Chicago Blues by Edward Peckham

My topic is not festive and it is not jolly, but it is close to my heart.  I will not attempt a history of the blues, I am not an expert and it would take too long. I will, however, give a brief explanation of why the urban or city blues style called 'Chicago blues' developed where and when it did. Most people of a certain age, who listen to music will have heard a form of Chicago blues, probably not Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf, but by the early Rolling Stones or other groups influenced by the early British blues pioneers Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies.

The Great Migrations of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North occurred between 1916 and 1970. It has been estimated that about 6 million people made this journey.  It was driven by a desire to escape rural poverty and the Jim Crow laws to better working conditions and guaranteed pay and better housing. The significance of 1916 was that, with white workers away at the front and foreign immigration stopped, Nothern employers were willing to hire Afro American workers to bridge the gap. There were two Great Migrations, the first all but ceased during the Great Depression. The second again started when the Second World War created another gap in the workforce and accelerated after the war, with the prosperity in America enticing workers to seek employment in many different areas.

Why did they settle in Chicago ?  Before 1916 Afro Americans constituted only 2% of Chicago's population. By 1970 they were 33%. Chicago is a rail hub and most rail lines from the rural South converge on or pass through Chicago. There were many jobs in the factories and stockyards, and domestic work for women, which was better paid and with regular payment compared to the rural work in the South and there was plentiful housing on the South and West sides. Chicago newspapers, distributed in the South, encouraged Afro Americans to seek a better life there.

The second Great Migration from 1940 onwards included African American musicians who developed the blues style called Chicago blues. The open-air market on Maxwell Street, one of the largest in America, was frequented by many African Americans and musicians would play there for tips or to jam with other musicians. Workers had money in their pockets and (blues) clubs sprung up on the South Side where they could drink, dance and hear music. They were noisy and so, in order to be heard, the blues musicians performed in group with an electric guitar, a harmonica usually amplified through a PA system or a guitar amplifier, a rhythm section of  double bass and drums and sometimes a piano as well.

The musicians playing on Maxwell Street, and at rent parties, hoped to graduate to playing in these clubs and in time perhaps to record for a label that specialised in issuing blues music. One of the best known was Aristocrat Records, run by Phil and Leonard Chess, which became the much more famous Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

I will provide a very brief profile of the 10 musicians who I have chosen to illustrate the sound of Chicago blues. This is not a comprehensive list of Chicago musicians and the tracks I have chosen are partly the best known work of the musician and partly more obscure tracks. The first two, and the best known, are Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Some of the others also performed at one time or another in Muddy Waters band in Chicago.

McKinley Morganfield, known as Muddy Waters, was born in 1913 near Clarksdale, Mississippi. I have chosen 2 tracks by him. Burr Clover Farm Blues. This recording, a typical rural or country blues, was made by the folklorist Alan Lomax, for the Library of Congress, at the Stovall Plantation in Mississippi in 1943. Muddy Waters moved to Chicago in 1943 expressly  to seek work as a musician and he started recording in 1947. I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man was recorded in 1954 and written by Willie Dixon. Dixon is also on the record along with Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Little Walter on harmonica, Elgin Evans on Drums and Otis Spann on piano.

Chester Burnett, known as Howlin' Wolf, was born in 1910 in Mississippi and moved to Chicago in 1952, via West Memphis where he made was blues records for Sam Phillips at the now famous Sun Records. I have chosen I Asked For Water was recorded in 1956 and was written by Howlin' Wolf himself. Wolf played the harmonica and his guitarist Hubert Sumlin was famous in his own right and played briefly in a Muddy Waters band. There were those, in the Chicago blues arena, would believed that the Wolf, like Robert Johnson before him, had gone to the crossroads to make a pact with the devil.

William 'Willie' Dixon was born in 1915 in Vicksburg, Mississippi and moved to Chicago in 1935. He was a big formidable figure, like the Wolf, and when he first came to Chicago he became a boxer. He then pursued music as a career and he could play double bass and guitar, but he is best known as a songwriter, arranger, talent scout and record producer, principally for Chess Records. By 1951 he was a full-time employee at Chess and his importance to Chicago Blues is not to be underestimated. I have chosen his version of I Just Want To Make Love To You. He wrote the song and it was also recorded by Muddy Waters and Etta James among others.

