Tuesday, February 22, 2011

'One For Steve' event honors late Alligators guitarist Steve Schwartz

The Alligators are pictured circa 2008. Shown are, from left, Jon Johnson, Frankie Lee, the late Steve Schwartz, Wailin’ Dale and David Krammer.
When Steve Schwartz, guitarist with The Alligators blues band, died of a heart attack on Dec. 15, 2010, the remaining members of the band were surprised at the response.
“There was a tremendous outpouring (of support),” said Alligators vocalist David Krammer, who received hundreds of e-mail and Facebook messages for weeks following Schwartz’s death. “The whole local music community voiced their sympathy. It’s just been incredible and it still is. It’s been absolutely overwhelming.”
Krammer and harmonica player Wailin’ Dale started the band in 1984. Schwartz joined in 1993.
“Steve was one of my closest friends for 25 years,” Krammer said. “It’s brutal, soul crushing, and still difficult to talk about.”
The Alligators will celebrate Schwartz’s life and music at the tribute/fundraiser event “One For Steve” from 4-8 p.m. Sunday at the Blue Goose Inn in St. Clair Shores. There will be musical performances by The Alligators, Broken Arrow Blues Band and the Phil DeVoid Band. Many special guests will undoubtedly join in as well.
“The Alligators were together maybe seven or eight years before Steve joined us,” Krammer said. “We had three or four very good guitar players before him, but, when Steve joined us, his sound, his approach, and his philosophy filled out the void. That was the last piece of the puzzle.
He came in and it all clicked. Our sound clicked, we started recording, and our reputation started gaining momentum.”
Schwartz was a student of the blues. He spent many hours talking blues history with bandmate Wailin’ Dale.
“It was important to us,” Wailin’ Dale said. “He was a big historian and I’m probably an even bigger historian.”
Like many white blues musicians, they found their way to the blues through rock ‘n’ roll. Once they discovered the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, they felt it was important to keep the older blues traditions alive.
“We wanted the kind of sound, not like we were copying the old guys, but kind of how they sounded, their viewpoint,” Wailin’ Dale said. “We didn’t want to let the modern world in.”
Steve Schwartz
The Alligators didn’t try to imitate the sounds of the older urban bluesmen, but wanted to play in their style while making it their own.
“The challenge of the blues is to make it fresh,” Wailin’ Dale said. “Steve played like the old dudes and put his own thing in there. It’s always hard in this day and age to find a guitar player who really plays well with a harp player. Sometimes, the guitarist has to take a back seat and play more rhythm. Steve was more than happy to do it.”
Schwartz was well known for his slide guitar technique.
“He studied different styles and became, over the course of the first few years with us, an extremely good slide player,” Krammer said. “He used a lot of different tunings on stage, standard tuning and four different open tunings.”
The difficult task of replacing Schwartz in The Alligators has fallen to veteran guitarist Billy Farris, who also plays with Alligators drummer Jon Johnson in the Phil Devoid Band, which has hosted an open mic session at the Blue Goose for 10 years. Frankie Lee is the bassist with The Alligators.
“It’s been better than expected,” Krammer said. “Billy is a pro, I don’t know what else to say. He has a long history behind him. He showed up at our first gig with 40 of our songs down cold. He does his homework.”
Farris was good friends with Schwartz and played solo at Schwartz’s wedding only three months before his death. According to Krammer, Schwartz was a big fan of Farris’ playing too.
“We told (Billy), ‘We don’t want you to play like Steve, just play like yourself,’” Krammer said. “’Everybody’s different and if you want to do Steve justice, come in and do the music your own way.’
“We’re five guys who all lost a friend. Billy is a very astute person and he knows that Steve’s legacy was something we were trying to respect.”
When Farris first started jamming with The Alligators, he wasn’t thinking about joining the band as a permanent member. He was just hoping to help his friends through a difficult transition period.
“I wasn’t really looking forward to getting a spot on the ‘Gators,” Farris said. “More than anything, I wanted to do right by Steve and the other guys. Nobody is ever going to replace Steve as guitar player in this particular band. I’m still stunned that they asked me to be the guitar player in the Alligators.”
Although it’s obviously a bittersweet situation, Farris has enjoyed his initial weeks with the band.
“Ever since I was young teenager and had my first rock ‘n’ roll/R&B band, I’ve always dreamed of playing with the same people for a long time. I’ve been in and out of a lot of musical situations over four decades and the thought of being with a group that is an institution is surreal. I’m still stunned by the fact that I’m part of a group that is as much a musical family as a musical group.”
After intensely studying The Alligators’ music for weeks, Farris is more impressed than ever by the band.
Billy Farris
“It has just become that much more obvious to me how important Steve was to the arrangements,” Farris said. “The void is always going to be there. Sometimes we’re more aware of it than other times.”
Schwartz is survived by his newlywed wife Joyce, adult children Julie and Michael, and four grandchildren. Donations will be accepted at the door to help the family defray expenses.

The tribute/fundraiser “One For Steve” will be held from 4-8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27 at the Blue Goose Inn, 28911 Jefferson Ave., St Clair Shores (586-296-0950). Donations will be accepted at the door. Donation checks may also be made out to The Alligators and mailed to: The Alligators, 20285 Shadyside, Livonia, MI 48152. Put “Steve Schwartz Fund” in the memo line.

To see this story in the Daily Tribune with videos of Wailin' Dale speaking about Steve Schwartz, click here.

To send info to JB Blues, e-mail joe.ballor@dailytribune.com.


  1. "One For Steve"...Sounds like an event we should all try to make. We always had great respect for Steve and his work. Hope you don't mind if I repost this Joe. This should be shared. And, Skip & I will make an earnest effort to get there. Thanks for you great work in keeping Blues-Lovers informed. Deb Dewley