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Carey Bell, 70; harmonica player for top bluesmen

Carey Bell, a veteran of the bands of both Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, also led his own blues bands. Carey Bell, a veteran of the bands of both Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, also led his own blues bands. (file 1995)

WASHINGTON -- Carey Bell, 70, a Mississippi-born blues harmonica player and singer whose clipped and growling style won him wide admiration during a five-decade career, died Sunday at Kindred Hospital in Chicago, the city where he long made his home. He had complications from diabetes.

He emerged at the forefront of blues harmonica in the 1970s after touring and recording with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, particularly as part of Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars. Mr. Bell's trademark sound worked well on funkier up-tempo songs, but he was also capable of great expression and sustained melodic work on ballads.

Mr. Bell maintained a prolific schedule of world tours and smaller club dates across the United States. He received broad attention with Alligator Records's 1990 release "Harp Attack!" which featured Mr. Bell with such eminent harmonica players as James Cotton, Junior Wells, and Billy Branch. Mr. Bell's son Lurrie contributed the lead guitar parts.

Carey Bell continued to be praised for his musicianship for albums such as "Deep Down" in 1995 and "Second Nature," a 2004 release of an earlier European tour with his son. In 1998, Carey Bell won the Blues Foundation's Blues Music Award for traditional male artist of the year.

In recent weeks, Delmark Records released "Gettin' Up Live," a compact disc and DVD of Mr. Bell and his son.

Carey Bell Harrington was born Nov. 14, 1936, in Macon, Miss. He later dropped his surname.

As a child, he wanted to play saxophone like jump blues musician Louis Jordan, but a grand father who raised him could afford only a harmonica. He received early music lessons from his god father, Eddie "Lovie Lee" Watson, later a pianist for Muddy Waters.

In 1956, Mr. Bell joined Lovie Lee in Chicago and began studying the harmonica with blues harpists Sonny Boy Williamson II (also called "Rice" Miller) and Little Walter Jacobs.

Mr. Bell said harpist Big Walter Horton was his favorite early mentor, adding: "I liked that big tone he had. Didn't nobody else have that."

Alligator Records released the album "Big Walter Horton With Carey Bell" in 1973.

For all his interest in the mouth organ, Mr. Bell was forced to learn electric bass to support himself, as the acoustic sound was losing favor among blues record producers. On bass, he played with numerous blues artists, including David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Robert Nighthawk, and Johnny Young. In those years, Mr. Bell was a musical fixture at Chicago's Maxwell Street open-air market.

By the late 1960s, he grew determined to make a living solely on harmonica. He recorded with guitarist Earl Hooker in 1968 and the next year, he cut his first album as a leader, "Carey Bell's Blues Harp," which featured guitarists Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Dawkins and pianist Pinetop Perkins. He cemented his reputation through his work with Waters and Dixon.

Mr. Bell said his hair-trigger temper and demanding career spurred an erratic home life and an admittedly lackadaisical approach to fatherhood. He was married several times, once to Patricia Dixon, a daughter of Willie Dixon. He reputedly fathered 15 children and leaves at least 10, including Lurrie Bell of Chicago.

"I got a kid plays harmonica, one play drums, oldest kid on bass," Carey Bell told a Duluth, Minn., reporter in 2004. "Got enough kids to make my own band, I guess."