Chicagoan Corky Siegel is known as one of the world’s greatest blues harmonica players. With a career spanning almost six decades, he is also a celebrated composer, pianist, singer, songwriter, band leader, educator, and author.
He is a founding member of the groundbreaking Siegel Schwall Band, who in the 1960s found themselves collaborating with both American blues icons and classical music virtuosi. That experience led Corky to start his ensemble Chamber Blues, and to begin writing music influenced by such diverse influences as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Mozart, Roland Kirk, William Russo, Indian Carnatic percussion, and many other people and cultures.
The ebullient musician, inveterate punster, and longtime friend of WFMT was born on October 24, 1943. Rather than slow down as he approaches his 80th birthday, Corky Siegel continues to tour and perform, and to explore new ways to share his unique musical voice.
Corky Siegel: “The Future Is an Unopened Present”
Louise Frank | October 24, 2018
Back in 2018, as he approached 75, Louise Frank spoke with Corky about his life and inspirations. Now, in advance of this new milestone, she has checked in with Corky once more.
WFMT: So, how are you?
Corky Siegel: Well, I’ve never been 80 before, so I don’t know how it’s supposed to feel. Right now, I’m feeling good. As far as my brain goes, it is staying ahead of my body as usual. My poor body still jumps at my command, but it’s beginning to voice its opinions. It's quite the trip.
WFMT: At a time of life when many people would consider slowing down, you seem to be ever more determined to create and share your music, and to collaborate with other artists. What is it that drives you?
Siegel: I have so much pouring out of me that I would like to share before I can’t share it anymore. It seems the more years I’ve been given, the more I need.
WFMT: Come March 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, how did you adjust your connection to your muse, your collaborators, and your fans?
Siegel: As my wife Holly and I love saying, when Mother Nature sent us to our rooms for lock down during the “Damnpandic,” we took it as an opportunity to try something different. On March 16th 2020, the first day we got home from our shortened tour to the Virgin Islands and Florida, I purchased Final Cut Pro and started learning video editing.
WFMT: That’s when you and Holly started presenting Life’s Dream, your bi-weekly YouTube series. You also produced several other projects to great acclaim.
Siegel: We presented our first episode of our live stream video series Life’s Dream with music and stories on March 18! Ernie Watts was still with us from the road, and so we invited 1,200 of our closest friends into our tiny sunroom for Breakfast with Ernie.
Then, I immediately began working on a video of Chamber Blues and my favorite works with some of our favorite guest artists. We offered this to Chamber Music on the Fox instead of rescheduling our cancelled appearance.
Each musician and guest artist did all their recording individually from different parts of the US. Some of them had never recorded themselves before, so I had to coach them. Holly and I put all the pieces of the puzzle together without concern for rules, and this became a 100-minute presentation we called Extravaganza.
That streaming video performance turned out fantastic, and the presenter did better financially than if we had done it in person! We were able to reach people all over the world. We ended up using the audio for our next Chamber Blues album, More Different Voices, which won audiophile raves including 4.5 stars in Absolute Sound, and also won Downbeat Magazine’s “Best Albums of 2022.” Our mixing and mastering engineer Ken Goerres commented that he heard more passion, joy, and expression from the players who were isolated in their own rooms than if they were playing together. Interesting.
So, we did 4 or 5 more video presentations, and about 160 more Life’s Dream YouTube shows. Those twice a week live streams were followed by an hour on Zoom with our friends and fans. While all this was going on, we produced three albums, all released in September 2022.
WFMT: You’ve stopped doing Life’s Dream on YouTube, but the Zoom visits with friends and fans are still happening at Noon CST on Fridays and Tuesdays. How would folks join in on that?
Siegel: Just hop on and we will welcome you.
WFMT: And now? You’re back to touring and performing. And, thanks to that out-of-the-box technical wizardry, you’re also in the process of achieving a long-held dream, creating a new album featuring one of your symphonic blues pieces.
Siegel: Beginning in 1975, I was commissioned to write a number of symphonic blues concertos and sonatas for the San Francisco Symphony, the Grant Park Symphony and the National Symphony. Symphonic Blues #6 was commissioned in 2007 by Stephen Gunzenhauser for the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra. I performed it all over the world.
I was also commissioned again in 2017 to compose “Symphonic Blues #7” for Gunzenhauser, which we performed in New York, Pennsylvania, and Austria in 2018. I’m using the coda from that work and adding it to the “Symphonic Blues #6” recording.
Like our video Extravaganza, and the resulting album More Different Voices, all the musicians are recording their parts individually. This means that the only music they experience is their own. Though there is nothing like musicians playing in the same space together and interacting, and there is nothing like watching them, recording is a different art form. My focus is on setting the stage for the best individual performances and the best sonic experience for the listener.
The recording is well under way, with all the woodwinds and brass already recorded. Beautiful recordings. So far, we have Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson (principal flute with the CSO), Natalie Pilla (bassoon), John Yeh (CSO clarinet), and more. Strings, timpani, and percussion are next, not to mention blues harmonica.
And there is one more secret aspect to all this. At some point along this 80-year journey I discovered that music is not about music, it’s about people and relationships. That’s the real music. We are all connected. It’s so deep and powerful. I like reflecting this magic of connection whether we are in the same room… or in different rooms.
For more information or to catch Corky and company in concert, visit corkymusic.com. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.