The Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings
Since March of 1993, the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings have been blasting out their own soul-steeped brand of R&B and blues on a nightly basis. But anyone who knows Windy City blues and R&B realizes that this band's collective history harks back a great deal further than that. Prior to '93, they were the celebrated Mellow Fellows, the high-energy, brass-leavened outfit that supplied skin-tight backing for giant-sized soul/blues singer Big Twist until his tragic 1990 death. For more than a decade, Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows reigned as one of the hottest attractions on the midwest blues circuit.
The release of their self-titled album makes it abundantly clear that no matter how they're billed, the band's dynamic sound remains sizzlingly intact. Tenor saxman Terry Ogolini and trumpeter Don Tenuto still comprise one of the city's most dangerous horn sections; bassist Bob Halaj and guitarist David Mick, band members for 13 and 12 years, respectively continue to cook up sizzling rhythms, anchored by drummer Willie Hayes. Sax legend Gene "Daddy G" Barge produced this set, wrote or co-wrote nearly half of it, and remains a featured vocalist /saxophonist with the band on selected gigs. Here Barge, who played classic sax solos on hits by Chuck Willis ("C.C. Rider"), Gary (U.S.) Bonds ("Quarter To Three"), Jimmy Soul ("If You Wanna Be Happy"), Little Milton ("We're Gonna Make It") and Koko Taylor ("Wang Dang Doodle") sings a heartfelt ode to the "Street Musician" and the devilishly cynical "Love Is A Five-Letter Word," written during Gene's tenure as a Chess Records session man/producer/composer/arranger and originally a 1965 hit for James Phelps. Cash McCall, a frequent touring cohort of the Kings (and like Daddy G, a grad of the Chess Records school of '60s Chicago soul), wrote two songs for the project, "Hide & Seek" and "Girlfriend, Woman And Wife." Three relentlessly swinging instrumentals showcase the group's eternally sky-high level of musicianship.
The soulful approach of the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings is a natural progression from the group's earlier days. "You could play this album right after the other ones and see exactly where the direction's leading," says Ogolini. "It's basically the same thing. There's nothing that's really out of the pocket, that you wouldn't totally expect on a Mellow Fellows album or this band's album. We've been doing a lot of this material for the last year or so, so it should be familiar to everybody that's seen the band."
One reason for the protracted dry spell between records for the group was an inability to locate the right individual to front the band. The search finally ended when the band's agent passed along a demo tape sent to him by Ernie Peniston, a singer from the Quad Cities area.
"I just went and picked the tape up and listened to it, brought it over for Terry," says Tenuto, who spent a year with Sly & the Family Stone just prior to joining the Mellow Fellows in '83. "You know, it sounded like it was a workable situation. He's got a strong voice, he's six-foot-five, 370 pounds, he's got that really nice teddy bear quality to him, a personality that draws people in. People want him to do well. And he had a strong voice, which was something that we were looking for, because we had some other real good singers in the band, but the band was always so high-powered with the horn section and the arrangements that some of the other vocalists got lost in all that. Ernie's able to hold his own and sit on top of all that." Misplacing Peniston's powerful pipes seems an impossibility. Whether on the torrid jump blues "Poor Man's Blues," a humorous "Things That Make Me Mad" or "Help Wanted," his sizzling duet with Daddy G, Ernie's voice is huge enough to rattle the rafters of any venue.
Necessity motivated the band's 1993 re-christening. "We couldn't think of one, and we needed a name like for this coming weekend, because when the band flipped over from the Mellow Fellows, we still had jobs, you know? It had to be done that quick," says Terry. "We figured that when it comes down to it, the music is more important than any kind of name that you could come up with. And we figured once people started recognizing and seeing who we were, that the music would speak for itself. We've always let it do that anyway."
Now, with the emergence of their first Blind Pig album, the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings begin a new chapter. From here on, the band's future looks even brighter than its storied past.