Sweet Home Chicago Blues

Article excerpt

For many people, Chicago blues is the blues. Even though the I music may have been born in the Mississippi Delta, Chicago is where the blues came to prominence. Here, the country style of the South was amplified with electric guitars, harmonicas and a big beat, creating a sound that was a major influence on early rock and roll. With an endless variety of cover versions from the likes of the Rolling Stones (who took their name from a song by Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters), Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn, even nonfans know Chicago blues.

The modern Chicago blues scene did not develop until after World War II. Before that, influential artists like John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bukka White and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup called Chicago home with a sound that still had more of an allegiance to acoustic country blues.

After the war, Chicago saw an influx of Southern blacks who had seen the world as soldiers and decided that plantation life was not for them. Many moved no, to make a better life for themselves and took work in meatpacking plants and factories. An increase in population also meant an increase in the money being made and spent. Blues clubs flourished and record labels like Chess and Vee-Jay sprang up to provide blues music specifically for the black market. The Southern influence coupled with new urban sensibilities began to effect a change in the music itself. Audiences wanted something that was grittier and more realistic than the jazzier big band sounds of the jump blues style popular at the time.

In 1943, a train from Clarksville, Mississippi brought a slide guitar player named Muddy Waters to town. Modern electric blues as we know it would soon be born, giving audiences exactly what they wanted.

MODERN ELECTRIC BLUES

When Waters first got to Chicago, he played in the noisy South Side clubs and quickly realized that if he wanted to be heard, he would not only need to amplify the traditionally acoustic Delta blues that he was familiar with, but he would have to add a band. The result became the template for future blues bands with the addition of drums, bass and piano to the basic guitar and harmonica setup. While his early hit singles on local label Chess Records (beginning in 1947 with "I Can't Be Satisfied") were recorded with minimal musical accompaniment, the live shows with the full band garnered the most attention. Particularly influential was harmonica player Little Waiter's amplified style. His method of cupping both the instrument and microphone in his hands so that he could achieve a wide range of tones and distortion was so widely imitated that players of this style would soon become a prerequisite for any aspiring Chicago blues band.

As Muddy Waters rose to popularity with songs like "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," "Got My Mojo Working" and "I'm Ready," other bands and artists gained their own share of recognition. His main rival was Howlin' Wolf whose gravelly voice was described as "shattered glass being dragged over hot asphalt." Classic songs like "Smokestack Lightnin'" and "Back Door Man," and a 6-foot 3-inch, 300-pound frame made him an imposing and exciting stage performer. While Waters remained the undisputed leader of the scene, Wolf, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Big Walter Horton, Bo Diddley and the second Sonny Boy Williamson (born Rice Miller and no relation to his pre-war namesake) helped make Chicago the capital of the blues in the 1940s and 1950s.

THE NEXT GENERATION

By the mid-1950s, "The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll," sang Muddy Waters. With the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley (whose first single was a version of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right Mama") this new sound began to overtake blues in popularity and the blues responded by incorporating new elements into the music. Many acts, including established ones, added saxophones and guitar work that imitated the popular style of artists like B. …