On The Bus Again
One of the leaflets I picked up at the airport had details of a hop on/hop off bus tour of Chicago and it happens to stop a block or two down from the hotel, so after breakfast in my room I head out into clear blue skies, with not a cloud in sight – and it’s bloody cold, about 6C (43F). Just the weather to sit on the upper deck of an open top bus. 🙂 The stop is outside what is claimed to be the biggest McDonald’s in the world, although (a) I’m not sure where I heard that claim but maybe it was on the tour, (b) it’s not true because the one they built at the London Olympic Park in 2012 was the biggest, and (c) who cares. What is undeniable is that it is huge and, even though it’s a McD, it actually looks OK. And it’s a great start to the tour, because a couple of minutes after we start inching our way south down N Clark (traffic’s always heavy downtown) the tour guide – via her microphone, she’s on the top deck with us – asks if some bloke is aboard. No reply. He’s not. And it seems this is a problem. It turns out he’s the guide who’s taking over from her in a couple of stops time. So the bus has to do a go-around the block to go back and get him. He got off at the McD stop to get a coffee inside and we set off without him!
The architecture in this city is amazing. I have been here before on a business trip but saw little of the place, as is often the case, other than the convention centre, my hotel and the airport (that was one trip I didn’t get a chance to look around, unfortunately). Seeing it up close now, it’s a shame I didn’t see more then, but hey, I’m seeing it now. The bus tour will also get me close to a point where I can get a cab to another legendary music location – 2120 South Michigan Ave.
I get off the tour bus at the Hilton Hotel on South Michigan Avenue. I know Chicago is a big city and I wonder if it might be a long walk to my destination, so I ask the two doormen outside the Hilton, “Should I take a cab?” The first one has no idea where I want to go. Neither does his mate. Here are two African American guys, just up the road from one of the most important places in the history of music, never mind black music, a place that helped put that music into its rightful place in contemporary culture – and they don’t even know it exists! F***ing unbelievable.
So I take a punt and hail a cab. This guy, also an African American, does not know, by name, where I want to go either. F***ing unbelievable #2. So we crawl down South Michigan whilst he scans for the building number.
What is wrong with this city? It’s got a fantastic history when it comes to music (especially the blues), where the influence that the influx of black musicians from the South had all over the world is incalculable, and yet… Nobody offers a blues (or any kind of music) tour in the city anymore. There’s no tourist information available on anything to do with the blues (I find out later there is a free three-day blues festival in June every year but no information about this came up when I searched, not that it was relevant given it’s now October). Two doormen at an upmarket hotel have no idea there is a legendary music venue just down the street. And a cabbie is similarly clueless. OK, I agree, the last point could apply to any city in the world.
But I do. To the place where that song was recorded in 1964 by Chuck Berry. So my dumb cab driver drops me outside Chess Records, a building that is today known as the Blues Heaven Foundation, after an organisation founded by Willie Dixon to “preserve the blues’ legacy and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past”. It doesn’t look much from the outside and there’s no big sign outside on the building that says I’m in the right place. But getting to the door I can see some blues-related stuff inside so I try the door. Which is locked. I ring the bell. After a while a young black guy opens it, I say I’m here for a tour and he invites me in. He says to wait a while in the first room inside, which is the shop. After another few minutes he arrives back with a couple of white folks and shows them out. We start to chat, he seems pretty laid back and it’s all very casual. Turns out the tour is given by this guy, who happens to be Willie Dixon’s grandson Keith, and he now runs the place. All on his own, it appears, hence the locked door. As we walk he tells me it’s the original building shell with some of the original features left. The place had however fallen into a bad state of disrepair, as seen by some photos they’ve put up in the corridor outside the offices. Today though, it’s been fully restored to as it was ‘back in the day’.
He takes me round the building, first showing me the aforementioned offices, which Leonard and Phil Chess used, then into the back room which was the shipping area where the records were packed for distribution. The room is sparsely decorated and there are some display cases in here but he doesn’t bother to show these to me. As the two of us amble through the room he tells me some stories about his grandfather and the other artists who recorded there. Such as when Chuck Berry turned up for the first time, homeless and penniless at the back door, and how Chuck slept rough on the floor in the shipping area for months whilst he was trying to establish himself as a successful musician.
We then go up some stairs and Keith sits me down in a reasonable-sized room to watch a VHS video. What he doesn’t tell me is that it will last for nearly an hour, all the while sitting on a very uncomfortable folding chair. Keith did tell me he’d come back when it’s finished. Sadly the video is very poorly made with bad sound and tracking in many places. It is though an interesting film about Chess and the musicians who played for it, but surely they could do something to improve the sound and video quality of the tape? Or transfer it to DVD in this day and age? The significance of the room however it that it’s the actual recording studio (well, actually, it’s their most famous recording studio location because Chess moved around between a few different buildings in south Chicago). So it’s the place where Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf and all the other legends recorded. It’s where the Rolling Stones recorded three times, including 2120 South Michigan Avenue (the address of the studio) for the EP Five by Five. Legend has it that on one occasion Muddy Waters carried their gear into the studio for them. Chuck Berry also recorded Johnny B. Goode in the room (watch a YouTube video of Chuck playing the song live in 1958 – new window). I can just feel the history.
