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Bolingbrook's Al Spears storms onto local blues scene

Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 6:00 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 10:00 p.m. CDT

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BOLINGBROOK – It didn't come until he was in his 30s, but once Al Spears picked up a guitar, it just stuck.

"My boys called me nuts," Spears said, a smile brimming from ear-to-ear as he recalled the day in 1992 when he told his family of his new hobby. "But, I stuck with it and now they understand that the blues is much more than the weekly gigs and jam sessions."

Now 57, Spears and his Gibson guitar are regulars at Coop's Den in Bolingbrook and the V-Lounge in Addison, two popular blues spots in the west suburbs.

The Bolingbrook resident and West Chicago native also plays lead guitar in bands Twist and the Groove Machine and The Chicago Doodads – groups that headlined historic venues such as Blues on Halsted, Buddy Guy's Legend's and Kingston Mines.

But it's bringing the blues to his backyard in Bolingbrook – literally, in one case – where Spears gets his groove most, he says.

Spears and his wife host an annual Memorial Day blues concert their backyard, and Spears – who also repairs and refurbishes amplifiers in his free time  has made it his mission to bring the blues from Chicago out to the suburbs. It's even written on his business card, "Blues in the Burbs."

"I'm a huge advocate (of blues) ... it's alive and flourishing in (Chicago) and it's my mission to bring that to Bolingbrook and the suburbs," said Spears, who has an audio recording studio in his basement. Despite not picking up a guitar until he was 35, Spears has built his craft to the point where it earned him the nickname "Hurricane."

After taking a few lessons in 1992, Spears bought his first guitar from a friend – an Ibanez Roadstar Series II.

He eventually began hanging out at open mics, small jazz clubs and blues joints, and his personal favorite, the now-closed Carter's Place in Lockport. There, he met many artists, mentors and members of his soon-to-be blues ensemble, Twist and the Groove Machine.

Although Spears says he was neither the fastest nor most gifted guitarist, he steadily built confidence and began experimenting with a new playing style.

"Most blues guitarists play solely with their finger," Spears said. "They have played for so long that they've developed knobs and calluses on their fingers. My hands weren't fast enough, so I began using a pick, and I liked it a lot better.

"One of the guys saw me picking chords and said, 'Look at Hurricane go!' I'm still not sure if it was a compliment or a a jab, but it stuck."

Playing the guitar and immersing himself in blues was a rebirth for Spears, who now describes his craft as an inspiration and something that's best when shared with others.

The oldest boy of six children, Spears was born and raised on Chicago's west side, and from a young age he was charged with earning a paycheck to help his single mother and five brothers and sisters.

"I've had over 30 jobs in my life," Spears said. "I had a paper route, worked as a bus boy, and I was even a cabby for some time. A machinist, circuit court clerk, landscaper, painter, teacher, retail management – you name it, I've done it."

Yet, Spears always found time for music.

"I would listen to music before I did my homework," he said, detailing how such procrastination did not sit well with his mother. "Neither me nor my friends were musicians; we just liked music. We used to spend our entire paycheck on LPs."

The nostalgia is palpable as Spears recalls blaring Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham, old juke joints and countless 78 records on his family's stereo. He'd then take to the alleys with his friends and imitate his idols, drumming on upside down trashcans and lamp posts.

When he's not strumming the blues, Spears works with mortgage group Home Guardian, and is husband to Donna and four grown children Albert IV, Zachary, Jesse and James.

"Blues is a feeling," Spears said during an interview before a Thursday night set at Coop's Den. "It doesn't have to always be sad, but it does have to be inspiring. When you can project whatever is on your mind through your guitar and relate to people, that's special."

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