In the late 1970s and early 1980s, British blues fan Alan Harper became a transatlantic pilgrim to Chicago. "I've come here to listen to the blues," he told an American customs agent at the airport, and listen he did, to the music in its many styles, and to the men and women who lived it in the city's changing blues scene. Harper's eloquent memoir conjures the smoky redoubts of men like harmonica virtuoso Big Walter Horton and pianist Sunnyland Slim. Venturing from stageside to kitchen tables to the shotgun seat of a 1973 Eldorado, Harper listens to performers and others recollect memories of triumphs earned and chances forever lost, of deep wells of pain and soaring flights of inspiration. Harper also chronicles a time of change, as an up-tempo, whites-friendly blues eclipsed what had come before, and old Southern-born black players held court one last time before an all-conquering generation of young guitar aces took center stage.
About the Author
Alan Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher living in the United Kingdom.
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Waiting for Buddy Guy
Chicago Blues at the Crossroads
By Alan Harper
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2016 Alan Harper
All rights reserved.
Sunnyland Slim's Birthday Party
I can play 'em, but I don't. The reason I don't get down into the blues like it is, because when you really get out in the blues like it is, partner, you will cry behind 'em. — Jimmy Walker
I spent two months in Chicago in 1979 and heard a lot of music, sometimes visiting two or three different clubs a night. Income from my two part-time jobs kept pace with outgoings, and I even managed to save enough to buy a cherry-red Gibson SG from its elderly owner on the West Side. He gave me a paper bag to put my camera in, lest it attract unwelcome attention on the bus.
I came back to Chicago for a longer stay in 1982. There was no J-1 visa in my passport this time because I was no longer a student, so there was no possibility of getting a job to subsidize my blues habit. I had worked, saved, and instructed my bank to open an account for me at its Chicago branch, which had seventeen hundred and seven dollars in it. On the plus side, I no longer had to pretend to be twenty-one years old. On the first of June 1982, I landed at Chicago O'Hare, where a large, black and slightly world-weary customs officer directed me to open my luggage. As I fumbled with the locks he asked me what I was doing in Chicago.
"I've come here to listen to the blues," I said, glancing up to see what sort of a reaction that got. He might be a fan. As I lifted the lid of my grandfather's old suitcase I remembered that I had laid all my music cassettes over the top of everything to stop them bashing against each other. There they all were, dozens of them, a plastic mosaic of brittle cases, still chilled from the flight, their labels covered in tiny writing. If you looked hard, you could read the names on them, and the song titles and dates: Jimmy Rogers, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter. For a few seconds the customs officer surveyed this musical carapace, which completely concealed the contents of the case, and then he lowered the lid and gazed down at me. "I believe you. You have come to Chicago to listen to the blues," he sighed, and waved me through.
B.L.U.E.S was again the first club I sought out. I remembered it as the perfect blues club: small, dark and smoky, with friendly bartenders and a crowd that was a mix of black, white, old and young, and often seemed to consist more of musicians than fans. There was no cover charge except on Fridays and Saturdays, but music every night, on a schedule that changed every month. And such music: nowhere but B.L.U.E.S could you hope to see an old country bluesman like Yank Rachell, or the harmonica player Snooky Pryor, who was said to have invented the amplified urban style, cupping the instrument to the microphone. Mama Yancey, at age eighty-three, was a direct link to the classic blues years of the 1920s. On my first-ever visit, three years before, I was startled to encounter Big Walter Horton, and he wasn't even playing that night; he was only there to talk, have a drink, and listen to his old friend Floyd Jones. Jones had recorded some of the first-ever Chicago blues back in 1947, and on the nights that followed I would also see Homesick James, Eddie Taylor, Lee Jackson and the piano players Jimmy Walker and Erwin Helfer play at the club. Most of these people didn't play anywhere else in the city. B.L.U.E.S gave them a home, and I had felt pretty comfortable there myself.
North Halsted Avenue was much as I remembered, although the Kingston Mines had moved. From two blocks away on North Lincoln, just up from the Wise Fools Pub, it had relocated to 2548 North Halsted, almost across the street from B.L.U.E.S. I could see it had a board outside advertising Jimmy Johnson. Resolving to check that out later, I pulled open the heavy wooden door of B.L.U.E.S once again and stepped inside, noting the familiar faces of the club's owners, Rob Hecko and Bill Gilmore, and recognizing the singer Big Time Sarah behind the bar. There was a good crowd. Eddie Shaw was on the bandstand down at the end, telling the audience about his recent trip to Paris. He no longer seemed to have Hubert Sumlin with him, and when he introduced the new guitarist, it turned out be his son. On bass, I recognized the unfailingly cheerful Shorty Gilbert, while the most recent addition to his gang was evidently their tall young drummer, "who's been with me thirty long days." Shaw launched the band into "Movin' and Groovin' Man," blowing a harmonica instead of his saxophone, as I settled down at the bar and asked Sarah for my first Old Style in nearly three years. It still didn't taste of anything. Young Eddie Junior could certainly play that guitar.
