Growing up Jewish and white in Chicago didn’t prevent Dave Specter from becoming one of the most down-home practitioners of traditional blues guitar on the planet.
Following in the grand tradition of Jewish bluesman like Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Har vey Mandel (Canned Heat) and his own teacher, fellow Chicagoan Steve Freund, the 50-year-old Specter has found direction and purpose – along with an extensive resume of awards, albums and collaborations – within the age-old blues tradition. It’s a passion that didn’t bite him until he was an adult, and it took until age 21 before he picked up a guitar.
“I started using a fake ID to get into the blues clubs of Chicago when I was 18 or so, and heard people like Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush,” Specter said last week in a phone inter view from his Chicago home.
“Then I attended the University of Illinois for a few years, and musicians like Magic Slim would come to per form. That’s when I started to play guitar. I tried a little rock & roll but quickly got into learning T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Albert Collins. They soon became my passion, and I kind of immersed myself in the Chicago blues scene,” he recounts.
It was there that he met Freund, one of the more accomplished Chicago bluesmen, who agreed to take Specter under his wing.
“In a lot of ways, he was like an older brother to me when I was coming up. He not only taught me about the guitar but also about being a musician and what it means,” says Specter.
Around the same time, Specter absorbed even more blues culture working at the legendary Chicago club B.L.U.E.S., where, depending on the need, he per formed the doorman/bouncer function.
“I was really a doorman. There weren’t a lot of fights, so I wasn’t really a bouncer,” he laughs. “I had to throw out maybe two people in a couple of years and had one knife pulled on me. But it was a great learning experience musically. In my early 20s, I got to listen on my nights off to a lot of great blues. It was a time when people like Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Jr. Lockwood and Otis Rush were always playing there. For me, it was like going to school.”
School went on the road, when by his mid-20s, Specter had begun working as a guitar sideman for local bluesmen and traveling around the world practicing his craft. Sam Lay, one of the most celebrated blues drummers, recruited Specter for a three-week tour of Canada, and a week before the launch, called to check in.
“Sam said, ‘You don’t mind if another guitar player joins us, do you… because I’m bringing Hubert Sumlin as well.’ I think I dropped the phone,” says Specter, recalling the excitement of playing with Sumlin, a charter member of Howlin’ Wolf’s band.
“He turned out to be one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and it was a great experience being on the road with him.”
By the end of the 1980s, Specter had formed his own band, and in 1991 he released the first of his nine albums, Bluebird Blues. He made his first trip to Israel in 1999, when the local “king of the blues” Ronnie Peterson invited Specter to per form with him in Tel Aviv. Specter, whose grandmother is a Sabra and who has Israeli cousins, savored the experience.
Fourteen years later, history is repeating itself, as Peterson and his band will host Specter and veteran Chicago blues vocalist Dietra Farr for two shows – at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv on March 15 and the next night at Aba Hushi in Haifa. The Tel Aviv bill will also include an acoustic blues performance by local legend Dani Litani.
“Dietra and I have been playing together since the late 1980s,” says Specter. “She even appears as a guest vocalist on my first album. She’s a great lead singer with great energy and is into the sound traditional blues.”
That’s a big point for Specter, who sees the blues form gradually dying away as younger guitarists create a hybrid infused with rock and funk. His mission, he says, is to remind people of the power of blues.
“Unfortunately, I think the quality has diminished since the 1980s, when you could go out and hear legends regularly. I think the younger generation has taken the blues away from its source – and it doesn’t appeal to me as much as traditional blues, with that great tone and feeling, and lots of space in the music.”
All of that, and more, will be displayed in abundance when the blues returns to Israel next week.
Dave Specter performs on March 15 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv and on March 16 at Aba Hushi in Haifa.