TOM MOON'S CLUB TOUR
Over 20 years ago, in the spring of 1997, bluesmen Jimmie Lee Robinson and Frank Scott treated me to a nostalgic tour of Chicago’s South and West Side blues clubs, eager to share with me the evidence of what had gone before, what had survived the ravages of time. Some of the old taverns had been repurposed – a church, a shop, a soup kitchen, a motorcycle gang headquarters. Wood rots, walls fall, and nature takes its toll. Most of what remained had been saved by chance or accident – old buildings that, as if by miracle, still stood amidst rubble or beside a vacant lot. I was delighted to snap some shots and listen to their stories.
The tales tied to these talismanic places were sometimes asymmetrical ribbons of myth tied together with fact. Jimmie and Frank showed me the site of a tavern on 16th Street near Kedzie, where the severed head of a woman was allegedly placed on the bar by a man named Abraham. He ordered two drinks, both Frank and Jimmie informed me. “One for me and one for my bitch,” they cackled, delivering the clincher in unison. Most of the stories were tame by comparison – insightful glimpses into a forgotten past, life on the scene during the Golden Era of Chicago blues.
Our tour began, appropriately enough, where both Jimmie Lee and big city blues itself were born: Maxwell Street Market. It used to be said that if you looked hard enough, you could find just about anything in Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market. One never had to look hard to find a good blues band, however. From the early ’30s on, Maxwell Street was the proving ground for an infinite number of bluesmen who would vie with the hawkers and hustlers to separate passers-by from their change.
One of the few remaining businesses, Jim’s Original Maxwell Street Polish Sausage, occupied a space next to an imposing white, two-story building. “See this doorway here?” Jimmie asked soberly, pointing to one side. “This was the entrance to Leavett’s, where we wined and dined. Hot dogs were five and ten cents apiece.”
A passer-by named Wilson Turner volunteered additional info. “I’ve been a resident here since the 50s,” he offered. “Leavett’s was a mixture of working class, hustlers, prostitutes and thieves. A colorful place, a variety of characters. They served food on one side here, and on the other side was packaged goods, and you could sit down here and drink. A lot of street musicians would drift through and come back out. Leavett’s was the central landmark place of the community. We would all sit down in there and party and play music and dance. Also the shoppers would come in and have a beer and rest. It attracted people from all over the city.”
“In the ’30s, there was guys playing acoustic,” Jimmie continued, now turning to the music. “They played flutes, banjos, and mandolins. There was no electric guitars in those days. What they had was tubs. You'd put a hole in the middle and put a rope in there and tie a knot. You'd get a broom handle and play a bass like that. And they had those jugs you'd play through --- brown jugs and washboards. It wasn't just blues, like the people got it written. They're givin' too much to the blues players and they're not giving enough to the ones that played versatile. See, the people that came down to Jewtown, what they really loved to see and hear in those days was people like Daddy Stovepipe, who was playin' folk music. Stovepipe wore one of those top hats. He would play his guitar and rap it and he'd blow his flute. Sometimes he'd have his rack goin' 'round his neck and he'd blow his harp. Stovepipe used to come into the neighborhood back in the 30's when I was a kid. He would come around our house --- 1405 Washburne. He walked all around. He'd go all on down Washburn and then come up the other way walkin' and singin' and playin' the blues and stoppin' here and there on the corners. We'd be right there lookin' at him blowin' his thing and singin' --- playin' music out there. It was great! In those days country and western music was popular. They had the 'Supper Time Frolic' come on the radio. Blacks played country and western too. Stovepipe played country and western and polkas. Hell, black people might have been the inventors of it! The kind of blues you have now, like B.B. King, that's not real blues. The real sound was the guys playin' the country and western and the rags.
“The best musicians were Moody Jones, Ed Newman, Fats [James Kindle] and my uncle, Sam [Norwood]. They always played together. I used to hang around Ed Newman's house when I was a young boy. We used to play in his back yard. Moody Jones was my idol. Me and him used to be together all the time. He could read music and was the best guitar player on Maxwell Street. Fats and One-Leg Sam --- they were great too. Fats played the banjo. He tuned it like you tune a guitar. One-Leg Sam, he played rhythm. He'd just rap the guitar. He was the best rhythm guitar player. And Ed Newman played upright bass. He was the best bass player that I ever heard playin' the true sound. He was the best! And I mean he could take that bass fiddle and slap it and throw it all kinda ways. He was tough. Ed Newman, Fats and them played songs like 'Beer Barrel Polka', 'Tennessee Waltz' and 'Drivin' Nails in My Coffin'!
