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Sunday, September 14, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Happy birthday, Jim Schwall
Mad City music community pulls out all the stops
Schwall, center front, with the birthday backup band.
Schwall, center front, with the birthday backup band.

Singer, songwriter, teacher, blues-rock legend, photographer and former Madison mayoral candidate Dr. James Schwall turned 70 last week. He celebrated by doing what he's no doubt done on many birthdays past: by blowing the roof off a nightclub, in this case the Crystal Corner Bar.

He had lots of help.

Musicians rotated in and out of Schwall's band all night as Madison's most elite rock and blues players wandered into the bar and got the nod. People really came to play, too. The core band couldn't even wait until the scheduled 9 p.m. start time to get going, so they lit the candle at a quarter to. Schwall rushed into the fray in the middle of the first number, grinning, strapping on his custom-built electric.

"They said I shouldn't be at home on my birthday and that I should have a guitar in my hands," he said at the end of the song.

Schwall has had a guitar in his hands since his boyhood years in Chicago. Back when Sputnik was launched. He met Corky Siegel when the two were studying music at Roosevelt University, and, as they say, the rest was history. The Siegel-Schwall Band introduced Chicago blues to a whole new generation even as it performed with the cats who created it. As house band at Pepper's Lounge, Siegel-Schwall regularly supported the preternatural likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon.

That would be music education enough. Schwall never stopped studying, though, eventually earning his Ph.D. in music at UW-Madison. Our city is ridiculously blessed with a high pop-music royalty count. Just like jazz ambassador Ben Sidran and funk pioneer Clyde Stubblefield, Schwall found a way to make a home here and keep it.

The Kansas City-Pittsburgh game was tied 10-10 when the TV set on the wall over the band was switched to black. Jimmy Voegeli had hauled his Hammond B-3 organ in from Mount Horeb, and he made it shriek and scream. The night's first lineup also included Chris Aaron and Bill Roberts on electric guitars, bassist Tony Menzer, drummer Chris Sandoval, percussionist Pauli Ryan, and Darren Sterud on trombone (and some of the most thrilling vocals of the night).

There were long pauses between songs as the players figured out versions and agreeable keys. It was a party within the party. With all that talent on one stage, you'd think the players would overpower one another. Instead they were thoughtful, demure. Which doesn't mean they weren't loud, with all eyes and smiles on Schwall.

Though he'll never be a model in GQ, Schwall looks amazing at 70. Rosy cheeks beneath flowing gray Charlemagne-style locks give him an air of hip regality. When he plays his guitar, his bright eyes, full of mischief, look light-years into the distance where he sees the song and follows it.

His guitar has always gotten the attention, but his voice has never failed him. "He doesn't emulate the way a lot of blues singers do," said Honor Among Thieves guitarist Andy Ewen before joining the band for a few songs. "He just sticks to his own voice. Totally unpretentious."

Music makes it a small world. When you're a musician of Schwall's caliber, the world gets even smaller. By 10:30 p.m., Jim Schwall stories were flowing fast and furious. If one story is correct (my favorite of the night), Schwall has forgotten more famous musicians he's played with than other musicians have actually played with.

The story goes that someone asked Schwall a few years back if he'd ever met or played with the Doors. "Not that I can think of," Schwall is remembered to have said. Not long after that, someone found Jim Morrison quoted in a rock biography saying he recalled playing with the Siegel-Schwall Band at an airport lounge.

Yes. The airport lounge mention is the best part of that story.

Close to midnight the band launched into a Freddie King number. The club was nearly filled. I looked around at the framed, autographed photos of musicians who've played the Crystal over the years. I realized that we were in the crypt of Six Degrees of Jim Schwall. There, everywhere, looking back from the walls, were Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, Tracy Nelson, Buddy Guy, Paul Black, Lonnie Mack, Jimmy Dawkins. So many more.

Between sets Schwall was swarmed by friends lining up to buy him a glass of his favorite red wine. Schwall is as funny as he is musical. I had one question for him, a question I figured he'd have a good answer for.

"What's the difference between your 70th birthday and your 50th birthday?" I asked him.

"The women don't look back," he said, without missing a beat.

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