Gene Barge plays with the Electric Mudcats (a partial reunion of the band on Muddy Waters’s 1968 album Electric Mud) at the 2003 Chicago Blues Festival. Credit: Scott Stewart/Sun-Times Media

Among active Chicago musicians, it’s hard to conceive of anyone more deserving of a Blues Festival tribute set than saxophonist Gene “Daddy G” Barge—though that conclusion apparently wasn’t obvious to the man himself. With characteristic humility, he says he didn’t know Saturday’s show was a tribute till I asked him about it—he’d assumed it was just another gig.

Barge will be honored with a performance by the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings, whose tight horn section he’s graced for decades. In the early 80s, when he first joined forces with saxist Terry Ogolini and trumpeter Don Tenuto, they were supplying the brassy flash for a different Chicago R&B ensemble: “I had just come off the road with the Rolling Stones in 1982. Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows were going pretty strong, but they said they needed some help,” says Barge. “They invited me to come and work with the band and try to produce the band.”

Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings: tribute to Gene Barge

Sat 6/9, 1:30 PM, Crossroads Stage

After front man Larry “Big Twist” Nolan died in 1990, the Mellow Fellows soldiered on for a few years, with Barge taking on some of the singing. In 1993 cofounder Pete Special left the group, which prompted Barge, Ogolini, and Tenuto to relaunch it as the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings. Barge eventually became their primary vocalist. “I was the only one around that knew the show,” he says. “Rather than get a new singer, they pushed me out front, because I knew all the music.” He’s been there ever since, though he doesn’t tour as much as he used to.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1926, Barge didn’t get serious about saxophone until after he returned from his World War II air force service. His dad handed him a waterlogged tenor that a British sailor had given him, and after it was rendered playable by a raft of repairs, Barge learned his way around it. “Jazz-wise, Lester Young was my influence,” he says. But R&B would be his ticket to the big time. Barge released his first record as a leader, the instrumental “Country,” in 1956—Norfolk disc jockey Bill Curtis produced it, and Chicago’s storied Checker Records pressed it.

The saxophonist got his big break after joining the band of blues shouter Chuck Willis. Barge wasn’t supposed to appear on Willis’s 1957 smash “C.C. Rider,” but after 20-odd takes in Atlantic Records’ New York studio, the song just wasn’t coming together. “Chuck said, ‘Why don’t you just let Gene play a little bit, so we can get the feel?'” Barge recalls. “Two takes later, we had cut the song.”

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Back home in Norfolk, Barge hooked up with record-shop proprietor Frank Guida and his fledgling Legrand Records. Just up the street, evangelist Bishop “Daddy” Grace led services in a church full of romping, trombone-stoked gospel music, and Guida wanted to capture that feel on an R&B record. “Guida was on my case about, ‘Well, why don’t we try to do something about that?'” says Barge. They cooked up the rowdy two-part instrumental “A Nite With Daddy ‘G’,” which Legrand issued under the name the Church Street Five, and in early ’61 it became Barge’s first hit.

Singer Gary (U.S.) Bonds, Barge’s young labelmate, heard the workout while touring behind “New Orleans,” his own first hit. “He came back and told me, ‘Man, I put lyrics to your song!'” says Barge. “So we convinced Frank Guida to record us doing it.” That song was Bonds’s “Quarter to Three,” which topped the pop charts in summer 1961. Its lyrics repeatedly mention “Daddy G,” and just like that, Barge had himself a nickname. He blew up a storm on Bonds’s subsequent hits as well as on Jimmy Soul’s 1963 smash “If You Wanna Be Happy,” but soon he decided it was time for a change of scenery. At that point, he was still a schoolteacher by day.

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“I called Phil Chess,” Barge says, “and he gave me a job on the phone. The day school closed in June ’64, I jumped on a plane and landed in Chicago and began work on Monday morning.” Chess Records producers featured Barge’s horn on a slew of classics, including Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It” and Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” and he did some production for the label himself. After Chess folded in the mid-70s, Barge kept going as an independent producer and a session musician, though in the 80s he developed a sideline in movie acting. (He plays a cop in the 1993 Harrison Ford version of The Fugitive.)

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And Chicago’s titan of the tenor saxophone isn’t done yet. In 2013 he self-released an album called Olio with cameos from the likes of Buddy Guy and Otis Clay. Now, at age 91, he’s considering a sequel. “I want to record Olio 2,” he says.  v