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Billy Branch Shaped By Blues, Classic Rock

Billy Branch
Melodie Strowbridge
Billy Branch brings all his talents to the Front Street Music Festival stage on Saturday, Aug. 18.

Billy Branch is a Chicago bluesman through and through. But he says many bands we now call classic rock had as much an influence on his sound as did the blues legends that became his mentors.

Billy Branch and Sons of Blues headline the Front Street Music Festival in downtown Bloomington on Saturday, Aug. 18.

Branch said Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, the Doors, and even folk musicians including Pete Seeger shaped his sound over his 40 years as a performer.

“My peers … we would find ourselves at famous blues clubs in Chicago like Theresa’s Lounge and The Checkerboard,” said Branch. “Invariably we would find ourselves on stage, and the first thing they wanted to play was some funk music or R&B."

Branch pointed out to his friends that they could play the blues while covering James Brown or The Temptations.

“I could hear the blues within James Brown. Or take a song like ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone.’ That had a blues theme lyrically, but I could hear ‘the blues’ within that context. From time to time, something will just strike me and I’ll find a way to fit that in during the middle of a blues solo,” said Branch, whose instrument is the harmonica.

That’s not unlike his friend Ronnie Baker Brooks, who will often incorporate a Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith riff into a blues standard.

“As a matter of fact, I’ll see him later today. We’re rehearsing for the ‘Chicago Plays The Stones’ tour,” said Branch, about the nod Chicago blues artists are giving the Rolling Stones for their Grammy-winning “Blue And Lonesome” album, which itself was a nod to the heyday of Chicago blues.

“The tour features some of today’s top Chicago blues artists including myself and Brooks. But also Billy Boy Arnold, Carlos Johnson, Jimmy Burns and Buddy Guy,” said Branch. “And Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are also part of the event.”

It’s a continuation of sorts of the Stones' tight relationship with now legendary blues artists including Guy, as well as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and others.

“There was a definite connection,” said Branch. “You know the Stones and most of the groups from the British invasion started out as blues cover bands. They were emulating Muddy, Little Walter, Sonny Boy (Williamson) and (Howlin’) Wolf. The Stones, thankfully, have always acknowledged that influence. And in many cases have seen fit to include some of those artists in many of their performances. Back in the day, they had Little Walter and Sonny Boy open for them during performances.”

Branch was caught slightly off guard when another aspect of his repertoire was addressed: acting.

“Well, that’s putting it broadly,” he laughed heartily. “I was most notably in ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ where (fellow bluesman) Albert Collins had that very entertaining scene.”

The movie was shot at the well-known blues and roots club FitzGerald’s in suburban Berwyn.

“And I was in ‘Next of Kin’ which was actually shot in the Checkerboard Lounge. I actually had two lines. I played a ‘heavy,’ I was a preacher,” laughed Branch.” In the scene I’m in, the band playing in the bar was B.B. King’s band. And if you look closely, you can see B.B. King sitting in the audience when they do that band shot of the stage.”

Listen to the entire GLT interview with Billy Branch.

Billy Branch brings all his talents to the Front Street Music Festival stage on Saturday, Aug. 18. He and his band Sons of Blues are the headliner. Other bands include Dave Lumsden and Friends, Ryan Byfield & Nucleus, The Brazilionaires, Dreaming in Colour, and YamBeque. The music is scheduled to start at 2 p.m.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.