“On the first of July 1979, armed with a J-1 temporary US work visa, I boarded an elderly World Airways DC-6 and flew from London to Newark, New Jersey. After a night in Manhattan, I made my way to the Holland Tunnel at the start of Interstate 78 and stuck out my thumb. It was a beautiful morning. I was twenty years old.”
With his thumb stuck in the humid Jersey air on that summer morning, young English blues fan Alan Harper embarked on a pilgrimage to Chicago, on a quest to discover the blues.
Back in England, growing up on steady diet of British artists and bands — the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Clapton — Harper heard the blues through the back door, and it led him to the library in search of the sources of “Love in Vain” and “Spoonful.” Settling down to a table to listen to the strains of Son House, Blind Willie McTell, and Charley Patton, among others, Harper tuned into the music that underpins jazz, soul, and rock.
Harper’s epiphany came through the headphones, when he put the needle down on three-album set called Chicago/The Blues/Today (Vanguard Records, 1965). Blues historian Samuel Charters recorded the cream of the crop of the Chicago blues scene on those three albums, and those soulful sounds sealed Harper’s destiny.
In Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads (University of Illinois Press), Harper recalls of his experience that Charters “assembled the pick of the crop, kicking off with the tight and soulful Junior Wells band, featuring Buddy Guy on guitar. Harmonica master James Cotton was backed by the great pianist Otis Spann, both of them sidemen in Muddy Waters’s band. … On disc 2, fellow bottleneck guitarist Homesick James claimed to be the cousin of the late, great Elmore James but sounded more like his twin, while Mississippi bluesman Johnny Shines gave the best indication yet of what Robert Johnson might have sounded like if he had lived to play with a postwar Chicago rhythm section. Gleaming amid all this gritty urban blues was the polished lyricism of Otis Rush’s lead guitar.”
Having had enough of merely listening — and anxious that he’s missed the heyday of Chicago blues in the 1950s and 1960s — Harper hopped that flight, eventually landed in Chicago, and proceeded to prowl the streets and the blues clubs. He’d read or heard about many of them, how they were still alive and crawling with the denizens of gritty Chicago blues. He was out to interview bluesmen from Jimmy Walker, Sugar Blue, Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, and Carey Bell, to label owners such as Bob Koester of Delmark Records (until recently Koester also owned and operated one of Chicago’s legendary record stores, Jazz Record Mart) and Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records.
Now, almost 30 years later, Harper shares his stories of searching for the blues in Chicago in his crisply told, energetic, and vibrant memoir. I caught up with him recently, for a chat with him about the book.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book?
Alan Harper: I was mad about the blues when I was young, and after my first trip to Chicago in 1979 I really needed an excuse to go back. Writing a book seemed to fit the bill. For an English graduate — which I was by the time of my second trip in ’82 — such an idea maybe didn’t seem too much of a stretch. How hard could it be?
Of course I had no idea what sort of book I wanted to write, which is why I didn’t immediately knuckle down and do it on my return to London. Then I needed to get a job. And then the whole idea gradually got buried by real life. I put it in a drawer.
I thought about it guiltily from time to time, but didn’t properly dust it off and look at it again for nearly 30 years, by which time I was an experienced journalist and could see immediately what kind of book it could be. It turned out that although I had been pretty clueless as a 23-year-old, I had at least been thorough. There were reams of notes, a detailed journal, lots of transcribed interviews and piles of tickets, flyers and other memorabilia which brought back many memories. And then there were the photographs. So in the end, sitting down to write it was great fun.
Describe the Chicago blues scene as you first encountered it in 1979.
There’s a passage early in the book that describes my first visit to a blues club in Chicago. It was B.L.U.E.S. on North Halsted Street, which is still there, and the first person I met was the harmonica legend Big Walter Horton. He was sitting with a friend having a drink, and seeing an apprehensive young white boy going past, he just decided to stop me and say hello. On the bandstand was Floyd Jones — an important figure who was one of the first bluesmen to record in Chicago in the postwar years. Several of his songs were covered by rock bands, including Canned Heat.
This was a normal evening in the club. It’s only with the passage of decades — and the passing of these great people — that it seems so special now. A lot of famous blues musicians used to hang out at the club whether they were billed or not, and it was the same across the street at the Kingston Mines. People used to tell me that these places reminded them of the old days on the South Side and the West Side. They felt at home. There were still clubs in the black neighborhoods in 1979 — Theresa’s and the Checkerboard Lounge were the most famous — and you could hear great music down there as well. But if you just hung around on Halsted, everyone came through eventually.
The subtitle is “Chicago Blues at the Crossroads.” Can you describe what you mean in the subtitle?
The music in Chicago at that time, the late ’70s and early ’80s, was at a low ebb. The country was in recession, the old black Chicago neighborhoods were seriously neglected, the traditional working-class jobs in the steel mills and stockyards had disappeared, and along with them had gone the vast majority of the bars and lounges that used to give blues musicians a living. Most of those who were still in the game were reliant on the white-owned places on the North Side to make a little money. But even though these clubs represented a shift in the focus of blues in the city, they were still just little neighborhood places which weren’t always full. The blues was not yet a tourist attraction.