“I was playing in Jew Town in the early 40's. I played acoustic guitar for years on the street. Me and Willie, the mandolin player, would just play two pieces, just me and him then. Also Washboard Sam [not Bluebird recording artist Robert Brown]. This Washboard Sam didn't have no teeth in his mouth and had them big, funny lips. He wasn't real black or dark. He was sorta like Indian color --- red color. That's all he did --- play that washboard. They was the oldest guys in Jew Town that I knew. Them and Tommy [Hollins], the trumpet player. Washboard Sam played with Daddy Stovepipe. There was also a guy named Harp. His real name was Louis. He ended up having sugar diabetes and they had to take both his legs off. He used to be going around Jew Town with no legs on. This guy named Harp, he used to take me around and he bought me an electric guitar and amplifier. He played the harp like the old harp players before Sonny Boy played. He didn't play the harp like Little Walter and them. He'd be hollerin', doin' dog calls ... he was different. He would go around and collect the money whilst I played. Sometimes the bone man would play. As long as I heard them sticks goin', I could go.
“Then, in the’40s, there was Floyd Jones, Snooky Pryor, John Henry, Uncle Johnny Williams, Johnny Young, and Earl Hooker. We built the road for the blues in Chicago before Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and all the rest came. We’d set up early in the morning. Sometimes we'd get here about seven or eight o'clock. Moody Jones and Floyd [Jones] and them always hooked up at my cousin Della’s house, 910 West Maxwell. Moody Jones was my cousin's boyfriend. They'd get the juice from there. They always played right in front of her house. You might have seen a picture of a building with some long stairs going up. That was her house. She lived on the first floor. Little Walter's girlfriend lived there, the one that bought him his first amplifier. He lived with her there at my cousin's house too. We all was together. I was raised up with them, see. I was around Walter when he first played the harp on the electric amplifier. Earl Hooker was there in them days. We didn't call him Earl Hooker, just Zebedee. He lived on the South Side and he used to come all the way over and played on the street. He had a little band with him most of the time. We was together as kids in Jew Town. We all came up together. Little Willie Foster was down here. He had a nice lookin' woman named Josephine and they lived in the basement next door to Ed Newman. Willie killed a man over her, only they broke up some time later. I used to play with Little Willie Foster all along Jew Town. Jimmy Rogers used to live around here too when he first came to Chicago. Homesick James was here. He was a pretty boy in them days. He was young. Every time I played, Homesick was right there. Some of us played all through the week. We used the stands, you know. We’d sit up in these stands and make money all through the week. That was in the late 40's --- '48, '49, around in there.”
After we surveyed the remaining block and a half of the market, we sped west on Roosevelt Road. Shortly, we passed through neighborhoods that increasingly looked neglected and economically depressed. Many of the buildings were boarded up and barren, and some areas had not recovered from the fires and looting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The West Side had been home to the blues, but it also was, and remains, home to grinding poverty.
“Over there is where the Hideaway once stood,” Jimmie said, pointing to a forlorn lot on the northwest corner of Roosevelt and Loomis. “I used to play all through the week here with Magic Sam. That’s where the tune ‘Hideaway’ was created. We played here or at the Tay May Club [1400 W. Roosevelt] all through the week, the biggest clubs on the West Side. Hound Dog used to play on thirty-something and Cottage. The place was made like for people to sit downstairs and they had a stage up in the ceilin’. I used to go over there and play in Hound Dog’s place whilst he’d come over to play with Sam and them in my place here, at Mel’s. And then when he’d get back, I’d go and play with Sam and them ‘cause they was tryin’ to steal his tune, ‘Hideaway.’ They didn’t want Hound Dog over here because he was Hound Dog. They wanted him over here because of the sound that he had [hums first few bars of “Hideaway”]. He couldn’t play no professional, but it was a sound you could see could be something – any old floppy kinda way. Magic Sam and them was tryin’ to get it. Now Syl Johnson put “The Camel Walk’ and ‘Peter Gunn’ in there with it. He got a contract with King Records and he wanted to do that tune, but they wouldn’t let him. Boy, he told me he was disgusted about it. They wouldn’t let him do it, but they let Freddy King and it was a big hit. Freddy got the credit, not Hound Dog or anyone else. The only thing that Freddy did different was those particular chords [hums jazzy guitar break sandwiched between “The Walk” and “Peter Gunn” segments], which I taught him years ago.”
As we turned left on Ashland and pulled up in front of the once famous Zanzibar [1254 S. Ashland], I felt a particular thrill. As most blues fans know, the Zanzibar was the historical place where Little Walter quarreled and parted ways with Muddy after receiving a dime tip from a customer who had given both Muddy and Jimmy Rogers a quarter. This was where Willie Dixon had rehearsed “Hoochie Coochie Man” with Muddy in the men’s room. Though the building still looked like a club, a sign indicated that it was being used in the service of God (Purity Holiness Church).
“Little Walter, me, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, all the blues guys used to play here,” exclaimed Jimmie. “We used to have contests playing one against the other. They had a nice crowd here. I’ll never forget seeing T Bone Walker play the slide here! He was very good, better than Muddy Waters. He was one of the greatest with the slide.”
