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A Conversation with Corky Siegel Print-ready version

by Bob Muller
June 7, 2013

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Mark Paul "Corky" Siegel is an interesting component of Joni's musical history. As half of the famous Siegel-Schwall Band with guitarist Jim Schwall, Corky shared the stage with a who's who of Blues and Rock music, as well as releasing ten albums between 1966 and 1974.

In 1966, the Siegel-Schwall Band played an extended booking at the Chessmate in Detroit, Michigan. Opening for them was the husband-wife act of Chuck and Joni Mitchell and a quick friendship ensued between the two acts. When Joni wanted to make some demo recordings in order to get a recording contract, she went to Chicago and working with Siegel-Schwall recorded a handful of songs for a demo tape.

We caught up with Corky, who remains very active in the music industry to this day, to talk about his memories surrounding this time, his experiences with Joni, and his career in general. Hi Corky, it's Bob Muller here on behalf of I am not a professional journalist by any means, I am a music fan and I will start by saying on behalf of all of us out here, thanks for ALL of the music that you've brought into the world over the last 50 years or so. I hear the Siegel-Schwall Band all the time on Sirius XM, the Deep Tracks channel, where they play a lot of music that was kind of overlooked when it first came out - you probably already know that.

Corky: (Laughs)

Anyway, having read about you and your startup, the blues clubs you played in, having Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells all sit in with you, a long list, basically everyone who's been involved in blues music, it must have been and continues to be a real crazy ride.


Looking at the first period of the Siegel-Schwall Band, basically you started the band in '64 and broke up briefly in '74. Looking at that period in American music - if you have to pick a ten-year period, boy, that's probably the time that you want to be out there and active, isn't it?

Well, I liked it (laughs). I have adopted a very strange perspective. I try and just really step back, way way back and just look at, like, the best way to explain it is how, every time young people come up with a new idea, all the old people (laughs), you know, hate it. Like rock and roll, like ragtime, if you want to go back even further, so I try and be real careful saying statements about "yeah, the time that I was making music - that was the time to do it" (laughs).

That's true - there's certainly innovation going on today, no argument.

Yeah, and we have no idea what's going to happen, and of course the young people... if you can't create something that doesn't piss people off, you haven't done your work.

Well stated, well stated.

There's a movie coming out, that I'm actually happy to be part of, that talks about the white kids going into the black clubs in Chicago. Butterfield, Bloomfield, they included me, Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Barry Goldberg...

Elvin Bishop...

Elvin Bishop is actually in the movie. And there's great cuts of Butterfield and Bloomfield and all those people, and Bob Dylan is being interviewed, and things like that. But they talk about how this sort of movement, which to me was more of a political movement than anything, a social movement, how it affected everything that's going on today. They got Keith Richards, he's interviewed and talks about that and how it ended up in England. Since you're doing something for Joni, who I haven't even seen in as long as I can remember, I just want to say that every time I hear a woman singing on the radio, there's a lot of Joni in there.

Yeah, always, right? Even if they don't admit it, though most of them admit it if they've done any homework at all, and the ones that don't have other people point out to them; you're playing in an alternative tuning, you're incorporating a kind of personal kind of lyric into your song, and that originated back here, so you're right.

Yeah, and it's like the whole, OK, that's new music, that's something new, and you hear the way the melody is treated and it's something brand new that these fearless people are doing... and it's Joni Mitchell (laughs).

Right, I guess more specifically, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel got such big credit for introducing African rhythms and things in the 80's, and doing a lot of what Joni had done back in the 70's with the Burundi drummers and some of the influences from the Don Juan's Reckless Daughter album. Now you and Joni... she opened for Siegel-Schwall at the Chessmate in Detroit? Is that where you guys first crossed paths?

I think so, I think that was it, and it was five or six nights a week. And what that meant was we spent a lot of time with Joni, and Chuck was there too. And I still see Chuck to this day. He shows up a lot and we run into each other.

