How Syracuse Got the Blues

Born from field hollers, work songs, and gospel hymns, the blues began in the Mississippi Delta. But despite its geographic and cultural distance, Syracuse enjoys a historic and thriving blues music scene, too. Here’s why.

Words and Images by Lauren Cover

For many, the blues embodies sadness. Think standards like Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” or B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” But the historic musical genre is not synonymous with heartache despite the considerable number of blues songs that contain themes of cheating lovers, lost lovers, or swift exits from town because of lost, mean, two-timing lovers. To assume that this theme defines the genre would be like saying that country music is only about beer and pick-up trucks. The blues extends far beyond the laments of the broken hearted. Black, Southern farmers and amateur musicians in the early 1900s took elements from field hollers, work songs, and gospel to create the genre. The blues provided a foundation for rock ‘n’ roll, funk, and R&B, and it turned “hillbilly music” into bluegrass and country. The music started in slave communities on plantations in the South. But as freed slaves and their descendants joined “the Great Migration,” leaving the region in pursuit of better lives, they spread the original art form northward to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and even Central New York. Syracuse musician Carolyn Kelly, of the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band, embodies the blues and its history. She shakes her hips, bobs her head, and bounces her shoulders as her band members play funky riffs and solos behind her. Her South Carolinian roots appear in the slight Southern drawl that rounds out the lyrics belted by her powerful voice. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, and begins to sing.

Before moving to Syracuse as a teenager, Kelly discovered her “little voice” singing in church as a child. At five years old, she entered a talent show and won singing a Otis Redding song she can’t recall the name of. Long before she took over as the lead of her own band, Kelly found herself just singing, “whatever came out and sounded good and felt good.” But a move to Syracuse in 1968 gave her abilities a direction. That focus began when she met Syracuse music legend Roosevelt Dean, to whom she credits with changing her life. Dean grew up in Alabama when the state’s Jim Crow laws were still legal. When he was 18, he moved to Syracuse and brought the blues with him. As a bluesman, Dean performed with a gritty, deep voice, comparable to Muddy Waters, and with his beloved red guitar he named “Clara Mae.” He ultimately earned the title “the voice of Syracuse,” and at 17, Kelly began singing with Dean’s band, the Soul Doctors, but in the 1970s she took a hiatus to raise her children that would last nearly 30 years. In the meantime, Dean went on to win seven Syracuse Area Music Awards (the SAMMYs) and was inducted to the SAMMYS Hall of Fame just before passing away in 2009.

In the 1960s, around the same time Dean was making a name for himself, a historically black neighborhood between the Syracuse University campus and the downtown area known as the 15th Ward, was also working to develop a thriving blues scene. Places such as the Clover Club and Dubs, which no longer exist, were part of the Chitlin Circuit, a collection of venues throughout the United States during racial segregation that were safe and acceptable for black musicians, comedians, and entertainers to perform. During this period, Jim Crow laws still persisted, which limited where black musicians could perform. The historic circuit, named after the soul-food staple, ran through black neighborhoods around the country, and gave blues, funk, and R&B artists a platform to play their music for largely black audiences. Performers like Albert King, a blues guitar virtuoso, and even James Brown and Jimi Hendrix came through Syracuse on the Chitlin Circuit. David Rezak, founder of DMR Booking Agency, recalls a friend’s interaction with the two music legends. Jimi Hendrix had been playing with James Brown as his guitarist when they walked into the Blue Brother’s Barber Shop in the Southside of Syracuse. The father of funk and Hendrix were in an argument. “Jimi was getting bludgeoned by James for ‘playing that crazy shit,’” Rezak says. Jimi’s time as Brown’s guitarist only lasted about six months.

During the British Invasion in the mid-1960s, musicians such as Eric Clapton and bands such as the Rolling Stones started playing the blues, and those musicians adapted the black art form. Musicologist and author Elijah Wald attributes the modern perception of the blues image to the Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and their “sex and drugs, and raw, dirty, violent, wild, passionate, angry, grungy, greasy, frightening outlaw music.” This primitive understanding of the blues limited people’s understanding of the genre while also expanding the exposure thanks to musicians like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, who served as inspiration and idols to the influential Clapton, Jagger, and Richards. “Before the Rolling Stones, people over here didn’t know nothing and didn’t want to know nothing about me,” Muddy Waters said in Robert Palmer’s book, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta.

