The blues are a cultural cornerstone of Chicago — what of things that make us, us — so we’re encouraged by two new efforts to honor and promote this vital music.
First, cheers to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for awarding a $50,000 grant to help renovate the former home of the late bluesman Muddy Waters.
A group led by Waters’ great-granddaughter Chandra Cooper wants to turn the 131-year-old North Kenwood house into the Muddy Waters Mojo Museum, recording studio and community center.
A tip of the trilby also goes to Warren Berger, a Lincoln Park resident who’s prepping to re-open the legendary Lee’s Unleaded Blues at 74th Street and South Chicago Avenue.
A house of blues
Waters lived in the two-story brick and limestone house at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave., during his creative peak from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. During that time, the electric blues pioneer turned out hits such as “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got my Mojo Working” and the swaggering, stop-time classic “Mannish Boy.”
The six-time Grammy winner even built a basement rehearsal room where he held impromptu jam sessions with musical giants such as Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf.
“African Americans have been vanguards at the forefront of innovating American music, and this really is a testament to Muddy Waters,” Brent Leggs, executive director of National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, told the Hyde Park Herald. The fund awarded the grant to the Waters museum effort.
Waters moved in 1973 and resettled in the DuPage County suburb Westmont. He died in 1983, and by 2013 the vacant and derelict house on the South Side — still owned by Waters’ heirs — was in such disrepair that it had fallen into demolition court.
The $50,000 grant will allow long overdue stabilization work to begin. Leggs says the Lake Park house is important because it is where Waters “could contemplate and create his own art — it’s more than just a place where he laid his head and slept and ate. It stands today as a site of art and creativity that represents the life of Muddy Waters.”
If it becomes a reality, the Waters museum would be Chicago’s second blues museum. Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, housed in the historic Chess Records Building, 2120 S. Michigan, has been in operation since 1993.
Blues club ‘an institution’
The electric blues — a modern, citified sibling of the pioneering acoustic blues invented and perfected in the American South — could be heard in venues throughout the South and West sides from the 1940s through the 1970s.
The clubs started rapidly disappearing in the 1980s, and by the 2000s, Lee’s Unleaded Blues in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood was one of the few places outside of downtown and the North Side where live blues performances could be heard. (You can still hear the blues on the West Side at the Water Hole at 14th and Western, and B&B Blues Club at 4422 W. Madison St.)
Lee’s closed in 2015. But Berger, who bought the place in 2018, is a finalist to get a $136,000 slice of the city’s $5.4 million Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant. Berger said he would use the funds to rehab and re-open the club.
Keeping the South Side location, he said, is important.
“At a point, we were discussing what we were going to do here with some people from the city, and a recommendation was made we should move the bar to another local area of greater concentration of development,” Berger told Sun-Times reporter Evan F. Moore. “But I felt very strongly that I wanted to keep it here; I think it’s an institution.”
If it all goes right, these two key moves could result in a re-emphasis on the blues in Chicago, which too often is dismissed as an dying musical genre, though it continues to influence everything from hip-hop to movie scores.
We might also see a little rebalancing of the city’s cultural map — what gets the attention of the entertainment media and the tourist brochures — which has long favored downtown and the North Side, to the neglect of a big part of what has made Chicago one of the great American cities.
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