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Chicago Blues: As Seen from the Inside

Chicago Blues: As Seen from the Inside

by Raeburn Flerlage

Chicago's greatest blues artists are captured in Flerlage's photos, from Howlin' Wolf performing at legendary Pepper's Lounge to Otis Spann and James Cotton playing in Muddy Waters' basement. 150 photos.


Chicago's greatest blues artists are captured in Flerlage's photos, from Howlin' Wolf performing at legendary Pepper's Lounge to Otis Spann and James Cotton playing in Muddy Waters' basement. 150 photos.

Product Details

ECW Press
Publication date:
Illinois Series
Product dimensions:
8.02(w) x 10.02(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chicago Blues

As Seen From the Inside

By Raeburn Flerlage, Lisa Day


Copyright © 2000 Estate of Raeburn Flerlage
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55022-400-9



Somewhere along the way, as I moved between Cincinnati and Chicago and back again, I picked up an obscure phrase that stuck in my mind. "By way of Fat Sam," as I understand it, is a folklorish description of a tortuous, circuitous and sometimes almost directionless meandering toward a place or a goal — hypothetical or otherwise. It's probably an accurate characterization of the serpentine route that led to this book (first planned in 1965).

Chicago Blues in the '60s was an event that needed to be documented. The urban electrified blues sound that originated in Chicago in the '50s and '60s led directly to rock and roll, and its influence can be heard in virtually every contemporary form of popular music. Chicago was home base for the era's most influential songwriters and performers: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Little Brother Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, Magic Sam and many other legendary names. The established Chicago photographers of the day were all busy with other projects, so it fell to a newcomer to capture this incredible musical epoch. As the only nominee, I was elected.

I had been kicking around on the fringes of the music business in Cincinnati and Chicago since 1939. I did promotional work for record stores, organizational promotion, concert reviews, music columns, lectures and magazine articles. When Moe Asch of Folkways Records gave me my first professional photographic assignment, to shoot Memphis Slim for an album cover, I already had many contacts in the music world. For that and a variety of other reasons I was a natural person to capture, in pictures, the major blues, jazz and folk artists of the era.


Records were an important part of my early life in Cincinnati. My parents played John McCormack, Marian Anderson ("Ave Maria") and Paul Robeson ("Old Man River"), while my paternal grandmother favored Caruso, Ponselle, Schipa and more McCormack.

After high school I attended the University of Cincinnati. One day, an English professor unexpectedly offered me a vast, out-dated library of 78 rpm classical albums: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert. The collection included symphonies, concertos, string quartets and the unforgettable Schubert Op. 163 Quintet. I never knew why this professor singled me out for the gift, since I knew nothing about classical music, but he did and it changed my life.

To obtain more records, I started to write record review columns, give lectures about music, and do promotional work for record stores. After that, I produced, wrote and announced several radio shows that featured records, and I managed several record shops. Eventually, I became a wholesale record salesman and distributor. The record business supported me and, in the end, almost ruined me, but it was a big part of my life for 25 years. Even today, some acquaintances still think of me primarily as a "record man," not as a photographer.


My first career choice had been to be a writer. In fact I became one, but rather than authoring the intended "Great American Novel," I drafted newspaper notices for a neighborhood movie house and press releases for a night club and a radio conglomerate. A few of my poems were published gratis in local publications.

Mostly, I wrote about music. An essay about Gustav Mahler was accepted by a national magazine, but the reward (after negotiating trip to New York) proved to be a stack of records and music scores. Many of the articles I wrote required me to interview musicians, classical and otherwise, and allowed me to meet some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, such as Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong and Marian Anderson.

Other career paths were attempted. Fueled by my success in some college plays I tried acting, but never broke out of the amateur ranks. During World War II I needed to work in a war plant to avoid being drafted, so I became Director of Employee Recreation and Industrial Music at Wright Aeronautical, near Cincinnati. I tried other practical occupations, including a stint making Studebaker automobiles.


In 1944, after several extended stays, I moved to Chicago from Cincinnati. I was 29 and picked up jobs wherever I could, both in and out of music. I sold auto insurance, but I also lectured on folk music and blues at Parkway Community House, on South Parkway. Those lectures led to my appointment as Midwest Executive Secretary for People's Songs, a national organization that promoted various populist causes through the medium of folk music. This brought me into contact with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and others.

Most of what I knew about music up to then had come from records, but the People's Songs experience introduced me to live music. When I met Lead-belly and happened to mention that I had all of his RCA releases except "TB Blues," he took out his big 12-string guitar and performed the song for me, right there in his hotel room.