“Earing George used to play here,” added Frank. “I played here in the 60s a couple of nights with Little Walter, and then I got Po’ Bob to take my place. There was Ray Scott and Po’ Bob, the guitar player. He had a Japanese wife, Po’ Bob did, and he worked for the race track. The Zanzibar was a late hours place. When we’d get out from our jobs at Red’s or Johnny’s Place, we’d come here.”
Further south, on the northwest corner of 14th and Ashland, we came to the site of another club, Vi’s Lounge. It was now an empty lot. “This was a small place, not big,” Jimmie told me. “Willie Anderson played here. Pee Wee Madison, Mad Dog Lester, Big Bad Ben, Little Willie Foster, Eddie Taylor. Muddy Waters used to live right around here, on 13th Street. Little Walter, Howlin Wolf and them all lived around here. Freddy King lived around here on Hastings, between 13th and 14th.”
From there, we departed for the corner of Washburne and Hoyne, where we looked for the building that once housed the Upstairs Lounge. Alas, it had also been bulldozed. We sat in the car, peering at the rubble – a sad reminder of the decaying infrastructure.
Like Hound Dog’s Cottage Grove venue, the Upstairs Lounge had been designed with a raised stage. Jimmie explained how the roof on one of the club’s two rest rooms had been converted to performing space. A ladder apparently led up about eight feet or so to a cramped area, with performers’ heads brushing the ceiling. “There was a back side door, and the stage was right up in the back, north end of the building,” he said. “You went in and you’d go up like a ladder. There wasn’t no room up there; it was tight. It wasn’t a big place, but it stayed packed ALL the time. The guy who owned it, his name was Roosevelt. Little Willie Foster used to live right down the street there. This is where he played. He had ‘Falling Rain Blues.’ Willie Johnson played here. Howlin Wolf brought Jimmy Johnson and Hubert Sumlin here.”
“Jimmy Johnson used to play when Howlin Wolf played here,” concurred Frank. “The guitar got to him, Jimmy Johnson. Almost cracked him up. Just about lost his mind. He wanted to be the best. I used to challenge him on the guitar. That’s how I got my cab stolen. I wanted to see, and I left the motor running and I went in, to get me a beer. When I came out, that baby was gone. I finally found it over on Madison in a vacant lot.”
Next, we headed for the 1815 Club [1815 W. Roosevelt], which had also been converted into a church. As it came into view, Jimmie looked confused. “This isn’t it,” he protested. “I was thinking about a different place in the 1800 block, near Paulina, near the Boogie Woogie Inn, where Big McNeal and Eddie Taylor had a gig. There was a place right around in here where me and Eddie Boyd, Lazy Bill Lucas and One-armed John Wrencher used to play at. This building wasn’t here in the earlier days. This is a Johnny-come-lately baby, here. Young, new musicians at the time. Eddie Shaw had this place, and Howlin’ Wolf played here in his later days, but Howlin Wolf’s main place was Silvio’s. This came after Silvio’s. I wasn’t even playing when they opened this club. There was another 1815 Club before this one.
“I played with Howlin’ Wolf for a time,” Jimmie continued. “Me, Hubert [Sumlin], Eddie Shaw, and S. P. [Leary]. I was the driver for the band whenever we’d go on the road. Wolf would always sit by me and talk all the time. He liked to talk about health and all that stuff. And when we played, he’d always sit side by side with me on the bandstand to talk some more. He was always going on about something. But couldn’t nobody in the band please him. He always was jumpin’ at Hubert, or the drummer, or someone, but he’d never mess with me.”
One block to the north, near the University of Illinois Medical Center, Jimmie pointed out another venue: “At Taylor and Paulina, on the southeast corner here, it was THE place in the late 40s. I’ll say 1947 to 1948. Baby Face Leroy, Floyd Jones, a lot of the guys that had been playing on Maxwell Street played here. Also Eddie Taylor. Eddie used to come with his wife, Pat. That was his wife before Vera. Little Walter beat her, punched her in the face here.”
Back on Roosevelt, a few blocks to the west, was where Johnny’s Club once stood. “Johnny was Italian,” remarked Frank. “Johnny’s father owned the 1815 club and Johnny owned the club that was here. Me and Freddy King played here. This is where Little Mack Simmons first got his feet on the ground. He sat right in front of the bandstand, told me he could play harmonica. Before he got a band, before he even started playing was here. I let him sit in. Later on, he got Little Bob, who used to play with Koko Taylor, and Frank Jr. That’s who he had.”
At Washburne and Roosevelt, Jimmie hipped me to another anonymous blues joint that could be found here: “Eddie Taylor, Big Bad Ben, a lot of guys played in the club that was here. And that boy, what’s his name? Plays straight up and used to play here. Freddy Robinson! That was his name. We used to have a time. He used to play with Tall Paul Hankins, the guy who played piano on my record, ‘All My Life’ [b/w “Chicago Jump,” Bandera 2506, 1960]*
Heading west on Roosevelt, we crossed Western, where Necktie Nate’s (aka Nate’s Green Door) once stood [2532 W. Roosevelt] and, in the same block, we passed Tom’s Musician’s Club at Fairfield, where Freddy King once held court. At Mozart, Jimmie pointed to an abandoned building where he claimed Chicken House Shorty had been killed, thrown out of a window on the seventh floor.
