Sweet Home Chicago: Electric Blues
Created | Updated Mar 31, 2011
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Oh baby don't you wanna go
Oh baby don't you wanna go
Back to that same old place
Sweet home Chicago
By the time The Blues Brothers recorded their version of Robert Johnson's ode to the delights of Chicago, the Windy City was firmly established as the centre of the blues industry. Although the blues continued to be played with vigour and skill throughout the southern United States, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War it was the industrial North that played host to the most remarkable examples of blues playing.
Chicago had always been a popular city for the black population of the USA. In 1860, just over a thousands blacks lived in what was then a small town, most of them escaped slaves and free northern workers. Attracted by the lure of work in the city stockyards, railways and slaughterhouses, by 1915, there were over 50,000 blacks living in crowded and cramped conditions. Despite opposition from local whites, thanks to the rapid expansion of heavy industry and a draft that favoured whites by picking them to serve their country in France, that figure doubled by 1920, and perhaps 75% of the new immigrants into Chicago were natives of the Deep South - Mississippi in particular.
By 1940, the government census revealed that whites outnumbered blacks in Mississippi for the first time in the state's history. Between 1940 and 1950, another 25% of the black population left Mississippi and went to Chicago, where the black population increased by 77% over the same decade. Outside of Mississippi, Chicago now had more natives of the state than any other place in America, and some of them brought their music with them.
Just Can't Be Satisfied: Muddy Waters
McKinley Morganfield, known to the world as Muddy Waters1 was born in 1915, and as a child was sent to Stovall's Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi to work for a living. With no formal education at all2, music offered a route away from backbreaking plantation labour for the young man, and by the time he was 17, Muddy had ingratiated himself with Son House and had learnt enough guitar technique from the older man to be able to earn some money from his blues playing.
In 1941, when Alan Lomax toured the Deep South in search of musicians, House recommended that Lomax should look up Muddy Waters, who he described as 'a pretty fair player'. At that session, Waters first recorded a song that was to come to be groundbreaking in almost every respect. Called 'I Be's Worried', the lyrics echoed the dissatisfaction felt by many blacks with life in the Deep South;
Well if I feel tomorrow
Like I feel today
I'm gonna pack my suitcase
And make my getaway
Lord I'm troubled, I'm all worried in mind
And I'm never bein' satisfied
And I just can't keep from cryin'
- Muddy Waters, 'I Be's Worried'
In 1943, Waters' dissatisfaction boiled over. Fuelled by a combination of a failure to gain a payrise in his job as a tractor driver, and the realisation that his friend Robert Nighthawk was making a living as a musician in Chicago, Muddy packed his bags and left for Chicago. At first, Chicago was not welcoming. Two who made early attempts to record him tried to force the Mississippi-styled Waters into more sophisticated bands that played a wildly different, melodic style of blues. The recordings sank without trace, and Waters may indeed have been worried that his sister had been right when she had told him that people in Chicago didn't listen to his type of blues.
In fact, it was not until 1948 that Muddy's luck changed. Called in for a session by Leonard Chess of Aristocrat records, Muddy (by now playing with the aid of an amplifier because of the greater volume needed for urban juke joints) plugged in his guitar and played the song he had first recorded for Alan Lomax seven years earlier. Retitled 'Just Can't Be Satisfied', the new harder-edged sound found a market with the rapidly-expanding Mississippian population of Chicago, and sold in phenomenal quantities. Waters never looked back, enjoying success from then until his death in April 1983.
Waters wasn't the first man to use an electric guitar. T-Bone Walker, a Texas showman settled in California, is generally credited as the first man to play the blues on an electric guitar. Waters, however, was the first to use the amplifier to exaggerate the rawness and the power of the music that he played. With his backing band The Four Aces, Muddy swept away the Chicago blues as he had found them and paved the way for the success of other residents from the Delta who came north after him. One such player and singer was Chester Burnett, the Howlin' Wolf, who had learnt guitar from Son House
Moanin' at Midnight: Howlin' Wolf
Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf3 was not so much a musician as a force of nature. Born in 1910, the young Wolf ran away from home at the age of 13 and by 1928 had persuaded Charlie Patton to give him guitar lessons. Later he persuaded harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson II to teach him harmonica while Williamson was attempting to date Burnett's sister.
Burnett appears to have played all around his hometown with whomever was available. Son House, Willie Brown and Robert Johnson are all known to have played with Burnett before he joined the Army in 1941. In 1948, at the late age of 38, Wolf put his first band together.
It was in 1951 though, when Wolf was already 41 years of age that he got his big break. Spotted by Sam Phillips4, Wolf recorded the eerie 'Moanin' at Midnight' and 'How Many More Years?' The tracks were leased to Leonard and Phil Chess, who by now had their own company, Chess records. Over the next several years, Phillips tried desperately to keep the Wolf in the south, but in 1953, Wolf moved to Chicago, where he would stay for the rest of his life. Phillips always regretted that he had not been able to get Wolf to record for his own Sun record label, maintaining to his death that of all the musicians he had discovered, Howlin' Wolf was the greatest. Wolf went on to record many blues standards, perhaps the most famous being the anthemic 'Smokestack Lightnin'' and 'Killing Floor', both of which took references from Chicago's two leading industries, trains and slaughterhouses respectively, and turned them into great blues songs.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters ruled the Chicago Blues scene. Wolf was Waters' only serious rival in terms of sales, and only Waters could match the intensity of a Howlin' Wolf stage performance.