Keith comes back, and we chat some more – he’s very knowledgeable and will happily answer any questions – but then he leaves me to wander around on my own again. I go back down into the shipping area and look at the display cases. There are some interesting exhibits but there’s not much documentation around them or money been spent on them – for instance there are few explanatory notes or cards around the place so I’m left none the wiser by some exhibits, other than, for example, “this one looks like an original album by Howlin’ Wolf”. All done, I go back to the shop just as Keith is letting in another couple of people, so he tells me to have (another!) look around the shop and he’ll be back. Well he does come back but it’s about 10 minutes later… and there’s nothing in the shop worth buying, which is a shame. So I thank Keith for his time and he shows me out, unlocking the door for me to leave.
So ‘tour’ is a bit of a loose description when it comes to the Chess Records studio but it’s a unique and legendary part of music history, and very interesting to boot. However, as a modern ‘museum’, they could do so much more with it to make it much, much better.
Back On The Bus
As I take some photos of the building from the other side of the street outside, a group of about 20 people turn up. They knock on the door and ring the bell. No response. They try again. Nothing. They are just about to walk away when Keith finally opens the door to let them in. So if you plan to visit, be aware – he might be busy inside, so hang tight! The other thing to be aware of is that the place has variable opening hours – check the website or better still call ahead.
I hail a taxi to get back to the Hilton and a few minutes later another tour bus arrives. I go up on top and I brave it out up there as we go past the Lakefront but it’s got that cold now that I am forced back down to the lower deck. The bus passes Soldier Field, home of the Bears. I remember seeing this stadium on my last visit but what the hell have they done to it? It’s an absolute monstrosity! The Wikipedia page (above link) quotes someone as saying it’s the “Eyesore on the Lake Shore” and another saying it now looks like “a spaceship landed on the stadium”. No, it’s ten times worse than that. The original stadium had such a classical elegance to it but today it is probably the most hideous thing I have seen that’s been ‘renovated’. I ask the tour bus guide about it and he tells me it is almost universally loathed by Chicagoans. In 2004, as a result of the renovation a year before, Soldier Field was delisted as a National Historic Landmark. That tells you all you need to know. It’s hideous.
Off the bus again at the next stop to walk up and down Navy Pier, plus I go inside – it’s mostly tat shops plus restaurants and fast food joints (from one of which I grab something to eat) but there’s also a cinema. This could be a useful find as they’re showing Gravity in IMAX 3D and I’d read that to see the film one should try and watch it on the biggest screen possible. But I haven’t got time for that tonight though.
The light is fading as I get back on the bus which will take me back to McD’s near the hotel. It’s possibly even colder now but I couldn’t see anything from downstairs before so I force myself upstairs – hypothermia, who cares! By the time I disembark outside McDonald’s it’s nearly dark and I’m frozen solid. But what the hell, I wanted to see the sights. The tour bus is well worth it: good commentary, takes you everywhere, get on & off where you please and at whatever place interests you, and you can use the ticket for three days.
Last night as I walked from the Kerryman to Blue Chicago I passed this side road between two buildings where cars were queuing to get into, the line stretching out in the road for well over 100 yards. I assumed it was a parking garage. But when I went out to the tour bus this morning, there was a smaller queue with folks in the side road looking like they were ‘taking orders’ or something similar. Now as I walk past the side road, the queue of cars is again snaking back out into the main road. It’s fully dark now but I can see people ‘taking orders’ again. I can’t properly see down the side road so I walk back a few yards to investigate. On the corner of N Clark and W Ontario is Portillo’s and the side road is the entrance to its drive-thru. They always say to go to the busy restaurant and ignore the ones with the empty tables. Looking inside Portillo’s I can see it’s heaving with folks and so, with the almost permanent queue for the drive-in as well, I have found my destination for dinner tonight.
After this discovery I go straight to the 7-11 for tomorrow’s breakfast. God forbid that the Hotel Felix would permit refrigerators in its rooms, snobby little ’boutique’ hotel that it is. Then I could buy 3 days of breakfasts and store them. No chance, so I have to go out every night and buy my yoghurt, juice and fruit or whatever, and luckily it’s just about cool enough in the morning to eat. One trick I developed earlier in the trip is to get the ice bucket in the room, half fill it with ice, then place my breakfast in it: this helps a lot in keeping it cool.