The experiences I had with People's Songs were exciting, but as a job it wasn't much good. At best it covered some meal expenses when concerts or fund-raising efforts were successful. It never paid enough to support a family. Lectures paid my rent on occasion, and a job acting the part of a Sinclair Lewis protagonist in a magazine dramatization of Kingsblood Royal, for Ebony, Life and Time, belatedly contributed a small paycheck. I even ran on the NY Central Railroad as a dining car steward from 1950 to 1955.


In 1955, I was offered the job of sales rep for the wholesale distributor of Folkways Records, selling to record stores in the Loop and throughout the Midwest. I supplemented that income however I could — giving lectures, doing radio shows — and needed all of it to stay afloat. Photography started to pay a few bills after 1959.

For most of my career in the wholesale record business, the action in Chicago was inside the Loop or nearby. The biggest record stores and record departments were downtown, and I called on all of them. I had the first appointment of the week for record salesmen at Marshall Fields, the big department store. I also called on Lyon and Healy, Kroch's and Brentano's, Carl Fisher Music, Frank's Drum Shop, Hudson-Ross and Rose Records. I remember that Ramsey Lewis managed one of the Hudson-Ross stores.

My access to and rapport with record buyers was primarily due to my knowledge of classical music, which most of them lacked. My other specialty, folk music, was growing in popularity. With Win Stracke, who I knew from People's Songs, I helped Kroch's and Brentano's develop their first record department. Win, an accomplished performer, founded the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Just south of the Loop was Record Row, on South Michigan Ave., where Chess, Checker, VJ and other record labels had their offices, and where I could get promo records to play on my radio shows. Later, I attended Roosevelt University, also in the Loop. In 1959, when I started to take photography classes at the Institute of Design (part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), I moved from Oak Park to Lake Meadows to be closer to the campus.

My "office" during this period was at Astra Photo, at 6 East Lake Street, Chicago 1. ("Chicago 1" was the pre-zip code designation for addresses in Chicago's Loop.) So closely was I associated with that address that sometimes I received mail addressed simply to "Ray Flerlage, Chicago 1."

The Loop was a good, central base for everything I had to do. My daily schedule was tight, but possible because everything was so close and it all tied in together.


One of the first record labels I represented as a salesman and promoter was Folkways, operated by Moses Asch, who also launched the Asch, Stinson, Disc, RBF labels and later affiliated with Scholastic Records.

Moe gave me my first assignment as a professional photographer in August, 1959. I was 44 years old and still not sure what I wanted to be "when I grew up." Moe knew I had been studying photography for two or three years, at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Institute of Design. He knew I had good equipment: two Leica M3 bodies, a Rolliflex, a Hasselblad and multiple lenses. He also knew I was comfortable in the Black community and already knew many per-forming artists through the newspaper interviews I had conducted and through my association with People's Songs.

When Moe first looked at my work, he said he thought I was best suited for fashion photography because I had shot a lot of pretty girls in pretty dresses. I had never photographed a performing artist before, except a few experimental shots of ballet dancers and coverage of the Bayanihan troupe, a popular folkloric dance company from the Philippines.

So when Moe's telegram arrived, just as I was starting my vacation, it was totally unexpected. He wanted me to photograph the blues singer Memphis Slim at the Pershing Hotel before Slim took off for Europe, and to come up with notes and photos for Slim's new Folkways LP.

The result of that session was a vast set of images that launched my photography career and which continue to be published all over the world. Several of my friends think I've done nothing better, a left-handed compliment at best.


In 1944, the South Side of Chicago became my home. I had already effectively moved into the Black community, as most of my social and professional interests and activities were centered there.

As I reflect on nearly 60 years of living and working as a White man in Chicago's Black community, the word that springs most immediately to my mind is kindness. During a time of tremendous racial turmoil, in a city where some of the worst abuses were felt and some of the fiercest battles were fought, I was almost always treated with kindness and acceptance everywhere I went in Chicago's Black neighborhoods.

My first landlady in Chicago was a woman named Arseneaux. She was a great cook from New Orleans who derived immense joy from feeding me, particularly when she had an audience to see how much I could eat. She would put a series of a dozen dishes in front of me and just smile ecstatically as I savored one after the other.

I was not naïve about my decision to live in the Black community. I knew the history, I knew about the prejudices against Blacks and the way they had been treated. There were many good reasons for Blacks to resent Whites.

I became attracted to the Black community, and sympathetic to its plight, when I witnessed racial prejudice as Employee Recreation Director at a war plant during World War II. One of my duties had been to schedule performances by employee bands. I wanted to give preference to the best groups, who generally were Black, but was pressured by my directors to favor the White employees, regardless of talent. Racial prejudice even infected something so trivial. Later, I became semi-official liaison between management and the plant's Black employees at social functions.