Not far from there, at Albany and Roosevelt, Jimmie and Frank tried, in vain, to remember the name of the club that sat on this corner. “It had some Roman numeral,” Jimmie remembered. “Nice place. Bobby Saxton, Sunnyland Slim, Bill Hill, Kansas City Red, all of us came up in here to gamble. We played Tonk. Little Walter’s wife, Ella Mae, used to work six blocks over to the east, on California, near Fillmore. She had a laundry over there.”
The next stop was one of Little Walter’s last residences, at Albany and Fillmore. Frank remembered that Walter had come into hard times when he lived at this location: “He had went all the way down. He used to play off of California on 26th Street. Po’ Bob was playin’ with him then. He’d be so drunk he couldn’t get home. I used to carry him up on my back when he had a cast on his leg, used to carry him upstairs here. He had got shot. A woman shot him in the leg.”
Jimmie reminisced about better days: “I used to tour with Little Walter for three or four months at a time. We’d be on the road; we’d be all down there in Atlanta, Georgia – a hotel called the Majestic, the Royal Peacock, all them places with the big guys, like Joe Tex and Little Richard. We played the Palms in Florida, Gleason’s Bar in Cleveland, St. Louis, Texas, just everywhere. We played a lot of places, Louisiana. Little Walter was born down there, in Marksville, Louisiana. I knew his grandparents well. We always called his grandfather Papoose and his grandmother Mamoose. His grandfather showed me where Walter was born – by a tree outside. His mother wasn’t allowed to have the baby in the house because she was out of wedlock, so Little Walter had to be born under that tree.
“When we hit the road, the guys in the band was Smokey Smothers, Odie Payne, and myself. After we played out first gig over in Evanston, Walter said, ‘Who wants their money tonight?’ I said, ‘I want my money.’ So he says, ‘Well, if you want your money, you’re fired.’ Smokey Smothers said, ‘You don’t have to pay me no money right now.’ But I said, ‘Okay, give me my money.’ So he paid me my money and he took me home. So then that morning I got a phone call. Walter never did say nothin’ about the night before.
“Another time I was gambling and had won [Luther] Tucker’s money. We was comin’ back from some place in Chicago and Walter told me to give Tucker his money back. I told him I wasn’t gonna give it back ‘cause I won the money. And he said, ‘Well, if you ain’t gonna give the money back, you got to get out [of the car]’. I said, ‘Okay. I’ll see y’all at the union hall Monday morning. I took the guitar and my clothes and they sped on down the highway, left me out in the dark someplace. We had a big trial and a big court and Walter had to pay me some money and all that stuff. And then after we got through, I was getting’ ready to go out and he said, ‘Goin’ to work tonight?’ And I say, ‘Yep, I’ll be back to work tonight.’ I never did fall out with him ‘cause I’d been knowing him all my life.”
“Most of the harmonica players were tryin’ to style themselves after Sonny Boy Williamson, the original. Little Walter was playin’ just like them, too, but then he taken up with jazz. He started playin’ jazz. The harmonica playin’ he was playin’ was NOT blues, it was jazz. ‘Juke’ was an old jazz song. He just sped it up. Chess gave Walter a break to record it and they made a hit out of that one song. That’s what carried him.”
Returning to Roosevelt and continuing three-and-a-half blocks west, we passed the 3300 block, where both Big Bill Hill’s Coca Cabana Club [3358 W. Roosevelt] and Cobra Records office buildings [2854 W. Roosevelt, and then, in 1957, 3346 W. Roosevelt] were formerly located. “I played poker over here with [Cobra Records founder] Eli Toscano,” said Jimmie. “I was a gambler, you know. Eli was my buddy. We’d run together. I’d go to radio stations with him, we’d go together to the studio, taking bad parts out and all of that kind of stuff. We used to be together playin’ cards over here, and sometimes Leonard Chess would be with us. Chess had either gave him or sold him his old recording equipment. They were pretty close. Junior Wells or Shakey Jake would come over too and play. Richard Stamz, he had a broadcasting system here, too. And down further west was the Coca Cabana. John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins, guys like that played there. And further down, Arlene Brown had a place. She’s the one that started Little Mack in the drug business.”
From there we ventured five blocks south on Kedzie to 16th Street, an area rich with a thousand little dramas of the street where the buildings that housed the Squeeze Club [3346 W. 16th Street] and the Bucket of Blood [16th and Kedzie] were still standing. “Me and Freddy King and Jimmie Lee used to play here,” said Frank, motioning to the building behind us, now a soup kitchen. “This was the Big Squeeze, and the Little Squeeze was on the South Side. We played over there, too. Tiny Davis and her all-lady band used to play here when we did, in the early 50s. The owner’s name was Sinclair.”
