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The Life of a House Band: Dr. Mambo's Combo

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Around 8:30 p.m. on a Monday evening, the crowd at North Loop institution Bunker's Music Bar & Grill was a bit thin. Only 15 people were there, including a well-dressed man in a cream-colored three-piece suit accented by a navy blazer and an almond-colored hat.

Just under an hour later, more folks trickled in slowly. Many of them clearly knew each other. Warm smiles were met with open arms, and followed by embraces. All of them also knew why they were here: Dr. Mambo's Combo was set to perform. This was where young and old meet to get down, dance, and get funky.

[jump] Dr. Mambo's Combo have performed on Sunday and Monday nights at Bunker's in the North Loop for nearly three decades. The band was created specifically for the bar with sets exclusively consisting of songs, from blues to Motown, from the '60s and '70s.

Drummer Michael Bland -- currently of Soul Asylum and formerly of the New Power Generation -- says that the Combo is sort of an "anti-house band," meaning the band does not play any modern hits.

"We play the music we like to play, and if these people don't like it they can leave," he says. "Modern music is just devoid of a lot of feeling to me. The digital age makes most music sound brittle and strange. I guess it's just a matter of affectation."

Bland was brought into the band when original Combo drummer Bobby Vandell saw him win a drum contest when he was just a teenager.

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"He talked to me after the contest and said, 'You have to come down to Bunker's.' And I told him, 'I'm only 16.' And I was a big boy even then, so he really didn't know," Bland says. "So I started sitting in with the Combo. Bobby ended up having to go on tour with Alexander O'Neal, and he ended up asking me to cover some of his gigs... so there I am 16 or 17 coming home at 2:30 in the morning."

After a few gigs, the Combo made Bland a full-time member in 1987. Two years later, the Purple One would enter Bunker's and snatch up Bland for his New Power Generation tour. Prince had gotten a tip from Combo singer Margaret Cox that Bland was something to behold and that he had to come see him play.

"The next Monday, here comes Prince in his limo and Levi and all these cats dressed up like they just walked off a stage walking into Bunker's. And I'm like 'What's going on?'" Bland recalls. "And [Prince] got up to sit in that night. I just did what I was doing and tried not to engage him. Just kind of let him do what he wanted in the corner. Cody Anderson, the sound guy, said, 'Dude, he was watching your hands the whole time. You're gonna work for Prince!'"

And work Bland did. He toured and recorded with Prince for seven years. Prince still visits Bunker's to this day.

"He was here like four or five weeks ago. He goes to his same little spot in the corner," says Cox, while gesturing to the dark left corner of the club. "He usually brings new musicians that he's working with. He takes them to see us. He wants to bring up young musicians and help them to be their best."
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Dr. Mambo's Combo have had plenty of lineup changes over the years, but the rotating group rallies around its own. The most recent departure is potent singer Mark Lickteig, who joined the Combo originally to fill up his work schedule. "A lot of the players in the band like to switch up and change," says Cox. "Mark is wonderful, but we just wanted to go a different way."

Guitarist Billy Franze explains that the lineup changes in the band are part of a natural progression of wanting to return to the band's roots. "I think we're trying to get back to what it was when we started," he says. "Four-piece rhythm section and some singers. That seems to be what's coming."

Because the Combo is almost three decades old, its professionalism is astronomical. A polished band that can convey the classics night after night, week after week also provides a relaxing atmosphere. Local KMOJ DJ Charles M. Dillon, a.k.a. Chaz Millionaire, is a Monday night regular for his mental heath. "I come down here for therapy, man," Dillon says. "It's not just a band, it's an experience."

Only a few members of the group are classically trained -- meaning they can read music and understand music theory. Franze plays completely by ear. Cox's mother was a voice teacher so she received lessons from her mother. The band's newest addition, singer James Brown, learned to sign from his grandmother who was a jazz singer.

"The little bit of lessons I had were from my grandmother," Brown says. "She sang professionally in jazz and blues for 50 years and had me singing as a little kid. She passed away when I was 16 and that's really all I've had."

Even without formalities of musical training, Brown showed he had the spirit in his soul to sing during his first show with Dr. Mambo's Combo. He should have no trouble.

Dr. Mambo's Combo. 9:30 p.m. on Sundays and Mondays at Bunker's Music Bar & Grill.

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