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Big James and The Chicago Playboys

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 two of his former brass men who came together with other like-minded and talented musicians to create a unique Chicago-rooted, horn-heavy sound. The Playboys have now 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 the Chicago Playboys' name up on some of the biggest marquees and festival stages in the world. Big James Montgomery and Charlie Kimble first teamed up around 1990 and accompanied Johnny Christian throughout the early 1990s and backed him on his 1993 recording on 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 mainstage 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.

Led by trombonist and vocalist Montgomery, the Chicago Playboys today are comprised of Charlie Kimble on saxophone, Kenny Anderson trumpet, Joe Blocker keyboards, Mike Wheeler guitar and vocals, Larry Williams bass, Cleo Cole drums and Theresa Davis backup vocals. Each member brings to the Playboys his or her unique skill and experiences earned working behind some of the top names in the fields of blues, soul and gospel. The Playboys have cohered into a hermetically tight, unrelenting juggernaut of blues, R&B and soul power. When the Chicago Playboys take the stage, they morph into a virtual wrecking-crew of funk and blues-Chicago style.

Big James and the Chicago Playboys' 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 Montgomery, 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.

Their current Blind Pig release, "Right Here Right Now," features eight of Montgomery's original compositions, supplemented by a title each from the recorded legacies of Bobby Bland, Tyrone Davis and the O'Jays. The Playboys sound better than ever, driven by precisely-executed, original horn arrangements (written by Montgomery and Kenny Anderson) supported by the solid groundwork of Cleo Cole and Larry Williams on drums and bass, with judiciously appointed guitar riffs and rhythms from Mike Wheeler and soulfully stylish keyboards from Joe Blocker.

Following a blockbuster performance by the Chicago Playboys more than ten years ago, trombonist-bandleader Big James Montgomery spoke to this writer, who admitted to not having previously heard of him and the band. "We're Big James and the Chicago Playboys," he shouted over the raucous crowd, still reverberating from the aural onslaught of blues and funk, "and you're gonna be hearing a LOT more from us in the future!"

In light of The Playboys' rafter-rattling performance, his declaration was beyond mere braggadocio and bluster. This was a man speaking on behalf of his band with cock-sure confidence and lay-your-money-on-it conviction just as big as his house-funkin' blues sound. There was no doubt that we would hear more from him and the thundering Chicago Playboys. And indeed we have.

Big James and Chicago Playboys have won the Living Blues magazine annual Critics' Poll for Most Outstanding Horns in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, and received award nominations in 2002, 2006 and 2008 from the Blues Foundation (formerly the W.C. Handy Awards). In addition they won the 2008 Prix Blues from the Académie du Jazz 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 try to carry on their memory and the things I learned from them."

Like their CD title suggests, Big James and the Chicago Playboys live and perform "in the moment" and they bring it all to the house with their high-energy Chicago soul blues and an abundance of heart and funk.

Right Here, Right Now! -Justin O'Brien 4/09