When the blues electrified Chicago | Bleader

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

When the blues electrified Chicago

Posted By on 04.17.18 at 06:00 AM

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click to enlarge Otis Spann and James Cotton rehearsing in Muddy Waters's basement in Chicago in February 1965 - CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Chicago History Museum
  • Otis Spann and James Cotton rehearsing in Muddy Waters's basement in Chicago in February 1965

Walking into the Chicago History Museum's new exhibit "Amplified: Chicago Blues" is like walking the streets of 1960s Chicago—when the music dominated clubs and living rooms across the city.

The exhibit, which opened earlier this month and runs through August of next year, attempts to re-create the settings across the city where the blues thrived, including a record shop, recording studio, and nightclub.

Some eight million blacks migrated from the south and settled in the midwest during the Great Migration, including 500,000 in Chicago, the exhibit notes. They brought blues music, but it wasn't until after World War II that it was electrified, creating the Chicago style.


It was an era when blues clubs were everywhere, but especially along Madison Street and Roosevelt Road on the west side and on 43rd and 47th streets in Bronzeville. Clubs included the 1815 Club, Silvio's, Duke's Blue Flame, Pepper's Lounge, the 708 Club, and Theresa's. Because of restrictive covenants on where blacks could live, big-name artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf often played neighborhood joints close to their homes. The museum commissioned a map by Chicago illustrator Joe Mills to show just how many places you could see blues on any given night at the time.

The museum created the exhibit after purchasing 45,000 artifacts—including 40,000 photos—from the estate of Raeburn Flerlage, a music promoter, salesman, and radio host. Flerlage also worked as a freelance photographer for publications including the Chicago Daily News and DownBeat from 1959 to 1970.

"Flerlage captured a critical moment in the development of Chicago blues," said Joy Bivins, director of curatorial affairs at the museum.

A longtime Hyde Park resident, his work also appeared in the book, Chicago Blues: As Seen From the Inside. He died in 2002.

"We didn't have the means to tell this story until we got his collection," said Tamara Biggs, director of exhibitions at the museum.

About 1,00o of the images are now online. The images include Otis Spann and James Cotton rehearsing in Muddy Waters's basement in 1965 as well as Little Walter and Junior Wells playing at Theresa's that year. There's also a photo of Little Walter  busking at Maxwell Street Market.

click to enlarge Little Walter poses with his guitar near Maxwell Street in the early 1960s after busking at the market earlier that day. - CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Chicago History Museum
  • Little Walter poses with his guitar near Maxwell Street in the early 1960s after busking at the market earlier that day.
click to enlarge Poster for a show Chicago's Blues All-Stars, featuring Big Walter Horton, Eddie Taylor, and Floyd Jones, Sam Lay, with emcee Amy "Atomic Mama" O'Neal, at King's Club Waveland in 1974 - CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Chicago History Museum
  • Poster for a show Chicago's Blues All-Stars, featuring Big Walter Horton, Eddie Taylor, and Floyd Jones, Sam Lay, with emcee Amy "Atomic Mama" O'Neal, at King's Club Waveland in 1974

But the exhibit is more than a gallery of stuff to look at. What might have an even more lasting impact on the 60,000 school kids that visit the museum every year is the chance to try their hats as blues musicians. You can pick up one of two guitars (these are real, not the fake Guitar Hero variety) perched opposite video screens that literally show you how to strum along to a typical series of blues chords. Within no time, you can feel like you, too, could become a master if you keep at it.


You might also discover hidden vocal talent in a re-created blues club. Microphones are set up on a large stage with a karaoke video monitor. You can choose who to sing along with, including "Queen of the Blues" Koko Taylor on her signature "Wang Dang Doodle" or Muddy Waters on "Got My Mojo Working."


Or join in on perhaps the city's best-known anthem of any music genre, "Sweet Home Chicago," recorded by local bluesman Wayne Baker Brooks. Wayne's father, Lonnie Brooks, who died in April 2017, recorded one of the most famous versions of the song in 1980. For those who love the blues, you'll feel right at home in this exhibit too.

click to enlarge A digital guitar interactive guides visitors through basic blues chords and scales to play rhythm or lead guitar. - CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Chicago History Museum
  • A digital guitar interactive guides visitors through basic blues chords and scales to play rhythm or lead guitar.

"Amplified: Chicago Blues." Through 8/10. Mon 9:30 AM-4:30 PM, Tue 9:30 AM-9 PM, Wed-Sat 9:30 AM-4:30 PM, Sun noon-5 PM, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org, $24.


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