My first visit to Chicago (November 14 - 24, 1996)
It was always one of my greatest wishes to travel to the capital of the blues. I made plans for a journey 3 years ago. Finally I had the opportunity to realize it in 1996. After collecting informations about the city through books and mainly the Internet I was ready to leave on a cold November morning - my 24th birthday - for Chicago. Having my brother by my side the journey into the deep of the blues started...
November 14 (Thursday): After checking in at our hotel we took a look at the schedule of the two Blue Chicago clubs that were just a few blocks away. We were happy to see that Byther Smith & The Night Riders would play. Knowing Smith from a JSP record, he is one of my favorite artists, because he has his own style escpecially in writing songs. He just retired from his day job as a mechanist and is now - at age 63 - heading out for bringing his blues to a wider audience. At that night the club - offering space and seats for maybe 200 people - wasn't very packed. We saw two sets (each one hour). The band started without their leader (he was still eating some burgers) with standards that didn't heat up the audience. As Byther plucked in his strat things got better with every note. His mostly concerned or angry face emphasized the message of his own songs dealing with dark and sad matters. Sharp guitar phrases fit in perfectly. But he also showed a different side of his emotions. He proofed with interpretations of some B.B King's songs that he is a fine singer, too, reaching a point where few could deny that this ain't B.B. himself.
For some tunes the heavyweight female singer Karen Carroll joined the band. She has a loud voice and lacks of own songs. She sang overperformed songs like "Sweet Home Chicago". Although Smith's performance was great (the band was rather too relaxed) the atmosphere in the club wasn't very excited with no one dancing or yelling. So we went over to the brother club Blue Chicago On Clark 3 blocks away. It's a very small venue for maybe 80 people.
As we stepped in (no cover if you have paid at the other club) we found ourself in the middle of a hell of a party. An enthusiastic audience with many dancing on other people's feet pushed the band. It took a while to get a look at the bandstand because it was so crowded. Guitarist/vocalist Johnny B. Moore and his band supported the singing of Patricia Scott The repertoire included almost standard tunes, but the people loved it. The long day and the jet lack didn't let us stay too long there. So we left before the end of the show.
November 15 (Friday): Starting the weekend we headed out to the famous northside B.L.U.E.S. club - located at 2519 N. Halsted. Famous for many live recordings through the last 20 years it's a rather small place for about 100 people. The stage is small, many seats are avaible and the walls are illustrated with photos from the past. Delmark recording artist Big Time Sarah & The BTS Express was announced for a 8 $ charge. The hot band started with rocking blues lead by saxman Rodney Brown. Young guitarist Chico provided some mean playing and singing. After this warmup Sarah herself entered the stage. With all her pounds she howled and shouted her way through own songs and classics. The show had the typical element of todays female Chicago blues - sometimes slippery lyrics and behavior paired with provocating the audience to sing along with her. The crowd was supportive. Special guest appearance was made by guitarist/singer Lurrie Bell who played two own songs with the band. This son of harp player Carey Bell impressed with his strong voice and a fiery guitar playing.
We left the party after the second set to cross the street and to go to the
legendary Kingston Mines club. This large venue has space for hundreds of fans and non-stop
music on two stages. This night the headliner was saxplayer/singer A.C. Reed
and his band The Sparkplugs. On the smaller
stage bassist J.W. Williams & Kid Dynamite played a more
soul set. It was around 1 a.m. when we got in. The crowd was still packed and people danced in front of the band
(Arthur "Sambo" Irby on drums, Avery Brady on bass, Ed Wooten on 2nd guitar). Reed played his steady
rolling set of hard driving blues. Driven by guitarist Sammy Fender
A.C. sang with few exception only fast or midtempo tunes inspired by Jimmy Reed or Hound Dog Taylor.
As we left for our hotel it was 3 a.m. and the club was still cooking - the recommended Doc's Kitchen, too.
Just try the Chicago Blues Burger - Great.
November 16 (Saturday): If you go out to hear blues 10 nigths in a row, you are not sure - even in a rich city like Chicago - to get the best choice every night. So this night we were diappointed by the club and the band. We decided to check out piano player/singer Piano C. Red at the northside Lilly's club for a 4 $ cover. I had read an article in Living Blues magazine about this man and was interested in his music. But he made not a big impression on us with a boring set of mostly standards (Stormy Monday, How Blue Can You Get, etc). The club is also not very good equiped with a stage that has only place for 4 musicians and it's hard to get a good sight to the bandstand.
