The South Side of Chicago is where the genre blossomed. We tour some clubs where great music happens, and despair and hope, sorrow and laughter live side by side
So this is where the legend lives? In this simple, wooden two-story next to Papa Joe’s Pizza and Dice Dojo Software, on a major road, and across from the gaping levels of a parking garage? How disappointing. But who cares? Certainly not the crowds flocking on foot, behind walkers, and on skateboards toward the wailing of an electric guitar and the rhythmic beat of a drum kit here at 2120 South Michigan Avenue on the South Side of Chicago. It’s an address so famous even The Rolling Stones used it for a song title. From here, a certain sound spread through the city and the country and then right across the world. Without it, Led Zeppelin and The Beach Boys, The Black Keys and The White Stripes, and solo artists Kanye West and Dr. Dre – in fact, almost every musician in the past sixty years – would have been unthinkable. It was the sound of the Chicago blues.
Everyone knows that the blues originated in the Deep South, on the vast cotton plantations of Louisiana and Mississippi. But when, starting in the 1920s, the poor, rural blacks embarked on a mass exodus to the industrial north – New York, Detroit and Chicago – they took with them not only their hopes for a little prosperity, but also their culture and their songs.
Today, Chicago is the third-largest U.S. city and a major business and culture center, but back then, Al Capone’s dark legacy clung to the steel mills and slaughterhouses where many of the newcomers labored long and hard. Those who could, earned their dollars on the city’s myriad blues stages – not the healthier option thanks to the whiskey, but an easier one.
The city’s best blues musicians pressed their songs of betrayal, love and loneliness on vinyl at the Chess brothers’ studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Koko Taylor were just three such bluesmen whose records have been captivating white middle-class kids around the world since the 1950s, segregation and racism notwithstanding. Even today, countless famous musicians and bands owe much to these giants of the genre. Even if its venerable halls look more like a museum today and the recording studio has long been a non-profit institution, the pathos of the songs recorded at the Blues Heaven Foundation overlays the patina. Its mission shines out as a neon-blue guitarist in the windows on the upper floor: “Keeping the Blues alive.” And the music is kept alive by being played and felt. That’s why bands regularly perform on the plain wooden stage in the back courtyard, as they are doing this particular Thursday night. Even really big names pay tribute to this little stage when they come to Chicago. Not long ago, The Rolling Stones played a couple of songs in the garden out back; on other days, Alicia Keys sits shyly in the audience.
The blues tells you things you don’t want to hear
Keith Dixon-Nelson, 25, short hair, soft features, is confident “the blues will never die.” He shakes hands with each of the nearly 80 visitors as they enter the garden. A band from Louisiana is expected and there’s a sense of family reunion in the air. This is intended, Dixon-Nelson explains. “We stage these sessions mainly for locals – for free. It’s a poor neighborhood.”
Our host not only organizes gigs and cultivates good neighborly relations, he also gives tours of the museum and explains the history of the blues, taking visitors past devotional objects, like B.B. King’s Fender and Stratocaster guitars, and first single pressings behind glass. More than anything, he is an anecdote machine. After all, he is the grandson of Chess Records’ legendary songwriter Willie Dixon, who immortalized himself in more than 4000 tracks, including “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” Colleagues became friends and regularly visited the Dixons. “I know all of my grandfather’s stories that didn’t go into a book about the blues.” Nelson even learned some painful wisdoms from his grandfather: “The blues tells you things you don’t want to, but need to, hear,” explains Nelson. “You’re broke, you have to get up early, and your woman is gone.” Not pleasant things. “But hell, that’s life …” The opening bars of “Sweet Home Chicago” swallow his final syllables.
Sitting in front of the stage on a plastic chair is David “Chainsaw” Dupont. Chainsaw is one of the best-known blues guitarists in the city. He plays chords in fast succession, like a chainsaw, hence his nickname. Today, he’s here to listen. He has a straw hat shading his eyes, and over his denim shirt, a heavy silver chain dangling a mask of King Tutankhamen, the Egyptian pharaoh. New times call for new gods, though, and the 59-year-old believes they created their new, musical kingdom in Chicago.