The budding success of the blues even penetrated campus life in Syracuse. In 1969, Syracuse University opened “the makerspace,” which brought in blues artists including Taj Mahal. And in 1971, the university hosted B.B. King. “People just respond to the blues here,” says Rezak. In the 1970s, Richard Berry, owner of a venue called Brookside Out in Dewitt, wanted Rezak to bring him the best bands he could find. Rezak proposed the idea of booking blues artists because they didn’t charge a lot of money in comparison to other more mainstream artists. They sent out a call for artists and hooked the prolific blues performer John Lee Hooker. The event sold out, and Hooker played a four-hour long set. The success of this night led Berry and Rezak to book a series at the venue from 1973 to 1975 that included performances from the likes of Muddy Waters and Freddy King. “This really put Syracuse on the blues map,” says Rezak.

Simultaneously, local musicians began to pay attention to the success of blues in Syracuse and began to form their own blues bands. Local Syracuse band The Kingsnakes surfaced in the 1980s when the blues experienced a revival period, and the scene was hot in the Salt City. “It was really just about being in the right place at the right time,” says Peter McMahon, the Kingsnakes vocalist and harpist [a harp is synonymous with a harmonica]. Although the band featured an all-white lineup, the Snakes found their way into the blues with the help of local black artists. Otis Lee, a hard-living bluesman from the South Side, and Don Zogg, a local guitarist, gave most of the Kingsnakes their first shot at playing and delivering a blues education.

When the Kingsnakes signed to Blue Wave Records in the early 1980s, the band rehearsed in a warehouse and dedicated themselves to the music. “We were ready for the opportunity, and things started to take off,” says McMahon. “It was just one thing after another, and it happened really quickly.” After being signed, the band landed an opportunity to open for George Thurgood, singer of “Bad to the Bone,” by accident. After Thurgood’s opening act’s bus broke down in Albany, the Kingsnakes made their way to Syracuse Chief’s Stadium to play for 10,000 people. “It was a Saturday evening, and we had already started partying,” McMahon laughs. “But we got the call and made our way over there and got a standing ovation.”

Their bigger break came they toured the East Coast with blues legend John Lee Hooker as his backing band. “When you hit the stage with him, you could just feel his energy. He was very, very powerful. It was easy to feel it and get into it with him,” McMahon says. One of their final shows with Hooker was headlining the Chicago Blues Festival where they performed for over 100,000 people. “It was just … incredible,” McMahon recalls.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about the blues in Syracuse without mentioning the Kingsnakes. They are a band that made their mark locally but also put Syracuse on the national blues map. “People start using the term ‘legendary’ and you know, all that means is that you hung around long enough to reach people and get some awards,” says McMahon. But the reception they received from the crowd when they headlined the New York State Blues Festival this past summer was reminder for the band that for the blues fans of Syracuse “legendary” is a fitting description. “It was the first time we had played together in a long time, and it was a special night,” says McMahon.

Terry Mulhauser, a former member of the Kingsnakes, continues to serve the Syracuse blues scene as a guitarist of the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band. After a long hiatus, Syracuse blues queen Carolyn Kelly returned to work with Dean in 2005. He had been fighting cancer for four years at that point, but he continued to make music and found relief in his craft. “Blues is something that, you know, you’ve been through… it’s about getting through good times and bad,” says Kelly.

With her return to music came Kelly’s authentic blues style singing. Dean, who she affectionately calls “Rosie,” became her coach and demanded a lot of her. “Music was business to him, and he wanted to keep your mind on what you’re doing rather than focus on other people’s style,” she says. Kelly always knew she could sing, but Rosie taught her to hold her own and to develop her own unique blues style. Her performance today demonstrates those lessons. Her voice slides smoothly from from note to note, her vibrato tremors on sustained notes, she improvises shouts, and she growls, all with intense feeling and passion.

Dean’s dedication to Kelly’s artistic development created a bond and ultimately allowed Kelly to become his successor. Following Dean’s death in 2009, the Roosevelt Dean Blues Band became the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band, with the goal of keeping the spirit of Rosie alive. Kelly’s band frequently plays at the legendary Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which has its own crucial role in maintaining the blues in Syracuse. In 1991, three years after the barbecue joint opened, blues musician Kelly James, known as “Dr. Blue” began performing once a week. “He brought in a whole different crowd and it changed the whole bar,” says Scott Sterling, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que’s entertainment director. “Then within about a year, it turned into six nights of music, but it all started with Kelly James.”

