Nashville has the neon lights of Broadway and the Ryman Auditorium. Memphis has the commercial glow of Beale Street and Sun Studio. New Orleans has the French Quarter, no embellishment needed.
Chicago has… potential?
That’s frustrating. No city has better music stories to tell than Chicago. I realize that is a bold statement, but Chicago should be in the top echelon of cities for music tourism, anchored by the vibrant and unrivaled blues scene. How that can work commercially is a topic for another day. Here I’ll focus on a few of the stories that justify why Chicago should seek the recognition, traffic and music tourism dollars it deserves.
Chicago Blues is stuck in a muddy ditch between the Bold Bright Chicago of the mid-twentieth century and the Pixelated Chicago of the early 2020s, a city where some bright spots flicker but the Big Picture is a blurry mystery. That is not a knock at the city’s talented artists of today or its hometown label, Alligator Records. Far from it. It is a call to make Chicago Blues—past, present and future—as attractive as possible.
Newcity first explored the city’s rich blues history in 1986, when we devoted most of the ninth issue (as in, ninth issue ever!) to a preview of the upcoming Chicago Blues Festival. That festival, a tribute to the stars of the Chess Records era, was one glorious peak within a steady decline that began when the South Side clubs started to close one by one, until none were left by the early 1990s.
To find fun stories, we need only visit three buildings in Chicago—one long gone, one collapsing, and one restored but often ignored—to understand how Chicago blues artists did much more than play and record their songs. No, they altered the trajectory of popular music. Their collective influence is so fundamental that if you removed it, the music we all love today would collapse like a Jenga tower.
First stop: A dorm in Hyde Park
Woodward Court, once known by its sexy University of Chicago nickname “the new dorm,” was a boxy four-story collection of cinder blocks surrounded by far more appealing buildings. Across the street stood Rockefeller Chapel to the west, the University of Chicago Lab School to the east, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to the north. In the spirit of the university’s future slogan, you could look at Woodward Court from the outside and think, “Yep, that’s where fun goes to die.”
Of course that’s not true.
When I first attended a party at Woodward Court in 1981 as a first-year student in the College, the live band was Tumbling Dice, a Rolling Stones cover band. The dorm’s lounges complemented the building, with worn carpet, bad vinyl furniture and tiny food stands that sold hot dogs, Pop Tarts and soda in glass bottles.
It was decades later that I learned that this dorm complex is where rock ‘n’ roll started to earn its modifiers. Blues rock? Obviously. Southern rock? Yup. Acid rock? Kind of. Partial but essential credit for those modifiers goes to Butterfield, Bloomfield and Bishop. That is not a swanky law firm or advertising agency in the Loop. The trio is three young musicians who met and played together for the first time at the “Twist Nights” at Woodward Court in the early 1960s. (For one of many good accounts of those times, you can check the Mike Bloomfield biography “Guitar King.”)
In multiple iterations, the Butterfield Blues Band made a name for itself in clubs across Chicago’s South Side. The band played at the Newport Jazz Festival the day Bob Dylan went electric. They performed at Monterey and Woodstock. They played at the Fillmore with the Grateful Dead and everyone who was anyone in the Bay Area.
Paul Butterfield, an alum of the Lab School, played harmonica. Mike Bloomfield played guitar, as did Elvin Bishop. Together, they refined the twin-guitar band format that inspired many Southern rock bands. Bishop is also the artist behind the 1970s one-hit-wonder “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” although he did not sing the lead vocal. That honor went to Mickey Thomas, who later sang hits such as “Jane” for Jefferson Starship.
Bishop has a Gumpian knack for being in the right place at the right time, but unlike that hapless movie hero, Bishop had the immense chops to make music history. He went to the University of Chicago in 1960 on a National Merit scholarship to study physics. (I always found that intriguing:I also went to the U of C to study physics, albeit as a National Merit semifinalist.)
When Elvin and I spoke by phone this past summer, he explained how our physics curricula unfolded in much different ways. In the early 1980s, I attended classes at the Ryerson and Eckhart buildings with a star lineup of professors such as Cronin and Parker. In the early 1960s, Elvin devoted his time to studying sound waves—along with certain basic forms of organic chemistry—at the Florence, Pepper and Theresa buildings with a star lineup of professors such as Waters, Wolf and Wells.
