Blues guitar virtuosos and honey-voiced singers filled the Chicago streets with music during the 1950s. Muddy Waters’ guitar seeped from corner juke joints. Willie Dixon strummed bass guitar beats, echoing the city’s blues sound.
Now more than a half century later, a music that was born in the rural South and raised in the urban North, has grown old and tired. Its fan base is aging, key blues haunts have shuttered and some of its up-and-coming musicians are struggling. Nowhere is the decline more evident than in Chicago, arguably the city that made the genre famous.
At age 41, Ronnie Baker Brooks is a second-generation Chicago bluesman. His father, 74-year-old Lonnie Brooks, came to the city from Louisiana in 1959 and Ronnie has listened to his father’s blues since he was a baby.
“It was a lot more vibrant back then,” Ronnie Baker Brooks says. “(The blues) is in a transition because a lot of the older blues guys are passing on.”
Those older blues musicians migrated north to Chicago from southern deltas in the 1930s through the 1960s, lured by industrial steel and automobile jobs as sharecropping jobs withered. The musicians brought with them an acoustic country blues that morphed in the big city, taking on the electrified sound of their new urban life.
Record Row popped up on south Michigan Avenue with labels like Chess Records and Vee-Jay Records. Blues dominated local radio stations. And music poured from clubs into the streets.
Marie Dixon, 70, widow of the late Willie Dixon, says parties started on Thursday and ended Sunday night.
‘The highlight of your life’
“An evening out was the highlight of your life,” she says. “You had good music, great people who were there just to feel the music. Blues was a part of your life.”
Now many clubs are gone, the wailing guitars and moaning harmonicas practically silenced.
So what’s happened in the city known as the “Blues Capital” — the town where “The Blues Brothers” was filmed, where musicians with names like Magic Slim played and Buddy Guy built his famous club, Legends? Chicago has earned itself a reputation as the place to hear the blues and the city that bred the blues.
In the 1970s, there were about three dozen spots to hear the blues. Now, that’s down to about seven or eight. Some joints have been razed, others are open but don’t book the blues anymore.
The spiffed-up clubs are downtown, while tiny old-time dives dwindle on the South Side.
“Most of the tourists do go downtown because it’s more convenient,” says Brooks. “They’re closer to their hotels. They want to hear ‘Mustang Sally’ or ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ the standards. Whereas on the South Side it’s more gut-bucket to me, it’s more, it’s got a direct vein to Mississippi, but it’s got the Chicago vibe to it.”
At Artis’ Lounge on the South Side, the drummer slaps his sticks starting the song. Howls bellow from speakers in the cramped room, shaking tables as the bartender dances while serving drinks. A sign on the back office door reads: “Where people meet and greet. Great music.”
“They’re not places where the expense-account crowds are going,” says Janice Monti, a blues expert and the sociology department chair at Dominican University in suburban Chicago. “It’s a very, very different scene than the stylized, marketed blues club. There’s a feeling the clubs are an extension of the living room or the house party.”
On the North Side, tourists and businessmen in suits dot the crowd at B.L.U.E.S., a club in the city’s trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood, where the bands are more likely to throw riffs from popular tunes into their songs rather than perform hard-core blues.
Eric Clapton tops in blues record sales
And while blues experts agree that Muddy Waters’ tunes would have be on every blues fan’s record shelf in the 1950s, Geoff Mayfield, the chart director at Billboard, says the most substantial-selling recent blues album was Eric Clapton’s “From the Cradle” in 1994. According to Nielsen SoundScan it sold 2.5 million.
Bruce Iglauer, who owns the blues music label Alligator Records in Chicago, says his sales have averaged more than 250,000 copies over the past five years. He didn’t provide figures from other years.
“It’s always had strong appeal to people who are really into the roots of music,” Billboard’s Mayfield says. “But it’s never been a mass appeal product.”
But there is faith to be had.
“I think there’s definitely a lot of talent in our generation that’s coming up,” Brooks says. “It is hard when you’re young, because a lot of people figure you haven’t been through enough to sing about the blues. I think that’s all irrelevant. If you can express it, you can make an impression with the people.”
Blues music still proves popular in the city’s Chicago Blues Festival each summer. The festival started 25 years ago in 1984 with 145,000 people and attendance has grown to 725,000 for this year’s fest in June.
And the Blues Heaven Foundation — founded by Willie Dixon — helps artists navigate the blues business with hopes of making it more prosperous. It teaches them about copyright law, publishing contracts and writers’ shares.
Marie Dixon says she wants blues artists to demand the recognition they deserve before its too late for the genre.
“It’s slowly dying at this point,” Dixon says. “I have no answer about what can be done about (its future). I really have no answer.”