It’s probably safe to say most residents of the Oak Park Arms retirement community had no idea that a legend was living among them — until a couple months ago when masterful blues guitarist Lurrie Bell joined a performance in the Arms’ parking lot. The event was the Arms’ first public concert since the start of the pandemic.
“When Lurrie performed at the concert, it brought the show to a whole new level,” said Renee Steingard, the Arms’ director of leasing and resident engagement. “It was special to have a concert with the Oak Park community again. Having one of our residents perform, who is a friend and neighbor here, was the icing on the cake.”
The Arms has provided much-needed stability for Bell, whose life has been a dramatic roller coaster ride, with periods of astounding musical success alternating with years of debilitating challenges. But he is in the midst of a relatively steady chapter, with the support of a compassionate manager, Amberly Stokes of River Forest. Stokes has been a nurturing resource for Chicago’s blues community for many years. Bell turned 64 this week.
The son of revered harmonicist Carey Bell, Lurrie grew up surrounded by blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy. At the age of five, while watching one of his father’s rehearsal sessions, he picked up a guitar and set his mind on being a blues man like his father and friends. However, at the age of seven, his parents, both of whom left the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration, sent him to live with his grandparents in Mississippi and Alabama. They felt the south they had escaped was preferable to an unhealthy environment on Chicago’s West Side.
Bell’s grandfather was a deacon in the Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God. Bell played guitar with the church’s gospel choir — his first paying gig.
“Living down south was a blessing,” said Bell. “People down there taught me how to act, how to say ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir’ and I went to church and revival meetings regularly. The church didn’t allow us to play the blues because they thought it was devil’s music.”
In his early teens, Bell returned to Chicago — and the blues. He played with a band fronted by boogie-woogie pianist and Muddy Waters’ accompanist Lovie Lee, who became a quasi-grandfather to the young prodigy. But it was while playing with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars that Bell realized he wanted to dedicate his life to playing the blues. Still a teenager, he embarked on an international tour with “Queen of the Blues” Koko Taylor and co-founded a band called Sons of Blues with Billy Branch and Freddie Dixon, son of Willie Dixon. He made his recording debut at 19, on his father’s album “Heartaches and Pain,” followed by an appearance on Eddie C. Campbell’s “King of the Jungle.” His incendiary guitar playing and passionate vocals attracted attention from Rolling Stone and the New York Times.
Though Bell’s career seemed to be on a meteoric trajectory, in the 1980s he suffered setbacks, including mental illness, drug abuse and homelessness. He admitted himself to a psychiatric institution, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and received medications that helped keep his personal demons at bay.
In 1995, Bell recorded a well-received comeback album, “Mercurial Son,” the first of several albums on the Delmark label. He electrified the crowd at the 1996 Chicago Blues Fest and, in 2001, released the critically acclaimed “Cutting Heads.”
But Bell faced unimaginable tragedies in the early 2000s, including the deaths of his premature twins in 2003 and his wife, Susan Greenberg, and his father in 2007. He persevered through these losses, recording the heartfelt “Let’s Talk About Love,” and garnering Living Blues Magazine’s Most Outstanding Musician Award in 2007. He received a 2009 Grammy nomination for “Chicago Blues: A Living History,” which was recorded with Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer and Billy Branch. In 2012, his “The Devil Ain’t Got No Music,” a collection of acoustic blues and the gospel songs of his childhood, received the Prix du Blues Award from the prestigious French L’Academie du Jazz. He was named Best Traditional Male Blues Artist in 2015 by the Blues Foundation.
However, about five years ago, Bell’s life and career were knocked offtrack again. He was homeless and missing gigs, which is professional suicide for a musician. Fortunately, Amberly Stokes became his personal manager. Stokes has a reputation for helping blues artists and their families by organizing benefits and funerals.
“To know Lurrie is to love him. He is a brilliant genius, sweet and good, he radiates goodness. But he has suffered a lot,” she said.
Stokes took him to his doctors’ appointments and made sure he was taking his medication. Perhaps, most importantly, she got him into the Oak Park Arms, 408 S. Oak Park Ave.
“The Arms has been vital to Lurrie’s survival and well-being. They are a part of our team. When I saw the music set-up they had, with a piano in the lobby, I knew that it was the right place for him.”
Bell’s career is once again on an upswing. He is back to playing gigs at Chicago blues clubs and testing the touring waters. Last year, he played in Kviv, Ukraine and this fall he was in Romania for the Transylvania Music Fest and in Canada for the Calgary International Music Fest. Next month, he has gigs in New York and Ohio.
Bell has recorded an album, “She’s a Burgler,” his first in 7 years, with L.A. funk band Orgone, and featuring Steve Ferrone, drummer for Tom Petty and the Average White Band, and Benny Turner, the bass guitarist for the Freddie King Band. The album cover was designed by renowned Chicago artist, writer and actor Tony Fitzpatrick.
“Lurrie still has many challenges and he needs help with the costs of producing and marketing the album,” said Stokes. “We really need to keep this legendary musician working, to keep him on the straight and narrow.”
“Music has been my whole life. Through all the changes, it has been the one constant. It’s always led me out of the darkness. If I wasn’t playing music and touring, I don’t know how I’d survive,” Bell said.
Stokes encourages anyone interested in helping Bell release his new album to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.