It was Foree Wells who first came up with the idea of having the Kentuckiana Blues Society sponsor an amateur blues contest. The original competition was held in 1993 at the Bluebird (formerly the Cherokee Blues Club.) It was a scramble to get entries that year, with MR2 Blue winding up the first winner. In 1994, the competition moved to the Backstage Cafe, now Vinnie's at Hurricane O'Malley's. Rude Mood, a band from Dayton, Ohio, won it all that year. The Redd Snapper Blues Band was our winner in 1995, again at the Backstage. In 1996, the contest was held at Willie Bright's Velvet Rose, with the Tyler Henderson Blues Band coming out on top. Henderson soon left Louisville to return to Germany.
Since 1997, Stevie Ray's has been the host of the competitions, with the Walnut Street Blues Band winning the first year there. Jim Diamond and the Blues Syndicate won in '98 and made a good impression representing the KBS in Memphis at the International competition. The stakes for the prize were increased in 1999, when the Jimmy Roberts' Blues Band won it, on their thir
That brief history of the competitions brings us to the present for what will be our Eighth Annual Unsigned Blues Contest. There are twelve very diverse entries (the largest number ever), with two from out-of-state and five from out of town. Our five judges will be challenged to select the winner based on the same scoring criteria used for the International Competition. The judges include last year's winner, Jimmy Roberts, Scott Mullins, host of the "Saturday Night Blues Party" on WFPK; Jeffrey Lee Puckett, music writer for the Courier-Journal; Steve Walls, founding bass player for the Saints and Keith West, assistant general manager at WRVG in Georgetown. Due to the abundance of contestants, the draw to select the order to play will be held at 4 p.m., with the music starting at 4:30 p.m. There will be a break in the action midway into the contest for some good eats prepared by Champion BBQ, so come on down Sunday, August 13 to see the latest in new blues talent from around our region.
I had a chance to return to Chicago after the Chicago Blues Festival and take a city-sponsored neighborhood tour that focused on the roots of Chicago Blues, Gospel and Jazz. Fernando Jones, a cousin of Lefty Dizz, was our guide. He is a self-taught blues musician and has written a book, filmed a video and produced a play, all of which are titled "I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot!"
We first headed south down Michigan Avenue along what was once called Record Row, where the Jay and Chess Record companies were located. From 1951-'54, the Chess studios were at 4858 South Cottage Grove, then moved to 2120 S. Michigan Avenue (also used as the title of a Rolling Stones tune), where they remained until 1966, when GRT took over the record company.
The Chess brothers, Phil and Leonard, recorded Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, KoKo Taylor and pioneer rockers and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley at the Michigan Avenue address. Willie Dixon served as arranger for many of those recording sessions, so when he formed the Blues Heaven Foundation, it was natural to locate it in the old Chess studio. The modest three-story building, with a facade of terra cotta tile, has been refurbished as a museum and educational center. Since 1997, it has been open to the public for tours. Last year when Hillary Clinton visited, it was given a special landmark status as part of Clinton's "Save America's Treasures" program. A small park has recently been developed next door with silhouettes of Chuck Berry doing his duck walk, Bo Diddley and Albert King holding their trademark box and flying V guitars, plus a slim KoKo Taylor mounted on the front fence.
Fernando talked about the great migration (from 1915-1960) of 500,000 African-Americans from the South's cotton fields and plantations to Chicago and the promise of better jobs. He said "Today, there are more Afro-Americans from Mississippi living in Chicago than Afro-Americans in Mississippi." Most of them arrived by train and settled in the south side of the city, in an area which became known as Bronzeville. This black metropolis became the center for Chicago's African-American business, culture, literature, politics and, of course, music.
We went by the home of Muddy Waters at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave. Unfortunately, the building is unoccupied and boarded up, with tall weeds in the front yard. Fernando said there are plans to restore it. A few blocks away at 35th and Indiana is Smitty's Corner (also boarded up), Waters' home base during the Fifties.
The new Checkerboard Lounge is the best known of the south side blues clubs at 423 E. 43rd St (or Muddy Waters Drive) Buddy Guy and L. C. Thurmond converted it from a nine-foot wide garage in the 1972. It has expanded in all direction, with ample parking across the street. Fernando said the men in the neighborhood used to play checkers there to pass the time, hence the name Checkerboard.
We also went by Gerri's Palm Tavern at 446 E. 47th Street, where Fernando presents his play (now in its second season.) This interactive production combines audience participation, comedy, drama and, of course, the blues. When the famous Regal Theatre was located around the corner, the tavern was the hangout where some of the hottest musical entertainers would hang out after the show. More recently, the tavern was featured in the movie, Mercury Rising.
The business card for the Jazz Record Mart makes the mighty claim of "The World's largest Jazz and Blues Shop." Since the store recently moved to 444 N. Wabash Ave., that is probably true. Walk up a short flight of steps and you enter a large room filled with tables containing bins of jazz, gospel and blues CDs. There is a musty smell that gets stronger as you wander into the back rooms that contain vinyl and 78 RPM records. Way in the back corner is a space set up for performances. The walls are filled with posters and other current and historic memorabilia. One of my favorite relics was Big Joe Williams' old, beat-up nine-string guitar, hanging in a glass case near the entrance. This used to hang on the back wall when JRM was located at 211. W. Grand. Big Joe often slept downstairs when he was in Chicago. Bob Koester, the owner of JRM and founder of Delmark Records, is semi-retired and comes into the store only a few hours in the afternoon.
I found several CDs by lesser-known Chicago bluesmen. Too band they don't give KBS members a dollar off.