Jim Schwall, Siegel-Schwall Band guitarist, dead at 79; formed influential Chicago group

The Chicago band melded blues, folk and classical music, playing and collaborating with artists ranging from Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell to Seiji Ozawa.

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Guitarist Jim Schwall, who gained renown playing with Corky Siegel in the Siegel-Schwall Band.

Guitarist Jim Schwall, who gained renown playing with Corky Siegel in the Siegel-Schwall Band.

Paul Natkin

It started with an elevator ride.

In the early 1960s, guitarist Jim Schwall met Corky Siegel in the Roosevelt University jazz band, and, one day in a school elevator, they started talking.

“I said, ‘Do you play the blues?’ ” said Siegel, a harmonica and piano player. They went to Schwall’s apartment. “He played for me, and we hit it off.”

They formed the Siegel-Schwall Band, an influential group that helped power a lively co-mingling of rock and blues in Chicago. They played with and were inspired by blues greats Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon as well as the next generation of blues legends, including Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Little Walter.

“These blues masters took us under their wings,” Siegel said.

The Siegel-Schwall Band played San Francisco’s famed Fillmore West with Janis Joplin and the Jefferson Airplane, produced a demo for Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” and performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. The group recorded for Vanguard Records, RCA’s Wooden Nickel, Deutsche Grammophon and Alligator Records.

Except for some long sabbaticals and solo and side projects, the band came together to play in different incarnations each decade from the 1960s until 2016, with Mr. Schwall and Siegel always at the core.

Mr. Schwall, 79, died June 19 at his home in Tucson, Arizona.

“He just kind of went downhill,” according to his brother William “Chico” Schwall.

Later in life, Mr. Schwall got a doctorate in music composition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and taught music, his brother said. In Madison, he ran for mayor and worked to get funding to reduce homelessness. He also was a deejay in Madison at WORT-FM and in Davenport, Iowa.

“What a great human being Jim was,” Siegel said.

“Jim Schwall created a unique blend of folk-blues guitar and electrified Chicago style,” said Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer. “His playing was melodic and subtle, and his original songs were filled with humor and fun. He could always make an audience feel better because his music was full of joy.”

He was born in Evanston and grew up in Wilmette. His mother Evelyn “sang from morning to night,” his brother said. Young Jim learned to play accordion and drums and started on guitar while at New Trier High School.

“There was a lot of folk music happening,” his brother said, “and at a party once, one of his friends brought a guitar down from the attic.”

It was a Gibson B-25 acoustic. He started to play.

“He took off with it,” his brother said, continuing to perform with that same B-25, later amplified.

Growing up, he bought his LPs from legendary Chicago record store owner Bob Koester.

“He played Lead Belly records and a lot of bluegrass and blues music, like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ahmad Jamal,” his brother said.

At Roosevelt, “he was writing operas,” Siegel said.

But Mr. Schwall didn’t ever want to be pigeonholed, saying, “I’d rather operate a drill press than play Chopin.”

They got a regular Thursday night gig at Pepper’s Lounge at 43rd and Vincennes, where they apprenticed with blues greats.

When the Paul Butterfield Blues Band left Big John’s in Old Town to hit the road, Siegel-Schwall started a residency, performing there with others influenced by the blues, including Mike Bloomfield and Harvey Mandel.

They charmed Seiji Ozawa, then music director of the Ravinia Festival, which led to the commissioning of a piece by William Russo, “Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra,” which they performed with orchestras across the country.

Around that time, Mitchell “had just written ‘Circle Game’ and wanted to do a demo tape with a few songs, and we produced the demo,” Siegel said.

One of their records, “953 West,” was named for another favorite venue: the old Quiet Knight at 953 W. Belmont Ave., by the L.

“The songs that I like tell a story,” Mr. Schwall once told the Wisconsin State Journal, “or paint a picture of a person or place.”

One of his most popular compositions, “I Think It Was the Wine,” includes lines that invited singalongs: “I’ve always been a pacifist, been known to run from a fight. I didn’t never hit nobody with no 2 X 4 till last night... Maybe that old moon was full — but I think it was the wine.”

Mr. Schwall’s solo albums included the 2014 release “Bar Time Lovers” on the Conundrum InterArts label.

And he composed many music and theater pieces for singers, dancers and actors, his brother said.

In addition to Chico Schwall, his survivors include another brother, Stephen. A celebration of his life is being planned.

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