Interview conducted May 22, 2008
One of the unsung talents of the Chicago blues music scene, guitarist Dave Specter is a skilled technician and musical enthusiast that pours his heart and soul into every note. It says something about the man as an artist that, after almost 25 years of experience as a well-respected sideman, solo artist, and bandleader, Specter still works hard to improve upon, and hone his already considerable talents.
Destined To Play The Blues
Brought up in a music-friendly household, Specter was, perhaps, destined to play the blues. "I come from a very musical family in Chicago," says Specter, "my mother is a classical pianist. Her father, my grandfather, owned a piano dealership in downtown Chicago. We had a grand piano in the house. My older brother and sister also play guitar, harmonica, banjo, and both my parents are very musical."
Some of Specter's earliest musical influences came from listening to the radio. "There was a radio show called "The Midnight Special" on WFMT that we used to listen to every Saturday night," he says. "They played everything from Leadbelly and Josh White to Big Bill Broonzy and Pete Seeger. That was probably the first time that I heard blues." The experience was reinforced by his siblings. "My older brother is a blues harmonica player, and he used to come home and tell me about seeing Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters," Specter remembers.
"My brother and sister kind of grew up on the tail end of the hippie generation," says Specter, "and I listened to all their rock & roll records, from the Doors to the Grateful Dead to the Allman Brothers." These early musical favorites lead Specter towards blues music. "Like a lot of Americans listening to the Stones, the Allman Brothers, and the Grateful Dead playing blues covers, I realized, 'hey, wait a minute, they're covering songs by Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. I live in Chicago, and so do they.' I got into it through rock & roll, and I also heard some of the early folk blues on the radio."
The Blues As A Career
Specter began playing music professionally around 1985, "when I was 21 or 22," he says, but the guitarist actually began learning his instrument relatively late. "I was always very musical and loved music," says Specter, "but I just picked up the guitar for fun when I was 18. Then I went down to college in Champaign/Urbana at the University of Illinois and met a lot of musicians, and decided that I'd rather pursue music than academics."
Specter's education in the blues began where all great Chicago bluesmen begin, in the streets and clubs of the city. "I started immersing myself in the blues scene in Chicago," he says, "I got a fake I.D. probably when I was about 17 and started going to clubs and hearing Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Magic Slim...so I got out to hear it live at a pretty young age."
A constant presence on the mid-1980s Chicago blues scene, Specter made some valuable connections. "I became friends with Jimmy Johnson," he remembers, "and Jimmy was giving me some informal guitar lessons, inviting me over to his house." Specter's relationship with Johnson would lead to another long-term friendship, with Sunnyland Slim's former guitarist, Steve Freund.
"He introduced me to Steve, thinking that Steve and I would become friends," he says. Specter learned quite a bit from the older bluesman, and often cites Freund as his mentor. "Steve kind of took me under his wing, and taught me a lot in the early days. I used to bring him bottles of wine and he'd show me Freddie King songs," he laughs.
Learning From The Legends
So when did Specter know that he was going to play blues music as a career? "Probably around my last year in college," he says. "I never finished school but I remember telling my musician friends 'I got to get back to Chicago, because that's were the blues are and that's what I want to do!'" His friends, recognizing his growing talent, took him on as a sideman in their bands. "Some of my first gigs were with Steve and Jimmy," says Specter. "One of my first big road trips was with Sam Lay and Hubert Sumlin. We did a three-week road trip up into Canada."
For the young bluesman, working with legends like Lay, who played with Howlin' Wolf and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's long-time guitarist, was like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. "That was one of the reasons that I progressed so quickly," says Specter, "is because I kind of had to."
Aside from those famous blues musicians that he's played alongside, Specter's musical influences are diverse, encompassing a wide range of artists and styles. Specter names some of his favorites, "I would say T-Bone Walker, Kenny Burrell, Otis Rush, Steve Freund, early Buddy Guy, Freddie King, B.B. King." Specter recalls, "I immersed myself in the early Freddie King, the Federal stuff that he did, with all the famous instrumentals. I'd also have to include Magic Sam as a big influence." Specter is also a big fan of B.B. King, "B.B. has had such an amazing career, there have been so many different periods, different approaches that he took."
Going Out On His Own
Specter put his first band, the Bluebirds, together in 1989. "I'd been in Son Seals' band for almost two years," he remembers, "and then I joined the Legendary Blues Band for about six months. That made it about four years of being a sideman on the blues scene." Specter began to get an itch to strike out on his own. "I started to develop more of a vision of what I wanted to grow into as a musician, and as a guitar player," he says. "In order to achieve that, I realized that I'd better start my own band, because I wasn't going to be able to do it in somebody else's band."
Specter had a distinctive idea in mind for his solo work. "I always wanted, and still want, to create my own voice and style," says Specter. "I'm still working on that...I thought that if I combined all the influences, all the people that I was listening to, maybe something would come out that sounded like me. So back then I was listening to a lot of T-Bone, and Magic Sam, and Muddy, Kenny Burrell."