From the moment we all got out of our cars at the local winery that hot and muggy July day back in 2012, we were seduced by a fierce and melodic harmonica cutting through the air. Shit, man, this is going to be awesome, I thought to myself as we made our way up near the stage.
By the time we got there it was over—not the band, mind you, but that sweet sweet harmonica. As we would come to learn from the chatter circulating the crowd, a local fellow named Rip Lee Pryor had joined the band for a few numbers and was now back in the crowd.
It made me a little sad because the little I had heard told me he was miles better than the Chicago-based blues act on stage. Still, we sat, listened, and enjoyed a couple of drinks with friends. We saw Rip sitting in the crowd from time to time but it wasn’t until we were leaving that I learned something about him that made me sure I had to meet him.
We were talking about him while riding in a golf cart back to the parking lot. The staff member who was driving kind of chuckled to himself and asked if we knew who that was. We all shook our heads no. He said that guy was the son of legendary blues harmonica player Snooky Pryor, whose music I’d enjoyed on various blues Lps for years.
Luckily, Rip was leaving at the same time we were, so I ran into him rather quickly. I told him I had heard his harmonica when we arrived and later heard he was the son of Snooky. He shook my hand and took me in for a man-hug and said, “Thanks, baby.” We chatted for a few minutes and I shared with him that I made photographs. He told me he needed to do some photos for promotional purposes and he gave me his card. A few days later I called him up.
Rip is truly a southern Illinois and Midwest treasure, and I deeply value the friendship that has blossomed between us. He was born in Chicago during the height of his father’s career. He told me his father is credited with being the first to blow a harmonica into a microphone. He said his father had figured out a way to cup his hands holding both the instrument and the microphone, making a tight seal, which led to an even tighter sound. His dad would play that way on the street corners and people would pay attention. Enough of the right people heard him play and the rest became history for him. Once his father decided to get out of that scene he moved the family to Ulin, Ill, a place the polar opposite of Chicago.
Only a few miles north of the Ohio River, Ulin is a poor tiny community in the bowels of southern Illinois. That is, however, where Rip spent most of his life, and where he learned to play. He never had any professional training or formal music lessons. He told me his father showed him a few things but the rest came naturally.
This essentially self-taught talent has taken him on tour multiple times in South America, once in Japan, all across the Midwest and South, and into Europe. He has made two albums and the photograph I took of him holding his sunglasses with his harmonicas (some originally belonging to his father) in the foreground has turned out to be a celebrated promotional photograph.
I think that photo, above the others, embodies who he is as a distinct blues artist who is separate, yet influenced by his father. He always tells me he plays his own style of blues but it is steeped in that old 1950s electric Chicago sound. Maybe we could coin his sound as Carbondale blues. Close to Chicago but not a part of.
In our photo shoot, I aimed to represent multiple genera of blues in a single shot. I also aimed to represent who he was as a singular artist. It was a lot of fun using different film formats and cameras. I used a Hasselblad, a 4×5 press camera and a very vintage 5×7 field camera.
It has been a pleasure watching Rip’s career continue to expand over the few years I’ve known him. He plays some of the best blues festivals in the South and had a small clip that was aired on an episode of American Pickers. His sound commands the stage when he plays solo and the band members who sometimes accompany him bow to the presence of that sound.
It is also worth mentioning that Rip is a cancer survivor. That diagnosis is what originally led to his retirement from his career as a carpenter at Southern Illinois University. Both the cancer and the treatment indirectly affected his ability to play for more than a few minutes at a time. This may be the most inspirational aspect of knowing him. It was his desire to further himself as a blues artist that got him through that dark time, and he has been shining ever since. This man is the real deal and I can’t wait to see him play again.
Mike Chervinko, Photographer
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Rip Lee Pryor — “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” and “Nine Below Zero”
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Born in Carbondale and a graduate of Southern Illinois University, photographer Mike Chervinko has dedicated himself to documenting the region he knows best: southern Illinois. Chervinko uses a film-based large format camera to capture images and produces prints in his personal darkroom – methods that were once mainstream but have fallen out of favor in the digital era. It is an attraction to the physical and visceral and a love for the organic feel of the final product that draw him to these antiquated processes. He remains committed to the integrity of handmade art in an age increasingly governed by megapixels and beeping gadgetry.
Chervinko’s photographs have been shown in solo multiple times at the SIU University Museum, Carbondale’s Longbranch Coffeehouse, the Fern Fair Gallery in Carbondale, the Public Library in Carbondale and at the Cahokia Mounds World Heritage Site in Collinsville. He lives in Carbondale with his wife Daisy, and their two daughters.