November 17 (Sunday): We entered
B.L.U.E.S. again to see Barkin' Bill and Detroit Junior. The show
started with Willie James who fronted his young
Maxwell Street Blues Band. At daytime he is a heating mechanic and also a real street musician
playing the famous Maxwell Street at Sunday morning. The band surprised with it's tight sound featuring strong singing
and guitar playing from Willie and very tasteful harp phrases from Jaime Guzman, he's 32, hails from Mexico, and came to
Chicago in 1987.
After heating up the club it was time for Barkin' Bill to enter the stage.
He is a 68 year old singer dressed up like a gentleman and about 6 feet and 5 inch tall. Being a professional musician
all his life, he first recorded in 1990 with Dave Specter & The Bluebirds (great CD on Delmark). Bill is a true
entertainer and his unique baritone voice is catching every people's ears.
Detroit Junior was the next to play some
blues. He is a 65 old piano player who was in the Howlin' Wolf band in the 60s and seventies. He also did many recordings
as session musician for Chess and did under his own name songs on the Living Chicago Blues series on Alligator. Today
he has no regular band, but he can be found as a special guest or alone at his piano. At that night he did some fine
boogie woogie numbers with the band including his trademark "If I hadn't been high". He proofed to be one of
the last living authentic blues and boogie woogie piano players (along with Little Willie Littlefield). Piano Blues may
be dying, but Detroit Junior keeps this joyful music alive. I like to recommend his recording from 1994 "Turn Up
The Heat" on Blue Suit Records. Surprinsingly Big Time Sarah was
in the house coming up on stage for some standard tunes.
The real surprise of the night was harp player
Golden "Big" Wheeler. This 67 year old man is playing blues in Chicago
since the 50s. He impressed the audience with his powerful but traditional blowing and dedicated singing. For
one song he put a chromatic harp in his hand, too. Interested people should check out his 1993 Delmark CD "Bone
Orchard" where he got a great 50s sound.
November 18 (Monday): The clubs described above are all located in the downtown area or the north side of Chicago. But the origin of the typical Chicago Blues is still laying in the black dominated mainly poor south and west side neighbourhoods. On that monday we decided to check out the famous Checkerboard Lounge at 423 E. 43rd Street (Muddy Waters Drive). The club was owned by Buddy Guy from 1972-85 and was one of the best places for blues in the 70s. Buddy played their hundreds of times with Junior Wells. Knowing that the neighbourhood is not the best, we took a cab instead of a train or bus. During the ride we saw that it was really a 'bad' hood - lonesome streets with only some mysterious people standing around burn-out cars. We arrived at 9 p.m. when only a few older blacks and one white hippie were hanging around the bar. The room was full of old furniture and in contrast to the clubs we were before really poor but still comfortable. I never been in a real jukejoint but the Checkerboard maybe the close to such a southern style club.
Scheduled was guitarist John Primer and his band, but sadly the bass player didn't appear and the gig was cancelled. I talked with John and told him that I saw him 3 years ago in Germany - he was very friendly, signing his newest CD and a poster for me and said that he was very sorry that he couldn't play for us this night, but he mentioned he would play at Buddy Guy's Legend at Thursday. So we promised to see us again. A little bit disappointed about this situation we found ourself in.
We were well surprised to meet legendary bass player
Dave Myers. He saw us young white guys and just asked where we were from and then
we talked for one hour about different aspects of the blues. Together with his brother Louis (guitar) and Fred
Below (drums) Myers were a member of THE ACES. They were the rythm section for Little Walter, Junior Wells and
Otis Rush in the 50s and made recording for Chess and Cobra. Today at age 71 Myers is playing at rare times in
Chicago or other places in the US. We talked about his travel to Germany in the 60s as part of the AMERICAN FOLK
BLUES FESTIVAL and he couldn't believe that the tour manager from these days, FRITZ RAU, is today owner of the
biggest tour agency in Germany with the likes of Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones under his
wings. Dave told us stories about his work with guitar manufacturer Leo Fender, as Myers was the first one who
played electric bass in the blues. 'When I came up with that electric bass I blowed up everything with that noise'.
Myers claims that he co-invented the Fender bassman amplifier and never got a dime for that. Further on he mentioned
that he just came back from a recording session the westcoast as he signed a deal with the New Orleans based
label BackTop Records. But he didn't seem to be pleased with the result as he said that the white studio musicians
didn't know nothing about his music and 'they made a shit of my music'. The - at that time untitled - album will
be realesead in February. (Update: Finally the album has been released in early 1998.) After it was sure
that John Primer wouldn't play tonight, Dave Myers invited us to go with him to Buddy Guy's Legends to check out
a jam session. So we drove with that old man in his Lincoln Town Car '85 to the downtown club. Driving this big car
he had a lot of fun hearing (and not believing) that my brother's car only got 34 Hp and a weight of 700 kilogramm.
