There’s an age-old saying about things being darkest right before the dawn.
And sometimes it takes the howl of a wolf to shatter the still of the night.
Living in Las Cruces, New Mexico in the early 70s, things couldn’t have been much bleaker for vocalist, slide-guitarist and bandleader extraordinaire Dave Weld.
“Man, I was so broke. They had cut off my food stamps and I got sick and they had fired me from this gas station that I was working at, so things weren’t looking very good,” he said. “At that time, I was still drinking, so I took a six-pack and went out in the desert. And while I was out there, from some far-away radio station I heard an old Howlin’ Wolf song. And I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going back to Chicago.’”
In a cool twist of fate, not only did The Wolf help provide the nudge he needed to hit the Windy City and play the blues, but in a couple of short years from that fateful encounter in the desert night, Weld would have a regular spot in the Wolf Gang, alongside many of the cats that played in The Wolf’s band.
Originally from Chicago, he may have been studying academics in New Mexico at the time, but Weld was also simultaneously learning the rudiments of the guitar from jazz guitarist Kurt Black. Those lessons proved to be the backbone for what has now become a highly-decorated 40-year career of playing the real-deal Chicago blues.
It didn’t take much longer than a year or so back in his old home town before Weld really got indoctrinated into some of the wild-and-wooly things that can happen when you’re playing blues on the west side of Chicago, in this case, at Eddie Shaw’s 1815 Club.
“There was a lot of excitement during that era. We got arrested one night. Eddie Shaw hired a shake dancer and something happened, because he was supposed to be paying off the cops and he hadn’t made his payment. So they (the cops) came in and were watching her (the dancer) from the audience. Well, she was dancing and then she started smoking a cigarette out of her coochie and blowing smoke out of her coochie,” laughed Weld. “So they shut the place down and hauled the band off to jail. But Hubert (Sumlin) and Eddie made it out the backdoor. They were a little smarter than me; I was a bit of a greenhorn. So they hauled me, Chico (Chism), Boston Blackie and Eddie Burks off to the Maxwell Street drunk tank. But to his credit, Eddie Shaw came and bailed us out. I still have my court papers from that, saying – ‘Arrested in a house of fornication.’”
Despite such transgressions, it was still an amazing time to play the blues with an amazing cast of characters.
“That was really a step up for me at the time. I mean, everybody came through there (1815 Club). Luther Johnson, guys like Otis Rush … we had a good jam with Maxwell Street Jimmy one night. All the guys came in there – Boston Blackie, Taildragger,” said Weld. “I played there every Friday and Saturday night for about a year.”
Over the ensuing decades, Weld has played with an impressive cornucopia of blues greats. However, it took a little bit of time before some folks around the city were willing to give him a legitimate chance at showing off his skills.
“At that time, the north side didn’t want me. So what I did was go where they wanted me, and that was the black clubs on the west side of Chicago … along with some on the south side,” he said. “I ended up with my first professional gig at Sweat Pea’s on the south side. And the band was the Houserockers. Hound Dog (Taylor) had just died and they (Ted Harvey, drums; and Brewer Phillips, guitar) wanted a hometown gig, so they got Sweat Pea’s every Friday and Saturday night and I drove down there for a year. Their system was broken up because they had lost their front-man, Hound Dog, so I came in and played basic little chords behind them. At that time, that was all I was capable of, but I was learning … I was learning on stage.”
Even though Weld fit right in with Hound Dog’s old running partners and immediately proved his salt to them, to some in the crowd at Sweat Pea’s, it was another story altogether.
“There was some trouble there; some of the patrons didn’t want a white person in the club. But the guys defended me and one time there was a guy that wanted to fight and they tossed him out,” said Weld. “I did that for about a year and learned so much.”
Looking back on those mid-70s times has to be almost surreal for Weld. Not only was he playing on the weekends with the mighty Houserockers, but he was also taking guitar lessons from the one-and-only slide-master and Hall of Famer -J.B. Hutto.
“I had done a cover story on J.B. Hutto for Living Blues magazine (Nov/Dec 1976 issue) and that’s how I had first met him. The first time I heard J.B. was in the old Wise Fool’s Pub and I went, ‘Wow! This is what I’ve wanted my whole life.’” he said. “That slide … it just blew my mind. I mean, I was just a kid. Later, he was sitting by the bar and I went up to talk to him and he was just the greatest guy. He was so open and friendly. At that time he wasn’t drinking because of his diabetes.”