I stayed for the rest of the set, decided against another beer, and began to think about going across the street to the Kingston Mines to see how Jimmy Johnson was doing. The atmosphere in B.L.U.E.S felt just the same — an easy mix of respect, good humor and alcohol — although the crowd seemed, on average, maybe slightly younger and slightly whiter than I remembered. I couldn't see many of the old musicians who had always been such a fixture of the place, but maybe they would come out at the weekend. Things really didn't seem to have changed much.
But before I left the club on that first night back, I saw that someone had scratched on the toilet wall: "Big Walter Lives." Which, of course, didn't mean that at all.
* * *
The close proximity of B.L.U.E.S, the Kingston Mines and the Wise Fools Pub made these few blocks of the North Side the principal focus for the blues in Chicago. But it was nothing like the old days. There was a map in the back of Mike Rowe's useful and scholarly book, Chicago Blues, showing the city's 1950s blues clubs: fifty-three of them, dotted all over the black neighborhoods in the South and West Sides, with clusters marking real hotspots like Forty-Third Street, South Indiana Avenue and Roosevelt Road.
A similar map of Chicago blues joints in the early 1980s would have been pretty easy to draw, thanks to The Reader, the free weekly listings newspaper which came out every Friday. Its music section was divided into rock, folk, country, blues, jazz and classical, and stretched to twenty pages. The small ads were free, so you could be pretty sure that every little corner bar with aspirations to be a venue had got itself in there, giving the impression of a city that was bursting with music. Under "Blues" there might be fifty or more places listed. But close scrutiny revealed that some of them only put on music one or two nights a week, while others could be remarkably vague about who was actually playing. If it just said "blues jam" you could be pretty sure you weren't missing much. If a "blues club" was a place that booked blues at least three nights a week, then a 1982 blues map of Chicago would have had just nine marked on it.
And they were spread all over. Chicago was huge. Apart from the architectural drama of its central business district, its vast urban sprawl had transformed a flat, featureless prairie into a flat, featureless city, which even from the top of the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world, disappeared into the haze as far as the eye could see. Biddy Mulligan's, a lively bar that booked some of the biggest blues acts, was at 7644 North Sheridan Road — seventy-six blocks north of Chicago's "base line" of Madison Street, at eight blocks to the mile — while Theresa's Tavern, the sole survivor from Mike Rowe's map, was at 4801 South Indiana Avenue, forty-eight blocks south. If two out of nine clubs could be separated by more than fifteen miles, to have three within a five-minute walk of each other was extraordinary, especially as they were three clubs that took the music seriously, and two of them, B.L.U.E.S and the Mines, had blues seven nights a week.
No club took the music more seriously than B.L.U.E.S. Bill Gilmore was the partner in charge of booking the bands, a tall, slim, clean-shaven man of thirty-six years, with thick glasses and a bookish air that concealed a dry sense of humor. He had listened to a lot of blues in the 1960s, he explained to me in the club one evening, not just in South Side places such as Pepper's Lounge and Theresa's, but in some of the first white-owned, North Side blues bars like Big John's on Wells Street, and another called Mother Blues.
It was early evening as we talked, and singer and guitarist Buster Benton and his band were setting up at the far end of the room. Gilmore's first club, Elsewhere, opened in 1975 on North Lincoln Avenue, and when that didn't work out — landlord problems — he opened another one on North Clark Street in 1977. Music one night a week soon developed into music every night, and folk music was dropped in favor of blues. By the time the second club fell through — too big, wrong shape, unpleasant neighborhood — he knew what he wanted to do. Rob Hecko had the right place, Gilmore brought the idea, and B.L.U.E.S opened in April 1979.
"Since I don't try to book the best-known blues people, I thought I'd better get a small place," he said. "When we opened, Rob and I, most nights he was working the bar and I was working the door. That was the whole staff, we had no waitress, so we never lost money. I don't think we've had a really bad month." From what I remembered back in 1979, apart from the "B.L.U.E.S Festival" month of August, when every night was different, Gilmore tended to block-book bands: you could see Big Walter Horton every Sunday in July, say, and Eddie Taylor every Thursday. But in 1982, every month seemed to be a festival month. Apart from weekends, when the bigger acts played both nights, and Sundays, when Sunnyland Slim had the stage, there was a different band every night.
"I book an average of twenty-five bands a month," said Gilmore. "I've booked more blues in the last five years than anyone else in the world. I don't even think there's a close second." Finding musicians to book was seldom a problem, but he would still have liked to get out more to look for them: "I can't say I really go to Sixty-Seventh and State and try and find so-and-so who hasn't played in twelve years: I'm just too busy, unfortunately," he admitted. "I tend to talk to people. Otis 'Big Smokey' Smothers brought his brother Abe 'Little Smokey' Smothers in, who hadn't played in some years: things like that I follow up on. I try to read The Reader each week, and talk to Jim and Amy of Living Blues. I do get leads on people." He had recently started to book Magic Slim after hearing several people recommend him, and he also tried to make sure Hubert Sumlin played at B.L.U.E.S whenever the guitarist was in town. Acts he didn't know had to audition: "I try to hear people in person: either hear him sit in with the band I have playing, or sometimes we'll bring whole bands in to sit in."
