Fans And Legends Fight To Preserve And Carry The Torch For Chicago Blues, The Sound Of Our City Rooted In Chicago's Black History
CHICAGO (CBS) -- There's just something about listening to Chicago blues on vinyl – and seeing the greats perform live.
Our city's blues talent is unrivaled, but shrinking. So CBS 2's Irika Sargent hung out with the legends – and the new artists who are ready to carry the torch.
Billy Branch is a master of the blues harmonica – and he can turn Hyde Park Records at 1377 E. 53rd St. into a blues jam all himself. Between racks of records and CDs, he played the blues harp and sang Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man" for Sargent.
Branch has played with some of the best – including Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Eddy Clearwater, and Taj Mahal – among others. He was first discovered by Willie Dixon – the man known as the father of modern Chicago blues – and served as harmonica player for Dixon's Chicago All-Stars.
Branch, a three-time Grammy nominee, also knows when a hit is at his fingertips. So when the needle drops, he says you can't just talk about it – you've got to sing it, play it, feel it, and fight to keep it alive.
One of the LPs Branch put on for Sargent at Hyde Park Records was the 1967 album "Super Blues" – by a supergroup of the same name composed of Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter, three household names who all recorded for Chicago's Chess Records.
"It takes me back to the beginning," Branch said.
As African Americans from the South migrated to Chicago, they brought blues music with them. Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, and Big Bill Broonzy were some of the first in the 1920s and 30s.
Then came the one many call the king – McKinley Morganfield, whom we all know as Muddy Waters – along with greats like Koko Taylor, Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon. They turned electric guitars and harmonicas to create what we know as Chicago modern blues.
"The music changed and reflected the sounds of the city and it was loud and to be heard," Branch said, "and they were all characters."
Another of those characters was, and is, Buddy Guy. He still plays from his soul.
"I still like to go crazy sometimes now," he said.
But at his Buddy Guy's Legends blues club at 700 S. Wabash Ave. in the South Loop, in his downtime, he still considers himself pretty shy.
"To a certain extent – until I get a shot of cognac," he quipped.
Guy remembers when dozens of Chicago clubs were filled with Black musicians and fans. There was the Checker Board Lounge at 423 E. 43rd St. in Bronzeville and more recently in Harper Court Hyde Park until it closed in 2015; the Rhumboogie Café, which operated at 343 E. Garfield Blvd. in Washington Park back in the 1940s; Theresa's Lounge at 4801 S. Indiana Ave. in Bronzeville, which founder Theresa McLaurin Needham opened in 1949 and which held on in its original location until 1983.
Meanwhile, Guy himself inspired the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. And the Rolling Stones came to watch his shows. The Rolling Stones, in turn, got their name from Muddy Waters – and their first visit to Chicago was not to play a concert, but to record at Chess Studios, home of the blues greats.
White Americans began filling blues clubs as Chicago blues got even bigger.
Now, Guy is one of the few surviving connections to that era. Chicago just lost two giants – brothers Syl and Jimmy Johnson and drummer Sam Lay – just since the beginning of the year.
Guy worries they will all be forgotten.
"That crosses my mind day and night," he said.
So Guy is working with a local radio station to keep the original hits in rotation – and he's not alone.
"The minute a Chicago-based blues band hits the down beat, man, you know - it's on!" said Ivy Ford.
Ford, in her 20s and multiracial, feels right home in Chicago blues. Her first big gig was at Buddy Guy's Legends – where she was shocked to be opening for Guy himself.
That occasion was also the first time evening shows opened to fans under 21.
"Artists that are, you know, in my generation now - and generations to come - they'll pass the torch," Ford said.
Also trying to preserve the blues is Joanna Connor, who has been a fan of the blues as long as she's been alive.
"Probably one of the greatest moments was seeing buddy guy when I was 10-years-old," she said.
And then at 22, Connor left her East Coast home for Chicago.
The soulfulness and the beauty of it – I just was like, I have to be here," she said.
Connor has played with Guy and other greats, and is a longstanding headliner at the iconic Kingston Mines blues club, 2548 N. Halsted St.
"It's not going to die," she said.
When Branch isn't playing, he's in classrooms with his Blues in Schools program. He travels the world teaching thousands of children.
"These kids are singing at the top of their - with all their might and fervor, 'I got my mojo working,'" Branch said.
"Got My Mojo Working" is Chandra Cooper's favorite song – and one of her great grandfather Muddy Waters' biggest hits. He raised her the famous house at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave. in Bronzeville where he lived with his family from 1954 until 1973.
"His nickname - and his name to me was 'Daddy' - and in return, he used to call me 'Peaches,'" Cooper said.
Waters let his fellow blues musicians crash and play at the house.
"I always say, 'If these walls could talk,' in the basement of that house," she said.
Cooper is about to start a major rehab to turn the house into a museum.
"We just got awarded a $250,000 Adopt a Landmark grant from the City of Chicago," she said.
Another iconic site is the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. in the South Loop – where Chess Records cranked out hundreds of hits.
Blues – rooted in Chicago's Black history – has a sound and story like no other. And as Branch points out, there's power to the fact that it's the one genre of music that's synonymous with an emotion.
"It's the only music you can say, 'I got,'" Branch said. "You can't say: 'How you feeling?' 'I got the jazz today.' (You'd say), 'What the heck you talking about?'"
And when you perform like Buddy Guy does to this day, it's got to live on. The crowd still flows in at Legends.
"Oh yeah, I sell it out," Guy said.
As you can imagine, sitting down with all of these musicians brought out some of the many the incredible stories they have. Guy was telling Sargent about how he used to jump off the bar will performing. one time, he broke both ankles and had to get on a stretcher and go to the ER – but he kept right on playing while on that stretcher.
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