The argument can be made that all modern popular music began when Southern musicians who migrated to the North electrified their sounds in an attempt to be heard in the big city — and that means it all started here on Maxwell Street.
All too often, the blues is presented as a dusty historical artifact, or served up as a cleaned-up, watered-down, family-friendly tourist attraction. As an ignorant youth, I thought that’s all there was to the music, but then I read a piece by my rock-critic hero Lester Bangs titled “Otis Rush Mugged by an Iceberg.” Waxing rhapsodic in a review of Groaning the Blues: Original Cobra Recordings 1956-58, Bangs wrote, “It sounds like giant bloody icebergs shuddering up to crunch together in the deepest, longest night of typically a Midwestern winter… It’s better than killing yourself. And how many other current records can you say that about?"
What Lester meant was that on the best recordings by Rush, and the other artists I cite among the all-time Chicago greats, the blues is sexy, dirty, dangerous, thrilling and absolutely vital in the here and now — a reason for living if ever there was one.
1. Otis Rush
“A guy will promise you the world and give you nothin’, and that's the blues.”
Born in 1935, Rush moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1948 and made his name in the clubs on the city’s South and West sides. Written by Willie Dixon and later covered by Led Zeppelin, his first single “I Can’t Quit You Baby” reached No. 6 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1956. The left-handed guitarist and vocalist continued to deliver the rawest brand of electric blues until he was finally forced to quit performing after suffering a stroke in 2004. In his best grooves, however, the life force will not be silenced.
2. Howlin’ Wolf
“I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.”
Like Rush, the man born Chester Arthur Burnett moved to Chicago from Mississippi, but his similarities to anyone else pretty much end there. At 6’3” and 275 pounds, Wolf was a singular force of nature, and his howling is both thrilling and, yes, more than a little bit scary on his many recordings for Chicago’s Chess Records. He died in 1976 at age 65.
3. Koko Taylor
“I was so glad to get out of the cotton patch and stop pickin’ cotton, I wouldn’t have cared who come by and said, ‘I’ll take you to Chicago.’”
My twenty-something students are always a little surprised to be disavowed of the mistaken notion that Chicago blues was a boys’ club, and to learn that Tennessee-born Cora Walton, better known as Koko Taylor, could be as hot to trot as any of her male peers. (Wolf’s “Back Door Man” has nothing on Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle.”) The Queen of the Blues was still performing with the lust for life of a teenager pretty much until her death at age 80 in 2009.
4. Muddy Waters
“I rambled all the time. I was just like that, like a rollin’ stone.”
The story should by now be familiar: Born in Mississippi in 1913, McKinley Morganfield moved to Chicago in 1943 and began recording for Chess after first being captured on tape in the rural South by legendary archivist Alan Lomax two years earlier. With Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar and Otis Spann on piano, he cut some of the most enduring blues sides of all time for Chess. His 1958 tour of the U.K. inspired all the major artists on the English scene who’d merge the Chicago sound with rock. (Muddy also proved he could play their game with the mind-blowing psychedelia of his 1968 album Electric Mud.) The legend died in his sleep in 1983 at age 70.
5. Willie Dixon
“The blues will always be because the blues are the roots of all American music.”
Yet another migrant from Mississippi, Dixon arrived in Chicago in 1948 and soon became a familiar presence performing bass in the studio and on stage with most of his major peers. His biggest contribution, though, was as a songwriter for the Chess stable, penning “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I just Want to Make Love to You,” Little Red Rooster,” “Spoonful” and many other soon-to-be-standards, as well as subjects of long and bitter copyright battles. He died in 1992 at age 76.
6. Buddy Guy
“When I went to Chicago, I’ll put it like this: I was looking for a dime and I found a quarter.”
Starting out as a young session guitarist at Chess, and still taking the stage at his club in the West Loop when the mood strikes him at age 80, Louisiana native Buddy Guy is the most important link between the first-generation heroes of Chicago blues and everyone who continues to follow in their footsteps. Renowned as an electrifying soloist, some of his best performances are when he’s in acoustic mode. His gregarious presence onstage and his oft-stated philosophy — “Music makes people happy, and that’s why I go on doing it. I like to see everybody smile” — show that blues isn’t about reveling in sadness. It’s about purging all of the crap in life, thereby finding joy and transcendence.
Bonus video: This scene of The Blues Brothers was actually filmed on Maxwell Street and gives you an idea of what it was like in its heyday.
About this series:
In my “other” role as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of several “Big Chicago” classes intended to introduce first-semester students to the rich and diverse culture of Chicago. “Music & Media in Chicago” has made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your overview of Chicago music here!”
In comparison to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Mind you, this and every installment of “Chicago Music History 101” is just one critical fan’s take on what is most in need of recognition from our long and rich sonic legacy.
Limiting the series to “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music” is completely arbitrary — it could have been 100, or 1,000 — and I’m leaving other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. This overview also is entirely subjective: Every reader and listener can and should have their own list. This simply is a place to get the conversation started.
Special thanks to ace director and videographer Andrew Gill, online majordomo Tricia Bobeda, and former digital intern Jack Howard for all of their help.