Chainsaw didn’t find the blues, it was the other way around – the blues found him. They croaked at him from big brown wooden radios, hissed and crackled on his neighbors’ gramophones deep down in Mississippi. And sometimes the blues came straight into his home, brought along by the musicians who visited his parents. As a 6-year-old boy, David would listen, entranced, to the deep voices and the chords, and he threw himself into the music’s arms. He was given his first guitar when he was 10, and taught himself to play.
“We worked in the sugarcane fields, my parents, my brothers, and I. None of us went to school. We never had enough to eat, just sat together, hungry, and turned on the radio,” says Chainsaw. They listened to the blues, of course. When David turned 14, the music said to him: Come on, boy, let’s go. There’s nothing down here for you. So David went, taking his guitar and a suitcase more than 1000 kilometers north. His destination: the South Side of Chicago. He knew that was where the epicenter of black culture lay, where the “Blues District” covered entire blocks on 47th Street. North Chicago, on the other hand, remained the preserve of the white population. In fact, these two separate worlds barely mix even today, and a good 97 percent of Chicago’s South Side is black.
Like so many others, Chainsaw jumped off the train at Central Station in Chicago, and earned a few dollars for the night playing at Maxwell Market. He reckons there are still more than 1000 musicians playing the blues in Chicago. And it’s still a tough scene. Many become famous, but only very few become rich. Not even Chainsaw, for all his fame: His Fender guitar is in the pawnshop yet again. And his many gigs and months-long tours have taken their toll: He hasn’t seen his son for years because “the blues came first,” and his wife regularly left him and came back again. On the other hand: If you want to play good blues, you have to be hungry. And Chainsaw plays very good blues.
Now he’s tired of traveling and only performs in Chicago. He plays in North Chicago, in the downtown clubs, at the Blue Chicago and Buddy Guy’s Legends, in the shadow of towering skyscrapers, where stretch limos full of squealing women glide from traffic light to traffic light, or stop in trendy neigborhoods like Logan Square or Wicker Park. The musicians are good and the programs are good, but the clubs charge high prices. Tourists pay between 12 and 25 dollars to get in, enjoy some decent music and perfectly good drinks before leaving again with a souvenir T-shirt. Musicians like Chainsaw play these clubs for dollars. But on the South Side, they play from the heart.
The bars there lie tucked away between simple, narrow houses with picket fences, or in remote spots on main thoroughfares, where the lights of downtown Chicago twinkle like stars on the horizon. Dark streets, tough areas – industrial wasteland. People from North Chicago seldom stray here because for them, the South is still a no-go area. Yet this is where the heart of the Chicago blues truly beats – at clubs like The Waterhole, Linda’s Place and Good Times, which charge no admission and sell no souvenirs. A faded neon sign in the window of Linda’s Place advertising Miller Beer is the only indication that there’s a bar behind the rickety door. The lettering over the mirror behind the bar warns: “If you want to stay in this place, you need a drink in your face.”
Gene’s Playmate Lounge (Gene Payton’s place) has also barely changed in over thirty years. It’s like a trip into the past: red tinsel on a stained ceiling, red faux leather benches in front of a low, mirror-backed stage, and naturally, a jukebox. Every Saturday night, the blues bar stages live music for the neighborhood. Anyone who wants to is welcome to perform. Payton, now 73, has been putting on these gigs since the 1980s. The men turn up in white or wine-red suits, some of the women in black dresses, and apart from the bass player, everyone here is black. Some evenings, the line stretches out onto the street. That way you know it’s the beginning of the month.
It’s the hidden clubs, like Gene’s and Linda’s Place, that keep the blues alive. When a song starts up, people almost immediately begin to dance. The first line is often met with calls from the audience, like: “Yeah, sister, he did you wrong.” It’s a party, a celebration of the blues. Even when Gene’s left hand starts shaking due to Parkinson’s, and Carolyn, his partner, says she could easily imagine taking things a little easier – a wish, a hope remains: that the high wailing of a guitar may continue to be heard at the end of the street from the blues bars on the South Side of Chicago, and that “Everyday I Have The Blues” – the favorite song of countless bands – will still be played for a very long time.