Yeah, he's still in the Midwest I think, right?

Yeah, in Iowa actually. But, it was amazing - that's my word - I'll try and think of a better word - (laughs) someone once told me "Corky, just don't say it's amazing" - tell them what you mean by that. So, there was something... talking about Joni... there was something that was really obvious when you first saw her, in that she didn't just sing the song, or write a song. There was this energy of really digging deep and really looking for something... the possibilities, looking for the possibilities, you know, trying to create something fresh. Wildly fresh. That was sort of obvious, and when you were around her you just felt like there was just ART pouring out of this person.

I can imagine, and this would have been in 1966 when she had this run at the Chessmate like from February through March or April, I think, where she had these long dates where you would have played together. You know, she was physically also very beautiful - obviously - and I think in some ways that might have even hindered her somewhat in terms of being taken seriously from people that were passing an early judgment just on her physical beauty.

Well, back to my strange perspective. In terms of the whole music industry thing, I really am very, very happy with my particular perspective about the music business. And I feel it's really healthy, really true, and it is very freeing and people who tend to be maybe a little not happy with everything that has either happened or not happened to them, just this perspective makes that not even exist. It's not even important. I mean, just to give you a little taste of it, I think of it as a lottery - and I'm sure you understand what I'm talking about. And every time you have you an asset, it's like buying more tickets. You know, if you want to win the lottery, you gotta buy a ticket. If you want to have a better chance at winning it, you have to have two tickets. And when you're a beautiful person, beautiful-looking person, that's going to help you, it's not going to hurt you at all.

In terms of getting recognition, I don't think it has anything to do with being taken seriously or not but what I do want to say it that when you know somebody in the music industry, all of a sudden you think your chances are increased, I don't think that's necessarily so but if you get REALLY good at what you do, if you become a genius, if you're amazing, you've just bought a thousand tickets. The whole point is, the whole music industry thing, if you buy a thousand tickets, your chances are still a zillion to one. You know, everything has to fall in place so perfectly for you to get what we call 'industry success'. And it's not that we shouldn't want it, or have it, but it shouldn't be a consideration, it should be something we should certainly not close the window of opportunity for, we should certainly pursue it, if we're interested in that, but beyond that it shouldn't be taken seriously at all. I mean, Joni Mitchell is a GENIUS. The fact that she got the recognition that she got - which I think is tons of recognition - I mean, just amazing amounts of recognition, I think makes the world a very lucky place to live in, that they had the honor of hearing Joni's music.

I agree, and you had sort of a special place in that, so let's talk for a minute about the transition from performing on stage together to these sessions that you did with her.

To my best recollection, I mean Siegel-Schwall had a little different approach. All the other blues bands were sounding like B.B. King, or Howling Wolf, and believe me, I would have wanted to do that, I would have wanted to sound like Howling Wolf (laughs) but there was no way that was gonna happen, you know what I mean? So Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, they approached it entirely differently and also they were like years, a few years ahead of us. Jim [Schwall] and I were just learning when we recorded.

Plus Jim's background was more along country and folk, and yours was classical and jazz?

Yes and I was trying to learn jazz, I was trying to learn classical, it just wasn't going to happen, you know what I mean, and blues became my format and when we recorded, when you hear the recordings of Siegel-Schwall, you're hearing us learning to play music. Period. (laughs) So, and I think some of that stuff is really cool, the very first record that we made, we went into the studio - and I'll get to Joni - we went into the studio, we recorded it in about the time it takes to play it; in other words, they were all single takes except for one piece, we went into the studio and didn't even stop, we recorded one song after another, and left and it became a record, and I listen to that record and I think "wow, that's sort of cool", you know? And then later you could see us struggling in different ways but those records are us learning so we, when I started playing I realized I wasn't going to be able to sound like Howling Wolf. Or Muddy Waters. So, I just found a different approach, and that different approach ended up becoming what someone might call 'a style', and it was like more of a jugband thing, so Siegel-Schwall was doing some sort of unique stuff that a lot of people didn't like. Howling Wolf loved it, but our contemporaries sort of said they didn't think it was cool, but Joni - Chuck and Joni - they really loved Siegel-Schwall. And we got along really well. And Jim is an amazing guy, so it was a love affair, and she recognized that we were doing something a little different and I think when it came time for her to think about doing a demo tape, she asked Jim and I to produce it.

