Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Chicago Blues (Essay)

Probably no strain of blues has a more universally recognized form, feel and sound than Chicago blues. Chicago is where the music became amplified and had the big beat put to it and like Muddy Waters said, the blues had a baby and they named it rock'n'roll. As a simple point of reference, it's the music that most sounds like 50s rhythm and blues/rock'n'roll, its first notable offspring; when you hear a tv commercial with blues in it, it's usually the Chicago style they're playing. It's the sound of amplified harmonicas, electric slide guitars, big boogie piano and a rhythm section that just won't quit, with fierce, declamatory vocals booming over the top of it. It's the genius of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and Little Walter knocking an urban audience on their collective ears at some smoky, noisy South Side tavern, then transmitting that signal to the world. It's the infectious boogie of Hound Dog Taylor, John Brim, Jimmy Reed, Joe Carter mining similar turf while Robert Nighthawk and Big John Wrencher lay it down with rough and tumble combos Sunday mornings on the Maxwell Street open air market. And it's the up to date, gospel inspired vocals and B.B. King single note style of Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy meshing with it all. Though there's much primitive beauty to be found in this strain of the music, there's nothing subtle about it; its rough edge ambience is the sound of the Delta, coming to terms with the various elements of city life and plugging in and going electric to keep pace with a changing world. Chicago blues was the first style to reach a mass audience and, with the passage of time, the first to reach a world wide audience as well. When the average Joe thinks of the blues, one of two musical sounds pop into their brain pan; one is the sound of Delta blues-usually slide-played on an acoustic guitar. The other-if it's played through an amplifier-is almost always Chicago blues.

Although the Windy City had a burgeoning blues scene before World War II (see separate essay on Lester Melrose and Early Chicago Blues), a number of elements combined after the war to put the modern Chicago scene into motion.

First, there was the societal aftermath of World War II to deal with. Blacks-after serving their country and seeing how the rest of the world was-came back home, packed up their few belongings and headed North to greener pastures, better paying jobs and the promise of a better life. It was a simple case of "how ya keep 'em down on the farm;" once Blacks had left the oppressive life of Southern plantation life behind and 'had seen the world,' the prospect of toiling in a meat packing plant in Chicago looked a whole lot more upscale than standing behind a mule somewhere in Mississippi.

And so they headed North. This influx of new migrants all finding new jobs and housing also infused Chicago with a lot of capital to be had and spent in these flush post-War times. The rise of the independent recording label after shellac rationing (and the development of space age plastics) also had a lot to do with the development of the sound as well. New record labels that dealt exclusively with blues for a Black market started to proliferate after 1950. Chess and its myriad subsidiaries and Vee-Jay had the lion's share of the market, but medium to tiny imprints like Ora-Nelle (an offshoot of the Maxwell Street Radio Repair Shop), JOB, Tempo Tone, Parkway, Cool, Atomic H, Cobra, Chance, Opera, United, States, Blue Lake, Parrot, C.J. and others all helped to bring the music to a wider audience.

Up to this point, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red were the three acknowledged kingpins of the local scene, but their hegemony was soon to be challenged and eventually relinquished to the new breed. The new migrants wanted to be citified and upscale, but still had strong down home roots that needed to be tended to. The jazzier jump blues offerings in the city were fine, but newly arrived Southerners wanted something a little more gritty, packed with a little more realism and a lot more emotional wallop. One day a train dropped a young slide guitarist from Mississippi into the city and soon the new audience had the sound and the style that suited their needs, both urban, rural and emotionally. Muddy Waters had come to Chicago and the sound of Chicago blues as we know it was about to be born.

Waters worked the house party circuit at first, driving truck by day and playing his music wherever he had the chance. He fell in with a loose group of players which included guitarists Baby Face Leroy Foster, Blue Smitty, and Jimmy Rogers. Muddy had tried to plug into the Melrose style recording scene three years after arriving, but a one-off recording session issued on Columbia under an assumed name did the singer little good. The sound was urban, but it wasn't his style, the sound that captivated his listeners at house rent parties along the South side.

Muddy noticed two things about playing in Chicago. One, he needed amplification if he was going to be heard over the noisy din in your neighborhood tavern. He needed an electric guitar and an amplifier to go with it and he needed to turn both of them full blast if he was going to make an impression. Secondly, he needed a band; not a band with trumpets and saxophones in it, but a modern version of the kind of string band he worked in around Clarksdale, Mississippi. It stands as a testament to Muddy Waters' genius that he created the blueprint for the first modern electric blues band and honed that design into a modern, lustrous musical sheen. There had certainly been blues combos in the city previous to Waters' arrival, but none sounded like this.

