Chicago Blues City

Words by Matthew Vanatta

Chicago has long been a city revered for its music and arts community. The Windy City has produced some of the most recognized musicians and artists of the modern era and its contribution to the American blues is no different.

Born of the soil and toil of the Mississippi Delta, the American blues sound traveled north as the descendants of freed slaves migrated north in search of better opportunities and to escape the still presiding racial tensions of the deep south.

On this migration, they carried the sounds of the Delta and established Chicago as an epicenter of the American blues. Since the 1950’s Chicago has been one of the most important blues cities in the country playing host to some of the most important landmarks, icons, and continued traditions of the great American genre.

If you are planning a trip to Chicago or already call the city home it is a missed opportunity to not appreciate the historical significance of one of the most important art forms in the history of the country. If you are looking for the full Chicago Blues experience check out our Chicago Blues guide, and the next time you are in the Chi remember the immortal words of Muddy Waters “Going to Chicago was like going out of the world.”

The Legends-

It’s important to understand the foundation of the Chicago Blues. The Chicago Blues took the heart and soul of the Southern Blues and made it modern. The forefathers of the Chicago Blues are some of the most important figures in the American Blues canon. While there are too many influential Chicago blues musicians to compile a complete list these are some of the most important figures to both Chicago blues and American music.

Muddy Waters-

Muddy Waters grew up on a plantation in the sweltering heat and blood-stained soil of Mississippi and while he is known as the godfather of the Chicago Blues, his style is deeply entrenched in the style of Southern Blues legends like Son House and Robert Johnson. Waters moved to Chicago in 1946 and amplified his sound giving birth to the Chicago Blues sound and also inspiring what would become Rock and Roll. Waters sound would be an influence on a number of popular genres, but would be a direct inspiration to 60’s rock and roll was undeniable, his song Rolling Stone would inspire the naming of Bob Dylan’s hit song Like A Rolling Stone, the name of the uber-successful band The Rolling Stones, and the most popular rock magazine of all time Rolling Stone. Waters was instrumental in the formation of Chess records, one the United States foremost record labels of the era.

Howlin’ Wolf-

Another son of Mississippi, Howlin’ Wolf is one of the most celebrated blues musicians of all time and his legacy is one of myth and music. An imposing figure Wolf’s physical presence was only matched by his domineering vocals. One of Wolf’s seminal songs Smokestack Lightning is a visceral experience, capturing both the pain of the Jim Crow South and the industrial growth of one of America’s modern cities. Wolf would also have a large impact on a modern day Rock and Roll and in 2011 Rolling Stone named 54th on a list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Willie Dixon-

While Willie James Dixon might not have the same public profile as Water or even Wolf he is one of the most important figures in modern music. Dixon was certainly a bonafide musician but ultimately cemented his legacy as one of the most prolific songwriters of all time. Dixon’s contribution to the Chicago Blues was crucial in informing and influencing the sound, but Dixon also helped shaped the Rocka and Roll movement in his work with the creator of Rock and Roll Chuck Berry. Dixon’s songs have been covered by everyone from Hendrix to Zeppelin.

Buddy Guy-

Guy is not only instrumental in having helped shaped the Chicago Blues sound as he played with the legendary Waters and was a house guitarist at the legendary Chess Records, but he was also instrumental in keeping the Chicago Blues sound alive and well. Guy has been transmitting the Chicago Blues sound for the last 60 years and is still active and playing at 81. He has played with a number of influential modern musicians and is listed 30th in the Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Artists Of All Time list.

Labels-

The Chicago music labels are an important part of the Chicago Blues legacy as they helped develop and transmit the Chicago sound across the globe. Here are some of the legacy labels that were based out of Chicago.

Chess Records-

The home of Muddy Waters, Chess is one of the most important labels in the history of American Music. There are numerous books and films about the legendary studio and label. The building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave is still standing and now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.

Bluebird Records-

Notable for creating the Bluebird sound, many of Chicago’s most prominent blues musicians cut records for the label at one point or another.

Cobra Records-

While the label was short-lived, it was instrumental in developing the West SIde sound and was the launching point for iconic bluesmen Buddy Guy, Magic Sam and Otis Rush.

Clubs-

While many of the clubs that were blessed by the legends are gone, there are still plenty of solid blues clubs in the city. Check one of these iconic spots out to get your fill of the Chicago sound.

Buddy Guy’s Legends-

Buddy Guy’s is one of the most legendary blues musicians in the history of the genre and his club is a great place to grab a drink and enjoy some blues. The man himself does a January residency at the club, which is a must see if in the Windy City in the winter.

Rosa’s Lounge-

This Logan Square destination venue is considered one of the best blues clubs in the world, it is worth seeking out the next time you are in Chicago.

B.L.U.E.S-

Low key and intimate, this blues club is located close to Kingston Mines another epic venue and plays host to some of the most exciting blues players in the city.

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