OK. Where did the sessions take place, were they in Michigan, or Chicago, or...

She came to Chicago, and we did it in a place called Eight Track Studios. (laughs) This is the big, modern, top-of-the-line, high tech, you know... eight track (laughs) recording studio and a guy named Stu Black did the sessions, engineered the sessions, and it's amazing I remember that stuff, I know the drummer was Jack Cohen, he did some of the drumming, I don't know if Russ Chadwick did the drumming or not.

Was Rollo [Radford] on bass on those sessions or no?

No. Rollo was a much later bass player, he was 1969. The bass player... I believe it was Josh Davidson if I'm not mistaken.

Yeah, because I listened to those recordings again this morning, and there's such a variety of colors, I mean I know there's a string section that you guys did the arrangements for and I hear violin and cello - maybe I'm wrong - there's mandolin on "Daisy Summer Piper", of course some nice guitar solos which I'm assuming is Jim's work, some horns and even a zither, maybe, on "Eastern Rain" - just a wide variety of sounds.

I haven't heard all these tunes. I'll tell you what I heard. I heard "Night In The City", I heard...

"The Circle Game"...

"The Circle Game" (laughs) which is hysterical (laughs), talk about coming out of the 60's, I can see the go-go boots when I hear that thing. Basically I think just those two, "Night In The City" and "Circle Game". Those two - maybe there was a third.

Those were the only two songs she went on to record, the other ones, "Daisy Summer Piper", "Brandy Eyes", "Eastern Rain", "Blue On Blue", were really good songs, but you know she was so prolific that when she sat down to do her first album, all those 75-80 songs were kind of put aside and she was, she wanted to record what was fresh in her mind, you know?

Right - so, the interesting story is, so she, Jim was the guy who really did the horns and the strings, I did a little of that but not a whole lot. And actually Jim's writing was an influence on me when I started writing the symphonic pieces and the chamber music that I've been writing a lot of. And then, Joni was going to stay overnight at my place but my girlfriend didn't like that... (laughs)

I can see that...

So that didn't happen, and then she came to pick up the tape while I was on the road somewhere, from my house, and my roommate, who so happened to be Ed Holstein, who ended up owning a club in Chicago, but also wrote "Jazz Man" for Tom Rush, so everything sort of connected here. He tells a story from the stage of when Joni Mitchell came to pick up her tape and rang the bell. And it was like early in the morning, it was like eight or nine o'clock or whatever, he was asleep, and he came down really grouchy, and he said "what are you here for?" and she says "Oh, Corky left a tape for me" and he opened the door like just a crack and stuck his hand out (laughs). And she took the tape, and he went "Bye" and closed the door, and now he says "Oh my God that was Joni Mitchell! I slammed the door on Joni Mitchell, I can't believe it!" (laughs), so he tells that story.

It's a good story. So, were the expectations around these sessions just to make demos, or was she looking to make a single, get two songs she could put side by side, or do you recall?

The intention was they were demos. It was a demo tape to help her get some industry notice, you know, get a record deal, something like that.

Okay. Now in the studio, she became very protective of her own work and, you know, didn't want a lot of outside influence in the ways of arranging and producing and things. Did that - was any of that evident at this session, or was she sort of open to whatever people were suggesting?

Absolutely not. She totally went... I mean, I didn't notice any of what you're saying. At all. And certainly, this was a lot of super impositions on her work. You know what I'm saying?

