Playing the blues in black AND white

The list of blues joints seemed almost endless: the Checkerboard Lounge, Theresa's, Pepper's, the Rat Trap, the 1815 Club, the 708 Club, Castle Rock, Big Duke's Blue Flame, the High Chaparral, the Burning Spear, the Seeley Club, Turner's Lounge, Florence's Lounge and dozens more.

"On Roosevelt Road," says Shaw, "you could go from door to door for blocks and blocks."

But it wasn't just the sheer number of places that nurtured Chicago blues — it was what happened inside those oft-dilapidated but sacred spaces. A cultural tradition was communicated not only from musician to listener but, equally important, from elder to apprentice. In these barrooms, young artists learned from the masters a music that to this day cannot be fully written down or taught in conservatories.

"In 1972, '73, I would see Billy Branch — before he became a major musician — sitting in with Lefty Dizz," remembers Sterling Plumpp, the prominent Chicago blues poet. "I would see these older musicians show him things on harmonica.

"That kind of thing happened in the African-American community all the time. …

"They were all hanging out."

And they were transmitting a cultural heritage.

 

The great decline

 

Times and tastes naturally change, and a litany of well-documented developments battered the neighborhood blues club: the aging of the audience; the economic decline of the South and West sides; the businesses destroyed in rioting after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; the rise of rock 'n' roll and, later, rap and hip-hop.

As if in response, a North Side blues scene took hold in the 1970s and '80s, dramatically altering the musical equation. Long-gone rooms such as Mother Blues, Wise Fools Pub, Biddy Mulligan's and Blues Etc. — and still-lively clubs such as Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. and Blue Chicago — gave musicians better pay and exposure to a new audience of tourists and affluent locals. To this day, the major rooms offer musicians first-rate production values and a steady calendar of engagements. Behemoths such as the House of Blues, a chain operation on North Dearborn Street, and Buddy Guy's Legends, a powerhouse in the South Loop, present a mix of Chicago and touring bands seven nights a week.

The music lives.

Yet the nature and purpose of these places are far different from the rough-and-tumble spots — the "bucket of blood" joints, as poet Plumpp calls them — that gave the world electric blues in the mid-20th century.

"Nowadays a lot of Chicago blues clubs feel like Hollywood movie sets," observed David Grazian, author of "Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs," in a 2003 interview with the University of Chicago Press. "On the surface, they feel ramshackle and rusty — the bar stools are worn out, the plaster is falling off the walls, and the floor seems barely mopped.

"But if one pans across their … dimly lit rooms, one begins to notice the bouncers with their headsets; the souvenir shops loaded with T-shirts, trinkets and other tourist trap fare; and the well-heeled out-of-towners who arrive by limousine and tour bus, oblivious to the fact that many of these seemingly dilapidated clubs are located in some of the richest neighborhoods in the city."

Surely the faux roadhouse ambiance of the House of Blues, Blue Chicago, Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. and others have been designed to evoke — or impersonate — an earlier, earthier incarnation of the classic Chicago blues club or Southern juke joint. At their best, these rooms present top-flight artists, such as Branch, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater and Vance Kelly. At their worst, they serve up endless repetitions of "Sweet Home Chicago," "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Got My Mojo Working" — a pileup of musical cliches that Iglauer calls "the set list from hell."

Which is precisely what the tourists expect.

"When a lot of people come to Chicago, they want to get pizza, see Michael Jordan and hear the blues," says Brian Fadden, manager of Buddy Guy's Legends. He hastens to add that the club draws locals as well as out-of-towners, and presents both touring stars and homegrown talents.

Even so, Chicago blues now "can become like a tourist music, like Dixieland is in New Orleans, where people go to Preservation Hall to see the old musicians playing the same old songs over and over again," says former blues editor O'Neal. "A lot of people who come to those clubs downtown or the North Side want to hear that. It provides work for the musicians. …

CHICAGO

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