This was the year that Mother Nature took it out on all the hearty blues fans for the 10th Annual Chicago Blues Festival held over Memorial Day weekend. Friday, May 28, it was wet and cold; the sun came out on Saturday, which helped cut the chill; and on Sunday it rained on and off all day. I now know all about "feeling like a ball game on a rainy day." But all the outdoor performances went on as scheduled, rain or shine, for the stages were under cover.
It's tough to pick out a favorite performer, but Big Bad Smitty made a powerful impression on my mind and ears. Coincidentally, he is featured in the latest issue of Living Blues. Smitty now lives in St. Louis but his gritty Mississippi style blues echoes the blues of the '50s and '60s like the way Muddy, Elmore and the Wolf used to do it. Smitty's roaring vocals capture the sounds of Howling Wolf better than any other contemporary bluesmen. He played his Flying V Gibson sparingly while Bennie Smith contributed a lot of hot licks on second guitar. Smitty was soon off the stage and mingling in the crowd with choruses of "I'm a Man." Smitty is definitely big — nearly 300 pounds — and his music is as bad as it gets when you're talking raw, hard-hitting blues. He is a vanishing breed of bluesmen like Roosevelt Booba Barnes who he played with back in Greenville, Mississippi. Smitty's recent CD, Mean Disposition on the Genes label, is a must for your collection.
As I promised last month, it's time to take the "Southside Blues Pub Crawl and Tour." The word has gotten out about these excursions and, unfortunately, some people had to be turned away. The group in our school bus included ten people who were from the Louisville area. As we headed south, our first stop was 2120 Michigan Avenue which was the home of Chess Studios from 1957 to 1966 after they moved from South Cottage Grove. Walking through the rooms where Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and, of course, Willie Dixon recorded all that great music gives one a reverent feeling. There were photographs of some of these musicians with interesting biographical facts about each one. For Sonny Boy (Rice Miller), it stated that he was the youngest of 21 children. No wonder he sang the blues.
Today the building is the headquarters for the Blues Heaven Foundation. This organization was the vision of Willie Dixon to house a Chicago blues museum, archives, education and recording center. This ambitious project has a way to go, but sketches displayed in each room help visitors visualize how the spaces will be used. The wife of Al Duncan, the drummer who played with Willie, showed us where Leonard Chess's office was downstairs, and the recording studios were upstairs. Some musicians were there, including Billy Branch and Fernando Jones, who is a dead ringer for a Robert Johnson look-alike contest. Incidentally, across the street is the old Lexington Hotel which is an old derelict 10-story building that was once Al Capone's headquarters.
Now on to the Celebrity Club at 4830 S. Cottage where we were treated to fried chicken, greens and cornbread. The place reminded me of the 26th Street Tavern for you had to walk through the bar to get to the music in the back room where there was gold tinsel around the stage. The house band, the Checkmates, was hot with PeeWee Madison doing some Chicago standards like "Cut You Loose" while playing his black Gibson guitar. The other guitarist, from Tokyo, played some beautiful, mature blues as he rocked from side to side. The blues has no national boundaries. The owner, Fred Johnson, finished off the set singing "I Should Have Quit You!"
The Cuddle Inn at 5317 S. Ashland was comfortably filled with the neighborhood regulars. The attraction here, besides lots of Christmas lights, was the singer, Johnny Laws. His wife was sitting at our table. Her cousin was Johnny Christian, another singer, who recently passed away. Both Johnnys are singers of the same mold mastering the soul, ballad style of blues that appeals to the ladies. This was definitely the place to come to dance.
Our last stop was Lee's Unleaded Blues at 7401 South Chicago. Back in the '70s this club was known as Queen Bee's. The place was packed when we walked in and Pat Scott, a female singer of generous proportions, was enticing the ladies in the audience to take turns shaking their "bootie." Not much music here but lots of ambience. This small, cozy club gets the award for the most red tinsel, which hung from the bars on both sides of the room. Red was everywhere — in the shag carpeting that covered the walls and the red bulbs in the light fixtures.
Accolades go to Michael Frank, the owner of Earwig Records, and Felix Wohrstein for leading each tour through the dark, colorful streets of Chicago's South Side to these blues meccas.
With the closing of the Cherokee Blues Club on June 26, a new blues club is planned for downtown Louisville. I talked to Ward Plauche, who is one of three partners who also own Hurricane O'Malley's, Coyote's and the Rock-It Club. He said they are planning a fourth club just east of O'Malley's Square at 117 W. Liberty Street to open in early September. This new venue will provide 2,000 sq. ft. of space that will hold between 200 to 400 people, depending on the arrangement of the seating. Scott Mullins will assist in booking the talent, which will include both regional and national bands, in addition to our local musicians. The club will serve "basket" type food and have a special entrance off the side alley. To generate public interest, there will be a contest to name the place. The winner will get $500 and a year's free admission, so get your creative juices working.