Corky Siegel is a legend, pure and simple. Internationally regarded as the world's greatest blues harmonica player, he is also a celebrated composer, blues pianist, singer, songwriter, bandleader, author and an inductee into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. 

Siegel’s career began when he founded the Siegel-Schwall Band in Chicago in 1965 with guitarist Jim Schwall. Siegel and Schwall learned their Chicago blues from the greats: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and Sam Lay, while working as the house band at Peppers, Chicago’s renowned blues club.
Pepper's Lounge (Courtesy Chicago History Museum) 
Signed by Vanguard Records, their first album, The Siegel-Schwall Band, was released in 1966 and Siegel and Schwall moved to San Francisco where up-and-coming young artists like Janis Joplin, Santana, Steve Miller and Joni Mitchell opened for them at shows. The band went on to record three more albums for Vanguard, then five for Wooden Nickel/RCA.

In 1973, the Siegel-Schwall Band released Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra on the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon. The title track was a groundbreaking piece composed by jazz trombonist William Russo that combined classical music played by an orchestra (the San Francisco Symphony) with blues music played by a four-piece band (Siegel-Schwall) conducted by Maestro Seiji Ozawa.

Ozawa had been an early fan of Siegel-Schwall when he was the first music director of the Ravinia Festival (Chicago Symphony Orchestra), and he suggested the blues-classical collaboration. The album’s success led to Siegel-Schwall's performance with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra on an Evening At Pops program for PBS, and in 1979, Deutsche Grammophon's release of Russo: Street Music, Op.65 - A Blues Concerto, featuring Siegel on harmonica and piano. The album received the French Government's Grand Prix du Disque award as well as the “Recording of Special Merit” in Stereo Review.

After releasing two solo albums, Siegel founded Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues, featuring himself on harmonica, piano and vocals, the West End String Quartet of Chicago on strings and Frank Donaldson on percussion. The ensemble performed Siegel's pioneering blues/classical music compositions and released Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues (Alligator Records - 1994) followed by Complementary Colors (Gadfly Records - 1998) and Corky Siegel’s Traveling Chamber Blues Show – Live (Alligator Records - 2005) prior to the release of the group’s latest album, Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues Different Voices (Dawnserly Records - 2017).

Siegel has also written and performed compositions for Chicago’s Grant Park Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, composed works for ballet and his compositions have been used in motion pictures, the Olympic men's figure skating competition and the World Championship skating competition featuring U.S. Olympic gold medalists Torvill and Dean.

Siegel continues to appear internationally as guest soloist with symphony orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the NHK Symphony in Japan. He is prominently featured in the documentary Born in Chicago which recounts the history of the '60s rock-blues explosion and, in 2007, he published a music guidebook, Let Your Music Soar: The Emotional Connection, co-written with Peter Krammer.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was excited to visit with iconic Blues legend Corky Siegel at his home in Chicago for this Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: How does a blues harmonica player influenced by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Sam Lay wind up creating a new genre of music that combines traditional blues with classical music and records it with Deutsche Grammophon?

CORKY SIEGEL: As I tell all the music journalists: “The juxtaposition of blues and classical was neither my idea nor my fault.”

I mention this in the album booklet where I explain that all this is Seiji Ozawa’s idea. Not only was it his idea but he made it possible. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Anybody can come up with a great idea. And I assure you, they do! But to turn an idea into a
Corky Siegel - Seiji Ozawa
reality and then push to make it known to the public is another thing. Seiji said to me: “You must pursue this juxtaposition of blues and classical. It’s important for music, it’s important for the world.”

He continued to construct a path for me that was started by the blues masters. The path was so beautiful and powerful that I had no choice but to follow. I didn’t pursue this genre – but it pursued me with a vengeance. In 1975, I was asked to write a blues/classical work for the San Francisco Symphony. I said: “No, I’ve never written anything but blues songs.” They insisted so I said: “Yes.” I did it and it was enough of a success that I’ve been getting offers from orchestras since then.

In 1983, while I was working on a symphonic commission for the Grant Park Symphony in Chicago and the National Symphony at Kennedy Center in DC, all of a sudden I was hit with a force of inspiration that made the room spin around. I fell head-over-heals in love with the juxtaposition and Chamber Blues was born.

STAY THIRSTY: Your early days started in Chicago in the mid-1960s where you played blues and those days launched your legendary career at a time when rock n’ roll was about to change everything. People like Janis Joplin, Santana, Steve Miller and Joni Mitchell opened for you in San Francisco and you performed with guitarist Jim Schwall under the name of the Siegel-Schwall Band. Somewhere along the way you had the idea to combine blues with classical music and kept going while many of your fellow musicians were eclipsed by the changing times. What was the catalyst that allowed you to survive? How did a harmonica guy evolve into a blues-classical music composer and make it work?

