The Faded Heart of the Chicago Blues

Old guitars and photographs hang on the walls. Graying couples sit at the tables and the waitress moves between them, carrying bottles and glasses on a metal tray. The air is filled with muted conversations; one man charms his friends with his knowledge and exquisite taste, another complains about the crowd. On the stage, Buddy Guy is tuning his guitar. Someone from the audience shouts to him.

“I was at your concert in ’68. You rocked.”

Buddy Guy gives the man a stern look.

“’68… so how fucking old do you think I am? The concert was in ’72.”

There is a moment of uncomfortable silence. And suddenly Buddy Guy’s frown turns into a smile. One of his golden teeth shines in the spotlight.

“I’m just kidding. I love this guy! He’s my man!”

He pulls up his overalls and continues to play, as if nothing happened.

“…I’m 74 years young… there ain’t nothing I haven’t done…”

“Buddy… you’re 76 now…”

3501 S. Martin Luther King Drive

Pat Fox leads me up the steep stairs of a century-old building that once housed the country’s first African-American owned insurance company. In the winter, the gift store on the first floor is permanently closed, so the place doesn’t seem to have much going on for it. Shelves are full of books about Obama, there are stacks of t-shirts with his imprints lying around everywhere. Feels as if the elections happened only yesterday.

“We don’t get many visitors this time of year, so we don’t keep the store staffed,” Fox explains as we reach upstairs.

Last time I was in the area this time of year, two years ago, I didn’t know this place existed. At the time, I heard the neighborhood had a rich history, so I just came for a walk to check it out. Aside from a few platters and statues, I found only boarded-up buildings, a few run-down stores, and a relatively new police headquarters.

It was cold, the wind blew in my face, I was hiding in my coat, when from the corner of my eye I saw a man cross the street in my direction.

“Did the white people send you here to spy on us?” he asked in passing.

On the second floor, the walls are adorned with black and white portraits and paintings, there is a vintage clock in one corner, and the central area is taken up by an impressive array of bronze replicas of blues and jazz clubs from New York and Chicago created by artist Preston Jackson. Pat Fox has lived in the neighborhood all her life and works as one of the managers of this nonprofit information center and museum dedicated to promoting and preserving local history.

“I know they don’t look like much nowadays, but there was a time when the surrounding streets were home to one of the most thriving art scenes in America,” Fox takes a sip of coffee. “Black artists came to this neighborhood, some of the most famous musicians, painters and writers lived and worked here. This, of course, is the home of the blues.”

Black Metropolis

In the first decades of the 20th century, thousands of African-Americans began arriving in Chicago. They were leaving the South and the plantations, which stood as reminders of their brutal past. Many came with only a bag of spare clothes and a few dollars in their pockets. Some had slips of paper with addresses of their friends or relatives. A handful of young men, hoping to make extra money, carried with them guitars and harmonicas. The number of black residents in the city rose from thirty thousand at the beginning of the century, to more than a quarter of a million by the mid-30s.

They settled on the southside of Chicago, in a neighborhood known as Bronzeville. “Remember, south and west is black and north is white,” new arrivers were told. At the time, informal residential laws prevented blacks from settling in white districts, and Irish youth mobsters, among them future mayor Richard J. Daley, patrolled the streets, armed with billy clubs and knives. Bronzeville was the farthest north they were allowed to go.

But it was here, on the cold and windy streets, where the grandson of slaves and the son of poor cotton pickers could get a life of his own. He had a job, a tiny kitchenette for an apartment, which he shared with wife and kids. He worked long and hard shifts in one of the slaughterhouses or steel mills, and after work, tired and dirty, went to a tavern to have a drink and listen to some music.

47th street was the heart of the neighborhood. Countless clubs and taverns grew at every corner. Through the night and into early afternoon, music blasted through the windows and doors and onto the streets of Chicago. It was dirty and crude, and while purists hated it, working classes loved it.

