Chicago Playboys first saw the light of day as the back-up band for
Chicago Blues and soul singer Little Johnny Christian, and the name has
been carried forward by two of his former brass men who came together
with other like-minded and talented musicians to create a unique
Chicago-rooted, horn-heavy sound. The Playboys have now developed into a
disciplined unit that is drawing comparisons to James Brown's former
rhythm-intensive backing band, and are tearing up packed houses at home
and across both seas. They continue to put the Chicago Playboys' name up
on some of the biggest marquees and festival stages in the world.
Big James Montgomery and Charlie Kimble first teamed up around 1990 and
accompanied Johnny Christian throughout the early 1990s and backed him
on his 1993 recording on the Big Boy label.
"Little Milton gave me my start," recalls trombonist Montgomery, who
served two years with the legendary Milton and then a stint in the band
of singular guitar stylist Albert King before joining Christian's
outfit, "But Johnny really turned me loose. He was such a great singer
and a major influence on me that I will always be grateful to him."
Following the passing of Johnny Christian in 1993 The Chicago Playboys
honored his dream of keeping the band going. In 1996 The Playboys
conquered the Chicago Blues Festival's Petrillo Bandshell mainstage
behind guitarist Phil Guy and singer Nellie "Tiger" Travis. That same
year they went on to provide the horn power behind Buddy Guy and stayed
on for several years, appearing on NBC's "Tonight Show" and touring
nationally and internationally with Guy as part of the "House of Blues
Barnburner Tour," which included the opportunity in London to back Eric
Clapton. Touring with Otis Rush in 1999 and 2000, the Chicago Playboys
traveled as far as Japan.
Led by trombonist and vocalist Montgomery, the Chicago Playboys today
are comprised of Charlie Kimble on saxophone, Kenny Anderson trumpet,
Joe Blocker keyboards, Mike Wheeler guitar and vocals, Larry Williams
bass, Cleo Cole drums and Theresa Davis backup vocals. Each member
brings to the Playboys his or her unique skill and experiences earned
working behind some of the top names in the fields of blues, soul and
gospel. The Playboys have cohered into a hermetically tight, unrelenting
juggernaut of blues, R&B and soul power. When the Chicago Playboys take
the stage, they morph into a virtual wrecking-crew of funk and
Big James and the Chicago Playboys' previous recorded work, all
self-produced on the Jamot label, includes "Funkin' Blues" (1998), "If
it Wasn't 4 Da Blues" (2001), "Now You Know" (2004) and "Thank God I Got
the Blues" (2007). A majority of the titles on these releases were
penned by Montgomery, with the remainder coming from the blues and soul
works of such artists as Magic Sam, B.B. King, Sugar Pie DeSanto,
Clarence Carter, Denise LaSalle, Chico Banks, and funkmaster George
Their current Blind Pig release, "Right Here Right Now," features eight
of Montgomery's original compositions, supplemented by a title each from
the recorded legacies of Bobby Bland, Tyrone Davis and the O'Jays. The
Playboys sound better than ever, driven by precisely-executed, original
horn arrangements (written by Montgomery and Kenny Anderson) supported
by the solid groundwork of Cleo Cole and Larry Williams on drums and
bass, with judiciously appointed guitar riffs and rhythms from Mike
Wheeler and soulfully stylish keyboards from Joe Blocker.
Following a blockbuster performance by the Chicago Playboys more than
ten years ago, trombonist-bandleader Big James Montgomery spoke to this
writer, who admitted to not having previously heard of him and the band.
"We're Big James and the Chicago Playboys," he shouted over the raucous
crowd, still reverberating from the aural onslaught of blues and funk,
"and you're gonna be hearing a LOT more from us in the future!"
In light of The Playboys' rafter-rattling performance, his declaration
was beyond mere braggadocio and bluster. This was a man speaking on
behalf of his band with cock-sure confidence and lay-your-money-on-it
conviction just as big as his house-funkin' blues sound. There was no
doubt that we would hear more from him and the thundering Chicago
Playboys. And indeed we have.
Big James and Chicago Playboys have won the Living Blues magazine annual
Critics' Poll for Most Outstanding Horns in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008,
and received Award nominations in 2002, 2006 and 2008 from the Blues
Foundation (formerly the W.C. Handy Awards). In addition they won the
2008 Prix Blues from the Académie du Jazz for their last Jamot release,
"Thank God I Got the Blues."
"But I don't play music to win Awards," states Montgomery with
characteristic frankness, "I play music 'cause I love it, and it comes
from my heart."
"[There's] so many great musicians, way better than me," Montgomery
continues, "guys I came up with who are just unbelievable musicians. So
for me to get this opportunity it really means a lot because I feel that
I'm doin things in their honor. I feel obligated to try to carry on
their memory and the things I learned from them."
Like their CD title suggests, Big James and the Chicago Playboys live
and perform "in the moment" and they bring it all to the house with
their high-energy Chicago soul blues and an abundance of heart and funk.
Right Here, Right Now!