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NewCityNet Jew's Blues

By Mitch Myers

JUNE 7, 1999:  About a month ago I met with Chicago blues guitarist Dave Specter. He had just returned from playing a week-long gig in Israel, so it was not surprising that our conversation turned towards playing the blues, paying some dues and musicians who just happen to be Jews.

It's not difficult to catch Dave Specter's act here in the Windy City. The man's been playing professionally since 1985 and, before forming his own group, he was a member of The Legendary Blues Band, worked with Son Seals and backed everyone from Big Time Sarah to Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. He has a number of solo record on Delmark, where he also works as a producer.

Dave Specter isn't the only notable Jewish blues guitarist to hail from Chicago. In the early sixties a kid named Mike Bloomfield was immersing himself in the blues, frequenting the South Side clubs and jamming with musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Otis Span. "Mike Bloomfield was one of the pioneers in terms of being a white musician who got into the black blues scene before there were a lot of white blues musicians." says Specter. "He came from a very wealthy family in Glencoe and was hanging out before there were any blues bars on the North Side. He was a musicologist who knew about every aspect of blues from all different styles." Bloomfield died of a drug overdose in 1981, but he's best remembered for his sterling guitar work with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag. He can also be heard on Bob Dylan's historic album, "Highway 61 Revisited." "Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Barry Goldberg even did a record called 'Two Jews Blues,'" adds Specter.

Of course, the Jewish blues phenomena of the sixties was not restricted to Chicagoland. For every local artist like Harvey Mandel (who played in Canned Heat) or Corky Siegel, there were young blues fanatics like Peter Greenbaum from England, who shortened his name to Peter Green and went on to form the original Fleetwood Mac. "Peter Green was a combination of one of the most soulful singers and purest blues guitar players around," says Specter. "If you listen to the early Fleetwood Mac, Peter was doing stuff in a very B.B. King/Otis Rush style of playing. There's also some incredible stuff on "Fleetwood Mac Live In Chicago," with Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon and Otis Span. Green later ventured off into a psychedelic rock sound that never did anything for me, but the early stuff still stands the test of time as great blues. Harvey Mandel also did a lot of experimenting but his music was always blues-based. He was even on the Rolling Stones album, "Black and Blue," but Harvey never moved me as much as guys like Peter Green or Mike Bloomfield.

"One of the questions I think about is the things we Jewish blues musicians have in common with blacks." Specter confesses. "We're playing music that was invented by blacks and interpreting it our own way. There's a connection between blacks and Jews as people who have suffered prejudice, oppression and slavery. I don't know if that's the reason, but you have to consider these things. I've played the blues for fifteen years and I know people who have done it for three times as long. We don't do it for the money, we do it because it's rewarding in other ways."

While Specter speaks clearly about the cultural affinity between blacks and Jews, he also perceives the occurrence of reverse racism in the Chicago blues scene. "Some clubs like Blue Chicago and Kingston Mines will not book white bandleaders," Specter insists. "They actually have quotas, but they won't admit it. They claim that it's because the tourists don't want to see white guys on stage, which is absurd, because any blues festival in the world will have white guys playing. Occasionally they'll have a bandleader that's white, but never one from around here."

Okay, Dave, but can we go back to blues and Jews before calling it quits? "I can think of a few players today who are really prominent guitarists that are Jews. " responds Specter. "Steve Freund, Ronnie Earl and Alex Schultz come to mind as well as Bob Margolin who played with Muddy Waters for a real long time. Ronnie Earl's real name is Ronald Horwath and his father survived the Holocaust. Also, Tad Robinson is a singer and harmonica player who I've worked with for a couple of years and Rick Estrin is the frontman of Little Charlie and the Nightcats. The blues is emotionally based music and I think that's why it moves people so much. It doesn't have to be played by someone who lives out on the street or is poor and desperate or alcoholic. You don't have to live the blues to play the blues, you just have to express yourself with feeling.

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