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Funky Michael Coleman must be seen to be believed

--- World renowned blues musician rocks the roof off

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

Photographs by Terry Mayer

(Published May 2, 2007, 9:23 a.m.)

Holy cow, Walworth County, here is a musician of legendary proportions who we can actually see in our area.

Michael Coleman, these days of Whitewater, grew up in the projects on the west side of Chicago and has played nationally and internationally with the likes of BB King, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Johnny Dollar, James Cotton, Luther Allison, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Eddy Clearwater, Dizzy Gillespie and the list goes on and on.

"Playing good music feels so good," Coleman says. "It's just like eating a good piece of orange-so sweet and good."

You'll shake your head in disbelief as Coleman plays his blues, funk and rhythm classics and originals. As he breathes life through his Gibson you would literally think he must have been born with extra fingers even though you can see that he wasn't.

In the middle of a funky walking blues run Coleman breaks into "Foxy Lady," making you again question your eyesight that Jimi Hendrix is not in the house, then picks right back up where he left off leaving audiences in awe.

Speaking of Hendrix, at a recent show Coleman played "Hey Joe" to such a caliber that people just stood and stared speechlessly as he made his magic.

"I was in the zone," he said afterward. An understatement to say the least.

The formative years

In Chicago's Henry Horner project, Dorothy Coleman bought her son a Mickey Mouse guitar for Christmas when he was 8.

"She saw me playing it and I could actually get some sounds out of it. So she went out and got me a bass guitar."

Coleman, the youngest of eight children, played with his father, Cleo Williams, who played with Junior Parker and recorded Parker's original version of "Sweet Home Chicago."

"I played bass for 15 years until I got tired of being in the back."

As he grew up, Coleman was a busy musician, learning from legends and performing with the greats. Special early mentors helped pave his road to success including his mother, Little Milton, Johnny Christian and others.

"My mother would quiz us at breakfast about the records she played. She would ask who sang the songs she played and I would say, 'BB King' or 'Muddy Waters,'" Coleman says, laughing at the memories.

Later Coleman met Little Milton when he'd invite neighborhood kids to his place to play music.

"He got all the kids in the area together to keep us out of trouble and off drugs," Coleman remembers. "That's when I learned how to play the blues."

Through his early teens Coleman was in several bands and meeting blues greats along the way. He played Top 40s daily and the blues nightly with Aaron Burton and Johnny Dollar.

And he taught himself to play lead guitar, moving his position to the front of the band, where he naturally belongs.

"My mother made sure I was in the Boys Club and 4-H when I was young. I always got there early, practicing my blues runs every day," he said.

One day Johnny Christian walked through those doors and heard 14-year-old Coleman playing.

"He asked my mother if he could take me on the road and she said, 'Yeah, but take care of my baby,'" Coleman laughs again. "Johnny taught me a lot about blues and soul. Johnny was a great singer."

In 1973 Coleman recorded his first record, "If You Want To Love Somebody" with Christian.

By the time he was 21 he was touring with Muddy Waters, and at 22 he was touring Europe with Eddy Clearwater.

Back in Chicago, Coleman played for and with Doc Pellegrino, legendary bluesman and owner of the Kingston Mines.

"I was playing there one night when Kenard Johnson came in looking for a guitar player for James Cotton," Coleman said. "He asked if I wanted to tour with the James Cotton Band and I didn't believe him.

"Then a week later a phone call came and it was him asking if I was still available. I said yes and he told me there was a ticket waiting for me at O'Hare to fly to New York.

"I was on my way out the door when my mother answered the phone and said, 'Albert King is looking for a rhythm guitar player,'" Coleman says, still surprised by the phone call after all these years.

"But I already accepted Cotton so I went to New York. I didn't even get a rehearsal before I played with him, Pat Russ and Johnny Winters that night.

"We opened for James Brown," Coleman ends his story, shaking his head.

In 1991 he formed Michael Coleman and the Backbreakers and left for a European tour. Back in the states, they recorded Backbreaking Blues followed by seven more albums while touring nationally.

He says he stays in the business for the feeling-both how his music makes him and his audiences feel.

"I look at the people and if I see someone tapping a foot, I know I got them," he says. "It's not the money-you'll never make a lot of money doing our job-but the people who enjoy our music, that's what I get out of it, that and the people I've met all over the world and right here-it's all right."

As with all bands with any longevity, the Backbreakers have seen members come and go over the years. But finding that perfect combination of musicians gives Coleman the charge that keeps him going.

"It's a great great feeling when I get cats that can play and learn different music," he said. "It feels so good once you have that band together and you have an all-star team."

The Backbreakers consist of John Dade of Whitewater, on keyboard; Bergen "Ice" Maurstad of Crystal Lake, Ill., on drums; and Andre Howard of Chicago, Ill., on bass guitar. Howard also plays full-time with the Lonnie Brooks Band.

"I've got a real tight band right now-they've got it," Coleman says.

Manager Sharon Pomaville runs the behind-the-scenes details, keeping everything running smoothly.

"She's wonderful," he said. "I don't know where I'd be without her."

Along with shows at Buddy Guy's House of Blues, Chicago, Ill., the Chicago Blues Festival and area engagements, Coleman can be seen weekly running open jams at Bobby Rockets, 6291 Hospital Road, Burlington, Sundays, 3-7 p.m.; and Breakers, 41 S. Wisconsin St., Elkhorn, Saturdays, 3-7 p.m.

For more information, upcoming shows and downloads, visit www.funkymichaelcoleman.com.

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