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Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

Alan Harper

In the late '70s and early '80s, British blues fan Alan Harper became a transatlantic pilgrim to Chicago. He came to listen to the blues. This rich memoir captures not only the music, but the memories of many of Chicago's great blues legends and others who lived during this important era.


Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Author: Alan Harper
Publication date: 2016-01
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From Waiting for Buddy Guy. Copyright © 2016 by Alan Harper. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

The Checkerboard Lounge was the second-best blues club on the South Side. A single-story building at 423 East Forty-Third Street, it was a modest affair when I first saw it in 1979, but by 1982 it had been knocked through into the room next door and almost doubled in size. The music area was off to the left -- a jumble of steel chairs and plastic-topped tables illuminated by bright strip lights, facing a low stage -- while down the right-hand side there was a poorly stocked bar. At the back, the toilet’s scarlet-painted walls added an apocalyptic edge to squalor so breathtaking that the very bacteria’s survival seemed to hang in the balance. A can of Old Style was a dollar, rising to one-seventy-five once the music started.

The Checkerboard Lounge was the most famous blues club in Chicago or possibly in the world. In November 1981 it hosted the Rolling Stones. In town for three shows at the eighteen-thousand-capacity Rosemont Horizon, the fragrant Englishmen -- their tour was sponsored by the Jovan perfume company -- took to the club’s cramped stage while Mick Jagger gurned through a set of blues standards alongside a gracious and beaming Muddy Waters, who wrote most of them. This unannounced gig had become part of Chicago blues legend. Its memory even long afterward could set the rumor mill grinding into action at the merest hint of an English accent in a blues club. In the Kingston Mines one evening about eight months later I was politely accosted by a young black drummer with a knowing smile. “I know you. Will you sign this for me?” he asked, proffering a scrap of paper in the face of my bemused denial. “Use your real name, not your stage name.” Trying not to dwell on who he thought I might be, I obliged. Meanwhile an actual rock star, Rory Gallagher, was sitting at the back of the room in blissful anonymity.

The glory of the Stones gig reflected well on the Checkerboard, but the main reason the club was so famous was that it was owned by Buddy Guy himself. With a business partner, L. C. Thurman, Guy had set the place up in 1972 to host local and visiting blues acts, with his own name as the principal draw. Every Friday in The Reader, Chicago’s essential free weekly, there was the promise of regular appearances by the legendary axe-man in his own domain. In the edition of September 24, 1982, to pick a random example, the club’s listing read:

CHECKERBOARD LOUNGE, 423 E. 43rd: Tonight and Saturday, Buddy Guy, Little Oscar. Sunday, Syl Johnson, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Big Time Sarah, Lefty Dizz, Magic Slim, Muddy Waters Jr., 43rd Street Blues Band, Little Oscar, Johnny Dollar, Jimmy Johnson. Monday afternoon, Lefty Dizz & Shock Treatment. Tuesday, Junior Wells, Magic Slim & the Teardrops. Thursday, Magic Slim & the Teardrops. 373–5948.

This was some of the finest blues talent in the city, augmented by a chart-topping soul artist, Syl Johnson, plus -- on four nights out of the seven -- two actual living legends, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Such a line-up would appear to make the Checkerboard as essential as it was unmissable.

Behind the advertising, the reality could be rather different.

• • •

The Checkerboard Lounge, 423 East Forty-Third Street (1979. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Press)

Forty-Third Street was Chicago’s version of Beale Street or Route 66: a cultural epicenter. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were regulars at Pepper’s Lounge, just down the street from the Checkerboard at number 503, with the White Elephant a few doors past that. The 708 Club was four blocks south, Theresa’s five, and within a one-mile radius -- eight Chicago blocks -- blues fans in the 1950s and 1960s could choose from more than a dozen other venues, with names like Smitty’s (on the corner of Thirty-Fifth Street and Indiana Avenue), Club Claremont (Thirty-Ninth and Indiana), the Cosy Inn (Forty-Third and State), Cadillac Baby’s (Forty-Ninth and Dearborn) and the Barrelhouse (Fifty-First and Michigan Avenue). The Regal Theater, immortalized in B. B. King’s seminal 1964 live album, was at Forty-Seventh Street and South Parkway. Those screaming kids on that record were some of the best-informed blues connoisseurs in the world.

