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.
It must be surreal to be a towering figure in your field but still have to explain who you are to almost everyone you meet. I’m sure scientists are used to it—their work doesn’t exactly put their faces in front of the public—but I’ll never get why the reputations of blues musicians travel so poorly outside their cultural niche.
The blues is a foundation for so many genres (including the perpetually not-quite-dead rock ’n’ roll, of course), and it still has fervent fans, dedicated festivals, and even a Grammy category or two. But with the exception of the very biggest stars, blues artists—whether minor legends from yesteryear or favorites from today—remain beloved only by those fervent fans. Chicago harmonica king Billy Branch is one of those favorites, still active in his early 70s and ripe for discovery by listeners outside the blues.
William Earl Branch came into this world on October 3, 1951, at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in North Chicago. When he was five, his family moved to Los Angeles, where at age ten he’d buy his first harmonica at Woolworth’s. He taught himself the instrument, with little to go on but an album by UK blues rockers John Mayall and Eric Clapton that he’d received as a promotional giveaway and hadn’t been able to get into.
In the decades since, Branch has rarely been spotted without a harmonica, and when he enrolled at the University of Illinois Chicago in 1969, he brought it with him. That same year, he saw the first Chicago Blues Festival, a staggeringly loaded single-day Grant Park lineup coproduced by venerable bassist Willie Dixon, who’d soon become one of Branch’s most important mentors. (The current version of the festival, founded in 1984, makes its annual return in June—thankfully it hasn’t been affected by the downtown NASCAR mayhem.)
Branch watched Dixon and his band back up blues royalty such as Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker, and he was floored. He returned to his lone blues record, suddenly eager to learn how to play along, and began a self-directed crash course in the genre.
Branch also delved into the local blues scene, frequenting venues such as Theresa’s and the Checkerboard Lounge. Several blues elders—among them pianist Jimmy Walker and guitarist Homesick James—took him under their wings, passing down fundamentals that would help him forge his own signature gritty-but-polished harp sound and powerful vocal delivery.
Branch was still in school, and in 1974 he completed his bachelor’s degree in political science. Soon after, he had a musical graduation of sorts. On his rounds of the local clubs, he’d been competing in head-cutting contests—a long-running tradition, especially in blues and jazz, where players take the stage together and trade licks until a victor emerges. Branch had been schooled by several harmonica players who were miles out of his league at the time, including Walter “Shakey” Horton and Junior Wells, but at the Green Bunny Club in 1975, he finally held his own in a battle with a better-established bluesman, Little Mack Simmons.
Retellings of that night don’t agree about who actually “won.” Some say Simmons just declared himself the winner, despite the crowd’s preference. But Branch’s performance bolstered his credibility on the club circuit—and helped him score a studio date to make the first formal recordings of his career, which appeared on the 1976 Barrelhouse Records compilation Bring Me Another Half a Pint.
Branch furthered his musical education by joining Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars in 1975, taking the place of friend and mentor Carey Bell. Years later, in 1990, the Alligator Records album Harp Attack! showcased Branch alongside Bell, Junior Wells, and James Cotton. In his label profile, he makes the significance of that project plain: “That was my diploma,” he says. “My PhD.”
In 1977, Branch became a bandleader for the first time. Pianist George Gruntz, artistic director of the Berlin Jazz Festival, asked Jim and April O’Neil of Living Blues magazine if they knew anyone who could assemble a group of next-generation blues musicians for the fest. Branch fit the bill, and for the occasion he put together the Sons of Blues (aka S.O.B. or the SOBs), a long-running band whose initial lineup featured Bell’s son Lurrie on guitar and Dixon’s son Freddie on bass.
Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer had been in the crowd at Branch’s cutting contest with Simmons, and he signed the Sons of Blues to his label. They appeared on the 1978 compilation Living Chicago Blues Volume Number 3 with the Lonnie Brooks Blues Band and a group that paired guitar god Sammy Lawhorn (covered in SHoCM last year) with supreme piano being Pinetop Perkins.
Throughout his early career, Branch learned directly from the first-generation stars of Chicago’s postwar electric-blues boom—and today he’s one of the last living artists to have done so. He also came up digging blues-influenced rock (the Doors, the Rolling Stones) as well as grassroots folk, funk, and more, which helped him develop a musical perspective that’s made him one of his generation’s most distinctive and respected blues artists. “I was able to adapt my playing style to sit in with most genres,” Branch told Harmonica.com in 2019. “I would play with jazz, folk, country and Mexican bands. . . . Typically, in the blues clubs, a lot of the artists do some soul and R&B. Normally you wouldn’t have a harmonica playing on these songs, but I just developed a style where I was able to play along.”
Branch left Dixon’s band in 1981, and by the time S.O.B. released Where’s My Money? on Red Beans Records in 1984, their lineup included guitarist Carlos Johnson and bassist J.W. Williams. Over the next three decades, the unit would go on to record for labels such as Charly, Blue Sun, Verve, Evidence, and Blind Pig. For their most recent album, 2019’s Roots and Branches: The Songs of Little Walter, Branch and the band returned to Alligator.
“We were determined not to make this a ‘typical’ Little Walter tribute recording,” Branch told Alligator. “We are proud to present an album with elements of soul, funk, and even a little bit of gospel. Our goal was to competently and respectfully produce a Little Walter-themed recording with a different twist, while preserving the integrity of Little Walter’s innovative style.” In other words, Roots and Branches exemplifies Branch’s characteristic forward-looking straddling of genres as well as his reverence for tradition.
In the current Sons of Blues lineup, Branch is joined by drummer Andrew “Blaze” Thomas, keyboardist Sumito Ariyoshi, bassist Marvin Little, and guitarist Giles Corey. The Chicago Blues Festival honored the Sons of Blues on their 30th anniversary in 2007 and their 40th anniversary in ’17.
If Branch’s main accomplishment were leading S.O.B., he’d still deserve all the accolades he’s received, but he’s also appeared on more than 300 recordings with the likes of Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Lou Rawls, Son Seals, Johnny Winter, Eddy Clearwater, Honeyboy Edwards, Syl Johnson, and Taj Mahal. Branch has played the Montreux Jazz Festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival, Cognac Blues Passions, the Long Beach Blues Festival, and the San Francisco Blues Festival—and outside Europe and the States, he’s toured as far afield as South and Central America, the Caribbean, China, Africa, and Israel.
Branch has also worked as an educator for nearly as long as he’s been a bandleader—in 1978, he began teaching music performance and blues history through workshops and residencies. Since the 1990s he’s operated in tandem with the Blues Foundation’s Blues in the Schools program, which has expanded internationally and often integrates adjacent subjects such as art, literature, and social studies.
Beginning in 1988, Blues in the Schools has consistently presented showcases at the Chicago Blues Festival, sometimes with Branch and sometimes with other artists—and in 1996, he and his students played a main-stage set that aired on NPR. And as if Branch’s resumé weren’t dizzying enough, in the late 80s he appeared in two movies: the comic crime romp Adventures in Babysitting (which this author has seen exactly 1,000 times) and the Patrick Swayze revenge thriller Next of Kin (which I’ve seen more like three times and own on VHS).
Branch has won three Blues Music Awards, an Emmy, and a handful of Chicago Music Awards, to name just a few, and in 2020 he was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. If you know the blues, you know Billy Branch. Let’s hope this star becomes a household name while he’s still around to enjoy it.
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.