"You rich people listen, you better listen real deep If we poor people get so hungry we gonna take some food to eat Uh, uh, uh, I got them laid off [blues] Thinking about me and you, what the President gonna do?"
-J. B. Lenoir, "Everybody Wants to Know" (Chess 410), Chicago blues lyrics on the Eisenhower years.
"I lay awake at nights, false love, just so troubled It's hard to keep a job, laid off, having double trouble Hey hey yeah they say you can make it if you try Yeah some of this generation is millionaires It's hard for me to keep decent clothes to wear."
-Otis Rush, "Double Trouble" (Cobra 5030), Chicago blues masterpiece.
XVIX. CHICAGO'S MUSICAL HERITAGE: BLUES
Many believe that the great era of Chicago country-oriented blues began with Muddy Water's "I Can't be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going," released in 1948 by Chicago's Aristocrat Recordings.
The pre-war Chicago blues scene, however, was very energetic. Prohibition had a negative impact on both jazz and the blues. But while the 1927 ruling on the Volstead Act had the effect of closing many of the above-ground, white-oriented bars and cabarets, blues continued on as an underground activity at house or "rent" parties in the African-American South Side neighborhoods. The entry charge for these events, which provided food and moonshine, was said to cover the party-giver's rent. Then there were the Mafia-owned facilities. One of the Capone brothers is said to have loved the blues.
There was also a prolific, somewhat monopolistic, blues recording industry in pre-war Chicago. This industry was basically under the control of a white businessman, Lester Melrose, who signed most of the rhythm and blues artists for RCA and Columbia. He created an assembly-line production facility often using the exact same instruments to record each artist, so the results lacked diversity in arrangement and production. Nonetheless, from the thirties to the fifties he recorded such Chicago greats like Memphis Minnie, Roosevelt Sykes, Washboard Sam, Walter Davis, Tampa Red, Sonny Boy Williamson and the like.
During and after WWII the African American migration to the northern states experienced another great surge, mostly to the urban areas of NYC, Chicago and, later, Los Angeles. Some say it was the railroad that brought the blues to Chicago.
Many black blues artists fresh from the south began their careers in Chicago as street singers. One area of the city that was famous for street blues acts was the old immigrant area of town, Maxwell Street market. Moody Jones, Jimmie Lee Robinson, Little Walter and many others were street singers in this vibrant open air flea market environment. As Johnny Williams described the street action: "There be musicians lined all up and down the street. So this was where the music world began, right there on Maxwell Street, among us. Which was mostly where they turned pro, right from there on Maxwell Street every Sunday."
Chicago's recording industry flourished with the flowering of Chicago blues. The first independent Chicago label was Rhumboogie Records, created in 1945. This venture was short-lived, as were other early labels like Melody Lane and Hy-Tone. Then Miracle Records came along in '47 and enjoyed success with recordings by artists Gladys Palmer, Memphis Slim, Sonny Thompson and Eddie Chamblee.
The big guns of Chicago's early blues recording industry, however, were the Chess brothers, Philip and Leonard. These two wild and crazy talented dudes came from Poland and settled into the Jewish section of Chicago, which incidentally was the same area where all those street blues singers were hanging out. The Chess brothers owned some bars in Capone's South Side territory in the 1940s, including the club Macomba where they showcased the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine and Jump Jackson.
The brothers started Aristocrat Records in 1947, and the first known artists to record with the label were Jump Jackson and Five Blazes. But their first paradigm-breaking blues recording artist was the great Muddy Waters.
Muddy Waters was born in Mississippi in 1915. He started playing the harmonica at age 13 and entertained at neighborhood events with a guitar-playing friend. Muddy started recording in the early '40s with the Son Sims group. In the spring of 1943 he packed up his harmonica and headed for Chicago, where he found a job in a paper factory. But he shared his musical talent on weekends at house parties and eventually teamed up with Jimmy Rogers and Claude Smith to play clubs on both the West Side (a growing black neighborhood) and South Side. Claude claims he taught Muddy to play the guitar.
Muddy Waters' first recording session was actually with Lester Melrose in 1946 who, astonishingly, lacked the vision to sign him to a contract. Then the great John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson died after being mugged, and Melrose lost the brightest star in his universe of blues artists. The Melrose era of Chicago blues passed with him, and the future of Chicago blues was left to Aristocrat -- and Muddy Waters.
After that fateful recording in 1948 Aristocrat and Muddy Waters changed the face of Chicago blues. Muddy and his associates Jimmy Rogers and Baby Face Leroy Foster got gigs at clubs like the Boogie Woogie Inn and Club Zanzibar.
Some of my favorite early Muddy Waters recordings are the ones he did with Baby Face Leroy Foster on the Parkway label. There is "Red Headed Woman": "I say looka here, looka here baby, see what you done done, Done squeezed my lemon, caused my juice to run." Ah yes. And the amazing "Rollin' and Tumblin."
In 1950 Len and Phil Chess bought out a partner and changed the name of their company from Aristocrat to Chess Record Corporation. Muddy Waters' Chess recordings of 1950 and 1951 probably represent the best of his country blues style: for example, the beautifully sexual "Honey Bee" and "Long Distance Call."
Muddy Waters and Chess records helped define the unique Chicago blues sound, but there were many other labels and extraordinary artists who contributed much to this wonderful genre. JOB Records, started by Joey Brown and St. Louis Jimmy, recorded Chicago blues biggies like Sunny Land Slim, Eddie Boyd, J. B. Lenoir and Snooky Prior. Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley appeared on the Checker Label; Jimmy Reed on Vee-Jay; Howling Wolf , Chuck Berry and Otis Rush on Chess; G. L. Crockett on Four Brothers -- and we are only scratching the surface here of this rich and exciting Chicago musical treasure.
Chicago blues began a decline from its innovative and vibrant 40s and 50s style in the 1960s. VJ Records and other small blues labels went into bankruptcy; Chess moved onto other things. Demand declined. Younger blacks moved on to soul and other musical genres. Many younger Chicago blues artists became B. B. King imitators and disparaged the Muddy Waters generation, and the older innovators died off or didn't perform with the energy they once did. But blues is still lives in Chicago, and it's well worth the time to visit one of the many remaining blues venues to soak up some whiskey and vibes.
I believe much of the "soul," feel and sexuality of Chicago house derives from the city's unique blues sound and culture.
NEXT: CHICAGO SOUL MUSIC