As we entered Buddy Guy's club we didnt' had to pay or show our
ID because the doorman knew Myers and greeted us friendly. The large club was packed and on the bandstand
was a session going on - every Monday George Baze (a half-brother
of John Primer; saw Baze with Junior Wells three years ago) hosts a session since the club opened in 1989. Mostly
younger guitarists were playing loud guitar solos on standard blues tunes.
To mention a few names: Michael Dotson, Luther Jones, Quintus McCormick, Eddie Butler and George Baze. Sharing the stage
for a couple of tunes were also some keyboard players and George Hinds on harp. There were nearly tumults in the audience
when Baze told the listeners that Buddy Guy himself was in the house.
But the club owner couldn't been persuaded to enter the stage and play a tune. Between two songs Baze welcomed
Dave Myers and introduced him to the people. Ending the night we shaked hands with Myers and promised to
meet again next day.
November 19 (Tuesday): On this Tuesday another great bass player caught our attention. We went to Blue Chicago on Clark again to hear the Aron Burton Blues Band. Burton (born in '38) is one of the few bass players who leads his own band. In the seventies he was member of Albert Collins Icebreakers and played on Collins first album for Alligator records (this night he paid tribute to him with a rendition of "Cold Cold Feeling" ). He claims also to be the teacher for todays best bass player in the blues - Johnny B. Gayden. Aron Burton recorded over the years for JSP and more recently Delmark. With his talented band he went into a nice set of classics and original songs. He has faible for B.B. King and showed that he is a good singer, too. In the atmosphere of the really crowded small club he started up a party with everyone singing along with him from the first song on. Later in the evening it was Karen Carroll again to sit in for some tunes. Burton made a special announcemnt when he realized that our new friend Dave Myers was in the audience - telling the people that Myers is his mentor. But he couldn't convince Myers to enter the stage. It was a true joyful concert.
November 20 (Wednesday): Time to check out another session - now at the B.L.U.E.S. etcetera club and hosted by sax player Rodney Brown who is also member of Big Time Sarah's BTS Express. The joint with space for around 250 people was only visited by 30 listeners. But about 20 musicians, mostly young and not very experienced, were playing in different line ups. The music was sometimes funky or rocking blues. Standard songs were played with extensive solos.
November 21 (Thursday): Much better blues was presented to us as we went to Buddy Guy's Legends again. A special event took place - the Austrian based blues label Wolf Records celebrated it's opening of an office in Chicago and therefore made a showcase for some of their best artists. For only 7 $ at the door, the line up was really superb. Kicking off the show John Primer got into a furious set of hard Chicago Blues with emphazing his strong guitar playing and singing. His music is influenced by Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Elmore James. Supported by his comrades Nick Holt (bass) and Earl Howell (drums) back from his days as a member of Magic Slim's Teardrops he let everyone know that he is now on his own. Primer was with Muddy Waters from 1980-83 and toured all over the world with Magic Slim. He recorded for Wolf and Earwig. More recently he made a higly recommended album for Mike Vernon's Code Blue label called "The real deal". After the first set it was time for a reunion of the Teardrops. Guitar slinger Magic Slim entered the stage armed with his old Fender Jazzmaster. Slim (Morris Holt), who is currently 59 years old, plugged in and quickly made sure that he has one of the heaviest and loudest guitar sounds in town. Writing no own songs he relays on covers, but it works great. The crowd (300 people) was fascinated by his version of Jimmy Dawkins 'Luv Somebody'. Having seen him three times in Germany it was the best gig, because he seemed to be very ecxited at that night.
The next one to play some tunes was
L.V. Banks. He is an unknown singer and guitarist from the South Side. Born 1932 he
plays blues since the 50s. He did his first ever record in 1995. An album on Wolf called 'Teddy Bear' with
all original material. His performance was really good. Dressed in a glimmering suite he brought some nice
songs with spot on his smooth voice.
