The Detroit Blues Society has their roots deep in some of the best music that’s ever come out of Detroit. The group has been around in some capacity since 1985, and informally before that, with an effort to bring something big to the city of Detroit. This fall, they’re hosting a tribute show as part of their Detroit Blues Heritage Series. The series is in its 20th season.
Ed Schenk, the current president of the Detroit Blues Society, found himself taken by the blues as a college student in Texas. He discovered juke joints and a kind of musical community he hadn’t yet been introduced to. He had really stumbled on something big.
He moved back to where he was originally from, the east coast, and met an individual who hosted house parties in New York City. Grammy winners would play on the house stage sometimes, and parties seemed like they’d last forever. The blues was a type of music that almost created a party just with its sound. Schenk remembers fondly that Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown played one of the parties.
Schenk met his wife, got married, and moved to Detroit, which is close to where his wife is from. While in the city, he was working and wasn’t really feeling fulfilled, so he changed something for the better. He got involved with the local cable station and decided he was going to produce a show on the blues in Detroit. “They gave me a camera and off I went,” Schenk said.
That life change sparked Schenk’s involvement in the Detroit Blues Society. He met more artists and key players in Detroit, and he saw the Blues Society as a way to get more involved in the world of music that changed his life.
One of the projects of the Detroit Blues Society included Eddie James "Son" House, Jr., who Schenk refers to as a more contemporary Robert Leroy Johnson. Schenk kept getting involved in shows that would tell stories about blues players’ lives and he loved bringing that educational element to the stage. After all of his involvement in the Blues Society, someone suggested he become more officially involved. Schenk held the role of vice president first and then became an influential president of the Detroit Blues Society. In 1997, Schenk made a commitment to a series of events with the Detroit Blues Society, called the Detroit Blues Heritage Series, in partnership with the Scarab Club in Detroit.
“By the second show, people had really latched on to the idea of this event that was free to the public, anyone could come in and you got to see incredible music,” Schenk said. “You never knew who you were going to see and you never knew what to expect.”
At the time of Schenk's starting efforts with the Detroit Blues Heritage Series, people weren’t coming to Detroit for entertainment at all, he said. The first couple shows really started putting the Detroit Blues Society on the map, though, and Schenk decided there really was no stopping something like this.
“At that point, we just started building,” he said. “We were able to bring bigger and more important artists in.”
The Detroit Blues Society and their Heritage Series have hosted Detroit Blues Guitar shows, Detroit Blues Piano shows and much more as an effort to educate the community on a type of music that is one of the richest in sound in the history of music.
In 2002/2003, the Blues Heritage Series was named as part of Martin Scorsese’s Year Of the Blues. In 2016, the Detroit Blues Heritage Series received a Testimonial resolution from Detroit City Council. This is the 20th season of the Detroit Blues Heritage Series. “I have a show that is just going to kill,” Schenk said.
The show he’s putting on for the city is a tribute to Howard Armstrong. The show will feature Ralphe Armstrong, Howard’s son, on bass, with Ray Kamalay on guitar and John Reynolds on violin. This tribute is scheduled at 2:00 p.m. on Oct. 21 at the Scarab Club at Farnsworth.
Ralphe is a nationally known bass player who has played with artists across the country, like John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, and Carlos Santana. He also played with his father Howard on the W.C. Handy award winning record “Louie Bluie.” Howard was declared a National Treasure by the National Endowment for the Arts, and he began performing in the 1920s. Howard even played the 1933 World Fair and backed blues musicians Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. “His son was just so happy that we wanted to do this,” Schenk said.
Schenk said that this show is special because it’s going back to their roots in the Detroit Blues Society. In the beginning, their shows were all acoustic, and people really took to the rawness of the performances. Schenk wants to bring that back and make this as big as it was when it all started.
For more information on the Detroit Blues Society, the Heritage Series and more, visit www.detroitbluessociety.org.
~Erica N. Rakowicz