At the time, Bronzeville saw a rise of a new cultural movement. The impoverished neighborhood was giving birth to an art form like no other. Artists produced music, paintings, and literature; activists crafted radical political ideas. Middle-classes, yearning for higher culture, stood in long lines in front of the Regal Theatre and the adjacent Savoy Ballroom. When New York had its Harlem Renaissance, Chicago’s south side was growing into a Black Metropolis.

There were black banks, black pharmacies, black convenience stores and black theatres. Small industry flourished. Bronzeville became the Negro Capital of America. Musicians, who could not break into the mainstream music scene dominated by white artists, began arriving in Chicago en masse. Those with little to no experience played on the streets and in parks, while the established ones, in taverns and clubs. The lights never went out. People danced, drank, and sang, some passed out in the gutters, others stuttered into the back alleys where they fought with each other over women and petty cash. Music was an essential part of the neighborhood’s life.

Eventually, blues transformed from improvised acoustic ballads into a full-fledged musical style that forever changed the art scene around the world, bringing with it gospel, and later funk and soul, but also greatly influencing rock and roll and jazz. Guitars were hooked up to amplifiers, musicians added bass and piano to their repertoires.

McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, is the godfather of the Chicago blues. Born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, where he worked as a cotton picker, he came to the windy city in 1943, with nothing but a guitar and a few amateurish songs to his name. Although blues was already an important part of Bronzeville’s culture, Waters captivated the audiences with his deep voice and unforgettable skills, and became one of the most successful performers of his time.

In the 1940’s, shortly after coming to Chicago, he signed his first professional contract with Chess Records studio and in the next decade released such hits as Rollin’ Stone, I Can’t Be Satisfied or I Feel Like Going Home.

“People on the outside – including universities and government institutions – could not believe that the south side ghetto was flourishing. Bronzeville grew and grew. Despite the hardships, life was filled with pride and dignity,” Fox says.

In 1953, having saved some money from his gigs, Waters bought a small two-floor apartment building just east of Bronzeville. For the next 20 years, he wrote and recorded some of his songs there. In the basement he built a studio where he jammed with other blues players, and the group used to give concerts on the front lawn, attracting crowds from the entire neighborhood.

In 1958, Waters went touring in Great Britain. He shocked the audiences, who associated the blues with acoustic sounds and soft ballads, and not the dark and gritty electric guitars hooked up to amplifiers. Not long after, British musicians began arriving in Bronzeville. Captivated by the blues, they spent long hours listening to the sounds of the guitars, analysing and imitating the moves, and the bluesmen from Chicago were pleased to act as their mentors.

The Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stone magazine are both named after one of Muddy Water’s records. For decades, while touring around the world, Keith Richards and his band reminded the audiences where they came from. “We would be nothing without Muddy Waters. He taught us everything. He’s the dude you should be paying respects to.”

Outside world fell in love with the electric blues, and the artists from Bronzeville became stars overnight. By 1960, white Chicagoans began looking for ways to listen to the blues, few brave souls started showing up in clubs, but most were not ecstatic about commuting to the south side – place they considered to be a ‘ghetto.’ So the music of the poor migrants from the South went where the big money was. And the big money wasn’t in Bronzeville.

“Suddenly, the neighborhood felt too small,” Fox says. “Local musicians and club owners left for neighborhoods on the north side, or went on tours to other cities, where they could make a decent wage.”

For decades isolated and confined to one area, Bronzeville residents rose in the eyes of other Chicagoans.

“Political changes followed and the restrictive residential laws were eventually lifted,” Fox says. “People didn’t have to live here anymore. So they moved. The fall of Bronzeville was a quick one. In my lifetime it went from everything to nothing. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t spit without… you know… my spit landing on a blues club. Even my dad was a musician. And now, this is all gone. In a way, Bronzeville was killed by its own success.”