CORKY SIEGEL: I didn’t do anything. If I tried to “make” something work, it would never work. Everything I have was handed to me. It seems like your question is calling for a “key to success” in the world of the arts. I can offer it right here. It’s simple. Learn to do what you love, and while you are doing that, make sure you find a way to love what you do – even if you think you don’t like what you do. Now you have everything covered. A teacher told me one time: “Whatever is in front of you, do it with all your enthusiasm and all your heart and even if it’s not exactly the right thing, it will lead you to the right thing.” When you have a choice and you go with your own individuality (how your mind, heart, body are constructed) you are then connected intimately and profoundly to everything you do. If it’s imitating Elvis, so be it. That’s what you have to offer, that’s your individuality, and you can do it brilliantly and uplift the world. The most important factor is that when you are doing something that you are connected to in this way, you are happy and you exude enthusiasm. You are naturally passionate, and people like being around you. If I could name one thing that has contributed to the fact that people chose me to represent their passions, it’s because I’m truly happy. So if you follow the advice of commerce maybe you will find success that way, but if you are happy you have already succeeded.  LOL!  

STAY THIRSTY: You have performed all over the world and won awards as diverse as the French Government’s Grand Prix du Disque for Russo: Street Music, Op. 65 – A Blues Concerto to being inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. You have
Corky Siegel (credit: Charles Osgood)
recorded for Vanguard Records, Wooden Nickel/RCA and Deutsche Grammophon, to name only a few, and you have performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and many other orchestras … with your Hohner Special 20 harmonica. As you reflect on your extraordinary career, are you at all surprised by how far you have come from your time as the house band at Pepper’s Lounge, the Chicago blues club founded by Johnny Pepper in 1956?

CORKY SIEGEL: This is all an extraordinary surprise. It’s nothing but a surprise. As I say in the CD booklet, I’m an innocent victim of incredible good fortune.

I’m still at Peppers. I’m still hanging with the blues masters. Everything that has been given to me I have kept right in my heart. Everything I do has Johnny Pepper, Muddy, Wolf, Willie, Seiji, William Russo, Jim Schwall, Rollo, Sam Lay, Dr. L. Subramaniam, Kavita, the great symphony orchestras, all my dear associations and it’s all there in this album as a culmination of these incredible experiences.

STAY THIRSTY: Do you prefer playing with a classical string quartet or with a full orchestra? What strikes you about how your compositions sound when played in these very different settings? When you compose, what instrument do you use and why?

CORKY SIEGEL: In the album booklet I tell the story of how people ask me which I prefer, blues or classical. My response is: “Which do you prefer, breathing in or breathing out?” LOL! But isn’t this true? If I asked: “Which do you like better, the intimacy of a private meeting or the excitement of a crowd?” They both have their appeal. And if you are the kind of person that is always looking for the brilliance in every experience, then every experience is brilliant. With this understanding, attempting to compare one to another as a preference can be quite a deep question that can make one laugh or completely shut down the thinking process. For me, I prefer a private meeting.

I am truly struck by how my compositions sound in every case. I’m really always amazed. Working with computers and using the playback and then hearing real people with real expression perform is a whole world of difference and always an amazing surprise.  

I am not a “composer” in the traditional sense. I don’t have the traditional knowledge or the tools. What I have mastered is what I call “the work-around.” People hear the result of my playing and writing. They have no idea what I had to do to get there. While on one hand I am self-deprecating, on the other hand I am clear that I am a “master of the work-around.”  

The first symphonic pieces I wrote I would record ideas on a multi-track recording with piano, harmonica, claviata and whatever I had around to make sounds that I could pretend were orchestra sounds. This way I could hear the melodic, harmonica and rhythmic relationships in what I was laying down. Then I would get a book on orchestration so I could at least know the ranges of the instruments. On my first piece, William Russo took care of the copy-work for me using my very primitive score that he worked off of. As soon as computers came along I started using them to record ideas. My first computer was a 32K Yamaha. Hahahaha! Now I use a Mac Air and Finale music software. The process is extremely time-consuming for me because I write from nothing and use an immense amount of trial and error to come up with something that hits me in the right place.

STAY THIRSTY: Your new CD, Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues Different Voices, on
Dawnserly Records, features Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and blues legend Sam Lay, two-time Grammy-winning Jazz Saxophonist Ernie Watts, Grammy-winner Sandeep Das, R&B Diva Marcy Levy (Marcella Detroit) and Grammy-nominated Matthew Santos, among others. What is it about Chamber Blues that attracted them to this project?

CORKY SIEGEL: What attracted these people to this project is me begging them to do it. But that was easy because I am very close friends with all these people. I love them and I love their music and I am so honored that they would be part of this. I invited them to perform with Chamber Blues and I would create programs around each of them. It was so beautiful and creative and so much fun. How could I not ask them to be part of this album? And how could they say: “No?” 

STAY THIRSTY: What’s next on your drawing board after your tour this summer?

CORKY SIEGEL: Well, I’m very thirsty for some reason, so I’m going to take a sip of water. Spontaneity has ruled my life. I’m 73. As usual, my drawing board is blank. If I can go with history, I can trust that Mr. Spontaneity will come up with something exciting for me.  


Corky Siegel Chamber Blues

Corky Siegel

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.