For Chicago blues, sweet home is hard to find

Muddy Waters, circa 1971. The late music legend will be honored at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival
Muddy Waters, circa 1971. The late music legend will be honored at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival Kevin Dooley/flickr
Muddy Waters, circa 1971. The late music legend will be honored at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival
Muddy Waters, circa 1971. The late music legend will be honored at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival Kevin Dooley/flickr

For Chicago blues, sweet home is hard to find

Updated 11:13 a.m.

(Editor's Note: After our story was published the Chicago Blues Experience launched this official website.)

Back in the 1950s Buddy Guy was a young guitarist living in Louisiana. Like others he eventually traveled north to Chicago, where the blues scene was thriving.

“Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all those great guys,” said Guy. “That’s why I came here. To get a day job and go watch them play at night.”

Those musicians not only inspired him to play, but to open the famed Checkerboard Lounge in the 1970s followed by Legends in the late 80’s to keep the music alive. Guy says he’ll never forget those early days watching his legends.

“The beer was 25 cents a bottle when I came here. And when Muddy played there wasn’t no cover charge. The beer was 35 cents,” remembered Guy. “So the 10 cents was going for the band members. Muddy Waters was in the band. And those were the greatest days of my life.”

Guy just received a Lifetime Achievement award at this year's Grammys. But he and other artists in town say their music should be just as celebrated locally. And they wonder: If Chicago is the home of the blues, then why doesn’t it have a permanent home honoring it?

The blues made important stops in Memphis and St. Louis, but Chicago is where the blues really came alive in the middle of the last century. That’s when musicians like Muddy Waters came here from Mississippi, electrified their down home Delta Blues and recorded it for labels like Chess Records.
You can still see remnants of this history around town. Like at the old Chess Records on S. Michigan Avenue and Muddy Water’s former house at 4339 S. Lake Park Avenue.

“This is the house of the blues before there was a house of the blues,” said Barry Dollins, former director of the Chicago Blues Festival, standing in front of the boarded up building. “This was the rehearsal house.”

Muddy Waters bought the home in the 1950s at the peak of his career and lived there for 20 years. It wasn’t just a home for Waters and his family. It was a gathering place for other musicians, where countless jam sessions were held.

Today the red brick two flat is in bad shape.

“It’s just depressing just to see that X up there,” Dollins sighed, pointing to a big red X affixed to the front.

That X means the house is abandoned and unsafe. It’s been on and off the market for years. Dollins says the home could’ve served as a historic space, much like the Louis Armstrong home in New York. A place where people can see where and how the musician lived and what inspired them.

“It’s sad that there was no forethought in what the significance of this building is,” said Dollins. “And how it could’ve been preserved and utilized.”

In some ways, the neglected house is symbolic of the overall failure to erect a permanent space to preserve Chicago’s music heritage.

“Why don’t we have a blues museum? It comes down to money,” Dollins said. “It takes millions of dollars to create a museum.”  

Steve Cushing is the host of the national radio show “Blues Before Sunrise.” He said Chicago deserves to have a blues museum, but he’s not sure how viable it would be.

“How would you pay for it and where would you put it?” asked Cushing. “It would seem that you would want it in a place that was related to the actual location of the blues. But if you put it on the south side, would tourists, would white folks go down there?”

If something does ever get off the ground, it won’t be called the Chicago Blues Museum. That’s because local guitarist Gregg Parker copyrighted that title.

“They call me the black Indiana Jones. If I can’t find it, it doesn’t exist,” said Parker.

Parker once played with Mick Jagger and Buddy Miles among others, but now mostly collects artifacts for traveling exhibitions.

“I don’t need a building to do what I’m doing. I own it,” said Parker. “The blues museum is a state of mind. It’s not a building.”

In fact, the address for Parker’s museum’s is a P.O. box number. He once had a storefront space but won’t say why it closed. He gets a little defensive when asked when the public could see his whole collection.

“I’m not going to tell you my itinerary,” scoffed Parker. “You might be a thief!”

Parker shows how fragmented and disorganized efforts are to showcase the blues in Chicago. Many say the only way to get everyone on the same page — and all the artifacts under one roof — is for the city of Chicago to get involved. They point out that City Hall moved mountains for the proposed George Lucas Museum and the Obama Presidential Library.

So why hasn’t it done more for the blues?

The Department of Cultural Affairs sent this statement: "The City of Chicago celebrates its rich blues music heritage each year with the world renowned Chicago Blues Festival on the shores of Lake Michigan. More than 500,000 blues fans attend the festival each year, proving that Chicago is the “Blues Capital of the World.” 

But some tourists at last year’s free festival said they wished there was more to see while they were in town.

“I’ve been to Buddy Guy’s place, but that’s about it,” said Karl Roque, who came all the way from the Philippines. When asked if he’d like to see a museum dedicated to his favorite art form, Roque didn’t hesitate. “Yes. Why not? Maybe it’s about time.”

Buddy Guy agrees.

“I’ve been begging for it for almost 30 years."

According to Guy he may not have to wait too much longer. Guy has been working with a group that's been trying to build a blues museum for a few years now.  

“They already got the building on Navy Pier," said Guy. “A blues experience museum on Navy Pier.”

No one at Navy Pier would comment. A statement from Tim Wright, co-founder of the so-called Chicago Blues Experience, said they’re close to finalizing the details, but can’t confirm when. 

In the meantime, another blues museum is moving full steam ahead. Built with a mix of public and private funds, the $13 million, 23,000 square foot space will feature interactive exhibits and a theater for live music.

But you won’t find it in Chicago.

The National Blues Museum is set to open this summer in St. Louis.

Follow WBEZ reporter Yolanda Perdomo on Twitter @yolandanews Google+