Q&A with guitarist/bandleader/producer Dave Specter - one of the premier musicians on the Chicago blues

"It’s (Blues) great and powerful music that moves people - with soulful feeling, honesty, true stories and emotion."

Dave Specter: Blues From The Inside Out

Blues guitarist, bandleader and producer Dave Specter has earned an international reputation as one of the premier talents on the Chicago blues scene. Since 1985 Specter has performed regularly at top Chicago blues and jazz clubs in addition to festivals and concert halls throughout the USA. Since 1989 Dave has toured internationally with performances in Argentina, Brazil, Israel, Europe, Mexico and Canada. Before forming his own band in 1989, Specter toured extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe behind such blues greats as Son Seals, The Legendary Blues Band, Hubert Sumlin, Sam Lay and Steve Freund. Specter has also performed and recorded with such blues and jazz artists as Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Jimmy Johnson, Jack McDuff, Johnny Adams, Snooky Pryor, Kim Wilson, Tad Robinson, John Primer, Johnny Littlejohn, B.B. Odom, Mighty Joe Young, Valerie Wellington, Magic Slim, Lonnie Brooks, Willie Kent, Ronnie Earl, Eric Alexander, Otis Clay, Floyd McDaniel, Pinetop Perkins and Sunnyland Slim.

Among Dave Specter's critically acclaimed recordings, his 1991 release Bluebird Blues reached the #1 spot on both the Living Blues national radio charts and the Tower Records blues charts. Specter also appears on compilation CDs with artists such as Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. Dave is also partner at one of the Chicago area’s most acclaimed music venues, Evanston SPACE and hosts the podcast, Blues From The Inside Out.

His new 11th album “Blues From The Inside Out” (October 2019 / Delmark Records) is the most expressive project of Dave Specter’s 35-year career. Featuring his debut as a vocalist, the album is an exciting and timely celebration of blues, soul, jazz, funk and gospel. “Blues From The Inside Out” includes a guest appearance on guitar by Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna fame, who also co-wrote one of the album’s 12 original tunes. Drummer Marty Binder and bass player Harlan Terson lay the foundation for the recording as a rock solid rhythm section.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Blues music is my main form of artistic expression where the feeling of the blues speaks very strongly to me. Being from Chicago gives me special pride and a sense of purpose in representing and playing this great form of music.

How do you describe Dave Specter sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I prefer for my music to speak for itself but I’ve hopefully developed - and am still developing - my own sound and style, based on everything from traditional Chicago blues, Texas blues. West Coast blues, jazz and R&B. I consider myself a thoughtful and soulful guitarist who plays with intensity and strong blues feeling. I prefer the “less is more” approach to music, where feeling is more important than flash. Tone is a key element of my sound and I love most music that has great, warm tone.

"Blues music is my main form of artistic expression where the feeling of the blues speaks very strongly to me. Being from Chicago gives me special pride and a sense of purpose in representing and playing this great form of music." (Dave Specter on stage, Chicago Blues Festival, 2011 / Photo by Harvey Tillis)

How has the Blues, Soul, and Jazz music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I’m first and foremost a blues musician with deep roots in Chicago blues having played here in Chicago for the past 35 years. I’m influenced by jazz from a melodic point of view as well as musical elements like phrasing, tone and song structure. Soul music speaks to me as a variation/extension of the blues with elements of gospel, funk and pop music. Great soul singers and musicians always have a strong blues feeling. Same with jazz musicians.

How do you describe "Blues From The Inside Out” songbook and sound? What characterizes new album in comparison to previous?

I’d describe the album as an eclectic mix of blues related styles with some political and socially relevant aspects to some of the songs. The album features 12 new, original tunes with 3 different singers (including my vocal debut on 3 tracks) along with 4 instrumental tracks ranging from New Orleans influenced funk to Latin Jazz to Chicago blues.

Having Jorma Kaukonen as a guest on 2 tracks was a really great experience and he also wrote the tune “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’. I feel the album is an extension of my musical direction from previous albums, with more of a focus on fresh, original material with subject matter that is especially relevant today.