Aleck (or Rice) Miller, known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, as born in 1912 in Mississippi. He assumed the name Sonny Boy Williamson after the death of John Lee Williamson, the original Sonny Boy. He was married to Howlin' Wolf's sister and made records in Mississippi  

before moving to Chicago in 1955 when his recording contract was acquired by Chess Records. He had also played harmonica with the Elmore James band and he made many records in his own right. In 1966 he made a record with the Yardbirds and in 1972 he recorded with the Animals. I have chosen a live performance of a song he first recorded in 1958  Your Funeral and My Trial

Elmore Books, known as Elmore James, was born in 1918 in Holmes County, Mississippi. He moved to Chicago in 1952 and was known as "King of the Slide Guitar". In the 1930s he had played with Sonny Boy Williamson II and, like Williamson, had recorded in Jackson, Mississippi before moving to Chicago. His guitar playing influenced many Rock/Blues players including Eric Clapton, Brian Jones, 'Blind Al' Wilson of Canned Heat, Jeremy Spencer of the original Fleetwood Mac and Jimi Hendrix. I have chosen Elmore James 1952 recording, which became a surprise hit on the Rhythm and Blues chart Dust My Broom.

Marion Walter Jacobs, known as Little Walter, was born in Louisiana in 1930 and arrived in Chicago in 1946. He became known as a highly accomplished harmonica player and joined the Muddy Waters Band in 1948. He played unamplified harmonica in recordings with the band in the 1950, but live he would play through an amplifier and deliberately play loud enough to cause distortion. He left the Muddy Waters Band in 1952 and recorded as a bandleader in his own right. I have chosen the first tune he recorded which spent 8 weeks at the top of the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart and was also the only harmonica instrumental to achieve this feat. Little Walter's Juke.

Mathis James Reed, known as Jimmy Reed, was born in Dunleith, Mississippi in 1925 and moved to Chicago in 1943, but was drafted into the navy. By the 1950s he was a popular musician in Chicago, but failed to get a recording contract with Chess Records. Instead he signed with Vee-Jay Records and made a number of records with them. The Rolling Stones cited Reed as a major influence and they played and recorded several of his songs in their early days. Many other artists have used his material including Elvis Presley, Them with Van Morrison, The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Steve Miller Band. I have chosen a song he recorded in 1961 Big Boss Man.

Otis Spann was born in either 1924 or 1930 in Mississippi. His parents were both musicians and he began playing the piano aged 7 with some instruction from Little Brother Montgomery. By age 14 he was playing in bands in Jackson, Mississippi and in 1946 he moved to Chicago. He replaced Big Maceo Merriweather in the Muddy Waters band in late 1952 and recorded with them in 1953. He stayed with Muddy Waters until 1968, but also recorded as a solo and with other musicians including Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley and he appeared on some early Chuck Berry recordings. I have chosen a live recording of Otis made in Denmark in 1968, which also features Muddy Waters among the group, Nobody Knows My Trouble and Cold Cold Feeling.

J.B. Lenoir was born in 1929 in Monticello, Mississippi and in the early 1940s he worked with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James in New Orleans. He moved to Chicago in 1949 and performed in clubs with Muddy Waters and Big Maceo Merriweather. He began recording in his own right in 1951 and his band included Sunnyland Slim on piano and Leroy Foster on guitar. He recorded for a number of labels during the 1950s and 1960s and was well known for his showmanship, wearing flamboyant clothes and talking to the audience. But he was also considered an influential guitarist and songwriter. I have chosen his 1954 recording Eisenhower Blues.

Finally- George "Buddy" Guy was born in Lettsworth, Louisiana in 1936. He began performing in the mid 1950s in Baton Rouge and moved to Chicago in 1957. He came under the influence of Muddy Waters and gained a contract with Chess Records. He is one of the foremost of the 'new' or 'second generation' of Chicago blues musicians and has worked with some of the great names including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and Koko Taylor. He also formed an on and off partnership with the harmonica player Junior Wells until his death in 1996. Guy has also played with most of the Rock/Blues musicians during his long career. I could have chosen a number of performances with Junior Wells, but I have chosen a solo recording Buddy Guy made for Chess in 1960 First Time I Met The Blues.

Muddy Waters recorded a song called The Blues Had A Baby and The Named It Rock and Roll, written with Brownie McGhee, on his 1977 album Hard Again and produced by Johnny Winter. Of course, this is not the whole story of the birth of Rock and Roll, but the Blues can lay claim to being one of the foremost influences on Rock and Roll.

In conclusion I hope, even for those of us that do not like the Blues, there is something here to enjoy. I had meant to be brief - brevity is the soul of wit - but my enthusiasm seems to have run away with me.