The following years brought with them a number of changes. Chicago remains segregated, but the music, once synonymous with poor black neighborhoods, has spread to other districts. You can’t hear it much on the radio anymore, and the majority of artists are aging men, but pick up any Chicago guidebook and the first pages say it’s the “Home of the Blues.” Clubs on the north side are packed every night with locals and tourists, who bring the city millions of dollars in tax revenue. Every year, Chicago hosts a blues festival, with artists from all over the world. “Blues is alive and well,” read articles in the papers.

“Muddy Water long dead”

The rundown building, with its windows boarded up with plywood and the front door barely hanging on its hinges, looks lost among the newly renovated brownstones that surround it. Pink flamingos painted on the entrance have faded, the red bricks are chipping, and some of the metal facade is gone. A large white sticker with a red ‘X’ marks the front wall.

A group of four people, three young men and a woman, stand on the sidewalk in front of the building. Another man rushes across the street in their direction, then stops, then runs the other way. Eventually, the woman also turns around and is about to head off. As I approach them, the group is still deep in their conversation. I begin reading from a beaten-up sign describing the place, when one of the men turns to me.

“This here is the home of Muddy Waters.”

The other two men turn to face the building. The subject of their previous conversation changes.

“You know, it looks horrible, but I think it ain’t that bad.”

“Beaten-up and ugly… and the inside’s completely busted.”

“Nah, some paintwork here and there. The building’s nice,” says the youngest one.

“Yeah, it’s real nice… And I tell you, all it needs is some lovin’.”

The building – like many in the area – is a landmark. At one point, Muddy Waters created a studio in the basement here and invited fellow musician to jam with him. The likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry played impromptu concerts in the front yard. Neighbors came to sing along.

But the red “X” affixed to the facade indicates that the building is also structurally unsound and dangerous. According to several news reports, the city has over the years received numerous complaints from surrounding neighbors and is now seeking necessary permits from the landmark commission. Unless the current owner gives it a complete makeover, and makes it secure and viable as a residential property, the once home of the blues legend could face imminent tear-down.

“Muddy Waters’ son, Larry, owned the building, but he lost it in court,” hearing the conversation, the woman, who was now some distance away, comes back. “He still lives in the neighborhood. I see him everyday.”

“Who? Muddy Waters?” asks the youngest inconspicuously.

“No shit – Larry. Muddy Water long dead.”


Today, Bronzeville, the birthplace of the Chicago blues, resembles nothing of its golden era, when Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed lived and produced their greatest hits, and The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Mike Bloomfield came to learn the guitar. Vacant lots mark places where they once worked, and instead of drunk club goers, clusters of tall yellow grass bend with the wind.

Most of the taverns that once covered this area no longer exist. Some were torn down or converted, others moved to different parts of the city. Gone are Silvio’s, Gatewood’s Tavern, or The Flame Club, where generations of musicians played all night long, and the Checkerboard Lounge, known for The Rolling Stones who recorded a live album there, was closed in 2003, after a safety inspector concluded the building wasn’t fit for renovation.

When a few years ago, British comedian Stephen Fry visited Chicago to film a new segment for his show Stephen Fry in America, he met with Buddy Guy and together they took Fry’s London taxi on a drive around Bronzeville. In one scene, Guy is shown looking out the window.

“This is the place of the most famous blues club in Chicago,” he points to an empty field where naked trees lean against a hollowed out fence. “This vacant lot here, another one called Mitch’s Jukebox Lounge. This is where they stole my first guitar,” he smiles.

“And it’s now wasteland,” Fry says. “Just wasteland.”

Since the end of the 1950s, Bronzeville has been witness to a mass exodus. When the restrictive residential laws were lifted, sixty thousand people, or nearly 75 percent of the total population, left the neighborhood within a few decades. For those who stayed, life didn’t get any easier. While the unemployment rate today stays at around fifteen percent, an estimated quarter to two thirds of the community lives below poverty line. Crime remains a problem, shootings and theft are not uncommon. At some point, the locals came up with an initiative for a blues museum run in conjunction with a music venue to attract tourism, but so far the idea remains only on paper.

