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THE ORIGINAL CHICAGO BLUES ALL STARS
By Lynn Orman Weiss
Two years ago, bassist Deacon Freddie Dixon, drummer Dr. Jimmy Lee Tillman, and guitarist John Watkins reunited to form the Original Chicago Blues All Stars, specializing in the Chicago blues that they once played nightly in the band of the legendary Willie Dixon, and to develop and create the University of Life Community Centers that will use music to connect inter-generations and to train upcoming artists. Seniors will teach young people skills and concepts that will help them succeed in life. “We figure we’ll set up a school where you don’t have to pay, and you can learn a craft or learn a trade or learn how to do something and become self-sufficient,” says Deacon Dixon.
Another important facet of the band’s wide-ranging mission is the presentation of Original Chicago Blues All Stars Outstanding Blues-Bandleader and Role Model Awards, which pay tribute to the Chicago performers and other notables that have helped or influenced the band over the course of their long journey. Past recipients have included WVON’s Art “Chat Daddy” Sims, Star Planet Television’s W.L. Lillard, founder of the Black Ensemble Theater, Jackie Taylor and blues greats Eddy Clearwater, Jimmy Johnson, Syl Johnson, Eddie Shaw, Eddie C. Campbell, Mary Lane and Sam Lay. “They were mentors to us,” says Dr. Tillman of the award recipients. “They took us under their wings to teach us how to play this blues.”
And that isn’t the only laudable goal for the band to meet. “The other part is trying to keep the blues music alive,” says Deacon Dixon, who soaked up the blues during his youth as one of Willie Dixon’s talented sons. Willie picked up the bass and started playing when his dad was on tour and there was a bass left behind. He told me, ‘don’t touch that bass.’ When he came home I was playing it,” says Freddie. “Kids don’t know where the blues comes from. They don’t know our culture. And if you don’t know your culture, you don’t know your heritage. You just believe anything. So we are teaching about your culture, your heritage, and things like that.
Even though Deacon Dixon and Dr. Tillman retired from the local blues circuit—Freddie had become a deacon in his church and Jimmy earned his Doctorate in Education, while John had moved to Detroit two decades prior--re-launching the Original Chicago Blues All Stars came quite easily. “I got to Freddie and I got to John, and I said, ‘We need to get back together!’” says Dr. Tillman. “So we invited John to the house, and that was our first time we got together. We played, and we sounded exactly like we sounded the last time we played. It was amazing!”
And no wonder, with so much experience to draw from. The Meridian, Mississippi-born Dr. Tillman studied at DuSable High School on Chicago’s South Side under Captain Walter Dyett before making his mark as a studio drummer at One-derful! Records during the early ‘60s and on the club scene with the Metrotones and then the Pharoahs. Dr. Tillman also recorded with Jimmy Reed and Mighty Joe Young before joining Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars and later served as musical director at the Black Ensemble Theater for a quarter century. He was recruited by Otis Rush when he was a student at Crane’s College in 1961. There were a lot of musicians who were students including: Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, Tom Tom Washington, Louis Satterfield, Pete Cosey of Miles Davis fame and Willie Henderson the legendary baritone sax man and horn arranger.
“I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life,” says Deacon Dixon (his legendary father’s South Side home was a gathering place for Chicago blues royalty). After trying his hand at piano, drums, and flute, Dixon gravitated to electric bass and found his instrument. He came into his dad’s All Stars in 1972. “I was the young kid in the band when I came in,” says Deacon Dixon, who joined Billy Branch and Lurrie Bell in the Sons of Blues during the late ‘70s.
Like his fellow All Stars, John Watkins got an uncommonly early start playing blues. “I was fresh out of high school, and I was playing down there at Theresa’s Lounge, six nights a week,” says the guitarist, who joined Willie Dixon’s band from there. “I learned a lot, especially how to conduct yourself onstage.” Stints with James Cotton and his uncle, Jimmy Johnson, and a track on Alligator’s 1987 anthology The New Bluebloods preceded his Motor City move.
This new cd is a remastered version of their CD, Chicago Blues All Stars, Inc., starring drummer Jimmy Tillman, bassist Freddie Dixon, keyboardist Butch Dixon and guitarist John Watkins of a 1984 concert recording in Portland, Oregon. All except Butch Dixon sing. This new double cd contains more songs from the concert plus the band's new single “Black Bags,” featuring Michael Damani on lead vocal and guitar. Jimmy Tillman wrote the song as a response to all the gun violence in the Black community.
The Band opens their current show with the powerful song, ‘It Don’t Make Sense If You Can’t Make Peace’ and weave in the new song recently penned by Dr. Tillman titled, ‘Black Bags’ a call to action about the senseless killings in Chicago.
The new song features the band and newest young member, Michael Damani on guitar and on vocals. “I am forever grateful for the opportunity to play with these blues masters, The Original Chicago Blues All Stars. At 22 years old a guitarist doesn’t have the opportunity to learn, to listen, to watch and to play with such a seasoned and revered group of musicians. I walked into the benefit concert for guitarist, John Watkins the first night he came back to Motor Row after his stroke. I got up on stage during the jam. Syl Johnson was in the house as he was receiving an award that night. He urged me to get back up on stage and to continue to jam. I did and it was magic. I didn’t know it was going to change my life that night, but it did. I am now a part of the Original Chicago Blues All Stars band on tour and perform at our house gigs at Motor Row Brewing as well as on tour. Their mentoring is a gift, not only mentoring musically, but what I have learned about the history of the blues and about dedication, work ethic and respect. Playing the blues is more than the music,” said Michael Damani.
“By playing the blues, you see it as it really is,” says Dr. Tillman. “We realized that this is a blessing that’s been given to us, so we have to use it properly in order for it to do the things that it was designed to do when it came into existence. So that is why we came out of retirement.”
To book the Original Chicago Blues All Stars contact, Dr. Jimmy Tillman at 773-484-0683 or firstname.lastname@example.org