After a short rest and brush-up in the hotel I venture out to Portillo’s for a genuine Chicago hot dog, which is very good – and cheap – and then it’s back to Blue Chicago.
“The blues has got a hold of me” **
When I arrived at Blue Chicago last night the guy on the door – a big, chunky, African American dude – was somewhat short and terse towards me as he barked out “$8”, which without any other words from him I took as being the entrance fee or cover charge. It was. But as I was leaving last night he was more communicative. I told him the music and bar were great – as indeed, they were – plus we had some general chit-chat and I then closed with: “I’ll be back tomorrow”. Well, when you’ve found blues nirvana, why not go back?
When I enter tonight he – Lorenzo, who is the owner I think – is manning the door again, and in the vain hope of recognition, I tell him “Told you I’d be back!” I think he smiled. Whatever. I sit down at the bar again and see that it’s a different band from last night but Laretha is back. She wasn’t supposed to be however, as when I find the schedule later I see that someone else was billed with tonight’s band, the JW Williams Blues Band, so I guess that singer was unwell and Laretha stepped in.
I’m one of the early birds tonight – if you want a seat at the bar, get there early! – but the crowd builds all night long. The JW Williams band are great, as good as last night, brilliant blues music, and tonight there’s more dancing on the small dance floor in front of the band as well (not by me, I hasten to add – my experience in Memphis was more than enough dancing for one year).
By 10 pm the club is absolutely packed out. A guy, Mike, sits next to me at the bar and he tells me he regularly comes to Chicago on business and loves the blues but has always gone to Buddy Guy’s place before, south of the river. It’s his first time ever in Blue Chicago and he says it’s “miles better than Buddy Guy’s”. We inevitably we get talking about my trip and despite his comments tonight he suggests that I should go and check it out, just to experience it. So much so that he gives me his business card and asks me to tell him what I think when I’m back home! He’s only in town for one night, and I’d told him tomorrow is my last night of the trip, so I say I’ll do that tomorrow. Got to see the world y’know.
Tonight’s music is so damn good: the place is rockin ‘n’ rollin’, the atmosphere is great, the audience is singing along, dancing along, hoopin’ and hollerin’ in appreciation. So to answer an earlier question: the blues is definitely alive in Blue Chicago, and hopefully elsewhere, and it appears to have a future. Hallelujah!
It’s dark in the bar and I’m aware of being ripped off but they sell T-shirts so I ask to look at one. Mike buys an over-priced denim shirt but I opt for a cheaper T-shirt as the price is OK and the quality seems fine (and it’s still OK now a few months later). The band take a break and I ask Mike to watch my seat as I go to the loo and on my return I look around the club. On the wall at the end of the bar by the window there is a painting. It’s a bit stylised but in it there’s a man playing a piano – and I think it looks like Lorenzo. So I go up to him and say, “That’s you in the painting isn’t it? A few years ago, you’d have been up there playing tonight, wouldn’t you?” He smiled and replied, “Yeah, a few years ago, but not anymore.” I ask why he stopped playing but he wouldn’t answer. He seemed genuinely pleased that someone noticed him in the painting and made the connection, I think it struck some kind of chord with him. However something obviously happened, which he wouldn’t divulge, to stop him playing (it’s Lorenzo at the start of the video on their website homepage).
The band starts up again, Mike soon says goodnight but the great music continues. By midnight the crowd in the bar has thinned out a little but the place is still quite busy. But on my quest to sample more music, and despite being excellent tonight and not really wanting to go, I feel I have to leave Blue Chicago – probably for the last time this trip – and wander back up the street to the Underground Wonder Bar. Because earlier I’d called in coming back from the 7-11 to see who was playing tonight and was told that it’s a big band ensemble who “play a variety of stuff”. So say hello to Lonie Walker and her Big Bad Ass Company – and avoid her at all costs. It’s crap jazz-funk garbage: and “variety” my arse. It’s over-complicated mush, way too much going on music-wise, no variety whatsoever plus there’s gratuitous self-indulgent ‘wank-off’ soloing from the lead guitarist who thinks he’s Hendrix but having suffered his playing I think humanity would be better off if he had been put down at birth. Very, and hugely, disappointing. I was hoping for something different – true, it was, it was absolute crap – and varied – no, it wasn’t. To top it all the Jack Daniels was way over-priced as well. Never mind, time for bed. All part of life’s rich tapestry. You’d think Lonie would have got the message from the luke-warm audience applause, eh?
But a final comment: two weeks ago on Bourbon Street all I heard coming out of the music clubs there was loud, trashy garbage. Over the past two nights in Blue Chicago I’ve heard more passion, energy and soul put into the music there in 10 minutes than I did in three whole nights in New Orleans. Thank you, and goodnight.
* No Particular Place to Go by Chuck Berry
** My Head’s In Mississippi by ZZ Top