It started with an elevator ride.
In the early 1960s, guitarist Jim Schwall met Corky Siegel in the Roosevelt University Jazz Band, and one day in a school elevator, they started talking.
“I said, ‘Do you play the blues?’ said Siegel, harmonica player and pianist. They went to Schwall’s apartment. “He played for me and we got on well.”
They formed the Siegel-Schwall Band, an influential band that helped fuel a lively mix of rock and blues in Chicago. They played with and drew inspiration from blues greats Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon as well as the next generation of blues legends including Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Little Walter.
“These blues masters took us under their wings,” Siegel said.
The Siegel-Schwall Band has played San Francisco’s famed Fillmore West with Janis Joplin and the Jefferson Airplane, produced a demo for Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” and performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. The group has recorded for Vanguard Records, RCA’s Wooden Nickel, Deutsche Grammophon and Alligator Records.
Except for a few lengthy sabbaticals and solo and side projects, the band came together to play in different incarnations every decade from the 1960s to 2016, with Mr. Schwall and Siegel still at the heart.
Mr. Schwall, 79, died June 19 at his home in Tucson, Arizona.
“He just sort of got down,” according to his brother William “Chico” Schwall.
Later in life, Mr. Schwall earned a doctorate in music composition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and taught music, his brother said. In Madison, he ran for mayor and worked to raise funds to reduce homelessness. He also DJ’d in Madison at WORT-FM and in Davenport, Iowa.
“What a great human being Jim was,” Siegel said.
“Jim Schwall created a unique blend of folk-blues guitar and electrified Chicago style,” said Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer. “His playing was melodic and subtle, and his original songs were filled with humor and fun. He could always make an audience feel better because his music was full of joy.
He was born in Evanston and grew up in Wilmette. Her mother Evelyn “sang from morning till night,” her brother said. Young Jim learned to play accordion and drums and started playing guitar at New Trier High School.
“There was a lot of folk music,” his brother said, “and one night a friend of his brought a guitar from the attic.”
It was a Gibson B-25 acoustic. He started playing.
“He took off with it,” his brother said, continuing to play that same B-25, later amplified.
Growing up, he bought his LPs from legendary Chicago record store owner Bob Koester.
“He played Lead Belly records and a lot of bluegrass and blues music, like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ahmad Jamal,” his brother said.
At Roosevelt, “he wrote operas,” said Siegel.
But Mr. Schwall never wanted to be typecast saying, “I’d rather use a drill press than play Chopin.”
They had a regular gig on Thursday nights at Pepper’s Lounge at 43rd and Vincennes, where they apprenticed with blues greats.
When the Paul Butterfield Blues Band hit the road from Big John’s in Old Town, Siegel-Schwall began a residency, performing there with others influenced by the blues, including Mike Bloomfield and Harvey Mandel.
They charmed Seiji Ozawa, then musical director of the Ravinia Festival, which led to the commission of a piece by William Russo, “Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra”, which they performed with orchestras across the country.
At that time, Mitchell “had just written ‘Circle Game’ and wanted to do a demo with a few songs, and we produced the demo,” Siegel said.
One of their records, “953 West,” is named after another favorite haunt: the former Quiet Knight at 953 W. Belmont Ave., by the L.
“The songs I love tell a story,” Mr. Schwall told the Wisconsin State Journal, “or paint a picture of a person or a place.”
One of his most popular compositions, “I Think It Was the Wine,” includes lines that invited singing: “I’ve always been a pacifist, known for running away from a fight. I’ve never hit no one without a 2X4 until last night… Maybe that old moon was full, but I think it was the wine.
Mr. Schwall’s solo albums included the 2014 release “Bar Time Lovers” on the Conundrum InterArts label.
And he composed many musical and theater pieces for singers, dancers and actors, his brother said.
In addition to Chico Schwall, his survivors include another brother, Stephen. A celebration of his life is planned.