"The Siegel-Schwall Band" (Wooden Nickel)
Chicago’s legendary Siegel-Schwall Band had two major components to its recording span—not counting the pair of “comeback” albums put out by Alligator Records (The Siegel-Schwall Reunion Concert in 1988 and Flash Forward in 2005).
The first consisted of the seminal The Siegel-Schwall Band album put out by Vanguard Records in 1966, and the three albums that followed, culminating in 1970 with Siegel-Schwall ’70. Then in 1971 commenced a series of albums recorded and released for the RCA-distributed Wooden Nickel Records: The Siegel-Schwall Band (1971), Sleepy Hollow (1972), 953 West (1973), Live: The Last Summer (1974) and R.I.P./Siegel/Schwall (1974).
The latter five discs have just been reissued—for a second time—by Wounded Bird Records, which originally reissued them in 1999. And blues harmonica player/pianist Corky Siegel, who founded the band with guitarist Jim Schwall and now fronts his blues-classical music ensemble Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues, couldn’t be happier.
“Those five Wooden Nickel Siegel-Schwall recordings are my favorites,” says Siegel, taking a break from interviews relating to the new documentary Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story, in which he’s featured.
“When I listen to the first Vanguard recording we made, I’m impressed—because I was 22, and we were just learning to play,” says Siegel, who then puts his Siegel-Schwall comments in a Chamber Blues context.
“I have the best classical players in town, but some of the parts I write for them aren’t always classical—especially for my cellist Jocelyn Butler-Shoulders,” he notes. “The cello often takes the bass line, so the parts for her therefore can be pretty simple—and totally not classical. But I was talking with her the other day and she was saying what I say: It’s not in the least bit what we are playing. It’s about how we play it. And that applies to everything.”
Regarding Siegel-Schwall, “We were playing something fairly simple but played it really well, with a lot of energy and feeling and innocence and youth, and then we tried getting sophisticated and fell apart a bit—but with some highlights. And then we started getting good again with Siegel-Schwall ’70, and when we went to Wooden Nickel our songs became more artistic.”
Here he cites his songs “Something’s Wrong” (from Sleepy Hollow) and “Devil” (The Siegel-Schwall Band), and Schwall’s “Next to You” (The Siegel-Schwall Band) and “When I’ve Been Drinkin’” (953 West).
“But maybe my favorite out of the whole set, because it expresses how we felt when we were making those recordings and playing music, is [bass guitarist] Rollow Radford’s ‘Old Time Shimmy’ [953 West]. It really projects what Siegel-Schwall was about in terms of how we played music and what we played, both in the lyrics and in the way he sings—and the arrangement, which was all his doing and a really, really good example of the psychology of Siegel-Schwall and why people loved the band.”
"Old Time Shimmy"
While Siegel-Schwall was enormously popular in the Chicago area (with strongholds in San Francisco and elsewhere) and recorded for national labels, “the beautiful thing is, because we weren’t famous, we had a bit of a [fan] movement, but people loved us more for the music and performance instead of our fame and success. And our music was very uplifting: Watch the 1971 film of the band playing with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on YouTube, where Jim makes his entrance on guitar. It is brilliant, and you look at his eyes and see he’s a little drunk and his playing is so deep and incredible. The Boston Globe called him the best guitar player in the world, and you know why when you see it.”
Siegel-Schwall and the Boston Pops
And besides Siegel, Schwall and Radford, there was the band’s late drummer Shelly Plotkin—“an incredible drummer that all the other drummers came out to listen to. So it was just an amazing artistic experience--but toward the end of 1974 everyone was so much into drugs and drinking that I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
It should be noted that Siegel, who included his Siegel-Schwall psychedelic showstopper “Angel Food Cake” on Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues’ acclaimed 2017 album Different Voices, neither drank nor did drugs.
“It got to the point where our performance suffered—not often, but enough to where I didn’t feel it was fair to our audience and promoters,” he says. But he adds that, “from the beginning, Jim said, ‘We should do things for only one reason, and that should be to have fun’--and he was correct, because by us having fun we were giving our best to the audience. And as far as I’m concerned, it was the same for Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and the blues masters in general.”
Indeed, The Siegel-Schwall Band, like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was among the young white Chicago blues acts that learned the genre at the feet of those blues masters, as Siegel also recounted in the 2013 documentary Born in Chicago.
“As I said just last night, when Howlin’ Wolf walked into a room, he didn’t have to sing or play, or do anything. Same with Muddy. Their presence was so uplifting and profound. So therefore the music we wrote was to help ensure that we were also uplifting and having fun, and even in the more serious tunes there was always a joy of expression—and the audience really loved it.”
One other noteworthy thing about the Siegel-Schwall Wooden Nickel albums was the artwork, and especially that of The Siegel-Schwall Band, for which figurative artist Harvey Dinnerstein and art director Acy Lehman won the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Recording Package.
“It was a painting of us playing in front of a junk car, with polluted water from a roof gutter pouring out of a pipe and into a sewer,” says Siegel. “Then you flip it over and we’re in the same place, but now there’s a horse, a waterfall, and Jim playing without a shirt on—and a tree and a horse drinking out of a stream.”
“We wanted to send a positive and uplifting message about the environment,” Siegel concludes.