Motioning down the street, Jimmie was quick to point out the story of an otherwise nondescript bar: “On that corner over there, there used to be a tavern, a liquor store. That’s the place where this guy, Abraham, cut off his old lady’s head and he dropped it in a garbage can on this corner. First, he went into the tavern with the head in his hand. He said, ‘I want a drink. One for me and one for this B, this bitch,’ and he got the drink and come out and dropped the head in the garbage can. Paulina and Roosevelt. Right here. I think he worked in a meat packing place. She used to come to the Zanzibar where we played at. Musta been a fast woman.”
Continuing a short distance to the west, at 16th and Kedzie, we came to the Bucket of Blood. “It was an old, nasty, junky tavern,” remarked Jimmie, “where me and Eddie Taylor used to play in the early days. Looks about the same now. People have been murdered in there. There was always lots of fightin’ and cuttin’ and shootin’ goin’ on in there. It had the name it deserved.
“Me and Eddie Taylor would walk all the way here from Peoria and Maxwell. We’d go from club to club all the way to Kedzie. Harp told me that he had a guitar player --- somebody to start playin' with me. He told me he had nice, good hair, but Eddie had put some of that hot shot in his hair and it looked like it was curly, though it wasn't. Eddie told me, 'I can't read. I can't write.' So I said that I'd do the reading and we got together like that. I started teachin' him how to play with me. I would play and he'd stand there and hold his guitar while I played and sometimes he'd try to play the tunes. We kept on bummin' around like that together. We'd be together every day, every night, every day. We started goin’ around tryin’ to get some money in these different clubs. We went from place to place. We’d go in, they’d let us play, we’d sing and hope we’d get some money. We’d get 50 cents, 20 cents, whatever we could. We was in pretty rough shape. Eddie didn’t have no bottoms in his shoes and I had holes in mine. I had one black suit. Music was the only thing we knew how to do at that time, and that’s what we just did. It was hard. It was a really rough time.”
Times were so tough, in fact, that Jimmie visited a welfare office four blocks to the north, on Madison: “I went to prison in ’52,” he lamented, “and when I came out I got my guitar out of the pawnshop, but I didn’t have no job. One day, I went to the relief station over on Madison and Kedzie. I went in and the people looked at me and just told me to get out of there. Just as I went out, Freddy King had been in there. I seen him on the corner and he hollered at me, ‘Hey, man. You wanna work a gig with me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, man. I’ll work a gig with you.’ We was gonna work on Madison Street around near Sacramento. He had already got the job. We got a drummer called Johnny Studham and he worked with us. But Freddy didn’t have no guitar, he didn’t have no amplifier, so I went and got an amplifier from one of Eddie Taylor’s friends, Roy Thomas. We played on that one amp and used Roy’s guitar, but we knew that he wanted to play too, so we had to figure how to keep him from getting on the bandstand. If we didn’t let him play, we thought he was gonna take his amplifier. We only made 11 dollars.”
At Jackson and Kedzie, we made a stop to grab a bite at the Delta Fish Market, an old converted gas station where one could hear great blues in the early ’80s. Proprietor Oliver Davis built a bandstand in the lot, and paid musicians $15 or $20 each to play all day. In spite of the pay and general rowdiness at night (fights were common, and it was not unusual for management to handcuff winos to telephone poles), Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Walter Horton, Kansas City Red, Johnny Littlejohn, Detroit Junior, Jesse Fortune, Billy Boy Arnold, Eddie Taylor, and Floyd Jones all performed here.
It was a few blocks north on Kedzie to Lake Street, site of Jake’s Tavern. “There was an alley right here on the west side of Kedzie where this parking lot is,” Jimmie said. “Right here in the 1200 block on the west side of the street on the south corner. That’s where Jake’s Tavern was. Me and Eddie Taylor went in here and Jake gave us a job playin’ in here. That was my first club date playin’ blues, just backin’ Eddie Taylor up. We played here a long time and the place was packed. No band. Just two pieces, me and him. Then we’d go to clubs clear down Madison. That’s a lot of walkin’ with them heavy amps in the snow.
“Silvio’s was up here, too [2254 W. Lake]. I played at Silvio’s with Elmore James. He was just like a father. He just wanted to keep me with him. Elmore always liked me, my style of playing. He liked my rhythm and the stuff I played behind him ‘cause he wanted to go into country and western. I used to be with him every day, and I remember that he drank a lot of gin. That’s probably what killed him.”