At 6' 3", weighing 250 lbs with size 16 feet, Wolf commanded a stage before he opened his mouth or played his harmonica, and his energy on stage is legendary. Blues historian Robert Palmer describes Wolf climbing the curtains of one theatre he played in. He rolled on the floor, leapt around the stage and swept all before him with his energy. Nobody who saw a Howlin' Wolf show ever forgot it. It was perhaps fitting, then, that Howlin' Wolf collapsed after giving a live performance in 1975. He never recovered and died two months later.
There was perhaps only one man who had as profound an influence on blues and rock music as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. After leaving the army in 1942, a young man with a stutter and guitar settled in Detroit, Michigan, where he recorded the first acknowledged million selling blues record, 'Boogie Chillen'. From that day on, John Lee Hooker was The Boogie Man.
The Boogie Man: John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker was probably born in 19205, in the heart of Mississippi. As a young boy he learnt to play guitar from his stepfather, Will Moore. It is interesting to speculate where Moore learnt his guitar from, but without doubt Hooker was the most African of the Delta's bluesmen. Much has been made of the similarity in styles between Hooker's playing and that of the 'Master Musician of Mali', Ali Farke Toure, a native of Timbuktu who never met Hooker and had not heard one of his recordings until the 1980s.
At the age of 14, Hooker left his home after arguing with his mother about playing the blues. In turn he settled in Memphis, then Cincinnati and finally arrived in Detroit, a destination he chose quite deliberately as it had a large black population but the music scene was not as overcrowded as Chicago's. Hooker spent several years playing small 'house rent parties'6 before he was scouted by Bernie Besman of Speciality records. He cut Boogie Chillen', and essentially never looked back. Boogie Chillen was the quintessential sound of Hooker - just his deep, dramatic voice, his amplified guitar and his foot tapping out a steady beat.
Showing a healthy disregard for the idea of contracts, Hooker recorded under a variety of pseudonyms for a multitude of companies throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Many of them follow the same pattern as his initial success. It was as raw as the electric blues would ever be, and a million miles from Hooker's great idol, T-Bone Walker, who had presented John Lee with his first electric guitar. However times changed and Hooker changed with them, happy enough to cut tracks with bass, drums and keyboards as the times dictated.
It was this versatility that led to Hooker's long-term success. Adaptable as he was, Hooker went on to play key roles in the 1960s blues boom, the British blues explosion and the 1980s blues revival. He remained musically active until his death in 2001. He once told biographer Charles Shaar Murray that he was one of only two bluesmen who was capable of changing from solo sets to appearing with full bands. It is certainly difficult to think of another who did so as often or with such great effect.
The label that made Chicago famous: Chess Records
Leonard and Phil Chess, like the people of Mississippi, were immigrants to Chicago, though they came from further afield - they were of Polish stock. They made a living by running nightclubs, but in 1947 they bought Aristocrat Records, where Muddy Waters recorded his first hit in 1948. Aristocrat was a jazz-based label, and for some years continued to be so, but the Chess brothers knew a good thing when they heard it. By 1950 they had renamed the label Chess and Muddy Waters was their major star.
In 1951 they added Howlin' Wolf to their books, and during the same prolific period made probably their most important signing in Big Willie Dixon. Dixon was a consummate musician and writer, and he was to go on to be the backbone around which the Chess label was built. He wrote songs, most notably for Howlin' Wolf (many of the Wolf's theme tunes, such as 'Spoonful', 'Evil', 'Little Red Rooster' and many others were written by Dixon), and he produced for the Chess brothers as well. He also brought sizeable kudos to the label, and several decades' worth of contacts from playing the blues all around the US.
During the two decades that Chess existed as a company, it was a melting pot of American talent. Waters, Wolf and Hooker recorded for the label, as well as other blues stars such as Jimmy Reed, a powerful if primitive guitar and harmonica player whose career suffered from his excessive drinking. Their Checker subsidiary was home to Sonny Boy Williamson II (one of the best harmonica players to come out of Chicago), Elmore James and many others.
The Chess label did not only record blues. Other stars of the label were soul diva Etta James and rock 'n' roll stars Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, though their story, and that of the blues' strange and lively baby, rock 'n' roll, belongs elsewhere. Chess Records was sold in 1970. Though it ceased to exist as a label at that time, its legacy as the home of the greatest urban blues of the 1950s and 1960s lives on.
However, as a handful of white entrepreneurs were making it possible for artists to push the boundaries of their music to the limits, a large white audience was growing for the music of the Deep South, and that audience was to shape the blues throughout the sixties.