With the solitary exception of Theresa’s, none of this remained. The neighborhood was dubbed Bronzeville in the 1930s in a kind of patronizing civic salute to the color of its inhabitants, but nobody called it that any more, and in 1982 parts of it looked more like war-ravaged Brazzaville, with empty buildings, abandoned cars, and an air of desolation that could seem threatening, especially after dark. Sometimes when getting off the train or emerging into the street from a club I imagined the atmosphere to be so alien and hostile I had an urge to hold my breath. The nearest L station to the Checkerboard was on Forty-Third Street itself, just two blocks from the club. Eyes straight ahead, walking not too fast but not too slow, past blank windows and dimly lit doorways, it always seemed farther than that. At 4801 South Indiana, Theresa’s was a slightly longer walk from the Forty-Seventh Street stop. I went down there less often. Once, from maybe a block away, I heard a gunshot.

The Checkerboard was a friendly place, and it was always a relief to arrive, plunge into its welcoming brightness, and breathe again. The club was often all but empty, apart from a couple of vague drinkers slumped on stools, an unceasing card game going on by the door, and a couple of awestruck Swedes or Italians in the music area, sitting on their hands with anticipation, awaiting the promised performance by the legendary Buddy Guy. There might also be a gaggle of students from the nearby University of Chicago campus, who, although slightly wiser to the ways of the place, would still drop by for the Blue Monday sessions and at the weekend to wait out a set or two by the house band, just in case they were lucky and Guy got up to play. Occasionally, the excitement of these invariably young and white men would be stoked by the sight of the man himself, sitting at the bar with his film-star looks and winning smile. He was always courteous and approachable but sometimes seemed rooted to that stool. You could wait a long time for Buddy Guy.

However, there were worse ways to spend an evening than sitting in the Checkerboard listening to the house musicians. The 43rd Street Blues Band, as they styled themselves, were led by Dion Payton on guitar and vocals, who was the perfect front man: tall and good-looking, with a Stetson and an unflappably cool demeanor, he was in his early thirties and originally from Mississippi. He had reputedly worked with Albert King. His solos wove an endless thread around the band’s solid rhythms and went on so long they ought to have become tedious and repetitive, but they never quite did so. King’s “Cadillac Assembly Line” was one of their signature songs.

As one of the most reliable bands in Chicago, the 43rd Street Blues Band had gigs all over town. I first saw them at Sports Corner, a bar across the road from Wrigley Field, which was full of Chicago Cubs supporters. Among the white track suits and trainers was the formidable Lady Blues, a platinum blonde of indeterminate age with a pronounced squint. What she lacked in height -- and that was plenty -- she made up for in width and volume, clad in flared white nylon slacks and a tight, red chiffon blouse that strained to contain a pair of enormous breasts. She was obviously a regular. She also seemed to be the kind of woman who got what she wanted. I stood at the bar trying to be unobtrusive, but she made straight for me and demanded a dance. I would like to say I granted her wish out of chivalry, but it was fear.

• • •

"People give me credit for that willpower." Smokey Smothers in B.L.U.E.S., with Mad Dog Lester Davenport on harmonica, while his brother Abe "Little Smokey" Smothers looks on. (1982. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Press)

I arrived at the Checkerboard one evening to find Smokey Smothers and Louis Myers standing outside. The sleepy-eyed guitar player had recently returned from touring Holland, France and Belgium with the American Living Blues Festival and was comparing road stories with the well-traveled Myers. Smokey said he couldn’t believe how well he was treated over there: “Everyone was so nice to me.” Smartly turned out in a jacket and tie, Louis had some copies of an album with him, I’m a Southern Man, recorded in Hollywood in 1978, on Advent. Seven dollars: I bought one and got him to sign it. Sitting at the bar, guitarist Buddy Scott, of Scotty and the Rib Tips, studied my purchase with interest, peering closely at the band photos on the back. “Freddy Robinson? One of the baddest in Chicago,” he remarked, tapping the record sleeve approvingly. Beers were one- ninety because, apparently, Buddy Guy was going to play, although he hadn’t yet arrived. That evening’s Swedes or Italians were hunched over their drinks in anticipation.

By eleven o’clock there was still no sign of Buddy Guy. Dion and the band were into their second set and halfway through a lilting version of “Nobody Wants to Lose” when Louis came in and said he was going to Theresa’s, if I wanted a ride. His car was just around the corner. It was a huge, white convertible with red leather upholstery. I just stood there. “It’s a 1973 Cadillac Eldorado,” Myers explained. “It’s got the biggest engine ever fitted to a production car -- eight-point-two liters. It’s a real gas glutter.”

Glowing in the dim street lighting like a sensuously carved slab of Carrara marble, it was the most outrageously beautiful automobile I had ever seen. And it was my ride between the Checkerboard Lounge and Theresa’s, with Louis Myers at the wheel. “Wow,” I said. “Thanks.”

Alan Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher living in the United Kingdom.

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