Born in Chicago, John Anderson and Bob Sarles

In Music Doc ‘Born in Chicago’ Chicago Blues Cross Color Line

Music documentary Born in Chicago captures the white musicians who bristled at 1950s American conformity and turned to Chicago blues for a whole new world.

Born in Chicago
John Anderson and Bob Sarles
Ravin' Films

The newly available documentary Born in Chicago skillfully and concisely documents the impactful arrival of white Blues musicians on the Chicago scene in the 1960s. After a long delay, the film is finally on major streaming platforms in the United States, and it’s worth 76 minutes of your time.

One of Born in Chicago’s producers, Bob Sarles, is a longtime master of finding and licensing historical footage for projects like this. That kind of footage — of Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s, of live performances from that era, and of interviews with artists who have sadly already passed away — is at the heart of what makes this film work. At the same time, the new interviews conducted just for this film — with Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop, and Steve Miller, among others — make this project more than just an exercise in found footage, as does the narration throughout from Dan “Elwood Blues” Ackroyd of the Blues Brothers.

Born in Chicago‘s early part is interesting mostly thanks to this historical footage of interviews and performances, as the story it’s telling is one with which many music fans will already be very familiar: Black migration to Chicago leads to the growth and flourishing of an electrified version of Delta blues. Muddy Waters was the music’s leading practitioner (“I think I’m the man that set Chicago up for real blues,” he says in an excerpted archival interview), followed closely by Howlin’ Wolf, his chief rival, who claims in archival footage that Muddy was “a little jealous” of him. Tape of performances by those two stars — along with Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Magic Sam, and Robert Nighthawk — fill out this part of the story. 

The plot thickens as the ’60s arrive and, as Ackroyd puts it, the Chicago Blues begin “dying” while still at the “peak” of their “power” – mostly because the younger African-American audience that was then coming of age rejected this music as “a relic of the past”. At the same time, young white musicians (and fans) on both sides of the Atlantic were drawn to Chicago Blues. A film about the British Blues boom of the ’60s could easily be made — Ackroyd explains that the Brits “identified with the alienation and anger they heard” in Blues records — Born in Chicago is focused almost exclusively on local white Blues players in Chicago. One of the film’s main theses is that white Blues “wasn’t all the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.”

Why did Chicago-area white musicians start playing the Blues in the ’60s? Ackroyd suggests they were drawn to the Blues, at least partly because they “bristled” at the “conformity” of 1950s America. Even in a city as heavily segregated as Chicago, they learned about what was happening on the other side of town by tuning to stations on the left end of the dial. Keyboardist Barry Goldberg described hearing Blues on the radio as discovering “a new world”. 

Paul Butterfield (1942-1987), an Irish-Catholic native of the South Side’s lone upscale neighborhood, Hyde Park, led the most important integrated Chicago Blues band of the ’60s. Butterfield first arrived in South Side Blues clubs in the late ’50s. Accompanying him was Nick “The Greek” Gravenites, who attended the University of Chicago and describes himself in the film as a “real tough guy” who carried a gun. Born in Chicago takes its title from a song written by Gravenites for Butterfield’s band.

In 1960, Butterfield met Elvin Bishop, a National Merit Scholar who had won a full scholarship to the University of Chicago. In 1963, they formed the Butterfield Blues Band with two Black musicians who had served as Howlin’ Wolf’s touring rhythm section, bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay. In 1964, they added two more white musicians.

Michael Bloomfield (1943-1981) grew up wealthy, first in the tony North Side neighborhood of Lakeview and then in an even fancier suburb, Glencoe (he attended New Trier High School with Marshall Chess, son of Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess). In an archival interview, Bob Dylan, with whom Bloomfield played at Newport, describes him as the best guitarist he had ever heard. Like Bishop, pianist Mark Naftalin, another addition to Butterfield’s band, moved to Chicago to attend the University (his father Arthur had been mayor of Minneapolis). 

Bloomfield, when he first ventured to Blues clubs in Black neighborhoods, was nervous to sit in with Howlin’ Wolf, but according to Wolf’s longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Wolf didn’t care “what color” you were if you could “play” and Wolf “loved” Bloomfield and his friends. “They recognized the reverence and passion that we had for their music,” Goldberg says in the film, “and the respect, which was really important.” Butterfield acknowledges that Blues “came from the Black people” but posits that “the music is a universal thing” and that you play it “if you feel” it. Ackroyd claims that these young, white musicians found love from the older, Black musicians they met in the clubs, love “they couldn’t find at home”. He calls their relationship “a coming together of generations,” one “about sound, not color”. 

This happy message of racial harmony is Born in Chicago‘s most fraught element. What’s missing is the other side of the story: skepticism about the legitimacy of white Blues artists who rose to prominence in the ’60s. There’s no acknowledgment that Black artists might have been angry about whites encroaching on their cultural territory. One incident briefly described is telling: Butterfield steals the show from Black harp player Junior Wells in front of a Black audience, and Wells abruptly walks out of the club, clearly upset. Perhaps he was angry only about being outplayed, but it’s hard to imagine that he and other Black musicians didn’t feel usurped by Butterfield and his friends. 

Perhaps Born in Chicago‘s most interesting point is that white Blues players “rescued” from obscurity this music and the Black musicians who pioneered it, carrying the music “into the mainstream” and enabling the “original masters” to live out their lives “in prosperity and acclaim” they couldn’t previously have imagined. After Butterfield and his band started playing at Big John’s on the North Side, Blues suddenly became more popular with white audiences. Butterfield then brought Black artists to Big John’s, and other North Side bars saw the success of that formula and started booking Black Blues artists, too.

Butterfield conquered Chicago’s North Side and spread the gospel of the Blues in the Bay Area with help from promoter Bill Graham. Butterfield and his band took San Francisco “by storm”, influencing the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, among others. Bloomfield also convinced Graham, like the owners of bars on Chicago’s North Side, to “get the real” Black “cats” since “the kids” had “enough taste” to handle that. No less an authority than B.B. King, deeply moved by the enthusiastic reception he received from white audiences, he calls this a “push in the right direction for the Blues”. 

Regardless of one’s views on the racial implications of white musicians playing the Blues, Born in Chicago does an admirable job of telling their stories — including that of Steve Miller, who later became one of the biggest rock stars of the ’70s. Born in Chicago is capped by footage of some of these white artists — Goldberg, Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, and Corky Siegel — performing together in 2013 as Chicago Blues Reunion, as well as clips of the Butterfield Band’s 2015 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.

Though Chicago Blues may no longer be alive and well, at least a few white players from the ’60s are still at it after all these years. Their legacy might not rival that of Black innovators like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but their stories are worth documenting and remembering nonetheless.

RATING 7 / 10