The tension rose as harp wizard
Billy Branch joined the band. He's well known as a member of the Sons Of
Blues (saw them in '95 in Germany) since 20 years. He toured the world and made several recordings
both as leader and sideman. He is one of the few 'young' black (today 44 years) harp players in
Chicago. Centerpiece of his set was a 10 minute rendition of 'That's alright' cutting loose in an
November 22 (Friday):
Our last weekend in town promised to be great as we headed out to see some real big names. On this Friday night
Son Seals played at Kingston Mines. The cover
charge was 12 $. Heating up the club was Detroit Junior again. This time alone at his piano playing
great boogies and blues. At 10 p.m. Seals started to play. The 1942 born singer/guitarist
is one the big attraction at this largest club in town since the mid 70s. Seals is one of
few young blues players who pushed the blues forward in the 70s with his kind of hard and
often funky style. Being in his younger days a drummer for Albert King Seals came up with
some great records on the - at that time small - Alligator label. In the 80s he reduced
his touring and recording before he came back in the 90s with 2 good albums on Alligator
again. In the last months he made a live recording at Buddy Guy's Legends club, too.
Knowing his abilities from the '77 "Live and burning" album we expected his
typical hard edged 'down and out' blues full of sorrow and devotion. But to our
disappointment Seals is today more comfortable with his situation and didn't played very
much of his hard stuff. He rather went into in a set of boaring standard tunes. He played
songs like "Don't You Lie To Me" and King's "Oh Pretty Woman". He even
did a version of "Stormy Monday". Though played not bad, it's a shame to hear
this songs, because Seals wrote great songs on his own dealing with the things happened to
his life. The audience didn't worry about that - they almost had a good time and the
atmosphere was good. Some words about Son's Band called Chicago Fire. Like on his last
recording (7th Son) there are horns - a trumpet and Red Groetzinger on alto sax. Horns are
O.K. in the blues and excellent on funky blues. But these two white guys were playing too
much as they had solo space on nearly every song. We had the impression that Son Seals was
tired and out-burned this night. I haven't heard his latest live CD (recorded with a
different band) but it may be that Seals lost some of his fire over the years.
November 23 (Saturday): After being in the Windy City for 9 days it was about to celebrate our last night in town. We went again to B.L.U.E.S. etcetera. Otis Rush was scheduled. He is an unique musician, major influence to kinds like Eric Clapton and John Mayall. Rush began in 1956 recordings for the Cobra label with Willie Dixon. He made 40 years ago blues classics like "All Your Love", "Double Trouble" and "I Can't Quit You Baby". In the last 20 years he wasn't big in the business, because he had personal problems. In 1993 he came back with his critically acclaimed 'Ain't Enough Coming In' album. He can only be seen at rare times in Europe. Even in Chicago he plays not very often. For only 10 $ we had the opportunity to see this legend in his home town.
His band included horns and keyboards. The club was packed with about 250 listeners and quickly the dance floor was hitted. Otis started his first set with Albert King's 'Crosscut Saw'. And his guitar was the real crosscut, played left-handed with an agressive tone and at a high volume level. In contrast to Son Seals' s horn section Otis' ones was great in adding a strong support to Rush's modern blues.The driving force of the band was Little Bobby Neely an excellent alto saxman who is a legend on his own. He played from the 50s with everyone in R&B, blues, soul and jazz. His partner-in-crime was Willie Henderson - Rush's long-time bariton sax player. Otis' singing is also a real treat. He sounds as fresh as on his earliest recordings with his soulful deep voice. Today at age 64, he looks 15 years younger and it seems that he still enjoys playing as he went into some great and innovative solos. Centerpiece of his set was a 18 minute rendition of "You're Breaking My Heart" from his '75 Delmark album "Cold Day In Hell" - he proofed that he is the master of slow blues putting so much emotion in his music. Most songs got over 8- 10 minutes. Just take a look at the set list : Crosscut Saw, All Your Love, Homework, Stormy Monday, Lonely Man, It's My Own Fault, Got My Mojo Working, Killing Floor (instrumental), Tore Up, You're Breaking My Heart, plus a few instrumentals. After the second set (around 1 a.m.) we had to leave because my brother suffered from a heavy flue with high temperature. Nevertheless: It was a great evening !
...we heard about 30 hours of blues, saw
nearly 100 different musicians from age 18 to 70, drunk some pitchers of Bud, bought about
15 CDs and spent much money in the clubs, met some fine people from everywhere ... now I
look forward and I ask me the question: Who did I miss to see ? A few names that come to
my mind: Jimmy Dawkins, Willie Kent, Jimmy Johnson, Tail Dragger, Big Jack Johnson,
Lester Davenport, Eddie Shaw, Little Mack Simmons; Clubs: Artis's, Mr. Tee's Lounge,
Rosa's, Lee's Unleaded Blues, 5105 Club.
You see, if I ever get a second chance (and the time) I will come back to the Windy City.
Text and photos by www.joes-corner.de
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Last Update: 09-20-2001