CHICAGO (AP) – Blues harmonica player Carey Bell, who performed with both Muddy Waters' and Willie Dixon's bands, has died of heart failure. He was 70. Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press
Bell died Sunday at Kindred Hospital, according to Alligator Records, which released several of Bell's albums.
"He was truly a master of his instrument. He learned the blues from living the blues," said label president Bruce Iglauer. "When he picked up that harp, it was deep down. He reached in."
Carey Bell Harrington was born on Nov. 14, 1936, in Macon, Mississippi. He wanted a saxophone but his family could not afford one. Instead, his grandfather bought him a harmonica.
He was playing the harmonica by age 8, and in 1956, at age 19, he moved to Chicago with his godfather, pianist Lovie Lee.
Soon, he was supporting himself as a professional musician, playing on the street for tips, Iglauer said.
He met and learned from Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs and Sonny Boy Williamson II, but found a special fatherly mentor in Big Walter Horton, Iglauer said.
Bell was a bridge between the styles of first-generation Chicago blues players such as Jacobs and Horton and the players who followed, such as Billy Branch, said Iglauer.
"Carey took the big tone that Little Walter brought with amplifying the harmonica in the first place and using distortion from the microphone to thicken the sound of the instrument, and he combined that with a funkier, more contemporary rhythm feel," Iglauer said.
Bell spent 1971 traveling and recording with Muddy Waters, and can be heard on Waters' "The London Sessions." He worked regularly in the 1970s with Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars.
Branch replaced Bell in Dixon's band, but the two developed a taunting, yet friendly, rivalry over the ensuing years, Branch said.
"He would come to my gigs and surprise me," Branch recalled. "And sometimes, right in the middle of my solo, he'd say, 'Give me that harp.' And I'd give it to him!"
Branch said Bell's style was so unique he has trouble describing it. He visited Bell in the hospital Friday, and while the bluesman was in and out of consciousness, "I got him to respond by imitating one of his signature licks. He turned around like, 'There you go, stealing my stuff again.'"
Iglauer served as producer for several of Bell's albums, including "Harp Attack" – which also featured Junior Wells, James Cotton and Branch – along with the solo records "Deep Down" in 1995 and "Good Luck Man" in 1997.
He said Bell never planned too far ahead, would show up for gigs in suspenders, and had a missing front tooth he never replaced. He had little formal education, and his reading and writing skills were limited, Iglauer said.
"He was just such a sweet, gentle guy, with a huge ability to laugh at himself," Iglauer said. "And he took great pleasure in bringing joy to other people. When he'd play harmonica and people applauded, he just loved it, he glowed."
Bell is survived by 10 children, including gifted blues guitarist and vocalist Lurrie Bell, with whom he recorded the 2004 album "Second Nature." Funeral arrangements are pending.
Published in Chicago Tribune on May 7, 2007.