In April 2018 I went to Chicago for the first time. I went there with my bag full of dreams and ready to experience the blues in one of the places where it had lived, developed… I wanted to breathe the blues.
So in this post today I want to share a tiny bit of Chicago blues history and some of the pictures from my trip.
Chicago blues is probably to most popularly recognized among blues genres. It began in the early 1940s, following the Great Migration of African Americans, which was both forced and voluntary at times, fleeing from poverty and oppression in the South to the industrial cities of the North, including Chicago. This new population inlcuded several musicians, who shaped the evolution of the music by playing as street musicians, at rent parties, and other events in African American communities.
Contributing to the realization of Chicago blues there was also the tecnological development in music instruments: Chicago blues is based on the sound of the electric guitar and the amplified – almost to distortion – harmonica. It also features a rhythm section of drums and bass (double bass at first, then bass guitar) with piano.
Chicago quickly became an incubator for blues music to develop. One of the most significant ones was the large open-air market on Maxwell Street, a natural location for blues musicians to perform, earn tips, and jam with other musicians.
Then there were the blues clubs, true heart of blues music. The first ones were located in the black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, with a few in the smaller black neighborhoods on the West Side.
And finally there were Records companies. One of these was Chess Records, located in the south side of Chicago, in 2120 S. Michigan Avenue.
Chess Records was founded in 1950 by Leonard and Phil Chess, two Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland.
At the beginning, Leonard and Phil focused their recording and publishing ventures primarily in the area of popular jazz, but soon expanded into blues. Chess Records was a fixture in the world of music and its recordings and the songs remain the most impressive collection of blues music in the world. From their experiences in the nightclub business on the South side of Chicago, the Chess brothers understood the popular preferences of their predominantly African-American audiences, but also saw the marketability of blues music to a broader audience. In the beginning Chess Records was ran as a two man business, with Phil overseeing the nightclub and the offices of Chess, while Leonard alternately scouted talent, produced the sessions, and hand delivered fresh recordings to radio stations in the Chicago area.
They produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the blues and rock music genre. At one time, Chess Records was considered “America’s greatest blues label” with notable acts including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Willie Dixon was one of the main producers, songwriters and arrangers of the signature “Chess Records Sound”.
In 1993, Willie Dixon’s widow, Marie, purchased the Chess building which was then renovated and re-opened in September 1997 with a dedication ceremony. It is now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.