The Chicago Blues Trip Complete, Here are the Pics and The Story.
As soon as I got off the plane, I had the Chicago Bug. I had been warned that as soon as I stepped off the plane, I would be overwhelmed with this odor. Despite what I was told, it smelled… wonderful. It was this remarkable scent of…everything. History, rust, mortar, cement, concrete, orchids, smog, hard work, and more all blended together in a perfect aroma. At least to me.
The sounds were those familiar with any city – traffic, noise, construction. Maybe it was me, or maybe it was Chicago, but the sound had a rhythm to it. A boot stomping, gut bucket kind of rhythm. And I loved it. The moment I was in CHicago, I was hooked. This was easily a place I could call home.
My adventures took me everywhere. I went from Muddy’s house, to his grave. I saw his final resting spot, right next to his wife. I say the McCoy graves, and more. I paid my respects to Hound Dog Taylor. I went and saw Howlin’ Wolf’s grave as well. Looks like his kids had been there recently. I also noticed a water bottle sitting on his grave. In the most respectable way I knew how, I bent over and gave that water bottle a good smell. Moonshine. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I say the famous location of both the 708 club and the Sunset Cafe. As a matter of fact, I saw neighborhoods so dangerous you wouldn’t even want to be there – in broad daylight. But somethings you have to do in the name if the blues. I saw the location of the blues marker, and the site where Central Station used to sit. I reached out and touched one of the remaining foundation blocks of Central Station. I saw countless Juke joints, including Legends. I went to Chess Records. I saw the Blues Garden. In my opinion, I did it all.
It wasn’t the sites though that make Chicago and its blues what it is. It’s the people, and that mid-western attitude. Almost like New York, with half the pople and twice the niceness, if that makes sense. I met Buddy Guy’s sister. I met Jim, and antique instrument dealer who knows more about Chicago and its music history than anyone I have ever known. I met the touring bass player for Nick Moss. Without a doubt, it was the people who made Chicago what is was – and what it is.
Don’t get me wrong, the city in and of itself is amazing. The architecture, the statues and fountains, everything. Yes, even the food. Yet underneath all of it was the people. And lying right in line with the people, was the blues. Still pouring from parks and alleys, the blues is alive and well in Chicago, despite most of the clubs closing down. If you know where to look, Chicago blues is more than alive – it’s thriving.
Then again, Chicago IS the blues. Just as the sounds still thrive in the Delta, you can still feel where they got off that train in Chicago, and electrified.
Here is the history, as mentioned in a previous post, of all the places I saw.
Muddy Water’s House
At Muddy Waters’ house, impromptu jam sessions with pals like Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry erupted in the front yard. Waters, of course, was Chicago’s main bluesman, so everyone who was anyone came to pay homage. Waters lived here for 20 years, until 1974, but today the building stands vacant in a lonely, tumbledown lot. At one time though, the front yard was a stage of some of the city’s greatest. Not to mention, the basement was converted by Muddy into his own rehearsal room. Now if we can only get inside….
Muddy Waters’ Grave (and others)
Located in the Restvale Cemetery, this is an obvious must see. Muddy Waters was buried here after his death, and he is buried along side some of the greatest to ever play. Doc Clayton, Earl Hooker, Walter Horton, J.B. Hutto, Johnny Jones, Magic Sam, ‘Papa Charlie’ McCoy, ‘Kansas’ Joe McCoy, and others all share this cemetery as their final resting spot. Time to pay some respects…
It would not be an exaggeration to state that the 708 Club’s building is THE most historic surviving live-performance venue associated with the “classic” period of the “Chicago Blues” of the late 1940s and 1950s. One of the largest and most prestigious showcases of blues talent during this period, the “708″ was the performing home for virtually ALL the Chicago blues greats – including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, etc. You name ‘em – they performed there! This is the place where the young Buddy Guy came and was taken up to the bandstand to meet- and later performs with Muddy Waters. Even the great “Big Bill” Broonzy once played there. Need a bonus? Prior to being a nightclub, it was a liquor store run by Leonard and Phil Chess, who later founded Chess Records.
