CHICAGO -- In search of musical roots and a legacy of living blues, I journey to the old Chess Records building in a once-proud South Side neighborhood reduced to vacant lots and warehouses. Shivers course through me as I gaze at the building's weathered facade as a student of classical architecture might ponder the Parthenon. Here, in a second-floor studio, the ghosts of the blues masters still play the music transplanted from the Mississippi Delta and electrified with a new, raw energy.
I picture Willie Dixon - rotund, balding, full of laughter and life - clutching his stand-up bass and "Walking the Blues"; Muddy Waters wailing through "Hoochie Coochie Man"; Buddy Guy leaving no doubt what it means in "The First Time I Met the Blues."
In my mind's eye, Chuck Berry's doing the duck walk, rolling over standard three-chord blues into another realm. Staring into the door in the storefront facade, it's easy to envision Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, smitten with the rare Chess imports they discovered, coming in 1964 to pay tribute - by appropriating the songs black bluesmen had cut in the same room just a decade earlier.
Chess Records, long since closed but undergoing a multimillion-dollar restoration led by Dixon's survivors, seems the logical place to begin this pilgrimage, an overdue one. It's been more than 15 years, after all, since Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page led me to a Japanese Stratocaster guitar - a steady, if at times much under-appreciated refuge in the shoals of adolescence.
For way too long, like most of my generation, I had considered these white British virtuosos inventors of their craft.
But in time, the Stones showed the way to Muddy Waters, Clapton carried me to Buddy Guy, Jimmy Page to Willie Dixon.
Elvis and the Beatles owed the blues more than too many ever would acknowledge. The Stones and their countless imitators could never have been but for the new sound born on Maxwell Street. The Yardbirds would be unthinkable without Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
Here, outside Chess, the debt becomes real. Without Chicago blues, without the musical tornado unleashed when Muddy Waters plugged a guitar into a box of wires with a speaker, [See Blues, 5f] we would have no rock and roll as we know it.
Son Seals reaches way up the neck of his Gibson hollow-body, bends the skinny strings just so and unleashes a searing riff so sweet it weeps. Riveted, a few hundred mostly thirty-something white people fix their gaze on this bearded, graying black man. His eyes focus somewhere else entirely. His mind travels to a faraway place and time.
From someplace deep in the big bluesman's lungs comes the melodic moaning, punctuated by growls:
"I do all the hard work but my boss he takes all the money./That's why I got to leave this country, boy, Lord, and go to some big town./You know I got to leave this country, boy, Lord knows that I got to put it down."
Another blues song, another bit of everyman's poetry as raw and pure as it comes, Seals' "Cotton Picking Blues" in many ways tells the story of the Chicago Blues, of blacks who journeyed from the cotton fields and poverty of the Delta to a better life in the big town, then transformed their country blues into a new, electric sound that forever changed music.
Between sets, Seals sits in a tiny dressing room at Kingston Mines, a North Side club where some of the world's best bluesers play until 4 a.m. every day. Seals, 54, came from Osceola, Ark., in 1971, a generation after the post-World War II blues explosion in Chicago. Now he's among the last of a dying breed, bluesmen who sing about hard living they know first-hand.
In a raspy voice that works overtime almost every night, Son speaks wistfully of home and roots, his own, and that of the
blues and all it inspired: "I tell you, it all came from those old farms, man, these cotton fields, people singing when they wasn't supposed to be singing. I was raised up there. I know what it is, man, to see people like that chopping and picking cotton and doing it all day, barely getting enough money to feed their kids that night and gotta go back to do the same thing tomorrow."
But if his tiny hometown in the Deep South gave him heartbreak and ultimately forced him to leave for Chicago to make a living, it also imbued Son Seals with this dream of bringing to others the abiding joy the blues brought him from the time he could talk, maybe sooner. His father, Jim Seals, played guitar, piano, drums and trombone and ran a juke joint offering dancing in front, dice in back. So it happened that baby Son Seals fell asleep to the sounds of blues legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk and Albert King and dreamed in shades of blue. By age 13, Son would play drums behind them, before switching to guitar and playing razor-sharp leads that made Albert King proud and Son Seals a legend in his own right.
The blues, Son tells me, has never seemed a mournful music to him, however firmly grounded in hard realities, but a celebration converting feeling - hope and despair and all the in-betweens that make humans human - into music, and music into feeling.