Directly across the street from Sylvio’s stood the Casbah [3220 W. Lake], now an empty lot. “We had a regular gig here,” Frank remembered. “We were the Every Hour Blues Boys. Me, Jimmie and Freddy King. It was a hot band. We had a big sound and kept a big crowd at the Casbah from ’53 to ’55. We three was soundin’ like six pieces. Little Walter was the onliest one that was really givin’ us any kind of competition. We had the tightest thing on the West Side.”
Madison Street, another area rich in blues history, became our next destination. We drove 12 blocks east on Lake, turned onto Western, and arrived at our next stopping place in the 2200 block, where the Kitty Cat and the Hi Hat once stood. “The Hi Hat was great,” Jimmie offered. “Lee Jackson, Freddy King, Caldonia the lady impersonator, Lady Blair, Gigi DeCarlo, Lady Jean. This was where Rose [Jimmie’s girlfriend] stabbed me in the back with a knife. As I was running, she was right behind me. Everybody was just watchin’. Sonny Cooper caught her and grabbed her by the arm and took the knife out of her hand. This is where I pulled a gun on Sonny Cooper, too. He hadn’t paid me my money, so I went down to the five and dime and bought a cap pistol. I throwed that gun down on him. I said, ‘I want my money.’ Boy, they called the police and a police grabbed my hand and shook the gun out of it. Then I got paid.”
A couple of blocks east, we passed the former location of the Happy Home and arrived at the intersection of Damen and Madison. The most prominent clubs in this vicinity were Red’s Lounge and Chuck’s Place. “Red’s was where Freddy King got started,” said Jimmie “He was a porter in a grocery store near here. Frank was the one that really discovered Freddy King. Frank knew his mother and talked to her about letting Freddy try out on bass one night when they were playing a party around Adams and Ogden Avenue. Frank tried him out and then took him to Red’s. Here’s where he got started. Then the three of us formed the Every Hour Blues Boys.”
“Lee Cooper played at Chuck’s Place and we played next to him, at Red’s,” added Frank. “It was me and Freddy King, and then we got Jimmie and we went to the Casbah. Freddy never had no guitar strings or picks. I had to keep him in strings and picks.”
A few blocks to the north, at Wolcott and Lake, we passed the site of Jim Martin’s, a notorious gambling joint. “Gangsters blew his place up and run him out of business,” Jimmie related. On the corner of Madison and Paulina, where the Lover’s Lounge once stood, we reset our bearings, and set our sights on the 1045 Club. “Gray-haired Bill played here,” Jimmie said as we stared at the spot he was pointing to. “Also, Gene, the harp player, and Jessie Brown, ‘Blind Jessie.’ He was with the Five Blind Boys [of Mississippi] and then he came and played blues here. You don’t hear mention of him, but he was a blues singer. He’s with the Blind Boys now.”
The first stop on the South Side was 2120 S. Michigan, former headquarters of Chess Records. The site had been converted into a museum run by Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. We were led down a narrow corridor by Willie Dixon’s daughter, Shirley, to Leonard and Phil’s old office spaces. She explained how the removal of five layers of plaster and drywall had exposed the original redwood walls and red glass accents. Leonard’s office was smaller than expected, in marked contrast to the elegant accommodations enjoyed by executives of major East Coast labels. There was nothing small about the size of Leonard’s desk, however. In fact, it spoke volumes about the man who presided over business here.
“Thugs and thieves,” mumbled Jimmie as we were led to the stairs that went up to the second floor studio. “Chess made us come through this back door here, ‘round the back, this back door. Leonard and Phil and them was in the front, so we came in by the back way, up these stairs.
“Some of the tunes I did with Little Walter here were actually my tunes. ‘Ah’w Baby’ was my tune. I went by here one day and they was recording up here in the studio. Robert Jr. and all of us was up there. Walter wanted to do that tune and Robert Jr. couldn’t do it, so Robert gave me his guitar and I did it. But I didn’t know they was recordin’ it. And so then I was just lyin’ down one day on the bed and I heard something on the radio [hums guitar intro to “Ah’w Baby”]. I say, ‘That sounds like me. And I kept listenin’ and I say, ‘That IS me!’ I recorded with Little Walter when I was a member of his band in the ’50s. I played on ‘The Toddle,’ ‘Confessin’ the Blues,’ and “Ah’w Baby.” Walter took it. It don’t matter no how. I ain’t lookin’ for no credit.”
Moving southward a mile-and-a half from the Chess building and doubling over to Indiana, we came to Smitty’s Corner, on the northwest corner of 35th and Indiana. Jimmie remembered the place being packed, with Sunnyland Slim and Gene Pearson performing here, though there was no longer much to be seen.
Back on Michigan and moving further south, and one again over to Indiana, we came to Turner’s Lounge, on the 3900 block. The building was still intact, and had been converted into a private club for motorcycle gang members. Frank remembered that Sunnyland Slim and Walter Horton used to play here. “It was Shakey Jake’s hangout,” he said. “Magic Sam and Shakey Jake. And ‘Sugar Sweet,’ Shakey Jake’s auntie. I used to come by and I played here a few times on the patio in the back. They had a patio back there with a band playing in the back.”