Grassroot movement is here, but the city does not appear keen on promoting Bronzeville’s legacy. Around 1997, Alderman Dorothy Tillman decided to erect bronze statues and platters honoring the neighborhood’s past, but the politician who took office after her, Alderman Pat Dowell, called the idea “one not grounded in reality.”

“Nothing against blues, but I don’t think that concept is viable in the community today,” she said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2009.

The neighborhood, to this day known as the blues district of Chicago, is in many ways a ghost town. Every fifth building is abandoned, vacant lots can be seen on almost every corner, and the city to which many of them belong, was until recently reluctant to sell them. There are of course new housing projects and many of the 19th century brownstones have been renovated, but few residents can afford them.

Architectural landmarks, such as the Regal Theater, which would make for tourist attractions in any other part of the city, here were seen instead as costly and cumbersome. The theater, on the corner of 47th and Grand Boulevard, was a sight to behold. Designed by architect Edward Eichenbaum of the firm Levy & Klein, it was adorned with plush carpeting, velvet drapes, and a ceiling with an open view of the night sky, but also had a state-of-the-art ventilation system, dressing rooms, and a hydraulically raised Wurlitzer organ – all of which were considered revolutionary for their time.

More importantly, however, Regal Theater was one of the first theaters in the country to be managed and run entirely by African-Americans. And it prospered. Black and white photographs show hundreds of people lined up at the door to get a glimpse of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, or Duke Ellington, who performed there on numerous occasions. By day, when the music stopped, the stage converted into a movie theater, with seating for three thousand.

But by the late 1960s, things started to change. When people began leaving Bronzeville in thousands, the business, like many in the area, went under and the theater closed. In 1971, fire caused extensive damage to the building’s structure, and although it could have been saved, Regal Theatre was razed to the ground.

“The music is alive and as authentic as ever”

There was a time when blues could only be heard in Bronzeville. Confined to that one area, it didn’t offer plenty of luxuries or money, but it made the neighborhood burst with life and energy. Today, instead of music, the vacant lots are filled with empty beer bottles and torn trash bags. The only businesses around are beauty salons, phone and liquor stores, and fast food chains.

The golden age of blues from this impoverished African-American district is gone for good, but that doesn’t mean the music has left the city of its birth. Far from it, blues tops Chicago’s promotional agenda. Every year, people who visit in search of music, leave behind millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Nowadays, nearly all of the venues are located on the north side of Chicago, in the predominantly white districts, where the pockets are deeper and the tourists come a lot more often.

There are the world famous Blue Chicago and B.L.U.E.S., both set in Lincoln Park, where the locals come during the week and the tourists fly in on the weekends to get a taste of what the owners call the “authentic” blues. Logan Square, has the Rosa’s Lounge, described as “Chicago’s friendliest blues lounge.” Another one called Kingston Mines, sits on the corner of Wrightwood and Halsted Avenue.

Three years ago, Kevin Rushby, travel journalist for the Guardian newspaper, came to Chicago to discover how the blues has changed over the years.

“Landing at the airport and taking the cab,” he writes, “I have a nagging anxiety in the back of my head: all those great blues musicians are dead, aren’t they? And this is America. What I’ll be served is tourist blues: a tinsel-tasting soup of theme park clubs and drama students playing at being Muddy Waters.”

In the article, he describes his ventures into the clubs on the city’s north side, where he meets with musicians, club owners, and organizers to discuss their connection to the music. “I hadn’t known a soul when I walked in the club called B.L.U.E.S. at midnight,” he writes,” but when I ran out, it was with half a dozen new friends.” He leaves the city satisfied and with a sense of accomplishment. “The music is alive and as authentic as ever,” reads the first sentence of the lead paragraph.