Weld’s interview with Hutto led to more than just the lead story in Living Blues; it also led to a lasting friendship, along with some tasty guitar tutelage.
“He taught me a bunch of stuff. And I helped him, too. In between his tours, he wanted a guy to play rhythm for him, so I did that. We’d be playing (on the bandstand) and he’d stop and turn around and say to me, ‘OK. Now it’s your turn.’ And then he’d play rhythm for me and I’d have to come up with some stuff. So I’d show him how far I had gotten off what he’d taught me.”
A knife to the throat of Brewer Phillips – delivered by his jealous wife – ended Weld’s tenure with the Houserockers.
“She had caught him with another woman and stuck a knife in his throat, right above his collarbone. She didn’t cut his throat, it just went straight in. I heard about it and went to visit him in the hospital. He was happy to see me … had a big tube going into his throat,” Weld said. “But, the band was broken up then. So that’s how my first year of playing the blues ended. Eventually, him and Suzy got back together.”
His lessons with Hutto continued on and one afternoon, Weld met a couple of individuals at J.B.’s house that would have an immediate and resounding impact on his life and career as a bluesman.
“I had been with J.B. about two or three years at that point and one day I went over to his house and there were a couple of young kids in the front room. And J.B. says, ‘Dave, I want you to meet my nephews, Ed and Pookie.’ And that’s how I met them,” Weld said. “We played a little Latin number and jammed on it for awhile.”
Ed, of course, is Lil’ Ed Williams and Pookie is his half-brother, James ‘Pookie’ Young and they are now half of Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials.
Hutto, who was poised to go out on tour at that time, suggested that Weld join up with Ed and Pookie and play together while he was on the road.
“I thought, OK, I’ll be the bandleader. Then Ed informed me, ‘Dave, we’re going to call it Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials. Is that OK with you?’ And at the time, I said, ‘Sure.’ Because at that point, I was just happy to be with somebody my age,” said Weld. “So we decided to do it and we got out there and started playing all the small clubs on the west side and that’s where we really created our style. We didn’t have anybody telling us what to do.”
By the time Hutto had passed on, Lil’ Ed and Dave had managed to start playing gigs in the place that he was initially rejected in – the city’s north side. And the benefits of that move were quick to deliver themselves.
“On the west side, we were earning like $7 or $8 a guy a night. And on the north side, we started earning a whole $25 each,” he said. “That was a big jump. Then we started working at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and that’s when Bruce (Iglauer) came in and said, ‘I think I can help you guys out.’”
That help came in the form of an invitation to record a tune for a Chicago blues compilation that Iglauer was assembling, called The New Bluebloods. Upon entering the studio and cutting their first number, the group heard cheers and yells of approval from the control booth. That led to another number … then another number, then …
“We played the whole night there, just like we were playing at a bar. Then the next thing you know, he (Iglauer) comes out and we work a record deal,” said Weld.
Those sessions would see the light of day as Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials’ first album, Roughhousin’ (Alligator Records).
The group then went out and hit the road to support the album, but it wasn’t long before Ed and Dave parted ways for the first time.
“I saw some trouble ahead (with the band) and we agreed to get a replacement for me and I would stay at my day job. We also agreed that I would start my own band and call it Dave Weld & the Imperial Flames, to designate where I came from – from the Blues Imperials to the Imperial Flames,” he said. “It was a smooth transition, but it was also an exciting challenge.”
Weld got in touch with his former Houserockers’ mate Ted Harvey and he became the Imperial Flames’ first drummer. Harry Yaseen came on board to play piano and Mike Scharf played bass for the band upon its formation in 1987.
In short order, the group started getting steady work – both inside the Chicago city limits, as well as other locales farther away – and then hit the studio to cut Roughrockin’ in Chicago (Parsifal Records), the band’s first long-player. “A guy that I had met at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, Andre Hobus (writer for French publication Soul Bag), got me that (record) deal,” Weld said. “I’ll never forget that guy. He’s friends with me to this day. He’s a nice guy.”
Just because Weld had his own group, and Ed had his, didn’t mean that the two would never work together again. Ed joined Weld’s band on two different occasions – each time for a couple of years – and their second hookup resulted in the album Keep On Walkin’ (Earwig).
“Ed was always welcome in my band. He’s got a great personality, plus he plays the shit out of the guitar,” Weld said. “He’s from the old school and can play lead or rhythm equally as good. But whenever Ed needed a place, he had one with me. There were times that I’d wake up at 2 a.m. to a knock on the door and it would be Ed standing there. I’d go, ‘Ed, you don’t have to say anything … come in, there’s the couch.’ He’s a great guy.”