“Willie Anderson and all of ‘em used to eat in here,” elaborated Jimmie. “They had a live goat out in the yard in the summertime. I came by one day and that goat was gone. He was alive when I last saw him, but they cooked him up. A serious crime, mistake of humanity. Frank Scott WILL kill an animal. He’s a scavenger. His kitchen is an animal graveyard.”
Jimmie waxed on for nearly 10 minutes, explaining his Bragg’s Diet: fruit for breakfast, salad and cooked veggies for lunch, a simple lettuce and tomato salad for dinner. He recommended Bragg’s Miracles of Fasting, and talked on about the Mucusless Diet Healing System, which is a combination of long or short fasts, with progressively changing menus of non-mucus-forming foods. He also insisted on regular enemas for cleansing the body. Frank got in the last word, though: “Well, I used to wring chickens’ heads off, no problem. I eat all the meat I can get ahold of. And guess what? I’m still here,” he laughed.
Further south, at 3840, we came to Ricky’s Show Lounge, which had been replaced by a tiny grocery store. In 1956, Muddy Waters was arrested here during a brawl involving the tavern manager, Dorothy Shelton, and three other women. All were fighting to be Muddy’s number one girl. After being dumped by Muddy, Shelton pulled a pistol, and then broke out the windows of the station wagon belonging to her rival. Muddy and the three women were all charged with malicious mischief and fighting.
When we came to 43rd Street, we headed five blocks east, passing Pepper’s original location. Six blocks south brought us 47th Street. Mid-way between Drexel and King, we came upon what was once the 708 Club. A peek between the protective bars in front of the door revealed a long, dark, narrow space occupied by the Bud Marlow Department Store. Housewares, furniture, and bicycles were for sale here at discount prices.
On the other side of a common wall, at 706, we were greeted by a long-time resident who called himself “Sweet Man” Glasper. He ushered us in, revealing a cornucopia of crazy artifacts: a gorilla bust, a bent metal sign advertising Dad’s root beer, a dust-caked wax dog, a rusted old toaster.
“I played with Lee Jackson, and played here a couple of times with Buddy Stevenson,” Glasper said, “but you couldn’t hardly get a gig in here. Muddy and the guys I knew had it all sewed up. See, Muddy was 4339 [South Lake Park], and I was 4405. Howlin’ Wolf was in a basement on Berkley. We was all playin’ at that time, but I wasn’t playin’ with them. I was with a different gig, the Midnight Rockers. Of all the clubs on the South Side, the 708 Club was the popularest one. They were jumpin’ good here in the 50s. Memphis Minnie and Son Joe, Elmore James, Tampa Red, Sunnyland Slim, Snooky Pryor.”
Driving two blocks east and one block south brought us to 48th and Cottage Grove. On the northwest corner stood one of Al Benson’s enterprises. Benson was a hugely successful WGES on-air celebrity, known as the Godfather of Black Radio in Chicago. He was also a promoter and head man at Old Swing-Master, Parrot and Blue Lake Records. It was here that Jimmie was offered a slot on the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival roster.
“In 1965 I was staying in Rockford,” he said, “and Sunnyland was comin’ to Chicago ‘cause [German promoter and AFBF organizer] Horst Lippmann was comin’ here to give him an interview for a tour to Europe. I didn’t know nothin’ about it, but he said, ‘C’mon, man, and go with me.’ Sunnyland always wanted me to go with him somewhere, so I said, ‘Okay, c’mon, Sunnyland.’ So we came by here and Willie Dixon, Willie Mabon, Eddie Boyd, all the guys was hangin’ around. The guys was standing on the north side of the building, and they had a piano. So I just went in here with Sunnyland, you know, and they started playin’ – just auditioning for the Horst Lippmann crew. I just picked the bass up and played bass behind anybody that wanted to play. I didn’t try to get the gig. They chose Below, Buddy Guy, Eddie Boyd and whoever else they had on that tour, and they chose me. I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t even know nothin’ about a tour and I didn’t care one way or the other. I was just here. But they knew me. ‘All My Life’ was out and was a pretty nice record for me, so they booked me. They took pictures of us all, the pictures were made in the lot here.”
By the time Jimmie had finished his brief monologue, we had drawn a small crowd of curious on-lookers. A turbaned man who had been pacing around us finally stepped forward, interrupting the proceedings to ask what we were up to. The gentleman was a fervent member of the Nation of Islam, which was, in fact, founded in Chicago. Jimmie, who had once assumed the name Jimmie Latif Aliomar, knew exactly what to say to put him at ease, beginning with his greeting: “Hello, my brother!”