Are there any memories from "Blues From The Inside Out” studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Spending time in the studio with Jorma was really memorable as he drove into Chicago from his Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp in Ohio - during a winter snowstorm. He shared great stories about his days with Jefferson Airplane, hearing Eric Clapton with Cream for the first time at the Fillmore and he seemed really excited and inspired to be playing with us on a Chicago blues recording session in the Delmark studios.

"I’ve learned from playing with older musicians that we’re on a lifelong journey with this music and there’s always room for growth and improvement. I’ve also learned the importance of humility and passing on our knowledge and experiences to younger musicians." (Dave Specter & Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna, Delmark studios, Chicago 2019 / Photo by Harvey Tillis)

Why did you think that the label of Delmark Records continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think people feel it’s an historic and important source for documenting current (mostly Chicago based blues and jazz) as well as great archival music going back to the 1940s and 50s.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths with the "old cats" of the Blues?

I’ve learned from playing with older musicians that we’re on a lifelong journey with this music and there’s always room for growth and improvement. I’ve also learned the importance of humility and passing on our knowledge and experiences to younger musicians.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Yes the blues is a specific genre but it also obviously and sometimes not so obviously crosses over into many other musical genres and styles.

A state of mind? I like that thought and I’d say it definitely can be. Blues is defined differently by so many people and I think that categorizing music and placing labels on any kind of art can be problematic and confusing.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I feel very lucky to have grown up and lived in Chicago for most of my life. Amazing experiences over my nearly 30 year career on the Chicago blues scene. The best advice was to follow my passion and dreams of becoming a professional musician.

"Yes the blues is a specific genre but it also obviously and sometimes not so obviously crosses over into many other musical genres and styles. A state of mind? I like that thought and I’d say it definitely can be. Blues is defined differently by so many people and I think that categorizing music and placing labels on any kind of art can be problematic and confusing." (Photo: Dave Specter & Buddy Guy)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams and recording time which you’d like to share with us?

Many great memories from performing with Hubert Sumlin (photo), Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Sunnyland Slim, Steve Freund, Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Johnson, Syl Johnson, Snooky Pryor, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Shaw, Pinetop Perkins, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals and so many more… Recording and performing with Otis Clay - who appears on my 2014 album "Message in Blue" - has definitely been a career highlight.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

So many of the great players I got to know and play with are now gone. I can only hope that coming generations of blues artists continue to follow in their footsteps.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I wish that blues and jazz would magically become much more popular and the most widely respected & appreciated musical forms in the world - and that the musicians would be rewarded accordingly.

How started the thought of "Blues & Beyond"? Make an account of the case of the blues in Chicago todays.

I started my "Blues & Beyond" interview series with the help from a Chicago company called Fret12 that loves guitar and hired me to interview mostly blues artists in an artist to artist, behind the scenes setting. The blues in Chicago today is still strong with more musicians and venues than probably anywhere in the world.

(Photo: Dave Specter & the late great Hubert Sumlin)

Which memories from Son Seals, Hubert Sumlin, Jr Wells, Jimmy Rogers, and Sunnyland Slim makes you smile?

I’d have to choose Hubert Sumlin and Sunnyland Slimat the top of that list because they were both so encouraging and cool.

My nearly 2 years on the road with Son Seals was an invaluable experience in my career where I learned a great deal about performing, the blues and life on the road.

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It’s great and powerful music that moves people - with soulful feeling, honesty, true stories and emotion.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from States to Latin America, Israel, Europe and Mexico?

Without a doubt, a common love and passion for the music - worldwide!

What is the impact of Blues, Soul, Gospel and Jazz music and culture to the socio-cultural implications?

At it’s best music can inspire hope, change, positive action and speak directly to our hearts and souls. It can help create a sense of community within musical genres and across racial and socio-economic lines.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Probably back to Chicago in the 60s and hear Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Freddy King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker - and maybe make a trip somewhere to hear Wes Montgomery and Grant Green.

Dave Specter - official website

Dave Specter / Photo by Lola Reynaerts

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