The Imperial Flames would undergo a few more personnel changes over the years before settling down to its current roster, one that has been together as a unit for over 15 years.
“We’ve been overseas and have played almost every state in the union … Canada, the Caribbean … just everywhere, working almost every weekend since 1989,” Weld said. “And we’re currently nominated for Best Blues Band at the Chicago Independent Music Awards.”
Jeff Taylor mans the drum throne for the group. “He’s been with me for 20 years now. He’s a good singer and a great drummer and is dependable and easy to work with,” Weld said.
The legendary Abb Locke, a prominent member of Howlin’ Wolf’s band and walking encyclopedia of the blues, plays saxophone in the group. Locke has played with everyone from Memphis Slim to Elmore James to the Rolling Stones. Dave Kaye, who’s played with heavyweights including Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Dave Hole and Bo Diddley, to name a few, handles the bass chores. Weld knows what a special unit he has and shows his appreciation for their talents.
“I’m the type of guy that likes to take care of his band. I mean, we’ve been working every weekend since 1989. That’s a lot of work and guys (band members) want to go where they can work,” he said. “I’m old school – I provide a decent, running van that guys feel safe in and I make sure they always get paid. There was a time at a club in Madison, Wisconsin when the IRS came in and locked up the cash register. But I made sure that the guys still got paid. There’s none of this ‘leader’s cut’ on a $400-$500 gig for me, only when we get $800-$1,500. That’s how it works. I had to take care of my mother for about 10 years, but I still made it to the gigs on the weekends and that’s credit due to my band. These guys are loyal.”
Equal distribution of the funds is not the only thing Weld prides himself on as a bandleader. As anyone who has ever seen the Imperial Flames up close and personal knows, Weld is more than happy to give his band members their turn in the spotlight up on stage.
“That’s a big deal with them staying with the band. If I’ve got this guy that’s just brimming with talent, why would I want to hold him back? I’m proud to be with him or he wouldn’t be in this band,” said Weld. “A lot of bandleaders may be afraid of getting the spotlight stolen from them, but I’m not one of them. If I can’t play good enough and entertain the people, I shouldn’t be up there in the first place.”
Weld and the Imperial Flames are hard at work on a follow-up to their 2010 CD, Burnin’ Love (Delmark Records 806).
“This one will be on Delmark, too. I met Bob (Koester) almost 35 years ago and I love the guy.” said Weld. “And Steve Wagner is so wonderful to work with; he’s just so talented and inspired. It’s really great to work with everyone over at Delmark. We’re really looking forward to finishing it.”
The group is also looking forward to their spot at the Pennsylvania Blues Festival this summer.
Much like that Howlin’ Wolf tune that caught his ear in the desert, another key component in Weld’s life showed up out of the blue, this time at a benefit concert in Rockford, Illinois for the Crossroads Blues Society – Monica Myhre.
“There was this girl that actually put the benefit together standing there and that’s how I met Monica. She turned out to be the biggest thing in my life. For years she would e-mail me saying that maybe she could help me get a few gigs. So I finally called her and she turned out to be one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,” Weld said. “We started talking every night for about an hour and that went on for a year. She used to come to our gigs, but never told me she was a singer. Then I found out her musical background was extensive and that she’d been singing ever since she was six.”
These days, everyone knows just how impressive a singer Monica is.
“When I come off the stage, the first thing people say is, ‘You’re a great guitar player’ and then they turn to Monica and say, ‘You’ve got the best voice I’ve ever heard’,” said Weld. “And it’s wonderful. She helps with everything; helps get the gigs, helps load the equipment and set up the PA and she’s one of the main attractions because her voice is so stunning. Her and I even write most of my tunes.”
It’s hard to imagine things going much better than they are for Dave Weld these days. And whether he’s planning for a gig, writing songs or just jamming away on his guitar, maybe the best piece of advice he ever got is never far from the front of his mind.
“One of J.B.’s famous quotes that sticks out in my mind is, ‘Don’t ever … don’t ever … let anybody tell you that you can’t make it. Don’t let your girlfriend tell you, don’t let your brothers tell you, don’t let your friends tell you, don’t let your mother or father tell you, or your uncles or cousins. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t make it.’ That’s powerful stuff.”
For a list of all the stellar musicians that Weld has played with over the past 40 years, visit his Facebook page, or his Web Site, www.daveweld.com.