Also, the blues had not been fashionable or popular for a long time. The headline names might have remained true to their art, but for many of their young sidemen, black or white, the blues was probably the last style they mastered, after rock, funk, soul and disco. So, while some bands continued to serve up a taste of the real, old Chicago blues, others could be tight and funky, or heavily rock-influenced — it wasn’t much like listening to old Chess or Vee-Jay records.
So, both geographically and artistically there was a palpable sense that the music was being pushed and pulled in lots of different directions. But it pretty much all sounded great to me.
Has Chicago blues passed the crossroads; did it sell is soul to the devil, so to speak?
I was in Chicago not long ago to do some promotion for the book, my first visit for decades. I had read about how the blues is now marketed by the city as a tourist thing, so I was not optimistic about what I would find. All I knew was that it wouldn’t be the same. But I was invited to Buddy Guy’s new club, Legends, and although it does have elements of a theme park about it, with merchandise on sale and guitars all over the walls, it was actually a really good evening. The headliner was a wonderful singer called Mary Lane, who is 81. Buddy Guy showed up and did a couple of duets with her.
In some other clubs, however, it was just as I feared: out-of-towners corralled like cattle, high prices, short sets.
Why come to Chicago back in 1979 rather than the Mississippi Delta or to Memphis?
Like most white people of my generation, I discovered the blues thanks to English rock bands like the Rolling Stones. Their focus on the Chess Records back catalogue was a huge and distorting influence which meant that Chicago was regarded as the blues capital of the world.
Also, in my university library’s music section a brand new three-LP set had appeared from Alligator Records called Living Chicago Blues, which suggested, correctly, that the city still had a good blues scene.
And, finally, when I went to Chicago in 1979 I had no money. But I did have a student work visa. I needed to be able to find a job, which meant being in a city. So even if I had thought of going to Clarksdale or Greenville rather than Chicago, I would probably have dismissed the idea on the grounds of limited employment prospects.
What will readers be surprised to learn from your book?
Readers might be interested to discover that Sammy Lawhorn was a US Navy aerial photographer who was injured by AA fire over Korea and received a pension of $900 a month. Or that the fabled Astoria in Finsbury Park is now headquarters to a Brazilian religious cult. Or that Luther Allison and Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer were on ferociously non-speaking terms when I interviewed them, but they must have patched it up because they went on to make four albums together. Or that a terrific show I saw that pitted Son Seals, Albert Collins, and Koko Taylor’s guitarist against each other in a cheesy battle of the blues was won hands down by Emmett “Maestro” Sanders. Or that the only thing that prevents you from seeing one end of Halsted Street from the other, apart from exhaust haze, is the curvature of the earth. It’s dead straight and very long.
If you could host a dinner party, which Chicago blues musicians, living or dead, would you invite to the party, and why?
When inviting musicians to dinner you have to assume that once the port has been passed they’ll want to get up and play. So I’d invite Fred Below, the best Chicago blues drummer of all time, and get him talking about his army days playing with Lester Young. He’d also have plenty in common with Jimmy Rogers, a solid rhythm player and no mean songwriter either, so we could look forward to hearing him sing “That’s All Right” and “Walking By Myself.” On lead guitar we would need Sammy Lawhorn, a wonderful musician and thoroughly civilized human being, although we might have to divert the bottle around him until after dessert in case he falls asleep in it. On bass, Ernest Johnson, who backed everyone from Elmore James to Magic Sam, and on piano the peerless Otis Spann, who is famous for being in Muddy Waters’s band but such was his astounding talent he could just as easily have made his name backing Miles Davis or John Coltrane. We’ll obviously need a harp player: I’m tempted by the idea of Junior Wells, but I think I’ll invite his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson, even though he’ll probably prove to be a bit of a handful. On vocals there is only one choice. Howlin’ Wolf was without doubt a great artist, but for the true Mississippi “deep blues” we have to invite Muddy Waters, whose natural authority might also prove useful in getting Sonny Boy to simmer down. At the head of the table, of course, Buddy Guy himself, on guest guitar and vocals. I’m told he’s also a pretty good chef, so we could put him in charge of the cooking.
What themes would you like readers to take from your book?
I don’t know if this is a theme, but an old friend of mine who read the draft manuscript pointed out how the young me was so often looked after by the folks I was writing about. People would offer me lifts so I wouldn’t have to wait for a bus on the South Side at four in the morning, or buy me drinks, or engage with me in a club to make me feel at home. It went on the whole time, and I never really noticed. The blues scene in Chicago was a warm and welcoming place. All you needed to be accepted was to be respectful and show an interest in the music.
The whole “authenticity” thing is as live an issue now as it was then. More so, maybe. It’s not going away. But it’s really not complicated: if you can’t work out which side of the fence you’re on, order a beer and listen to the music. You’ll soon know.