On Nov. 22, 1981, the Rolling Stones paid tribute to black history at the Checkerboard Lounge on East 43rd Street. In town for concerts at the then-Rosemont Horizon, the famed rock group made a pilgrimage to the South Side, where their musical style and name were born. They shared the blues joint's tiny stage with Muddy Waters, whose song "Mannish Boy" had the refrain: "I'm a rollin' stone."
One of the many African-Americans seeking refuge from Jim Crow, the legendary bluesman settled in Chicago in 1943, the year Mick Jagger was born.
When Jagger sang a line from a Waters song, "I was born with good luck," Waters replied: "I can see that!"
Racism had greeted blacks in Chicago, shunting them into a long, narrow neighborhood south of the Loop. "There was Bronzeville ... and there was the rest of Chicago for whites," a Tribune reporter, himself African-American, once noted.
Still, confined quarters make for a rich cultural stew. The blues were born in a small area of the South, the Mississippi Delta. In a similarly restricted strip of his adopted city, Muddy Waters helped shape Chicago's musical gift to the world: Mississippi blues played on amplified guitars and harmonicas held tight against a microphone.
In the U.S., blues were marketed as "race records," on the assumption only blacks would buy them. But in Europe, they were discovered by young whites looking for an alternative to the hit parade songs of the day. Among those youths were Jagger and Keith Richards, who met at an English grade school and rode Chicago blues to fame and fortune.
"It didn't bother me at all when bands like the Rolling Stones make it big," Waters told the Tribune in 1981. "The boys were real nice. (The Stones) didn't leave me standing in the rain. They passed a quarter to me — gave me credit, you know."
A foot-stomping lyric could be made of phrases like "standing in the rain" and "passed a quarter to me," and it would have the logic of history. Blues were the musical accompaniment to the Great Migration, mimicking its lofty dream and heartbreaking reality. The blues are not just a musical form but an experience, as those who played them — Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Junior Wells — have noted. "It's like getting up in the morning and finding your car has been stolen," guitarist Lefty Dizz explained to the Tribune. "That's the blues."
An estimated 500,000 African-Americans came to Chicago between 1916 and 1970, hoping for better jobs than they could have in the plantation South. "Used to make up blues while I was drivin' my tractor," Waters told a Tribune reporter of his Mississippi youth.
Whole train loads of migrants came, some with signs chalked on the sides of the cars proclaiming, "Bound for the Promised Land." Some newcomers brought homegrown institutions with them, like the Hattiesburg Barber Shop, whose owner and clients pooled their money to buy discounted tickets on the Illinois Central. Reopened at 35th and Rhodes, the barber shop served as an informal settlement house for others who followed the same path.
Yet in Chicago, opportunity could be as limited as in the South. As a Bronzeville minister said in 1905, at the start of the Great Migration, "The more desirable places are closed against negroes, either because the employers will not hire them or the men will not work with them."
Even with the deck stacked against them, African-Americans created on the South Side a vibrant community. There were tenements and mansions, leftovers from the neighborhood's previous inhabitants. Poverty-stricken families lived side-by-side with successful entrepreneurs. When Jesse Binga, who founded Chicago's first black bank, moved to a white neighborhood, his home was bombed. He stuck it out, but other businessmen and women chose to remain in the neighborhood where their fortunes were made.
Bronzeville was home to bitter disappointments, but notable accomplishments as well. In Provident Hospital, Daniel Hale Williams, a black doctor, performed perhaps the first successful open-heart surgery. Its streets inspired novelist Richard Wright's transfixing word-portrait, "Native Son." And there was its bright-lights district — clubs, restaurants and the famed Savoy Ballroom.
It was in that spirit, 31 years ago, that Mick Jagger and his band mates recognized their debt to Chicago blues, at what proved to be one of their hero's last public performances; he died two years later. But on that magic night, as so many times before, Waters hit a twangy guitar note, threw back his head and sang:
I'm a man
I'm a natural born lovers man
I'm a man
I'm a rollin' stone
The creative stew that was Bronzeville
Rolling Stones recognized debt to great musicians and artists who thrived on South Side of Chicago
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