Blues for Big John's
by George Spink
September 2001 will mark the 35th anniversary of the closing of Big John's, a legendary blues club in Old Town during the mid-1960s. George Spink worked at Big John's for two years, after he finished college. Unless otherwise noted, he has supplied all the photographs.
The first time I set foot in Big John's was a cold Wednesday evening in November 1964. As I walked through the Old Town club's squeaky swinging doors, I heard guitarist Mike Bloomfield and organist Barry Goldberg tear into Green Onions. Every table, every bar stool, every square-foot of floor space was filled. Bloomfield's band turned everyone on. It mesmerized me. I went back the next night, and the next, and almost every night until Big John's was dealt a deathblow by the powers that be, in September 1966.
During those two years, I witnessed the beginnings of Chicago blues as we think of it today. Not black blues, not white blues, but Chicago blues. Paul Butterfield, Bloomfield, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Nick "The Greek" Gravenites, Goldberg, Little Walter, Steve Miller, Corky Siegel, Howlin' Wolf, Sam Lay, Jim Schwall, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush—these were the blues artists, white and Black, who made Big John's one of the best blues clubs Chicago has ever known.
I began hanging out at Big John's and soon become acquainted with its manager, Bob Wettlaufer, who had managed the Gate of Horn, and its owner, John Haas. One night they asked me if I'd like to work as maitre'd, bouncer, I.D. checker, bartender, waiter, whatever.
Did I have a choice? I loved the place. I was on a leave of absence from graduate study in political science at Stanford University. My advisor had urged me to take a break from academia for awhile, "to get the feel of my generation." I was 24 years old, and Big John's embodied that feeling. So I went to work there.
The address was 1638 North Wells, on the west side of the street, south of Eugenie about a block north of North Avenue.
Everything jibed—the long bar with Marsh's caricatures of musicians and employees behind it; the beat up chandeliers with their dim orange light bulbs; the red-and-white checkered table cloths; the abstract paintings by local artists Gerry Proctor, Jack Beckley, and Danny Morgan; an old upright piano that was always in the way between the service bar and the bandstand; a stage that was never large enough to hold the musicians and their equipment; the frantic dancing in the narrow, almost non-existent aisles (and often on chairs); a kitchen in the rear that was open only when the cook felt like working; and two pool tables in the backroom (that always frustrated Chicago policemen looking for gambling), where a disguised Bob Dylan racked 'em up until closing one night after a concert.
Old Town exploded with creativity in the 1960s and Big John's became the hub for most of the area's musicians, painters, writers, actors, sculptors, students, photographers, and models—not to mention every store owner, bartender, and waitress along "the Street," as Wells Street was known in those days.
Local and big-name entertainers would there go after they finished their gigs. David Steinberg, Peter Boyle, and other Second City players hung out. Every night a contingent of University of Chicago students made the trek up from Hyde Park.
One night I turned away a very young-looking man who had no ID. A few minutes later he returned with his passport. It was Seiji Ozawa, who was conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia that summer. He became a regular whenever he was in town.
The attraction was the music and the musicians. Mike Bloomfield and his band were the first to play blues there and filled the place every night, no matter what the weather. I hadn't heard or seen anything like it. Maybe the swing clubs along 52nd Street in New York during the 1930s and 1940s were comparable.
Bloomfield's engagement came to an end and he recommended the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, led by a young harmonica player from Hyde Park. The Butterfield band, surprisingly, was even more popular than Bloomfield's. Butterfield had Jerome Arnold on bass, Sammy Lay on drums (former sidemen of Howlin' Wolf), and Elvin Bishop, from Oklahoma, on guitar. They played blues standards, such as Stormy Monday, Every Day I Have the Blues, and Mojo, and introduced their own tunes, including Born in Chicago and Run Out of Time.
Butterfield's band earned the respect and admiration of the younger, aspiring white blues musicians and the older, established Black blues musicians. For eight consecutive months, into the summer of 1965, they played five nights a week, Wednesday through Sunday.
There was a 50 cent admission charge on Friday and Saturday nights, the same price as a stein of beer. Mixed drinks were one dollar. The primary purpose of the admission was to limit the number of people who wanted to get in on weekend nights—there wasn't enough room for everyone.
During the Butterfield engagement I met Ray Nordstrand of WFMT. He was kind enough to tell his Midnight Special listeners our list of performers and soon people from all over Chicago and the suburbs formed long lines up Wells Street—sometimes even down Eugenie—waiting as long as an hour to get inside.
