Bob Stroger, Billy Flynn, Kenny Smith @ Rosa’s Lounge, Chicago, IL
Bob Stroger – Billy Flynn – Kenny Smith – ‘One Take’ Willie
At 90 years old, Chicago blues electric bassist and singer/songwriter Bob Stroger still loves his job and is ready for more, even decades into his career. After moving from small-town Missouri to Chicago as a teen and seeing Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf tear up Silvio’s club, he knew he was one day going to become a bluesman, too. While sometimes he got paid and sometimes he got stiffed for gigs, Stroger knew he’d finally made it when fellow blues artist Eddie King got him a show to play for $15.
Chicago blues bassist Bob Stroger, now 91, shows no signs of slowing down as he releases new album
By Steve Knopper Chicago Tribune
Junior Parker, the Memphis bluesman famous for ‘50s and ‘60s hits like “Mystery Train” and “Feelin’ Good,” needed someone to talk to when he was on the road. So he ratchet-jawed with Bob Stroger via CB radio en route from Chicago to St. Louis. “When he moved to Chicago before he passed, he’d be on his way back down South, and we had some powerful two-way radios,” recalls Stroger, the 91-year-old blues bassist. “Something to do. I always liked gadgets.”
Stroger’s new album, “That’s My Name,” is a travelogue of blues history, with detours through old friends and collaborators, like singer and bandleader Parker, who moved to Chicago in 1968, three years before he died. And Eddie Taylor, a guitar-playing friend and local blues fixture who died in 1985. The first track is a cover of Parker’s “What Goes On In the Dark”; the second is Taylor’s “Just a Bad Boy.” “I just wanted both guys to be part of my CD,” Stroger says, in a phone interview from his Chicago home. “When I sang their tunes, I can feel them, you know?”
“That’s My Name,” recorded with Stroger’s longtime touring band, the Headcutters of Brazil, includes five of the veteran bassist’s original songs, including the title track, “I’m a Busy Man” and “Come On Home,” plus tracks by blues masters like Big Bill Broonzy and Ma Rainey. “Some tunes on it are my tunes — something about my life,” Stroger says.
Stroger’s life story, like much of the blues, corresponds to the Great Migration. He was born in Hayti, Missouri, and his father was a sharecropper who moonlighted as a guitarist. Bob left Missouri for Chicago for the first time in 1947, when his father had a job on the Wabash Railroad; he returned to Chicago permanently in his early 20s, living with his older brother, John. “When I was down South, I didn’t see nothing but multiple cotton fields,” Stroger says. “When I first came here, we moved to the West Side. I used to get on the streetcars and ride from one end to the other. Every place I looked up was tall buildings. I had moved to another world.”
The Strogers lived so close to Silvio’s, at Lake Street and Oakley Boulevard, that Bob could look through their back door and see into the blues club’s window, as he told Big City Rhythm & Blues last year. Through a family connection, he soon wound up as a driver for singer-guitarist J.B. Hutto’s band, the Twisters, then picked up the guitar himself. “I tried to go and play a little jazz, and I almost starved to death doing that,” he says of the late ‘50s, when blues was overtaking jazz as a phenomenon in local clubs. “I got back into R&B and I was playing Motown stuff.”
Eventually, Stroger switched to bass to accommodate another guitar player, and rising West Side star Otis Rush happened to need a bass player shortly after that. The Chicago blues names for which Stroger provided pristine, jazzy basslines over nearly seven decades included pianist Sunnyland Slim, guitarist Eddie King, harpist Carey Bell and pianist Pinetop Perkins, an especially close friend.
“Sunnyland Slim was really my mentor. He’d say, ‘Be on time and look decent, because your dress code is 50% of your job,’” says Stroger, known for his immaculate stage outfits; a round cowboy hat; and combinations of coats, vests and ties. “Otis let the bass and drums call the shots in the band. He gave me my first job going to Europe. Lots of guys took me by the hand and pulled me along.”
He encountered the Headcutters after touring Brazil with bluesmen Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and guitarist Bob Margolin for the first time about 12 years ago. Since then, he has played the country’s Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival annually. “The Headcutters are just like my kids. We’re almost like a family,” Stroger says. “They took me on and call me their godfather.”
Stroger had no intention of slowing down on gigs, even in his late 80s, until the pandemic in March 2020. Stroger had been performing in Switzerland and found himself stuck there for three months, staying with a friend. Upon returning home, living alone in Chicago, he was careful about quarantining. “It was really hard on me. I’m so used to singing with people, taking pictures, and now you don’t want to do anything wrong,” he says. “I’ve never been through nothing like this.”
Stroger, who is fully vaccinated and has returned to the stage in recent months, planning tour dates in Switzerland and elsewhere, spent much of the pandemic giving lessons through the Pinetop Perkins Foundation. He was reluctant, at first, but came around to passing along his experience of nearly 70 years of carrying his bass through airports — as well as playing, of course. “I don’t read music. It’s not in my repertoire to teach. I don’t think I’m a good teacher,” he says. “But I just pass along some of the things I know. Anything I can do to bring the next generation along, I’m willing to step up and do it.