There was certainly no more eclectic blues club in Chicago. "I do feel an obligation to bring up people who would not otherwise play on the North Side, like Smokey Smothers, Homesick James, or Eddie Taylor: some of the older guys who are not currently as well known perhaps as some of the people I also book, like Jimmy Johnson, Johnny Dollar, Phil Guy, Magic Slim," said Gilmore. "I try to keep it varied: I book Little Brother Montgomery, John Davis, mostly people I like personally." He acknowledged a certain obligation to his business partner to book acts that brought people through the door to buy beer. "I also listen to what the employees say, I listen to my partner, I listen to the customers." Like most clubs, the music at B.L.U.E.S started sometime after nine-thirty and went on until two in the morning on weeknights, and until four at weekends.
I remembered Smokey Smothers from 1979. Back then I saw him play only a couple of times, once accompanying the singer Jeanne Carroll and on another occasion sitting in for a loosely assembled set with J. B. Hutto's band, the New Hawks. He was often in the club, and usually drunk. People told me who he was: a popular singer who recorded numerous sides for Federal in the early 1960s and had a few local hits. He had a following and knew what it was like to hear his own records on the jukebox. He played rhythm guitar on some of Freddie King's singles, and Freddie King returned the compliment by playing lead on some of Smokey's. But those days seemed to be over. He wasn't old, particularly — according to my weighty and compendious copy of Blues Who's Who, he was born in Mississippi in 1929 — but sitting in B.L.U.E.S, oblivious, he looked like a relic, lost to music and himself.
Something had happened in the meantime. In 1982 Smothers was still a regular at the club, and with his perpetually sleepy expression and gentle smile he might still have been taken, at first glance, for someone who was present in body only. But he was sober, and he was back on the bandstand: B.L.U.E.S booked him regularly, and his quirky songs and rooted, Mississippi guitar playing provided a textural contrast to the flashier styles of many of the younger musicians. No other North Side club would have booked him — he just wasn't noisy enough — and I doubted there were many places elsewhere in the city where his old blues would find favor. It seemed obvious to me that he had made his way back from the brink thanks to the possibilities offered by B.L.U.E.S.
"Seem like to me the people, the style of music, the blues, it's like they coming back to 'em," Smothers agreed. "I started back playing my style where I left off: the blues. It's different now. It seem like it catch on a little bit, and my style of blues more so now." We were sitting in his girlfriend's car outside the club. It was a Sunday, around midnight. After his success as a recording artist — and he was sufficiently bankable for the King label to release a compilation album of his 45s in 1962 — Smothers made a couple of sides for the obscure Gamma Records, but then the work dried up. "Jobs was kind of bad," he remembered. "During the sixties they had rock 'n' roll. The big blues artists, they only could survive. I was trying to play, but I wasn't doing nothing. I could have changed my style and kept on playing, maybe. Instead, I just quit."
Smothers left music and took up a variety of different jobs, including, according to local legend, selling ice cream: now his part-time band called themselves The Ice Cream Men. But with his musical career apparently over, his life also lost its focus. "I was drinking for a spell, pretty heavy," he admitted. "Most blues musicians drinks, and in other fields they get high off other things. I started drinking heavy. I didn't think I was drinking that much really, but I started thinking about my career, my kids, family. No doctor, nothing told me to stop drinking. I stopped myself. People give me credit for that willpower."
It was clear that Smothers didn't feel especially comfortable answering such personal questions. I wasn't sure I had any right to be asking them of a man the same age as my father, but he tolerated my clumsy inquisition and answered with shy good manners, anxious to explain himself. Whatever damage his drinking might have inflicted on his personal life, it was music that made him realize how far he had sunk. "I get up there and play, drunk, I think I'm playing good. And then I taped myself, and heard it the next day when I was sober. I say, 'Gee, that sound terrible.' And now I play, and I come down and folks say, 'You sound good.' I'm not at my best, but the audience like it."
We listened to a demo tape he had made in the hope of exciting the interest of a record company. He had recently put out a single with Rooster Records, but what he really wanted was another album release. He was practicing, and writing songs: "Now, I have a idea, I write it down, fix the guitar up, get me a sound, and keep that," he said. "It's better to be sober. Drink too much, you can't think. You can't perform your job."
Excerpted from Waiting for Buddy Guy by Alan Harper. Copyright © 2016 Alan Harper. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
Prologue: Blues Fell This Morning 1
1 Sunnyland Slim's Birthday Party 8
2 Can Blue Men Sing the Whites? 25
3 At the Court of King Luther 42
4 Peeling Potatoes at Carey Bell's 53
5 Turning the Tables at WXOL 68
6 Fried Mississippi Cattish Blues 85
7 Comparing Hangovers at Alligator 100
8 Louis Myers's White Eldorado 119
Epilogue: Fade to Black 139
Appendix: Chicago Blues Gigs, 1979, 1982, 1985 149
Biographical Notes 169