When we returned to the cab, Jimmie waxed philosophical, expressing a certain distaste for organized religion: “I had been a follower of Elijah Mohammed from 1946 on up. I went and I studied under these people and I listened to their philosophies, but as I looked into the philosophy of religion as I got older, I saw through ‘em. Religion is all about organized gangsterism and politics. We are all part of each other. My belief is that we must identify ourselves with all life. Color, height, or looks doesn’t have nothing to do with it. But I wanted to be identified with something connected to a higher power, so I changed my name. I wanted to have a name that wasn’t a slave name. So the name Ali kept ringin’ in my head. Ali means ‘Lion of God.’ And Omar kept ringin’ at me, which means ‘eloquence.’ And then Latif, which means ‘kind, gracious, and understanding.’ So I put all those together. And Jimmie, which means ‘to force open something that’s difficult to open.’ So I lived under that name.
“Me and Ed Newman used to play in church. Me, Ed Newman and One-Leg Sam. When Moody wasn't with them, then I was with them. There was a church around the corner on Peoria. Right on that corner was a house and they would meet up in that house there all the time --- through the week and everything. They used to try to get me. They tried to tell me I had a special gift. They tried to tell me I was supposed to be a healer and all. They tried to rope me in but I didn't get into it with them. I did play with them sometimes though. They was sanctified. Boy, they'd kick them heels up and they'd dance and they'd sing. They'd have a big crowd around them every Sunday and all through the week sometimes. They'd be playin' the blues. The only reason it wasn't classified as blues was because they wasn't talking' about under the womens' clothes and talkin' about goin' to bed with 'em and layin' down and huggin' 'em all night long. But as long as they was using the same music and sayin' Jesus in it, they was church songs."
From there, it was nearly a straight shot 10 blocks west to Teresa’s Lounge [4801 S. Indiana], which shared the building with CJ/ Colt/ Firma offices. Though the building looked weathered, it was still standing. “Me, Bill Warren and Lee Cooper opened up the blues down here,” Frank said, leaning against a secure portion of the half-fallen fence surrounding the entrance. “This is where we went, downstairs. The bandstand was straight on back there. We was the first band that came down here at Theresa’s. One night when we was playing, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells came down. Bill Warren called Junior up to sit in with us. We played a few numbers with him, and then he called Buddy Guy up. The people liked them so good that Theresa gave them the job. They got the job. I remember once there was some guy there that blowed [harmonica] from the basement because Junior wouldn’t let him on the bandstand. At that time Junior had ‘Messin’ With the Kid.’ Since I had lost the job, I just went to Texas and recorded Albert Collins’ first record, ‘Defrost.’” Jimmie interjected: “Theresa got broke. Just before she died, Theresa opened up a used clothing store. I was shocked!”
Our next stop was a good distance south, to 75th Street, where Lonnie’s Skyway Lounge had been [135 W. 75th Street]. Home to acrobats, shake dancers, hobo comedians, drag queens and female impersonators, it was by all accounts a lively place. In 1966, the police conducted a raid, arresting Lonnie Doyal, along with Willie “Shirley” West, Alphonso Dixon (aka “Alphonso Marlowe”), “Rae Del Rays” Navarro, and Charles “Maggie” McNee. 21 patrons were also carted off, all charged with disorderly conduct.
Lonnie was still here, minding his L&D liquor store and selling hot dogs, neck bones and bacon on the side. “I played here with the Billy Duncan Band,” said Jimmie. “They was famous, playin’ all around. I don’t never see nobody ever mention them. There was Bird Legs and Pauline, this girl that used to go with Willie Mabon. She was a singer. Also Tiny Davis. And there was a guy that would play here named Bobby Saxton, “Trying To Make a Living.” He changed his name to Bobby B. Nice. We all used to work together. We had a big Hammond organ and we had a truck to carry the organ around. We had an organ player called Ready Freddy. He could sing, too. And there was these horn players that was ex-criminals and they’d come out to play. They was good musicians, too.”
While in the neighborhood, Jimmie decided to check one final spot, on 71st Street near Stewart. “See these doors here?” he asked. “I played here for years with Eddy Clearwater. Me, him, and Buddy Rogers. Eddy and his wife, Erline, used to live right here in this block. She had a beauty shop and he had a little record shop right here on the side with her.” Frank continued: “Me and Brewer Phillips used to play here, too. He was my bass player before he started playing with Hound Dog.”
The sun was setting. On the journey back to more familiar turf, my mind was reeling. Legend and lore, music, murder – all framed by earthy historic haunts that still retained a vestige of their old-time grit and energy. I had gleaned a kind of contextual knowledge not easily derived from chronologies, discographies or telephone interviews. Put differently, I had become keenly aware of the difference between “sight-seeing” and truly “seeing” these neighborhoods, barren lots and deserted buildings. For, in many ways, they had revealed more than a thousand books or shelves full of records.
*Jimmie Lee Robinson’s Bandera 45 was covered by John Mayall in the UK on the EP “John Mayall’s Blues Breakers featuring Paul Butterfield,” Elektra, 1967].