Big James and the Chicago Playboys
"James Montgomery proves he has emotional strength worthy of a major-league soul bluesman." - Downbeat
The 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 trombonist, vocalist and bandleader Big James Montgomery. Along with keyboardist Joe "Goldie" Blocker, guitarist Mike "Money' Wheeler, trumpeter Charles "Richard" Pryor, bassist Larry "L-Dub' Williams and drummer Cleo Cole, James has created a Chicago-rooted, funky, horn-heavy sound, steeped in the city's signature blues tradition. The Playboys have 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 Big James and the Chicago Playboys' name up on some of the biggest marquees and festival stages in the world.
The band's newest effort, "The Big Payback," was recorded live at the legendary Lionel Hampton Jazz Club in Paris in November, 2010. James and the band perform with an infectious enthusiasm and verve, and the crowd responds in kind. In addition to three of James's blues-tinged original tunes, the program ranges from the killer James Brown groove of the title cut to the soul classic "Trying To Live My Life Without You," a couple of Magic Sam gems, George Clinton's "I'll Stay," to the funky, set closing instrumental version of Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water." "The Big Payback" is an unalloyed pleasure, a joyous celebration of the great tradition of horn-based blues ensembles that leaves the listener - much like the Parisian audience - wanting more.
Big James Montgomery and saxophonist Charlie Kimble first teamed up around 1990 and accompanied Johnny Christian throughout the early 1990's, backing him on his 1993 recording for 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 main stage 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.
Their label debut Blind Pig release, "Right Here Right Now" (2009), featured eight of Big James' original compositions, supplemented by a title each from the recorded legacies of Bobby Bland, Tyrone Davis and the O'Jays. The Playboys rose to the occasion, with precisely-executed, original horn arrangements (written by Big James and Kenny Anderson), supported by the solid groundwork of Cleo Cole and Larry Williams on drums and bass, judiciously appointed guitar riffs and rhythms from Mike Wheeler, and soulfully stylish keyboards from Joe Blocker.
Their 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 Big James, 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 Clinton.
Big James and the Chicago Playboys have won the Living Blues magazine annual Critics' Poll for Most Outstanding Horns in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, and received award nominations in 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2010 from the Blues Foundation (formerly the W.C. Handy Awards). In addition they won the 2008 Prix Blues from the Académie du Jazz in Paris 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 carry on their memory and the things I learned from them."
One listen to "The Big Payback" will confirm that when Big James and the Chicago Playboys perform, they bring it all to the house with their high-energy Chicago soul blues and an abundance of heart and funk.