Of course, Maxwell Street needs little description. It was an open air market, some claim to be the largest in the world at the time. You could get anything – both legal and illegal – at the Maxwell Street Market. In the 1930s and 1940s, when many black musicians came to Chicago from the segregated South, they brought with them outdoor music. But when the early blues musicians began playing outside on Maxwell Street – the place where they could be heard by the greatest number of people – they realized they needed either a louder than standard Resonator guitar, or amplifiers and electrical instruments in order to be heard. Over several decades, the use of these new instruments, and the interaction between established city musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy and new arrivals from the South, produced a new musical genre – electrified, urban blues, later coined, “Chicago Blues.” This could be it – the actual birthplace of Chicago Blues. Of course, this place is long gone, run out by the University of Chicago – but it still deserves a visit. The blues is in the ground at this place….
Howlin’ Wolf Grave
We simply cannot go to Chicago without paying our respects to the Wolf. Of course, at his memorial festival in West Point MS is where we met new friends and musicians that have changed our worlds forever, so Wolf has touched our lives in numerous ways. His grave is a little out of the way, and actually resides in Hillside, but still. Gotta go to see the man.
Though we are only going to the most notable location on Michigan Ave, we gotta see the place where it all went down. Run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the rock music canon. Musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess Records as “America’s greatest blues label.” The building is now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. I’m sure most blues fans have seen the movie about this place. I want to stand on the steps where The Rolling Stones helped Muddy Waters unload his gear. Unreal.
Historical State Street Stroll
The Stroll was the name given to State Street between 26th and 39th Streets. In the 1910s and 1920s, thanks to the publicity efforts of the Chicago Defender, it was the best-known street inAfrican America, rivaled only by Seventh and Lenox Avenues in Harlem. The Stroll was where the action was. This section of State Street was jammed with black humanity night and day. In the evening the lights blazed and the sidewalks were crowded with patrons attending the jazz clubs and those just gazing at all the activity. During daylight hours it was a place to loiter, to gossip and watch the street life. Black Chicagoans were on show and they dressed up and acted accordingly. There were women on the Stroll but it was a place that displayed an aggressively masculine ethos. Some say the Stroll died in 1927 when a new theater opened up, but forget what they ay. The blues and jazz poured from this location well into the 40′s. In fact, the hardware store at the corner (35th and State) used to be the Sunset Café, a legendary jazz club where Louis Armstrong and others played.
Blues Marker/Train Depot
he “Great Migration” from the South to “the Promised Land” of Chicago brought more African Americans here from Mississippi than any other state, especially during and after World War II. With the migrants came the Delta blues that was the foundation of the classic postwar Chicago blues style. Muddy Waters, who became the king of Chicago blues, was among the thousands of Mississippians who arrived on Illinois Central trains at Central Station, which stood across the street from this site from 1893 to 1974. Gotta see the marker – but much more importantly – the site where they all rode into town… Not to mention, this depot helped the distribution of the Chicago Defender, which encouraged the Great Migration. Rock on, Chicago – Rock on.
Despite what most people might think, the jukes and blues clubs of the “heyday” in Chicago are gone to history. back in the day, the clubs didn’t even have names – just addresses. These days, they are almost all gone. It is hard to find a solid juke or local bar that hasn’t been all dressed up for toursits. But they are out there if you look. Here are a couple we intend to see.
Lee’s Unleaded Blues & Cocktail Lounge
Lee’s Unleaded Blues Club has been a South Side hot spot for the blues since the 1970s, when it was Queen Bee’s Lounge. Now owned by Yvonne Davis, Lee’s Unleaded Blues Club has been featured in National Geographic, and Men’s Journal magazine named it one of the six best juke joints in the country. Chicago Magazine February Issue 2010 list Lee’s Unleaded Blues Club as one of the best blues bars in Chicago.
Kingston Mines, “Chicago Blues Center”, was first established on Lincoln Avenue in 1968. Not to be confused with the downstate Illinois mining town of the same name, Kingston Mines is one of Chicago’s oldest, largest and most famous blues, juke joints. It began as a coffee house featuring folk and bluegrass music, but was soon converted into Chicago’s Blues Center, playing traditional Chicago Blues.
Harlem Ave Lounge
This is a locals place that features great gut bucket blues from local musicians. This “place” has less historical meaning, other than the fact I consider it a juke, and the music played is nothing but the blues. It’s hard to go wrong with a venue liker that.
Here are some raw, uncut photos from the trip. I used a Nikon D3000 with various lenses.