Art Scape – Will Siegel

By Karen Rifkin

The band just finished practicing at Will and Ellie Siegels home and, sitting around their kitchen table, Will brings up warm memories of days gone by and the many bands in which he played.

“You just keep playing and playing and playing; that’s how you get to be accomplished,” he says. “When I was 9, I asked my parents to buy me a guitar with lessons and they were more than willing to oblige. It was the time of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion and I was witnessing it on TV—Chuck Berry, Elvis. My first guitar had nylon strings; I wasn’t happy with it so I traded it for an acoustic arch top with F holes on the side.

“I didn’t stick with it. I seemed to start and stop and my parents wouldn’t continue with the lessons unless I practiced. This went on throughout my childhood and then I discovered that I could learn the songs just by listening. So I played chords along with the records and began to develop my ear training. I would write out my own lyrics and chords and track with records of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Byrds and Bob Dylan.

“I stopped playing in high school and in 1970 sold my electric guitar for gas money to take a cross country to the East Coast. It was the summer after Woodstock and there were rock festivals everywhere.

“I picked up a nylon stringed guitar along the way and we had camp fire music on the trip. My traveling buddy and I found all kinds of young people singing the same kinds of songs we were singing.”

He returned home and with an AA in liberal arts transferred to Sonoma State in 1971 where he met a lot of people who were into music. He was in the school of expressive arts and realizing it was the most fun he was having, he started taking himself more seriously as a musician.

He met his wife Ellie in 1973 and they played continually at their home in Cotati; she accompanied him on guitar, violin and drums. They began getting small club gigs as The Sonoma Mountain Makebelieve Band.

He began studying classical guitar with Tony Napoli who taught him more about the instrument, the structure, the scales and the chords. He was getting into Western Swing and elements of jazz. Napoli taught him about the fingerboard and music and practicing.

At the same time he met Kate Wolf. He began taking his dobro to different clubs to jam with people and he met her at the Painted House in Santa Rosa. Before too long she asked him to join her band. Soon after they recorded her first album, “Back Roads.”

The Siegels moved to Ukiah in 1976 where Will met Buffalo Bob Britton and began playing with him at gigs at the Redwood Valley Grange. Then he formed his own band, Late Nite Radio with Ellie on the fiddle. This lasted until 1981.

Kevin Axt, today a Grammy award-winning performer, was their first bass player and was followed by Bud Chase who introduced Siegel to Barbara Curtis. He soon became a member of her band playing electric guitar. He recorded her first album with her in 1984, “Long Overdue.”

He played with Curtis for over 20 years and learned to play jazz, develop his repertoire. When Chase left the band, Steve Baird joined as their acoustic bass player; the two of them developed a strong friendship that continues to this day.

The ‘90s saw the birth of Willie and the Nighthawks. Their favorite place to play was the Hopland Brewery. “It was me with Steve on bass, Paul Kemp, John Rizzo and Marilyn DeFrange. It was a fun band; we had some great times,” he says. “We played rock ‘n’ roll, dance music and originals that were spearheaded by DeFrange; she also got me into recording. We informally disbanded in 2000.”

“Then I did a series of concerts at the playhouse encapsulating the many styles of music that I like to play. I hired numerous musicians and built three sets of music: acoustic, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. Then I formed Rags to Rhythm featuring Paula Samonte with Steve on bass.

This band transformed into Will Siegel and Friends, the present day incarnation, that includes Baird, Ellie, Les Boek, Tom Aiken, Tom Clarkson and Michael Mills. They have found a welcome home at the Ukiah Senior Center and Blue Wing in Upper Lake where they play (what else?) rock ‘n’ roll, blues, jazz, classical country and a dash of Latin—he credits Elena Casanova for expanding his horizons in this last genre.

“Music takes me away from troubles that people experience in life; it takes us away from them momentarily. It helps me concentrate and is gift of sharing and communication,” says Siegel.

Ellie seconds this. “It helps me concentrate, expands my memory and keeps me active; it is a joy.”

He continues, “Living in a small town has been very kind to us. It has given us an experience that we may not have gotten in a larger town. We have met and played with so many world class musicians and are very grateful for having had that experience.”

“There are two very special people that I would like to mention—Russ Johnson and Dolores Carrick. In 1980 they gave me a job teaching guitar and Ellie a job washing the band instruments. Russ taught me about chord voicings and the guitar’s place in the orchestra and taught Ellie the saxophone and a variety of other horns They taught us to teach.

Siegel presently works privately with students and has two thriving guitar classes at Mendocino College; he also continues to record at his home.

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