Although he is generally a lesser-known musician in Chicago Blues history, singer-guitarist Lefty Dizz was a larger-than-life figure during his career. Combining spectacular stage antics with an aggressive sound, he could be considered a trailblazing pioneer of a performing style that has become highly revered by both blues and rock audiences.
Lefty Dizz was born in Arkensas in 1937. During his teens, he began playing the guitar and honing his performance style. Like fellow southpaw guitarists Albert King and Otis Rush, Dizz taught himself how to play a right-handed guitar upside down (i.e. left-handed), resulting in a unique sound and playing style. His sound was further distinguished by incorporating rural blues influences, a very different approach to the more sophisticated, urban sounds coming out of big cities like Memphis and New Orleans. Dizz eventually moved to Chicago in the early 1960s and quickly became a fixture on the south side blues scene, where he was famous for his rowdy and raucous shows; these included tricks such as throwing his axe back and forth between his hands, playing with one hand, and experimenting with distortion and wild string-bending.
While his own wild performances may have been a way to secure his gigs and prevent other young upstarts from overshadowing him on the bandstand, Dizz was highly respected by Chicago blues elders and peers alike. He was often welcomed to sit in on their club gigs and was hired as a sideman by local musicians, including Junior Wells and Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers. Listening to Junior Wells’ 1968 album, Coming At You, for example, it is interesting to hear how Dizz toned down his aggressive guitar playing to be a tastefully effective rhythm guitarist behind Wells’ singing and harp playing and Buddy Guy’s leads. According to the monologue that opens his cover of Taylor’s “Sadie” on his 1989 album, Ain’t It Nice To Be Loved?, Dizz was also the last rhythm guitarist to play in The HouseRockers, before Taylor died in 1975.
Though a hardworking bluesman, Dizz never made the leap from local fame to international stardom. This may be partly because he was under-recorded throughout his career. Though he managed to make a few recordings for European labels like Isabel and JSP, they were simply not reflective of his fantastic live performances on his home turf, possibly due to budgetary and/or technological constraints. His last album, Ain’t It Nice To Be Loved, features Dizz with the Bell family backing him up (including Carey Bell on harmonica and Lurrie Bell on the guitar), but it proves to be a challenging listening experience, due to the raw, uninhibited nature of the performances and the band’s out-of-tune instruments. There are some gems on these few albums, though, that do hint at Dizz’s live charisma. Plus, in this day and age, it’s (relatively) easy to find the odd video evidence of Dizz’s club performances, including this video from the Checkerboard Lounge (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Y6yMkbNZyw …dig that cowboy hat, too!). Sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1990s and passed away in 1993.
While his music is not for the faint at heart, Lefty Dizz is still worth checking out if you enjoy hearing great blues guitar and want to walk on the wild side of the blues!
- AllMusic.com: Lefty Dizz
- Russell, Tony, et al. The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings. 2006
- Liner notes to Ain't It Nice To Be Loved (1989)