Right, and it ran very contrary to her first couple of records where it was basically just her, maybe Stephen Stills throws a bass lick in there and that's it.

Yeah, there was nothing like that that I noticed; in fact, somebody a long time ago had sent me a live recording of Joni playing somewhere, and the part he sent me was her talking about the sessions. And she would actually sing the song and then sing some of the parts (laughs), because she was really happy with it and really excited about it, and that was nice for me to know because of course when we listen back to the stuff - it's quite hokey (laughs).

Well, it's an important part of her career. Do you recall - the recordings that I have a date of November 6th and 7th of 1966, I'm not sure if that's accurate or not, if it IS accurate, that would have been on her birthday. Does that ring any bells?

Wow... November 1966...

The timing kind of makes sense because you guys played together earlier that year at the Chessmate.

Right, right, oh man... it sort of makes sense.

I just didn't know if there were any remembrances about making these recordings on her birthday...

It's possible - have you talked to Jim yet? When you talk to him, he's a drinker, he drinks day and night, his whole life he's been doing that and he has a better memory than I do.

(laugh) OK, maybe that's why I have such a good memory too.

(laughs) He'll remember more about this stuff, but the thing that I really pick up, Joni just had... (pauses) one of those rare individuals who had so much to offer. And I don't care... I care that the music industry picked her up and noticed her because I want everyone else to know about her. But I think she got enough recognition that her work became available to everybody in the world. You know what I'm saying?

Yeah, I actually do because like Les mentioned to you, on a weird whim of a project I started collecting covers of Joni Mitchell songs...

Oh, right - Okay...

Thinking it would be like a couple of CD's worth of stuff, you know, (laughs) but I've been doing this now for about 15 years now or so, so I'm up to around 4,000 recordings, basically every language in the world, about 160 different songs, I mean her outreach globally is just incredible, I'm sure she knows that but I see it literally every day.

Yeah, the fact that that happens satisfies me completely, and it's not even relevant. Nothing else is really relevant to me; awards, that's all BS, you know what I'm saying, what's important is that her stuff is available, accessible, for the world and... you know...

And how many lives she has touched and affected...

Well... yes, what I want to say is that Joni Mitchell has helped bring PEACE to the world. And made people happy. And affected the world in a very profound way. Not to say that other artists don't do the same thing. You know what I'm saying?

Yep, yep. I understand.

But we do, when you play music, and you do art, that's what's happening. But her being a very special artist, what I would say is - and you might be surprised at this - FEARLESS. She herself may not even realize that she's fearless, but she could not have accomplished these unique projects without just being totally fearless, you know the art just flowed out of her, she didn't stop it because she was worried about what somebody might think.

I agree with you 100% and so would she on that, you know, she always says that she strictly followed her muse and where it went, it might have been in the popular zeitgeist, it might have been miles away from that, and she was not concerned with that portion of it, she had to do what she felt her muse was calling her to do.

Yeah, and believe me, I understand that because you know I do this project that I've been working on since the 60's, juxtaposing blues and classical. I thought when I started writing the chamber version of it, the chamber music, I thought people were going to hate it. I said to my wife, I said "look, first of all, if I start on this project it's gonna change our lives." This was in 1983. I had already written a few symphonic things, and they were getting recognition, and people wanted me to write more, and I said at some point, yeah, this is what I want to do, and I said to her, it's gonna change our life, and people are gonna hate this project so we're gonna have to live in this world where people are very critical of what we're doing. And I actually started writing, spending a year writing the initial pieces for the project... well, I mean from '83 - I didn't start performing it until 1987 so from '83 to '87 I spent all this time writing stuff I thought people were going to hate. But I had to do it - I HAD to do it.

Yep, so you can relate to what Joni's career arc was like I guess?

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Nice. Corky, I certainly appreciate the openness and the time and all the detail.

You're more than welcome.

And I wish you all continued success. Thanks again my friend, and take care.

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Added to Library on June 7, 2013. (16356)


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