Muddy's first band was euphemistically called the Headhunters because of their competitive nature of blowing any band off the stage they came in contact with and usually taking their gig from them in the bargain. Although Muddy was having hits on Chess with just his guitar and a string bass in support, in a live situation it was a different matter entirely. Baby Face Leroy Foster was soon replaced by Elgar Edmonds (aka Elgin Evans) on drums, Jimmy Rogers wove complex second guitar patterns into the mix and in due time, Otis Spann would bring his beautiful piano stylings to the combo, following Muddy's every move. But it was with the addition of harmonica genius Little Walter where the face of the Chicago blues sound began to change. If the Muddy and Jimmy's guitars were amplified and cranked up, Walter got his own microphone and amplifier and responded in kind. Though others played electric before him (Walter Horton among them), it was Little Walter who virtually defined the role and sound of amplified harmonica as it sat in this new band context. His honking, defiant tone-full of distortion, hand controlled compression wedded to swooping saxophone-styled licks-became the sound for every aspiring combo and harmonica player to go after. By the time Walter left Muddy to form his own band, the Jukes (named after his hit instrumental), his sound was so pervasive that club owners would only hire combos that had a harmonica player working in that style. Bands would do without a drummer if need be, but the message was clear; one had to have that harp in order to work.

Soon there were newly amplified bands springing up everywhere and coming from everywhere, as the word was soon out that Chicago was quickly becoming the new promised land of the blues. The competition was fierce and tough, with lesser bands like Bo Diddley's Langley Avenue Jivecats or Earl Hooker working for tips on Maxwell Street, while others squeezed onto postage stamp sized stages just trying to establish their reputations. Among these were future blues legends in the making Big Walter Horton, Johnny Shines, J.B. Lenoir, Snooky Pryor, Jimmy Reed, John Brim, Billy Boy Arnold, and J.B. Hutto. Muddy Waters' first challenge to his newly acquired crown as king of the circuit came from Memphis bluesman Howlin' Wolf. Wolf had just signed a contract with Chess Records and had a hit on the R&B charts to go with it. He came into town, looking for work and by all accounts, Muddy was most helpful in getting him started. But what started as professional courtesy soon blossomed into a bitter, intense rivalry between the two bandleaders that lasted until Wolf's death in 1976. They'd steal sidemen from each other, compete with each other over who would record Willie Dixon's best material and when booked on the same bill together, would pull every trick possible to try and outdo each other onstage.

The preponderance here on the club scene in Chicago is pivotal in understanding how the music developed. For all their business acumen and commercial expertise, Chess and every other Chicago label that was recording this music was doing it because it was popular music in the Black community. This was an untapped market that was tired of being spoon fed Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole records and wanted to sent back home and a three minute 78 of it just might hit the spot. Just like every other honest trend or development in American music, it simply happened; the people responded, and somebody was smart enough to record it and sell it.

But by the mid 50s-as one bluesman put it-'the beat had changed.' The blues did have a baby and they did name it rock'n'roll. Suddenly everyone from Big Joe Turner to Bo Diddley were being lumped in with Elvis and Bill Haley and a hundred vocal groups named after birds or automobiles. The Black audience started to turn away from blues to the new music and suddenly the local scene needed a fresh transfusion of new blood. Over on the West Side, younger musicians were totally enamored of the B.B. King style of playing and singing and began to incorporate both into a new Chicago blues hybrid. Working with a pair of saxes, a bass player and a drummer, most West Side combos were scaled down approximations of B.B.'s big band. When the group couldn't afford the sax section, the guitarists started throwing in heavy jazz chord like fills to flesh out the sound. Suddenly Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam were on equal footing with the established heavies and even Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James started regularly recording and playing with saxophones. As rhythm and blues started getting a harder edged sound as it moved into soul music territory by the mid 60s, the blues started keeping its ear to the ground and its beat focused on the dance floor. While the three primary grooves up til now had been a slow blues, a boogie shuffle and a 'cut shuffle' (like Muddy's "Got My Mojo Working"), suddenly it was okay to put a blues to a rock groove, sometimes with quite satisfying results. One of the first to mine this turf was harmonica ace Junior Wells. Wells' first hit, "Messing With The Kid," was blues with a driving beat and a great guitar riff, signaling that once again, the blues had reinvented itself to keep with the crowd. Working in tandem with Buddy Guy at Pepper's Lounge, the duo worked like a downscale miniature blues'n'soul show, combining funky beats with the most down in the alley blues imaginable. By the middle 60s, Chicago produced its first racially mixed combo with the birth of the highly influential Paul Butterfield Blues Band, featuring the high voltage guitar work of Michael Bloomfield and members from Howlin' Wolf's rhythm section. And the permutations that have come since then and flourish in the current day Chicago club scene echo those last two developments of the Chicago style. The beats and bass lines may get funkier in approach, the guitars might be playing in a more modern style, sometimes even approaching rock pyrotechnics, in some cases. But every time a harmonica player cups his instrument around a cheap microphone or a crowd calls out for a slow one, the structure may change, but every musician and patron doffs their symbolic hats in appreciation to Muddy Waters and the beginnings of the Chicago blues, still very much alive and well today.

by Cub Koda


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