"It's still like the old juke joint, the place people gamble, eat, raise hell, you know, have a good time," he says. "Let it down, man, let things go, forget about your troubles for a while, you know. A lot of people they work from day to day, week to week, they get a few coins together, come to them old juke joints, have fun, forget about their troubles, why not?"
Tonight, at Kingston Mines, the black farmhands and sharecroppers have been replaced by an audience of local yuppies, tourists, a sprinkling of blues junkies. And in this club - where Jagger, Richards, Berry, Clapton, Gregg Allman and Bob Dylan, among others, all have come to pay homage and play music - the juke joint has gone decidedly upscale and uptown. It costs $18 to enter beneath the billboard-sized mural gracing the facade with painted faces of Chicago blues giants like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor.
If you grew up listening to and playing blues, however bastardized, when you closed your eyes, you could transport yourself to a place like this. In this club, on this night, Sweet Home Chicago, as the song goes, indeed seems the land of milk and honey.
On the eve of the millennium, amid a cacophony of post-punk thrash and grunge, rap and progressive pap, heavy metal and gaggles of overproduced layers of sound, the blues, this most elemental of musical forms, enjoys a resurgence.
Mega sets of Chess Records, Blues Masters and Roots & Blues collections, box sets from the Delta genius of Robert Johnson to the definitive Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon tributes flood music stores. Buddy Guy wins his second straight Grammy while pushing 60. Annual blues festivals draw the largest crowds in their histories. The House of Blues continues its relentless pursuit of prime big-city real estate, and the name itself (though certainly a misnomer many nights) attracts hordes of customers. Eric Clapton snares yet another generation with half-century-old blues songs.
But jubilation over any blues revival - a series of them have come and gone - is tinged with a disconcerting sense of injustice and shame for all Jim Crow and its persistent legacy stole from countless black blues artists cheated of their rightful place for far too long.
For years, after all, the white radio stations wanted no part of this low-brow "race music" transplanted from the Delta. So before it ever reached most of America, the blues, a distinctly American music, had to cross the Atlantic, where British guitarists relished TTC and embellished it, then brought it back to the country that invented it.
The myopia has a long history. On their first American tour, the Stones acknowledged their debt to a few of their heroes and the inspiration for their music: Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Who? the erstwhile music critics wanted to know. Muddy Waters, Jagger explained, gave the band its name - in the song "Rolling Stone" - and, along with a few other Chicago bluesmen, its musical identity. The producers of "Shindig" didn't get it. They wanted the Stones on TV, but the band refused to play until Howlin' Wolf appeared on the air with them. The Stones played, and so did the Wolf.
Fortunately, the blues artists enshrined on the Kingston Mines facade - the ones who invented and shaped the Chicago blues - persevered against all odds. Out of love for the music, they worked days in fields and factories or performed other manual labor and played by night in rundown clubs and on street corners. Buddy worked day jobs, and Muddy did too, like almost all their contemporaries. Still, they managed to create an art form that at once defines the black struggle and transcends race: To "get up in the morning and hit Highway 49," after all, is not just about leaving the Delta for the big city, but about the universal human quest for something more, often somewhere else, a step ahead of a past best left behind.
One of Muddy's former jamming buddies, Willie Kent, sits on a stool in a dark alcove behind a stage the size of large dining room table at B.L.U.E.S., a narrow club across the street from Kingston Mines. It's easier now, being retired from the other jobs, he says, driving trucks, farming the fields, hauling wood, logging. Kent, a 60-year-old recently (however belatedly) named most outstanding bassist by Living Blues magazine, played with legends like Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Little Walter. But it couldn't pay the bills for a family with eight children.
Today, his kids know little of the blues; they prefer rap or what's euphemistically now called rhythm and blues. "I don't think people know what we owe to the blues," Willie says. "But you need to know what blues is about and where it came from to know music."
You get a pretty good idea when Willie belts out "Got My Mojo Working" or "Little Red Rooster" or when he brings up "Big-Time" Sarah Streeter to turn Otis Rush's "Any Way You Want Me" into a living thing delivered in a flawless gospel voice on overdrive.
Somewhere, no doubt, Muddy Waters must be satisfied at last, looking down on this club on this night in this cradle of the electric blues, considering the legacy.
I know I've come to the right place to find it.
Gary Gately is a reporter for the Sun.
Pub Date: 12/15/96