Light:On The South Side- A Slice Of Chicago Blues Club History


 

originally at MOG 1.23.09, now at Funk or Die ..Amazingly this set is nominated for a Grammy. Congrats to Numero..


 

Hardcore blues fans might bristle at some of the tracks (available only on a 2 LP set) that accompany the 128 page, 12" x 12" book that is the centerpiece of the Numero Group's latest, Grammy-worthy, act of music archiving, Light: On The South Side. Those folks would be missing the point. These funky Blues records by local Chicago artists are not Chess Records or Alligator Records, nor are they the prototype for the next British invasion. What they are is a document (called Pepper's Jukebox) that pulls together the music "grown" African-American men and women were listening and dancing to in the south side blues clubs of mid-to-late 70's Chicago.

The Same One-Little Mack Simmons

 


These clubs, like Pepper's Hideout, The Patio Lounge, The Checkerboard Lounge and Perv's House, were the last strongholds of the south side's club scene. These were the live music venues that, through the electric urban blues, birthed the sound that defined the post-Beatles Rock era. The late '70s, though, were not kind to these clubs, as a combination of urban decay, north side blues clubs, the decline of music in schools, disco, and funk ate away at the customer and performer base. As these clubs faded away they featured music that would become known as "down home" blues. Labels like Malaco would take these veteran artists and their soulful, funky sound and continue to sell it to African-Americans in the South and Northern enclaves like Chicago almost completely under the radar of the burgeoning worldwide (and mostly white) blues market.

Women's Lib-Lucille Spann


It was the beginning of a "new" blues that returned to the south and the end of Chicago's south side as the "real" home of the blues. The end-of an-era feeling (though there continue to be "steppers clubs" that mostly lack live music) is what this package really captures. The music is an important part of that vibe, but Michael L. Abramson's photos (over 100 of 'em) take the story to another level.


Young Blood-Detroit Junior

Abramson, a white man, snapped these photos from 1975-77. In ultra-segregated Chicago, this was fairly unusual, but his desire to document the people of the night was met with almost universal acceptance by the patrons and employees of spots he haunted on a regular basis. After a while -- because he was using these photos to further his photography career -- he stopped going. He didn't want to cheapen the genuine feeling he got from the people. In the notes he says, "Armed with my camera, I was open. I was there to take pictures, but the experience itself turned out to be more exhilarating than any image."


Bowlegged Woman,Knock Kneed Man-Bobby Rush

The black and white photos, some filling the LP sized pages of Light: On The South Side, reminded Abramson of work he'd seen by Parisian night photographer Brassai, full of shadow and mystery. Their depictions of real folks reminded me of the recent show I saw of Robert Frank's work in the '50s from his book, The Americans, or the late '70s/early '80s photography of Jamel Shabazz in his book, A Time Before Crack. Abramson was into the blues like Jamel Shabazz was into hip hop, and Frank had more than a few photos of jukeboxes, but all 3 found the heart of their culture in the faces of the audience. In Abramson's case, the photos illuminate that culture without ever showing a performer.

This Is My Prayer-Lady Margo

As Nick Hornby says (yeah, Numero doesn't play around, they got Mr. Hornby to write an essay about this release), "This is a special book, about one tiny corner of the world over a handful of evenings a long time ago; but that tiny corner of the world has, for decades now, meant a great deal to an awful lot of people scattered all over the world." So take it from Mr. Hornby, Numero 33 is a must have. Light:On The South Side is much more than a book of photos or a reissue CD.


In their short history of around 50 releases, Numero has set a very high standard and displayed an artistic flair that is pretty much unmatched in the record releasing world. I thought Number 26, Local Customs: Downriver Revival, could not be topped, and I said, "The music and images contained on these discs are more than worthy, but between the lines and frames lie deeper truths about the deterioration of the middle class, the African-American experience, and the tenuous state of the American dream. What was so strong, now seems so fragile. It's not too often a reissue package can bring you there."

Well, they did it again.

Bonus Beats and Pix

Brassai in 20's Paris


Robert Frank in 50's America


Jamel Shabazz in early 80's New York


Michael L. Abramson from the end of a Blues era, Light:On The South Side


I Learned My Lesson - Willie Davis

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Comment by Water E. Grave on January 4, 2011 at 11:57pm

Cody, first, thanks for posting this.

 

However, and with all due respect, using the phrase "ultra-segregated Chicago" to describe the mid-1970s period could not be more off-base. In point of fact, this was the LEAST racially segregated period, musically, in the city's history.

 

Would it shock you to know, for example, that right here in the 21st century, Buddy Guy's "Legends" club caters only to black musicians on open mic night?

 

But, during the mid-1970s (spurred in particular by AM radio stations such as WVON and "Big" Bill Hill's stunningly cornbread show on WOPA), the proliferation of blues and R&B to white audiences and the number of racially mixed bands throughout the city, downstate, and across the Indiana line demonstrated a flourishing musical subculture.

 

It indeed WAS disco (of all damned things!?!) that killed this truly diverse moment.

 

Let's also not forget the wave of young white boys that sat at the feet of the aging black bluesmasters: Michael Bloomfield, Steve Miller, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, and even Oprah Winfrey's Kosciusko, Mississippi townsmate Charlie Musselwhite, in between shifts at the stockyards, all brought it. Check out the documentary "White, Black & Blues" (featuring The Chicago Blues Reunion, all these cats, video footage of their confreres Al Kooper, Zimmie, et al.) at www.otbrecords. com.

Comment by Cody Breuler on January 5, 2011 at 3:42am

Good points, Johnson...I wasn't saying (and probably because I was being unclear)..that musicians were segregated, but that The city of Chicago as a whole is ultra-segregated. Outside of Hyde Park, mixed neighborhoods are hard to find on the South Side and on the North Side you had Cabrini Green and very little else. As far as this particular record is concerned, there are zero white folks in the pictures. From my point of view this is because of the time frame, which hews toward the late-mid-70's...the end of the Blues Clubs on Chicago's South Side. 

Your wider point about how Blues spread throughout the area and across racial boundaries is a great one and is also another sign that the Blues were done on the South Side. The place where it all began (the electric blues/rock dynamic) certainly did not benefit from the worldwide explosion of Blues.

The death of the south side Blues Clubs was the final severing of the cultural roots with the Delta. These urban juke joints were some of the last places that people danced to the Blues...the end of an era.

As for the Legends open mic policy...besides not really liking it personally, it seems like management is trying to foster something that has died or has been on life support since clubs like Pepper's started to close...black musicians playing the Blues. There's also the undercurrent of tourists looking for "authenticity", and the club bending toward that. It doesn't speak well for the club.

I think you are totally right about the period from around 68-75..very diverse, many mixed race bands in all genres. The discussion of why that stopped and why so few black folks (relatively)picked up instruments as time wore on is a big one with many factors (including disco).  It's sort of weird, but there was a similar convergence as disco died down as a pop phenomenon and Hip Hop was evolving in New York.  Although the electric axe of choice in the diverse mid-80's NYC scene was a synth..

Sorry for the ramble.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and knowledge.

 

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.