Florence’s, Theresa’s and Pepper’s—three legendary South Side blues clubs—no longer exist. Their direct successors, such as the Checkerboard Lounge are also gone, but their grandchild, Buddy Guy’s Legends, still thrives a stone’s throw from Printers Row. And Woodward Court? The only traces, if there are any, lay buried under the foundation of the Booth Graduate School of Business.
But it is not too much of a stretch to argue that the Butterfield Blues Band, together and individually, played an important role in the evolution of important rock ‘n’ roll subgenres in the 1960s and beyond.
Second stop: A storefront studio in the South Loop
When we planned the Newcity guide to the 1986 Blues Fest, we aimed high. We wanted to get interviews with the headliners to anchor a lead story about the old Chess Records studio at 2120 South Michigan.
Chuck Berry’s people said that he would gladly take part in an interview. All we had to do was pay them $10,000. In advance. I mentioned that to Brian, and after about eight nanoseconds of his deepest contemplation, he muttered a couple of syllables that implied that I should maybe look elsewhere for sources.
That search did not take long. Someone knew someone who knew someone who connected me with Ralph Bass and Willie Dixon, two men whose roles at Chess Records were so essential that it’s hard to give either of them one label. To give you some small flavor: the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame says that Bass “changed popular music forever and for the better.” Before joining Chess in 1958 and staying for all of its heyday at 2120 South Michigan, his contributions to twentieth-century music history included signing a young R&B artist named James Brown to his first record deal.
Dixon, who passed away in 1992, was the poet laureate of the blues. The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Doors, Steppenwolf and Led Zeppelin all covered a Willie Dixon song on their debut albums. You can also hear Dixon playing his upright bass—purchased for $79 from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog—on the early Chuck Berry hits such as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene” and “Rock and Roll Music.”
Dixon held a modest view of what he and his colleagues achieved during their years at 2120 South Michigan. Chess Records had its offices on the first floor and its recording studio on the second floor at that address from the late 1950s through the end of the 1960s. At that time, the hulk of the Lexington Hotel, once the headquarters of Al Capone, still stood across the street. (Yes, the place where Geraldo thought he was going to find buried treasure back in 1986.)
“We never thought we were making history,” Dixon told me when we spoke by phone way back in 1986. “We were just advancing the idea of the blues.”
That is an understatement. The “idea of the blues” appeals to people at many levels, and has drawn me in for almost forty years. One night in 1983, Buddy Guy’s brother Phil played a concert in the Woodward Court cafeteria. Willie Dixon’s son Freddie played bass that night, and during a break he gave me his take on the appeal of blues.
“You sit and listen to a set of blues and there is always at least one song, one song with those words that just go right through you,” he said. “You say to yourself ‘Hey, that’s me they’re singing about. I’ve been there before.’”
Freddie’s father put it this way in our lengthy talk in 1986:
“You know, the world is hungry for the blues, but doesn’t know it. It’s like a vitamin that a man doesn’t know he needs. When you get the blues, and you understand the wisdom of the blues, you get a better understanding of other people.”
The idea of the blues eventually made its way across the Atlantic and had such an impact, especially in the UK, that one can argue (as I do) that the British Invasion began in that second-floor studio in the 2120 South Michigan building. But if you don’t believe me, let’s ask Keith Richards and Sir Paul McCartney.
When the Rolling Stones came to Chicago for the first time in 1964, they sought out the Chess musicians at 2120. Richards describes what happened in his book, “Life”:
“There in the perfect sound studio, in the room where everything we’d listened to was made, perhaps out of relief or just the fact that people like Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, and Willie Dixon were wandering in and out, we recorded fourteen tracks in two days.”
What else came out of that “perfect sound studio” besides some of the greatest blues music of all time? That is the very same space where Chuck Berry recorded most of his greatest hits. How influential was Chuck Berry? In 2017, Sir Paul told Rolling Stone magazine that “[i]t’s not really possible to sum up what he meant to all us young guys growing up in Liverpool.”
But there’s more.
In his work as a producer, Ralph Bass stressed improvisation and creativity. He felt that would be the best way to capture the raw energy of electrified Chicago blues. “Nothing was cut-and-dry,” he told me back in 1986. “The fact is, in a session, a line might pop into your head all of a sudden. That’s why we just let the tape player keep rolling.”
Granted, the Chicago blues scene had its share of sharp distinctive characters—Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry come to mind—but Chicago blues and R&B always struck me as rougher and rawer than its cousins in Kansas City, Memphis, Detroit or St. Louis. It’s like a loud shirt that is buttoned wrong, but nobody cares. It’s about emotion, not polish or appearances. That’s at least the way that Ralph Bass explained it.
