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Blues musicians give back after decades of good press

Jim O’Neal co-founder Living Blues magazine (below) dedicates marker Pinetop Perkins Mississippi Blues Trail 2008. | BrendHaskins PHOTO

Jim O’Neal, co-founder of Living Blues magazine (below), dedicates a marker to Pinetop Perkins on the Mississippi Blues Trail in 2008. | Brenda Haskins PHOTO

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JIM O’NEAL BENEFIT
CONCERT

◆ 8 p.m. Wednesday

◆ Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S. Wabash

◆ $15

◆ (312) 427-1190

Checks are accepted at Jim O’Neal Blues Fund, P.O. Box 10334, Kansas City, Mo. 64171 and Paypal donations at oneal bluesfund@aol.com.

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Updated: January 1, 2012 8:05AM



The blues musician without health insurance is a familiar tune.

But now musicians are rallying in support of a writer: Jim O’Neal, who co-founded Living Blues magazine in 1970 in Chicago.

It was America’s first blues magazine.

O’Neal was diagnosed with lymph cancer in June. When he learned that his back pain at the Chicago Blues Festival was caused by lymphoma and spinal tumors, he had no health insurance. After back surgery O’Neal, 63, is undergoing chemotherapy.

Louisiana blues guitarist-singer Kenny Neal has organized a Wednesday benefit at Buddy Guy’s Legends to help pay medical bills. The Wayne Baker Brooks Band will play behind Neal, Eddie C. Campbell, Lil’ Ed, Billy Branch, Casey Jones and others who received coverage in the seminal years of Living Blues.

O’Neal and his ex-wife Amy van Singel started the magazine when they were journalism students at Northwestern University. Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer was one of the magazine’s early editors. Robert Koester, founder of Delmark Records, gave O’Neal and van Singel money to kickstart the project.

It is a Chicago story.

The first 40-page black and white magazine featured Howlin’ Wolf on the cover. The Chicago Seed underground newspaper loaned the magazine its Selectric typewriter.

“We typeset on that and used their printer,” O’Neal recalled from his home in Kansas City, Mo. “Magic Sam had just died and we wanted to do something for him, but since we decided to call the magazine Living Blues we didn’t think we should start the magazine with a dead person on the cover.”

Neal, 54, is forever indebted to O’Neal. “I left home in Baton Rouge in 1976 with Buddy Guy and played bass with him for a few years,” Neal said. “Around 1980 the blues scene got so bad we weren’t working that much with Buddy and Junior Wells. Living Blues did an article on me and the Neal family [his father was late harmonica player Raful Neal].

“Things started happening. I flew to Chicago to meet with Jim and Amy. I wanted to thank them and see what they were about. I got to his house [at 2615 N. Wilton] and he took me to the basement. They had this little old printer going. I’m not talking about a fax machine, I’m talking about one of these roll-around deals with the ink. I thought I was going to a big company.”

Last month Neal headlined a similar benefit in Kansas City. “It went well but it is difficult to put it in different cities because much of the younger generation doesn’t know about Jim,” Neal explained. “But going to Chicago, where he helped a tremendous amount of people, is a perfect spot.”

Neal has been there. He had to take most of 2006 off from performing to be treated for Hepatitis C. “I’m 100 percent better and clear of the hepatitis,” said Neal, who did have health insurance.

Chicago had four daily newspapers while O’Neal was attending Northwestern, and he figured he would work for one of them.

He was a sportswriter for the Daily Northwestern when future Chicago columnist Bob Greene was the editor. “But the more I got interested in the blues I realized there wasn’t an American blues magazine out there,” he said. “We were reading magazines from England to find out what was happening in Chicago.”

The magazine was distributed through old-fashioned networking. Garon worked for Barbara’s Bookstore. Iglauer contacted alternative bookstores and record stores he knew across the country.

“One time Bruce had a bunch of magazines in his trunk on the South Side,” O’Neal said. “He was in a club and someone broke into his car and threw them all over the street. He said that was the best distribution he ever had on the South Side.”

A distribution deal with Charles Levy built Living Blues circulation to a peak of 15,000 copies. Today, there are sets of Living Blues magazines at the Harold Washington Library, and the Northwesten University library has a set going back to the first issue.

“At that moment after [Paul] Butterfield, [Charlie] Musselwhite, Siegel-Schwall appearing at north side clubs, all of the blues was in the black community,” Iglauer said. “There was no coverage of that in any of the daily papers. We could go to 40 different clubs to see blues bands and no one outside of the city had any idea this was going on. Living Blues filled a huge gap for our generation of blues fans. And very quickly Jim became the pilot. He was the person who studied journalism, he had more experience seeing music in clubs than I did and he already had an overview of music as part of cultual expresssion, not just as a form of entertainment.”

O’Neal is from the South. He grew up in Biloxi, Miss. He was valedictorian at Rain High School in Mobile, Ala.

In 1983 O’Neal and van Singel sold Living Blues publication rights for $1 along with an archive of 20,000 LPs, clippings and photographs to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

“It was supposed to be a profit-sharing agreement,” said O’Neal, who remains a consultant to the magazine. “Amy and I were supposed to get 50 percent of the net profit. Of course, there never was any net profit once the university took it over because there were so many more expenses. They started printing on glossy paper and it immediately went in the hole.”

The magazine moved from a monthly into its current bi-monthly format.

O’Neal said, “It had gotten past the point where Amy and I couldn’t handle it. We were still doing it out of the basement of our house and at that time we had started Rooster Blues records.”

O’Neal credited Iglauer for the Living Blues title. “We wanted to show that blues is a living tradition in the African-American community,” said O’Neal, who will attend the Chicago benefit. “Because there was a lot of talk around that blues were dying or it was already dead. But we knew you could go out and hear Howlin’ Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor and so many more, we wanted to give a voice to that community. That’s why we started doing those lengthy interviews. We thought it was more important for the blues artist to tell their stories than for us to interpret them.”

Since 2006 O’Neal has been research director and text writer for the popular Mississippi Blues Trail, which honors more than 140 blues icons along the state’s roadways. That project is funded by the NEA, and O’Neal receives payment through Delta State University, which administers the grants. But he has been sapped of strength to attend to other projects such as his Stackhouse Recording Company and BluEsoterica Archives & Productions.

“The chemotherapy will be over in two weeks, and they’ll do more tests,” O’Neal said. “So far it seems to have been eradicated, but it the kind of thing that tends to come back. I’ve found that one of the unadvertised benefits of being a blues journalist at the low end of the business scale is that I did qualify for Medicaid after this happened. So now I have insurance but I didn’t when all this started. I’m below a certain income level, but not old enough for Medicare.

“I’ve never had a salaried job except when I worked for a hospital in Chicago [in 1971-73] doing alternative service. And then when the magazine went to Ole Miss and I edited it there and I was on the staff for a year.”

O’Neal said it’s difficult to get around the home he shares with his teenage children and wife Brenda Haskins, a writer-photographer. “But I can still work on a computer.”



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