Which brings me back to Chicago, 1944. For a White man to even visit the South Side of Chicago in those days was unusual. The first time I got off the el train at a platform on the South Side and started to walk down to the street, the attendant in the ticket booth and the security guard on duty both warned me not to go down. I ignored them because I felt that their prejudice and fear were rooted in ignorance. It wasn't utopia I found at the bottom of that el platform — I experienced racial hostility from time to time — but I experienced much more hospitality, warmth, kindness and acceptance.


I am still astonished that so many Blacks could so kindly accept a representative of their enemy among them. I am not sure I could have done it. If somebody was kicking me around and hurting my wife and kids, if my kids were afraid to walk up the street because they would get insulted or beat up or worse, I don't think I could love the people who did that. I think it takes a largeness of soul, whatever you want to call it.

Many of the Black musicians I knew had horrific experiences growing up and were treated miserably by Whites, in the South and even after coming North. Yet almost all of them accepted me and some — like Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Magic Sam, Little Brother Montgomery and others — showed me exceptional kindness.

I remember Magic Sam walking my wife, Luise, and I across a snow-heaped divider on Roosevelt Road — ignoring the effect on his fine imported shoes — after we had covered his show at the 1815 Club.

It was not just musicians who were kind and accepting. For over a decade I wandered the South Side streets with a fortune in glittering cameras around my neck. I went in and out of Pepper's, Sylvio's, Theresa's, the Trianon Ballroom, the Regal Theater, the Sutherland, McKie's and countless other places many times with no trouble.


After the Memphis Slim shoot in 1959, Moe Asch continued to give me assignments for Folkways and I began to get other photography jobs. Here the words "assignment" and "job" may be misleading. I was a freelance photographer. That means everything was shot on approval. I took the photographs at my own expense, showed them to editors and got paid only for the ones they decided to use. If I sold enough, and was able to collect, I made a profit.

The national magazines Down Beat, Rhythm & Blues, and Jazz used a lot of my shots, as did a local entertainment publication, Chicago Scene. I also sold images to the Chicago Daily News on occasion.

Record companies acquired photographs from me the same way publications did. In addition to Folkways, my main customers were Chess, Delmark, Prestige, Testament and Bluesville. Several English labels, like 77 Records, bought occasional prints for album covers, and Horst Lippmann, the German concert promoter, bought prints regularly for his impressive annual promotional brochures.

In addition to selling records and taking photographs, I also wrote, produced and announced three or four different radio shows, with titles like Blues International, Folk City, Meetin' House and Critic's Choice. The radio shows gave me press access to the Folklore Society's annual festivals at the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall, where I could shoot major blues and folk artists en masse, covering 15 to 20 in a single weekend.

As you will see on the pages that follow, I shot in Mandel Hall, the Chicago Opera House, the Trianon Ballroom, the Regal Theater and other large performing venues. I also shot recording sessions in studios, interviews in hotel rooms and rehearsals in basements. I photographed Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Brother Montgomery in their homes.

Mostly, though, I was in and out of nightclubs all over Chicago, several nights a week: Pepper's, Smitty's, McKie's, the Sutherland, Robert's Show Lounge, the Fickle Pickle, Gate of Horn, the Plugged Nickel, Sylvio's, the 1815 Club, Big John's, Mother Blues, Alice's Revisited, the Ashland Auditorium, Western Hall, the Blind Pig, Hey Rube! and Theresa's.

In 1965, I sat down with a group of friends to talk about putting together a book of my photographs. They were Willie Hopkins, an art director for Chicago Scene; Pete Welding, an editor at Down Beat; and Mike Bloomfield, a young blues enthusiast. The enterprise fizzled after a few months and everyone moved on to other things. Mike, who the others warned was "too enthusiastic" about the project, went on to international celebrity and legendary tragedy. Willie went to New York as art editor for Look Magazine, and Pete took off for the West Coast to work on his Ph.D. in folk music.

Instead of my own book, I got Urban Blues, by Charles Keil, which appeared in 1966 to unanimously favorable reviews. My photographs were featured on the front and back covers, and most of the inside shots were mine as well.

By the late '60s, with Pete no longer at Down Beat, and with the folding of Chicago Scene and the Chicago Daily News, I had few remaining outlets for my photographs in the United States. I continued to cover the annual University of Chicago Folklore Society concerts at Mandel Hall, and I still got inquiries and print orders from Canada, England, France and Germany, as well as from American record companies like Chess, MCA and Delmark, but overall my photography business was pretty quiet.


Excerpted from Chicago Blues by Raeburn Flerlage, Lisa Day. Copyright © 2000 Estate of Raeburn Flerlage. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Raeburn Flerlage began taking blues photographs in 1959 and is the most recognized and acclaimed chronicler of the Chicago Blues scene. His photos have appeared in numerous blues magazines, including "Singout," "DownBeat," "Living Blues," "Rhythm & Blues

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