would sit on my porch and say, `Mama, I want to play the blues.'"

The Bells reunite Sept. 11 in a rare co-headlining gig at Buddy Guy's Legends. The show marks the release of "Second Nature," a reissued CD on Chicago's Alligator Records, documenting an acoustic 1991 set between father and son in Finland. It's a superb performance, with Carey and Lurrie taking turns on vocals and complementing each other so perfectly that it seems like a solo album rather than a collaboration.

"If you listen to the new record, it's a blueprint of how [Lurrie] was influenced by his dad's harmonica," says Matthew Skoller, a working Chicago harmonicist who has performed many times with both Bells. "You can hear his dad doing these syncopated riffs that are very sinewy and seamless; you can hear Lurrie imitating his father while he's playing back there. It's like they're talking to each other."

The blues were Lurrie Bell's birthright, and he accepted them enthusiastically. He was the star attraction in his father's band throughout the '70s, traveling through Europe and playing regularly to packed clubs in Chicago. He and Carey Bell played together with what other musicians describe as mental telepathy, instinctively filling in each other's spaces, looking and sounding so alike it was almost eerie.

But around the time Lurrie sat at Wise Fools Pub for his first legal drink, something went wrong. Although harpist Billy Branch and Delmark Records owner Bob Koester, among others, have ranked Lurrie among the best blues guitarists in Chicago, he descended into a 20-year period of mental illness, drugs, homelessness and hospital stays. It wasn't until the last four or five years, when he started living with photographer Susan Greenberg and seeing doctors for his illness, that he turned his life around.

During this bad period, Bell would show up unannounced at Chicago blues clubs, borrowing guitars to play blistering solos before shambling back into the night. He was unreliable, in the sad tradition of jazzmen Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, and rarely got enough recording or performance work to survive -- not even with his father, a stoic and dry-humored man who watched with concern while touring clubs around the U.S.

"Actually, I didn't know what to do," says Carey, on the phone from his Charlotte, N.C., home while Lurrie listens on the other line from Chicago. "At that time, I didn't know about getting help and all that stuff. I don't know what happened, he just snapped out of it. He came back this way. That was a blessing."

Lurrie, whose humble, fast-talking style is in stark contrast with Carey's more reserved and occasionally grumpy one-liners, professes no ill will toward his father for the bad years. On the contrary, he raves about Carey's playing and repeatedly credits him for getting him into the blues in the first place. ("I owe my dad a hell of a lot," Lurrie says at one point. "When you going to pay me?" Carey snaps back. Lurrie laughs.)

"We kind of went our own way, you know, in a way," Lurrie says. "I was playing with different guys, my dad was playing with different guys and traveling. We kind of slowed down on the family thing."

Both Lurrie and Carey talk in euphemisms about their relationship, which has been colored over the years by tragedy and stubbornness. There was strife and, eventually, a divorce between Carey Bell and Sallie Bettis, mother of Lurrie and his seven siblings. There was tragedy; two of Lurrie's sisters died young, within two years of each other, of diabetes. And some of Lurrie's friends and family members criticize Carey for not being around when his son needed him, and allowing his short temper to take over too frequently.

There's a fascinating scene in Chicago filmmaker Paul Marcus' as-yet-unreleased "Mercurial Son: The Blues of Lurrie Bell," in which the two Bells sit on chairs outside Carey's then-home on the South Side and wring their hands in exactly the same way. Warmth exists between father and son, for sure, especially when they talk about music. But at one point, Lurrie asks when they'll next play together, and Carey mumbles something about already having a guitarist in his band and not needing two. Still, they leave on good terms.

Carey Bell grew up an orphan in Macon, Miss., so poor that he took up harmonica after his grandfather couldn't afford to buy him a guitar. At age 20, he moved to Chicago with his godfather, pianist Lovie Lee, playing at West Side and South Side clubs and eventually touring with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.

A terrific talent in the harp-blowing tradition of Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter, Carey embraced the life of a traveling bluesman, which is not always the life of a family man. Blues legend Waters, for example, had six children -- none with his four (or maybe five) wives. One son, singer Big Bill Morganfield, has said he saw his father only on Muddy's rare visits to his Florida home.

"We'd have stayed together more if I'd have known back then what I know," the senior Bell says of his relationship with Lurrie. "I was running like a mad dog in a meat house. It was kind of hell for me -- my temper was always short. And I couldn't really take a lot of stuff. If I didn't like something, I wouldn't do it."

With Lurrie's recent recovery and re-entry into the blues business -- he plays regular paid gigs these days on the Chicago club circuit, from B.L.U.E.S. to Rosa's Lounge -- has come a sort of reconciliation with his father. When Lurrie and Susan Greenberg's twin babies died within months of their birth last year, Greenberg recalls, Carey Bell told her he "broke up" when he heard the news. It was an unusual display of emotion for Carey, who usually only does that sort of thing with a harmonica in his mouth.

Lurrie has been lionizing his father's musical skills since he was 12, when, living with his mother's relatives in Alabama, he asked his father to bring him to Chicago. Carey obliged, and indirectly taught Lurrie the blues. "Dad would help bands rehearsing at his house, and I kind of fit in because I could hear it through my ear," Lurrie recalls. "And there were always instruments around. I made up my mind. I said, `I'm gonna learn these rules so my dad can respect me later on.'

"So if it wasn't for my dad, I wouldn't be doing the blues at all."

"Yeah, he would," Carey interjects on the phone. "He was born with the blues."

Responds Lurrie: "I think I was too."