That summer Butterfield signed a management agreement with Al Grossman, Bloomfield's and Dylan's manager, and took his band to the East Coast. Bloomfield joined Butterfield's group, which gave it even greater vibrancy and drive. At the Newport Folk Festival, the Butterfield-Bloomfield band, with Goldberg added on organ, backed Bob Dylan. Many of Dylan's fans preferred traditional acoustic folk music and were outraged by what they heard, but many others loved the new sound, which was dubbed "Folk Rock."
Dylan asked Goldberg to be his permanent organist, but he declined and returned to Chicago, where his band followed Butterfield's at Big John's. His guitarist was Steve Miller, who was on vacation from the University of Wisconsin. They soon became known as the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band.
During the Goldberg-Miller engagement, Wettlaufer decided it was time that the club begin showcasing some of the older Black blues bands. The question was whether these groups would want to play before predominantly white audiences. Wettlaufer thought they would, so he invited Muddy Waters, Otis Spann (his pianist), and James Cotton (his harmonica player) to see the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band. They were so impressed that they sat in, and Muddy Waters agreed to a month's engagement beginning in early September.
The night Muddy Waters opened at Big John's every seat was taken and people were standing six abreast at the bar. His band broke all attendance and sales records and convinced Wettlaufer that the time had come to alternate Black and white bands.
By the end of Muddy's engagement, Otis Rush was appearing on Mondays and Howlin' Wolf on Tuesdays. Rush played soft, rippling guitar beneath the lyrics of his ballads, singing in a manner reflecting his quiet, gentle personality. Howlin' Wolf was something else. He cried, wailed, and snarled about legends and superstitions. He was a tall, powerfully built man with a stare that made Benny Goodman's ray seem like a friendly wink. A glance from Wolf sent chills down the spines of his musicians whenever they made mistakes. Rush and Wolf included saxophonists in their bands, adding another dimension to their sound.
Butterfield and Bloomfield returned for October. Elektra had just released their first album. During that engagement, Big John's customers heard the wave of the future, as the band developed their fusion of blues and rock.
During the first four months of 1966, the Butterfield-Bloomfield Blues Band toured the West Coast, introducing Chicago blues to the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and to The Trip in Los Angeles, both psychedelic emporiums featuring light shows and multimedia projections. (Big John's never went that route; it was always pure funk.)
Butterfield and Bloomfield inspired many of the acid rock groups on the West Coast, including the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Mothers of Invention, and Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Bloomfield dug the West Coast and stayed there to form the Electric Flag with Buddy Miles and Nick "The Greek" Gravenites, who had written a number of songs for Butterfield, including Born in Chicago.
Big John's continued presenting the best of Chicago's blues bands. Engagements varied between two and four weeks. Joining the roster was a new group led by two music majors from Roosevelt University, Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall. They became Seiji Ozawa's favorites.
Siegel-Schwall's musicianship was so impressive that Ozawa later recorded them with the San Francisco Symphony after he became its musical director.
When these Chicago blues groups weren't appearing at Big John's—their home—they followed Butterfield and Bloomfield to Café Au Go-Go or the Village Gate in New York, or to the Fillmore in San Francisco.
By the summer of 1966, people were talking about Big John's from coast to coast. Club owners, record producers, talent agents, and television producers came to see what the attraction was. They found was a small, crowded, friendly bar, without any glitter or pretense, offering the most exciting music in the country, every night from 9 p.m.–4 a.m.
Then it ended. Fast. In September 1966, Big John's liquor license was revoked. The owners, employees, musicians, and customers knew that a wrong had been done, but no one knew precisely why. Big John's was charged with serving minors, allowing gambling in the poolroom, and soliciting on behalf of an Old Town prostitute. Police from the 18th District had always been "friendly" to Big John's, but that was over.
Within a few months of Big John's closing, the buildings that housed Big John's and two neighboring taverns, Second Chance and O'Rourke's (the original one), were condemned. A high-rise apartment, Americana Towers, was constructed on the adjacent lots of the former clubs.
Chicago, the city that works, had worked again.
Visit the author's website at www.tuxjunction.net.
For another article about the Paul Butterfield band in the early days, see this piece by Tom Ellis III, www.bluesaccess.com/No_25/butter.html