Chicago has lost another great blues guitarist. Michael Coleman, funky blues musician, passed away on November 1st, 2014 from heart failure. He was 58 years old, and he leaves behind a rich legacy: great music, young musicians he taught, and a grim example of the health care challenges facing musicians.
Coleman was born in Chicago in 1956. He started playing blues as a kid, working for his father “Baldhead Pete” Williams. By the time he was a teenager he was playing with Aron Burton, then eventually Eddy Clearwater and even Muddy Waters. From Clearwater he went on to play with James Cotton, Junior Wells, Jimmy Dawkins and Syl Johnson, before launching a solo career in the 1990s.
[pullquote]“You can’t change the blues, just make ‘em funkier,” was Michael’s motto.[/pullquote]
“You can’t change the blues, just make ‘em funkier,” was Michael’s motto. And in keeping with that motto he played funky, up-tempo electric blues. He once said he transformed the north side sound with his style- “that’s when all the North Side musicians started playing funky blues instead of the low-down crying blues.” Over the course of two decades he released 8 albums, and Guitar World magazine voted him one of the top 50 blues guitarists in the world. Sharon Pomaville, who dated and booked Coleman for many years, believed that Michael’s music was compelling because it was honest. “Michael’s attitude was that you have to feel it,” says Pomaville. “What you feel is what you play and anything else is boring and cold and you don’t want to hear it.”
But he also faced many challenges, first and foremost his health. He struggled to control his diabetes, weight, and high blood pressure, and for a while he had problems with drugs and alcohol. All of those issues together led to severe kidney problems; his manager Ben Diamond described it as “an eight year long battle,” during which he still played over 400 shows and only rescheduled twice. He would trek from the hospital to nightclubs to play, sometimes going straight back afterwards.
Dr. Dan Ivankovich of OnePatient Global Health Initiative treats many uninsured blues musicians and was raising money to try and get Michael a new kidney. He says part of the problem is a lack of access to preventive care. “The day his kidneys failed, he got Medicare. But because guys like him are hard working and they’re making some kind of a living, before that happens, they don’t qualify for assistance,” says Ivankovich. “They don’t qualify for blood pressure medications beforehand, but then all these resources became available to Michael after the damage was done.”
[pullquote]“He taught everybody- including the drummer- how to play.”[/pullquote]
However it may be that Coleman’s greatest legacy is the people he taught. “He taught an army of musicians,” says Diamond. “He taught everybody- including the drummer- how to play.” Some of his recent protégés include Mark Rodgers, Kyle Young, and Graham Bintliff, as well Alex Smith. Smith played bass for years in Michael’s band the Backbreakers before heading on tour as a guitarist with Biscuit Miller.
Buddy Guy’s is going to miss Michael. He lived in Wisconsin, and for the last seven years, Legends was the only club he would still come to Chicago to play. It seems only fitting to close with his own words, from a 2011 interview with BG. “We need more people to listen,” Michael said. “More people to promote it, so we can get our point across, because everybody I hear is doing the same thing- trying to go out and play the blues, either funky or lowdown. We got try to let people know that hey, this is the real stuff, not the fake stuff.”
Michael Coleman was the real stuff. And as we mourn the loss of another great performer, we can take heart in something else he said: “I’ve done everything I want to do in my life. If I die tomorrow, I’ve had the greatest time of my life.”