Some artists would request another take on songs, but often “the performances were so sensational that we did not record again,” Bass said. “I told them that most people are tone-deaf anyway, so they should appeal to their emotions.”
One example of that Chess magic was a song that Chess session drummer Maurice White called a “big-ass smash” in his autobiography. He was referring to “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass, which peaked at #4 on the Billboard pop chart in 1965 and still gets lots of airplay on oldie commercial-radio formats. That song was recorded in that “perfect sound studio” at 2120.
Minnie Riperton, who hit #1 on the Billboard charts on her own in 1975 with the impossible-to-sing-along-with “Lovin’ You,” sang background vocals on “Rescue Me.” And what happened to White, the drummer? He eventually earned his way into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as the founding genius behind Earth, Wind & Fire.
Chicago was the destination for blues artists and Chess Records was the primary hub. “Everyone in the blues would go through Chicago one way or another because they could get recognition in Chicago,” Willie Dixon told me. “In the South they would think ‘If I can get to Chicago, I can make it.’”
Willie Dixon’s widow purchased the Chess Records building after hearing it might be torn down. This building is now the “restored but often ignored” one mentioned above. Today it serves as the home for Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation and an accompanying blues museum.
When the museum reopens after COVID, you can visit that “perfect sound studio” Keith Richards described, and walk where so much music history happened. In the book “Life,” Richards notes that the Rolling Stones’ “greatest contribution to music is that we turned American people back on to their own music.”
This museum is a must-see gem.
Third stop: A two-story house in Bronzeville
The Checkerboard Lounge, Pepper’s Lounge and a later iteration of Theresa’s were among the blues clubs that once dotted 43rd Street. Before Muddy Waters moved to the suburbs late in life, he owned a house at 4339 South Lake Park Avenue just south of 43rd Street.
“The man spent almost his whole life at the end of that street,” Buddy Guy told me during one of our talks at the Checkerboard Lounge in the mid-1980s. “We had to do something to honor him. New Orleans had done that sort of thing, and so has Memphis. But Chicago is the Home of the Blues and it should do something to recognize these people.”
In August 1985, the city named a stretch of 43rd Street in Muddy Waters’ honor.
His modest two-story house resembles many others throughout Chicago, but because of what happened inside those walls, that structure may not have a peer anywhere. The house was a home, a crash pad for blues artists from around the world and a rehearsal studio.
Fast-forward to 2021: That house, once a beacon on the South Side, bears a huge X on the outside. The X warns any potential entrants that it could collapse. But the wrecking ball will have to wait. In the summer of 2020, the Chicago Defender reported that the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded a $50,000 grant to renovate the 131-year-old building. When the work is done, it will include a recording studio, small performance venue and a community garden.
If that works out, the Muddy Waters Museum, or whatever they call it, will become another pixel on the flickering blues map of Chicago. But if we all want to keep the blues alive, at some point, we will need to see the whole image at some point. Where are these efforts headed?
Chicago has so much music history—emanating from the blues outward—and it deserves celebration and recognition.
No one can say what popular music would sound like today if you uproot the artistic trees that took root in places like Woodward Court, Chess Records and Muddy Waters’ old house. But I think we can agree it would be diminished.
Frank Luby was the first editor of Newcity in 1986. He recently published the paperback version of “Blues Flashbacks,” his anthology of blues interviews and concert reviews from 1983 to 1992. Elvin Bishop calls the book “a real cool read for any blues fan.”
“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
Willie Dixon plays bass on this tune, as he did in many of Chuck Berry’s hit songs. This song is traveling through outer space right now aboard the Voyager spacecraft. Really.
“2120 South Michigan Ave.” by the Rolling Stones
The Stones recorded this instrumental during their sessions on the second floor of the Chess Building.
“Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by Elvin Bishop
This late seventies smash earned Elvin a “one-hit wonder” label. It shows up in many movies, including 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass
Fontella Bass sang and co-wrote it and Ralph Bass produced it. The amazing Minnie Riperton (“Loving You”) sang background vocals and Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire) was the drummer.
“Lockdown!” by Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio Plus!
Yes, it’s a COVID song and video, but it’s a fun diversion. Apparently, fish have also learned to social distance.
“Got My Mojo Workin’ (Live)” by Muddy Waters
Irresistible! It has everything that is great about blues party music, revved up on overdrive.