Artis's Lounge – a celebrated South Side blues den – closes

Billy Branch

Billy Branch (August 19, 2012)

Artis's Lounge – a landmark blues club on the South Side for nearly 30 years – has lost its lease and closed.

The congenial spot, at 1249 E. 87th St., had been a blues nexus featuring live shows Sunday and Monday nights. It attracted neighborhood regulars, local music devotees and visitors from around the world who wanted to sample authentic Chicago blues.

The shuttering of the place, last Monday, also has brought to a finish a 28-year run by Chicago blues master Billy Branch. The harmonica virtuoso played weekly at the club – when he wasn't on tour – in one of the longest sustained club engagements in recent Chicago history.

"When I opened it up, I just opened it as a lounge," said clubowner Artis Ludd, who established the business in 1982. "But I loved the blues, so I used to go visit Billy (Branch), who was playing at another lounge. I liked him a lot and asked him if he'd come play for me.

"But I don't own the place," added Ludd, referring to the building. "I was just renting."

Ludd said she recently lost that option. The building's owner could not be reached for comment.

"I'm hurt, after all the years," said Ludd.

Small and unpretentious, Artis's Lounge drew enthusiastic crowds when Branch played, with other music stars routinely dropping in. Mavis Staples, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Susana Baca and others ventured to Artis's to sample Branch's rough-and-ready brand of Chicago blues.

"It was home," said Branch. "Even though we weren't owners, and we weren't business partners, it was a home base. It represented a place where we could extend the hospitality to not only local musicians, but it became like an international way station over the years. Some of the finest (musicians) in Chicago would stop by. … performers from Africa, from Mexico, from all over the world.

"You had some fans that have been following us almost as long as we've been there. It was just such a nice, unique cross-section. It was white, black, old, young. There was no one demographic. There was just everybody.

"So it's like the end of an era."

After his long run at Artis's, Branch said he's not looking for another Monday-night stint. This one was too distinctive to imitate, its informal nature and neighborhood ambience a one-of-a-kind environment that Ludd had taken pains to nurture.

"I'll be OK," said Ludd, "but I'm going to miss it – all those people all those entertainers."

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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