Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
A few months ago, when I saw that blues guitarist J.B. Ritchie had passed away on November 23, 2021, I made a mental note to dig into his story. First I checked out a few tracks—his style straddled rock ’n’ roll and the blues, and he sure could play! I couldn’t find much at all written about him, and toward the end of his life he’d gigged mainly in small suburban clubs. I thought Ritchie deserved better, so I added him to my mental list for this year’s Winter Blues series. I hope I can do the man justice!
Ritchie was born in Chicago in 1952 and largely raised by his mom—his father, who was part Cherokee and part Blackfoot, left for California after Ritchie’s parents divorced when he was a baby. He grew up listening to his mother’s piano playing and Frank Sinatra records, but at age ten he heard blues rocker Lonnie Mack play the tune “Memphis.” By his mid-teens, Ritchie had saved up enough money to buy his first guitar, a Gibson Kalamazoo (their budget line), and when a friend’s band needed a bassist, he dropped another $60 on a matching bass. His bandmates taught him how to play bass, but his real love was slide guitar.
As a teenager, Ritchie fell in love with the blues at famous Arlington Heights teen club the Cellar, where he saw Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and blues-indebted rockers such as Cream and the Steve Miller Band. In a 2015 interview for TV and radio show In a Nutshell With Al Weissman, he expounded on his love for slide guitar. “I started using a slide early on because I liked its unique sound,” he said. “I made one and used it to tune my guitar to a chord. Different slides have different tones. Glass is more mellow—sounds nice with acoustic. Metal sounds harsher. Mississippi Fred McDowell used a hollowed-out beef bone for a slide. I’ve seen some use a shot glass.”
The first slide tune Ritchie learned was the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” which he learned from the 1969 Muddy Waters album After the Rain. In high school he played bass in a pop band, and upon graduation he started the Liquid Chrome Band, a high-energy, bluesy rock act that sadly never recorded. They toured in a silver bus, and in 1971 they opened for Ted Nugent at the Aragon Ballroom. When Liquid Chrome called it quits in 1979, Ritchie formed J.B. Ritchie & the Rafters; his favorite gig with that group was with Leon Russell at suburban club Haymakers.
“In the 70s, some of the popular blues venues were Alice’s Revisited and Eddie Shaw’s New 1815 Club, in Chicago,” Ritchie recalled in that same In a Nutshell interview. “At Alice’s Revisited I got to see and meet many musical artists, like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Jimmie Dawkins, and Buddy Guy. At Eddie Shaw’s New 1815 Club, I sometimes hung out with Andrew ‘Blueblood’ McMann and Eddie Taylor, and sometimes played with Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin. Alice’s Revisited was the kind of place where I could sit right in front of Muddy. They didn’t sell alcohol, no chairs—sat on the floor. I was able to go backstage after a performance and talk about playing guitar. It was the first place I ever saw Buddy Guy perform.”
Ritchie also maintained a parallel career as a sound engineer, multimedia artist, and studio musician—he worked at Rainbow Bridge Studios in Libertyville from 1983 till it shut down in 2014. He collaborated with musicians of all stripes as well as with corporate clients, and he recorded some material with Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) for the soundtrack of the 1997 movie Spawn.
Also in 1997, Ritchie recorded his first and only solo album, the rockin’ Power Blues, at Rainbow Bridge. His band included drummer Marty Binder (a former Albert Collins sideman) and bassist Frank Bandy (who toured with Muddy Waters guitarist Jimmy Rogers); the album came out on Bandy’s own Teardrop label. Its songs highlight Ritchie’s virtuosic, wailing guitar, which invites comparisons to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and the Allman Brothers.
Ritchie continued gigging busily, and though he couldn’t fairly be called a star, he shared bills with plenty of them—and befitting his blues-rock style, they included not just blues artists (John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, Luther Allison, Koko Taylor, Otis Clay, John Primer, Eddy “the Chief” Clearwater, Papa John Creach, Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Willie Dixon) but also rockers (David Johansen, Buddy Miles, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Pat Travers, the Kingsmen, Steppenwolf, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones). Ritchie opened the Blues Stage at ChicagoFest on Navy Pier in 1982, and over the years he made many appearances at the Chicago Blues Festival—the first was in 1999, the last in 2017. On August 4, 2013, he was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame as a Master Blues Artist.
In 1995, Richie had a milestone year for other reasons: he had a roadside epiphany after his car ran out of gas and he went walking to look for a filling station. As he used to tell the story, a stranger in a white Cadillac picked him up, took him to get gas, and drove him to his car—and on the way, he talked to Ritchie with eerily intimate knowledge of his life, which no stranger should’ve had. When Ritchie got back to his car, he found a Bible inscribed to him on the driver’s seat—and he decided it was time to give up his hard-partying life and get sober.
In 2016, the J.B. Ritchie Band (which then included drummer Dave Stacks, harmonica player Buzz Krantz, and bassist Gunnar P. Collins) had been active for nearly 30 years when Ritchie doubled up by joining a group called Party at the Moontower. His website describes them as “an original funk, rock, blues, country, and hip-hop act known for causing uncontrollable dancing with fun lyrics and booty-shaking riffs!” In an even odder turn, they cut a track called “I Need an Ugly Sweater Christmas Song” and submitted its 2017 video to a couple dozen film festivals. Both projects were still ongoing at the time of Ritchie’s death.
Maybe it’s just the deadly global pandemic, but it seems like the past few years have been especially cruel in terms of losing musicians, actors, and artists. Ritchie led a full life, though, and most players would envy his star-studded journey. I’d suggest that we not mourn him solemnly, but rather celebrate his legacy the way a fiery lifelong bluesman would want: by rocking on!
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.