The Chicago Daily Blues
by Bob Koester
Several years ago the editors of Blues Unlimited in England got wind of a 45-rpm record on the Bluestown label. Wanting to learn more about the firm, they asked friends going to the United States for summer vacations to try to locate the manufacturer in Chicago. They were surprised to find that the firm was located in the Boston area. Their first assumption was natural--because blues fans the world over do think of Chicago as Bluestown. It's been the major center for contemporary blues activity for decades.
When New York record companies began producing records for black people in the 1920s, their first move outside Manhattan was to go to Chicago. OKeh, Vocalion and Paramount recorded extensively in Chicago studios. As early as 1923, there were sessions that produced classics by such artists as Ma Rainey, Louis Armstrong and Ida Cox. Eventually rural blues performers, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Barrelhouse Welch and Blind Blake, were brought to Chicago from the South and Southwest to make the first folk-blues recordings. The "race series" catalogs of the time contained no small amount of jazz, but the bulk was blues material. When the Depression hit the music business, the record business and, most severely, the jazzmen, blues recording continued, and Chicago became even more than before the center of blues activity.
Lester Melrose (a music publisher whose career dated back to the Gennett days of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke) and J. Mayo Williams (former football player and journalist who entered the record business with Paramount) controlled virtually the-entire "race" field, promoting such now well-known artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Big Joe Williams and Curtis Jones. In those scuffling days, a blues record was a hit if it sold as few as 5,000 copies. Tunes introduced in those days remain standards in the repertoire of bluesmen.
At first, the artists were brought into town, made their recordings and went back home to await the local prominence deriving from their brief recording career. But sometimes a record sold outside the down-home market, and the artist was able to move to Chicago. Other artists were discovered by Melrose and Mayo in the Chicago ghettos.
It took time and effort to discover folk-blues talent in those days. One found blues artists by going to house-rent parties, by living and working in the ghetto where the blues could be heard on street corners and in alleys, where the artists played for tips. More than one artist was discovered while taking a blues break from a routine job of some kind. And, of course, bluesmen found others and recommended them to the recording companies. When prohibition ended, bluesmen gradually drifted into playing at bars, still for tips until the late '30s when blues recording and blues bars began to be organized by the musicians union.
War-time prosperity increased the number of black families moving to Chicago, where they could maintain a semblance of contact with their home by listening to fellow refugees in the blues bars. Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie, Joe McCoy and the Harlem Hamfats, Memphis and Sunnyland Slim, and such younger Chicago-born and/or Chicago-bred talent as Otis Rush, J. B. Hutto, Magic Sam, Mighty Joe Young and Junior Wells sat in and became the newer generation in the years following the end of World War II.
The war years were busy years for the established bluesmen but, due to rationing of shellac, younger artists were unable to get recording dates. As soon as materials were available a rash of small independent firms sprouted to fill the postwar demand for blues and to tap the rich supply of great blues talent in Chicago. Chess, United, Vee-Jay, Cobra, Chief and dozens of others came. They introduced a good share of blues talent (together with gospel singers, some Jazz, and soul singers and groups), but most eventually went out of business. In the '60s, European jazz concert promoters began to import bluesmen from Chicago (and elsewhere) for European concert tours. European jazz magazines sent writers and photographers to the United States, mainly to Chicago, to write articles on the blues. European jazz record firms began to reissue blues recordings (the reissue sometimes outsold the original). With all this as stimulus, many American jazz fans and folk music fans looked into the blues, bought the records, and sought out the artists for new recordings. The folk-hootenanny craze spun off a blues world that in turn influenced rock.
Today, when Canned Heat, John Mayall, Mother Earth, Fleetwood Mac, and other pop groups hit Chicago, they go to the South Side or the West Side to hear the powerful combos of Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Mighty Joe Young, and the many other bluesmen who play there.
Chicago must have been something like this in the '20s, when King Oliver, Jimmie Noone, Louis, Johnny Dodds, and the other great jazzmen played in the clubs on the South Side. Today's blues scene conjures up images of piano parties at Jimmy Yancey's, of the clubs where Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines, King Kolax and others worked in the '30s and '40s, where bop happened in the '40s and '50s. The spirit that spawned it all is still alive in Chicago--Bluestown, U.S.A.