But among his colorful and vivid descriptions, there is a nagging sensation that something is missing. On his quest, Rushby never gets farther south than the South Loop, miles away from Bronzeville.

“There was a time when I would be sitting at a table somewhere in a tavern here, having a good time with my friends, and there would be someone famous playing right there on the stage,” Pat Fox tells me. “Today, you are separated by a sea of people. And with tickets costing so much, few can afford it.”

Walking down the 47th Street, it is nearly impossible to imagine there ever was a thriving art scene here. No more than half a century has passed since this was the very heart of the Chicago blues, but today, only the bronze statues, platters, and vacant lots stand as solitary reminders of that glorious past.

“We are trying to market Bronzeville internationally, as the home of electrified blues, jazz and gospel music and the historic community politics that lead to the election and reelection of the first black president of the United States,” says Harold Lucas, a 70-year-old local activist and director of the museum where Pat Fox works. “But it’s a constant struggle… places like the Checkerboard Lounge… it’s simply a theft of our identity.”

Less than two years after the club closed for building code violations, University of Chicago made a deal with its proprietor and the venue was moved farther east, to an affluent Hyde Park neighborhood. The decision sparked a heated debate between the community and the university. Bronzeville residents felt they were being robbed of their history and one of the last remaining strongholds of blues there. But the university had its own reasons. According to the school, in the 40s and 50s, Hyde Park had its own lively music scene. Bringing the Checkerboard Lounge to the neighborhood was a way to restore it.

Where the old Lounge stood, on 43rd, there is now an empty field, next to it tax services and a convenience store. The new one sits sandwiched between a BP gas station and a McDonald’s at 5201 S. Harper Ct.

“It just doesn’t have the same cultural experience,” adds Lucas.

Buddy Guy’s Legends

On the corner of Wabash Avenue and Balbo Street, just south of the Loop and across from Hilton Hotel, lies Buddy Guy’s Legends. This popular venue, opened in 1989, is Buddy Guy’s attempt to bring the blues closer to its faded heart and make it accessible to the community.

Like many of the musicians from his generation, he came from humble beginnings. Born in Louisiana, to a family of cotton pickers, Guy moved to Chicago to learn from the very best. “Don’t wanna die, Mama, without seeing Muddy Waters,” he wrote in his autobiography. When he got off the train, just 21 years old at the time, blues was about to explode in popularity.

Although frequently on the road, earlier this year, the legendary guitarist came back to his adopted home for longer. For four days every week, he performed at his club to a sold-out audience, accompanied by a plethora of blues musicians, both young and old, some famous, others still awaiting their prime. The tickets started at fifty dollars and went into the hundreds.

Out of the three hundred-or-so members of the crowd, maybe twenty were black. Most were aging couples and groups of friends, there were also quite a few younger people.

Throughout the show, Buddy Guy shared stories and joked with the audience. He had light-hearted arguments with the members of his band, and took frequent breaks, either to tune his guitar or get a sip of water. But he didn’t let anyone down. His voice carried the crowd, which sang along to all of his songs, and his fingers stroked the chords, as if they were fifty years younger.

“I didn’t go to no school. All I know about them blues, I learned right here on the street.”

By the end, before the audience got up to leave, Buddy Guy introduced on the stage a young up-and-coming guitar player Quinn Sullivan. Jetlagged and tired, the 13-year-old Massachusetts-native had no trouble playing his tunes, and treated the audience to the unforgettable sounds of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.

“This is the future. Raw talent,” Buddy Guy wasn’t short on compliments. “I couldn’t play like this when I was twice his age.”

A few days later, Pat Fox was looking out the window of her second-floor museum in Bronzeville. Although she couldn’t see it from where she was standing, her mind wandered off to that intersection of Wabash and Balbo, to Buddy Guy’s Legends.

“When he retires, they’ll probably close this place for good,” she said. “It will be an end of an era. Without him, blues will never be the same.”

23 February, 2013, Chicago, Illinois

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