I enjoy solving mysteries, especially when it comes to the blues. Early this year I was catching up reading the backlog of my recent issues of Living Blues. The August 2010 issue (#208) was celebrating forty years of the magazine. A portion of the magazine was devoted to current stories of past artists who had been on the cover, including James Cotton. Cotton had been featured in Issue 76 that came out in 1987 with a twelve-page interview with plenty of pictures. The more recent issue was just two pages with both a recent photo and an early picture of Cotton, an historic black-and-white photo of him performing at Silvio's Lounge in Chicago, which was taken by Yannick Bruynoghe in December, 1957. Cotton was in the foreground, blowing his harp next to an unnamed sax player. In the background, his face partially obscured, was a drummer who looked strangely familiar. On a hunch, I took the picture to Blues Night at the Filson Historical Society on February 25, where the Tenth Street Blues Band was playing.
This band of veterans included Pen Bogert on guitar and lap steel, Billy Bird singing and playing harp, James Watkins on bass and the loquacious Sonny Sitgraves keeping the rhythm on his vintage Rogers 360 drum set. Unfortunately Joe Jr. was ill and wasn't there to play second guitar. The moment of truth came before the first set when I showed Sonny the photo. He paused for a moment and then something clicked. Indeed it was a photo of him taken fifty-three years ago. Later, he said it brought back many memories. After all these years Cotton and Sonny are still performing. As Sonny told me, "I'm playing just to be playin'."
After Sonny graduated from Central High School in 1955, he would go to Chicago every summer to visit his brother John. At night, they would go out to the blues clubs on Chicago's South and West sides, including Silvio's Lounge, which was at first located at the corner of West Lake and Oakley and later moved further west to West Lake and Kedzie. Sonny described Silvio's as a "rough-and-tumble neighborhood joint like Syl's Lounge, only rougher." Sonny never knew Cotton that well, but that night he was invited to sit in with the house band. During 1957, Cotton was playing harp in Muddy's band, having replaced Little Walter in 1955. He would stay with Muddy for twelve years until he struck out with his own band in 1967.
During the Fifties and Sixties, Silvio's. owned by Silvio Corroza, was a club where Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf performed regularly. Because both Muddy and Wolf were frequently traveling on the road, Corroza often had to hire two bands to make sure he had one. This was an amicable on-and-off rivalry between Muddy and the Wolf that started when Wolf filed a grievance against Muddy in 1955. He claimed that Muddy had subcontracted for him to cover the gig while Muddy was on the road in April. Having agreed, Wolf turned down two offers for gigs. When Wolf found out that the club had booked someone else for that time, he was furious and went to the local Musicians Union, claiming that Muddy should have paid him for the gigs that he missed. Muddy told the union that he was no longer under contract to play at Silvio's, so his subcontract was no longer valid with Wolf. When Corroza testified, he confirmed Muddy's account and the board ruled in favor of Muddy.
Deejay Big Bill Hill started broadcasting on WOPA from Silvio's and the Copa Cabana during the mid Fifties which introduced many listeners to the blues.
When veteran Chicago bassist Bob Stroger moved from Haiti, Missouri to Chicago in 1955 with his father, they occupied an apartment that was behind Silvio's. Every night, he could hear the blues from performers like Muddy and the Wolf. Stroger said, "I could look right out of my back door and into the back door of the club. They were in there having fun and dressing so nice. I thought that's what I wanted to do if I ever got a chance."
Eighteen-year-old KoKo Taylor moved from Memphis to Chicago in 1954 with her husband, Robert ‘Pops" Taylor. While working during the week as a housekeeper, she and Pops would visit the clubs in the early Sixties on the weekends to listen to live blues. They spent a lot of time at Silvio's. She knew then she wanted to be a singer, for in those days the blues was all you could hear. One night, Pops approached Wolf, who was performing at Silvio's, and said, "My wife can sing. She loves to sing." Wolf said, "Well, let her come on up here. Come up here, gal, and do a tune with us." Taylor got up and sang Tina Turner's "I Idolize You" and Brook Benton's "Make Me Feel Good Kiddio." Those were the first songs Taylor ever sang on stage.
Billy Boy Arnold's band played at Silvio's for nine months during 1957, sharing weekends with Muddy and Wolf. This exposure allowed Arnold to observe and compare Chicago's two top bands. He said, "Muddy's sound was built around Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers and Otis Spann, while Wolf had his own sound, [which was] unique in every sense of the word."
Chicago guitarist Lacy Gibson tells the story of one night at Silvio's when three of Wolf's girlfriends were in the house. While Wolf was hollering, shaking his ass and crawling through the crowd, one particular girl friend stuck him in the leg with a butcher knife. Wolf kept on singing and went straight on out the door to the hospital and never said a word.
Silvio's was where Wolf met Lillie Hardley in 1957, an attractive widow who had been seeing James Cotton for several years. After seven years and some persistence by Wolf, she became Wolf's second wife.
A group of young, white musicians were venturing out to the black blues clubs during the early Sixties to learn directly from the masters. Pianist Barry Goldberg remembered when he and guitarist Mike Bloomfield sat in with Wolf at Silvio's. They parked their car close to the door and tried to make an inconspicuous entrance. Unfortunately they entered the wrong door and found themselves by the stage. Everyone froze and there was a hushed silence in the crowd. Wolf started laughing and said, "We got some white boys in the house tonight. Come on up and play with us." The band started playing "Killing Floor" with Goldberg on piano and Bloomfield playing rhythm guitar next to Hubert Sumlin. They got a standing ovation for their rite of passage into the real world of blues. Bloomfield and Goldberg later formed Electric Flag and cut "Killing Floor" out of reverence for Wolf.
Following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, there was looting, shooting and firebombing throughout Chicago's West Side and Silvio's was burned to the ground. Wolf and his later wife, Barbra, drove by to survey the damage. When he saw his old club, he wept. It was the only time Barbra ever saw him cry. Today it is an empty lot. West Lake was the home to some of Chicago's most active West Side blues clubs, which also included El Matador, Sunset Lounge, Gatewood's Tavern, Casbah Lounge and Artesia Lounge. Today the only music on Lake is the thundering, bass heavy hip-hop reverberating from the cars cruising under the tracks of the Green Line.
John Gage with Kentucky Homefront is continuing the recent tradition of spring and fall blues concerts at the Clifton Center. The next event will be Saturday, April 9 at 7:30 p. m. The lineup will open with Jimi V and Screamin' John followed by the Cole Stevens Band for the first show. Cole is in the process of forming a new band after the Bryant-Stevens Band competed in the 2011 International Blues Challenge. The second show will include Lazy Eleven with Jimmy Gardner and Joel Pinkerton. The evening will close out with Lamont Gillispie and 100 Proof. This evening could turn out to be an exciting blues mini-fest. (Lamont is back hosting the weekly Thursday night blues jams at the Zeppelin Café.)