Asked what he’d like people to know about his Phantom Blues Band comrade Mike Finnigan, who died in August of 2021, Johnny Lee Schell doesn’t pick something musical.
“He’d be doing an overdub with me and say, ‘I gotta take a break, there’s another drunk calling me up,'” the guitarist and singer recalls with a laugh, noting the priority Finnigan, a keyboardist, placed on his involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous. Schell estimates that Finnigan and his wife together “saved hundreds of lives.”
The anecdote illustrates why the Phantom Blues Band — who got their start backing Taj Mahal and continue to play with the septuagenarian on occasion — was missing more than a keyboard player when they began work on what would become their new CD on Little Village records, “Blues for Breakfast,” which bears the words “In Memory of MF” on its cover.
“Mike was so important to us, we didn’t know what our next step was going to be,” says Schell. “But we thought we would just take a stab at it, and we wanted to do it fairly quickly. We took some of our favorite songs we had always wanted to do anyway and included them on the album, and were lucky enough to get help from some of our friends. Curtis Salgado sang two songs and played a harp solo, and Bonnie Raitt did a duet with me (on ‘Country Boy’). I played with her for a while during the ’80s; she’s a longtime friend who also loved Mike.”
Also featured alongside Phantom Blues Band members Joe Sublett (sax), Larry Fulcher (bass), Tony Braunagel (drums) and Les Lovitt (trumpet) are Little Village founder Jim Pugh on piano and organ, Ruthie Foster on vocals and a special archival inclusion of Finnigan on organ and vocals on “OK, I Admit It” and his son, Kelly, also on organ, on “I Know You Don’t Love Me.”
Including Kelly, says Sublett, “meant a lot to us.”
“I think as far as it being a tribute album, we’re dedicating it to him because of our love for him and the fact that he was our band member for many years,” Sublett says. “In fact, it’s dedicated to him as much as it’s a tribute record.”
While the bona fides for Finnigan the person are heartwarming, he boasted a towering resume that should not be overlooked, with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen and Etta James enlisting his talents, in addition to his work with Mahal.
The Phantom Blues Band began touring with Mahal in the ’90s.
“We had done a record with Taj Mahal called ‘Phantom Blues’ (1996). When he asked us to go out and join him on the road, he said, ‘You guys are going to be the Phantom Blues Band,'” Sublett explains.
“He had us on the road for like six or seven years straight,” he adds. “Together we had done three albums with him, and he always billed it as Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band. We went around the world a couple two, three times, and all that time the Phantom Blues Band name was out there. So when we started doing our own records, we had at least 10 or so years of that name as a brand out there, and it allowed us to have some name value.”
Mahal’s website reveals a busy touring schedule, with dates running from Thursday through the end of November, including at the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden, NJ, on Sept. 16 and a performance with the Phantom Blues Band on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, which runs from late October through early November.
“His body of work is so massive,” marvels Schell. “To start in the late ’60s and to be going 60 years later, it kind of speaks volumes, but just watching him and all of us age. … It happens so slowly, that one day you just turn around, and like two nights ago I got a call from my grandson that I’m going to be a great-grandfather in January. … It happens so slowly that one day it just sort of dawns on you, but we have to count our blessings and say how fortunate we are to still be alive.”
Finnigan, who died of cancer during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, helped Schell and Sublett realize that too.
Doing “Blues for Breakfast,” Schell says, “boosted our confidence in a way.”
“It’s not like we were lacking on confidence,” he clarifies. “The band has probably a combined 300 years of musical experience. But it always knocks you off your center a little bit when someone that big is not in the room. We just had to adjust.”