Chicago blues may be known the world over, but not many musicians have logged the miles to see just how far it has traveled. The exception is Sugar Blue, 60, the famed harmonica innovator and Grammy winner who honed his craft on the South Side from the masters James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, and Junior Wells. Sugar Blue, born James Whiting, now spends most of his year traveling Europe in an RV and performing shows, from large festivals to clubs.
Even with all the touring, he has finally found time to record Threshold (Beeble Music), his first new album in three years, out in February. Despite firm roots in the blues, his vocal and songwriting styles recall the soul and funk protest anthems of War or Sly & the Family Stone. On one song, he sings, “They call it war, I call it murder / Murder in the first degree.” He writes from experience, having served in Vietnam between 1970 and 1973. “We’re in the 21st century—there has to be a better way for us to solve our problems,” he says. “So many young lives lost for so little. One of these people could be the person who has a cure for cancer. I bleed for them.”
Despite Blue’s schooling by a who’s who of Chicago masters, the fluid tone, speed, and precision of his harmonica playing are rooted in the styles of the bebop saxophone and horn players he met as an up-and-comer at the Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem, where he grew up. In the Apollo’s heyday, Blue’s mother worked as a dancer there and, when he was a newborn, once brought home a friend—Billie Holiday.
As a young man, Blue earned live dates and studio sessions with Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, and, most notably, the Rolling Stones, who recruited Blue to play on three albums—Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, Tattoo You—while he was living in Paris. Not many non-Stones players can claim a signature riff on one of their classic tunes, but Blue can—those are his hot squeals helping ignite “Miss You.” “None of us, not even Mick [Jagger], had any idea of how big that record was going to be,” he says.
Blue was invited to tour with the Stones but decided to return to Chicago. The decision is one he has never regretted: “I had the opportunity to go to a musical university that stretches back hundreds of years, from Chicago to Mississippi to the African coast and beyond.”
Photograph: (Sugar Blue) Courtesy Beeble Music/Riccardo Abbondanza