Blues in Corvallis

OSU’s American Strings series brings a bit of Chicago to the Majestic Theatre

An unusual music program at Oregon State University is bringing a pair of major blues players to Corvallis. Billy Branch and Ronnie Baker Brooks will perform Feb. 12 at the Majestic Theatre.

This all results from a little-known musical secret at OSU: Bob Santelli, the founding executive director of the Grammy Museum, is now also the Director of Popular Music and Performing Arts at the university.

Santelli has been running a series of musical performances of American roots music that has brought such players to town as Sarah Guthrie, granddaughter of Woody Guthrie; Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter; and guitarist and banjo player Guy Davis.

The American Strings series invites artists from around the country to perform at the Majestic Theatre, where Santelli begins each concert with an intimate conversation with the artist. That’s followed by questions from the audience and finally an unplugged performance.

Santelli says he hopes “people can leave with a greater understanding” of traditional music.

Brooks was born and raised in Chicago. He has been playing the guitar since he was 6. When he was 19, he started to play music with his father, the music legend Lonnie Brooks. Brooks’s most recent album, Times Have Changed, came out in 2017. Many of the tracks were recorded at Blackbird Studio in Nashville. 

Times Have Changed is prevalent to the whole approach of life. This song [and album] puts everything into perspective,” Brooks says.

His main goal, he says, is to “touch people with my music. If I can bring some joy to them, then I have reached my goal.” 

Branch is a three-time Grammy nominee and retired two-term Grammy governor. He has played with artists such as Koko Taylor, Lurrie Bell and Lou Rawls. He will be touring with The Sons of Blues starting Feb. 14 in Park Forest, Illinois.

Santelli has been involved with music his entire life. Originally from New Jersey, he got connected to music when he played with numerous bands in college. 

He became involved with OSU while his daughter was a student. Santelli teaches music classes at OSU that help students to further their education, while also benefiting the community by hosting events such as the American Strings series.

Santelli moved to Cleveland in 1995, and was the first director of education and vice president of public programs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum there. 

Soon after, he became the CEO of Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project in 2000, which was later renamed Museum of Pop Culture, located in Seattle.

Chicago blues began after the Great Migration of African Americans during the 1940s from the South towards the north, in order to avoid the severe Jim Crow laws. The blues got started as a way for artists to perform at rent parties.

Rent parties were a tactic for tenants to pay their rent by hiring musicians to come to play at their home.

Some artists who defined the sound of Chicago blues were Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy. By the 1960s, Chicago blues had made its way to the United Kingdom and Europe. 

Oregon State University and the University of Idaho are the only two Pacific Northwest universities affiliated with the Grammy Museum. According to the Grammy Museum website, there are only 15 university affiliates worldwide.

The American Strings series Chicago blues program will be held at the Majestic Theatre in Corvallis, 115 SW 2nd Street, 7:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 12. Tickets are $20 advance at or $25 at the door.