Blues legend Larry Taylor’s quest to revive the blues on Chicago’s West Side

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As longtime blues musician Larry Taylor finished performing one of his many shows, he told the audience, “Now that’s all music is all about. It’s all about actually bringing people together. It’s always been.

“When you gather people together, what is that?” he said to the few dozen people sitting outside Austin Town Hall on a warm evening earlier this year. “That’s energy. That’s power.”

Taylor grew up in a West Side home deeply rooted in the blues. He has known “the universal message” of music all his life. His father, Eddie “Playboy” Taylor, played with post-war blues artist Jimmy Reed and interacted with other blues legends like Muddy Waters. His mother was singer and songwriter Vera Hill Taylor.

“Him and my mom, they were a team. They worked together in music, my mom actually wrote a lot of his songs that he recorded,” Taylor said. “Yes, she did. She did. She wrote her own stuff, too.”

His mother “put her career on hold” to raise their children while his father continued to perform provide for the family.

In the late ’70s and ’80s, Taylor performed and recorded with his father and other Chicago blues artists. After his dad’s death – when Taylor almost gave up his musical career – he continued to perform on numerous local, national and international stages.

Taylor regularly performs on the West Side and other parts of the city with his band The Soul Blues Healers in the midst of a changing music industry and challenging Chicago dynamics, he said.

His partner and promoter Bonni McKeown wants to bring back “this incredible music that came from the South, along with the Great Migration of African Americans.”

“They established a really beautiful, wonderful, rhythmic Westside sound in the ’60s, ’70s and even into the ’80s,” she said. “And yet now there’s nothing.”

McKeown, also a journalist and writer, has dedicated her career to being an ambassador for the West Side Blues, a genre she plays on the keys of her piano alongside Taylor. She said she learned to play classical piano as a kid in her home state of West Virginia.

“I couldn’t do it. I have to improvise,” she said. “So I learned how to play deliberately, how to play blues music at a summer music camp called Augusta Heritage.”

In 2001, she crossed paths with Taylor in a jam session at Chicago’s blues club Buddy Guy’s Legends, owned by eight-time Grammy winner Buddy Guy. After seeing him perform, McKeown said she thought Taylor was “the greatest Blues singer in today’s world,” while Taylor said he really liked the way she played the piano.

“So over the years, you know, we worked together, and I just started promoting him ’cause I thought ‘all this guy needs is like some White lady to put up a website,'” McKeown said. “Well, it wasn’t that simple because there’s a lot of rivalry and all kinds of political nonsense that goes on in the music.”

McKeown said Chicago blues are faced with systemic challenges such as insufficient musical education in schools, unfair wages for performers like Taylor and the lack of venues on the West Side that could bring youth closer to the genre.

“If there’s no venues to play, how are they going to get to hear it? If there’s no music in the schools, how are they going to get to hear it?” she said.

“We would like to see a city administration that understands the importance of music in terms of preventing violence and keeping kids on the right track,” she said. “Because Larry will tell you there were several influences when he grew up. When he was little, Howlin’ Wolf would come to his house. Muddy Waters would cook. Can you imagine?”

The music business has also changed, Taylor said. It is a challenge to continuing his musical career that has led him and McKeown to “maintain and create” their own support base. “Where’s the support? There’s no support,” he said.

In a series of summer and fall performances at Austin Town Hall, McKeown and Taylor promoted the idea of reviving West Side Blues for the West Side.

Taylor also performs at community events where longtime Austin residents can listen to the tunes of their youth. Roberta Wilson, 95, saw him perform at Third Unitarian Church’s raspberry festival earlier this year. Dancing to his music from her seat, she said, “He is really good.”

For Taylor, Blues music is about community and has “always been a big part of Black culture.” It’s a way to show young people “how we should do things” and learn from their elders.

“People should know that the Blues is the mother and father, the king and queen of all music that you hear today. I don’t care what music you listen to, it all comes from the blues,” Taylor said, adding that blues comes from “people who were down South working on the plantation in the fields.”

In 2020, Taylor received the “Esteemed Artist Award,” a grant for highly-qualified artists awarded by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. He said there are still more things he wishes to achieve, despite the obstacles and challenges.

“You can’t pay your rent. You can’t pay your light bills. You can’t pay your gas bill. You can’t pay your phone. But you got the blues, she’s got the blues, you got the blues.”

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