But before James’ solo stint as “Dr. Blue,” James brought together Terry Mulhauser and Pete McMahon in the early ‘80s, two founding members of the Kingsnakes. The success of the Kingsnakes, the popularity of the blues, and the nation’s growing love of barbecue, which, like the blues, also traces its culinary roots to the South, helped form an iconic food-and-music experience in Syracuse. In fact, a long line of blues greats have played at the barbecue joint. Dinosaur has hosted Derek Trucks of the blues rock band Tedeschi Trucks Band. At the age of 19 years old, Trucks was just starting out and would go on to serve as a guitarist for the famous Allman Brothers Band. Before Norah Jones sold millions of records, she performed at the restaurant as part of a blues act with musician and record producer Peter Malik. The virtuosic John Popper of Blues Traveler has shredded on his harp on stage at Dinosaur. Now, the restaurant host bands that play roots, soul, R&B, funk, and rock. “Anything real, to match our real-deal blues food,” Sterling says.

In addition to hosting these legends, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que holds fundraisers for the annual New York State Blues Festival, which happens every July in Clinton Square, in order to maintain its free-to-the-public status. “Like lots of kinds of music, things come in and out of favor and then come back in. Everything is retro eventually. Sometimes several times, like the blues,” Sterling says. The blues may not see an incredible amount of airtime on the radio these days, and its Billboard chart is catalogued under “additional genres,” but it remains essential. Without the blues, the sonic landscape would be less. Without blues inspiration, the Rolling Stones might never have written “Wild Horses,” “Brown Sugar,” “Honky Tonk Women,” or “Gimme Shelter.” Without the blues, Beyoncé and Jay-Z probably wouldn’t have gotten a Best R&B Song Grammy for “Drunk in Love.” And if the genre never existed, Syracuse would be without one of its cultural staples.

For many, the blues embodies sadness. Think standards like Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” or B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” But the historic musical genre is not synonymous with heartache despite the considerable number of blues songs that contain themes of cheating lovers, lost lovers, or swift exits from town because of lost, mean, two-timing lovers. To assume that this theme defines the genre would be like saying that country music is only about beer and pick-up trucks. The blues extends far beyond the laments of the broken hearted. Black, Southern farmers and amateur musicians in the early 1900s took elements from field hollers, work songs, and gospel to create the genre. The blues provided a foundation for rock ‘n’ roll, funk, and R&B, and it turned “hillbilly music” into bluegrass and country. The music started in slave communities on plantations in the South. But as freed slaves and their descendants joined “the Great Migration,” leaving the region in pursuit of better lives, they spread the original art form northward to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and even Central New York. Syracuse musician Carolyn Kelly, of the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band, embodies the blues and its history. She shakes her hips, bobs her head, and bounces her shoulders as her band members play funky riffs and solos behind her. Her South Carolinian roots appear in the slight Southern drawl that rounds out the lyrics belted by her powerful voice. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, and begins to sing.

For many, the blues embodies sadness. Think standards like Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” or B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” But the historic musical genre is not synonymous with heartache despite the considerable number of blues songs that contain themes of cheating lovers, lost lovers, or swift exits from town because of lost, mean, two-timing lovers. To assume that this theme defines the genre would be like saying that country music is only about beer and pick-up trucks. The blues extends far beyond the laments of the broken hearted. Black, Southern farmers and amateur musicians in the early 1900s took elements from field hollers, work songs, and gospel to create the genre. The blues provided a foundation for rock ‘n’ roll, funk, and R&B, and it turned “hillbilly music” into bluegrass and country. The music started in slave communities on plantations in the South. But as freed slaves and their descendants joined “the Great Migration,” leaving the region in pursuit of better lives, they spread the original art form northward to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and even Central New York. Syracuse musician Carolyn Kelly, of the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band, embodies the blues and its history. She shakes her hips, bobs her head, and bounces her shoulders as her band members play funky riffs and solos behind her. Her South Carolinian roots appear in the slight Southern drawl that rounds out the lyrics belted by her powerful voice. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, and begins to sing.