Chess Records, Buddy Guy...

In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

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It was in the clubs of the windy city that electric blues was born. Displaced musicians, who’d boarded the Illinois Central train, taking them from the Delta to its final destination of Chicago, plugged in their instruments to be heard over their uproarious audience. They had moved in search of work, and to escape the racial segregation of the south. Chicago offered them employment and, on the south side of the city, black neighbourhoods where the blues resonated on street corners and billowed out of clubs.

Arriving on a Friday night, our first visit was to one of the most famous modern clubs - Buddy Guy’s Legends - albeit in the more affluent downtown neighbourhood. The club attempts to preserve the tradition of the blues by catering to the tourist market. It was a contrast to our Saturday night entertainment: locals had recommended we check out Kingston Mines, a club in the north side, as more authentic fare. Indeed, the crowded bar offered a more animated, less contrived atmosphere, with music courtesy of Big James and the Chicago Playboys, that suggested the city’s heritage is still somewhat alive.

On Saturday morning, we gathered at the home of Corky Siegel, founder of ’60s blues group The Siegel-Schwall Band, to meet and interview drummer Sam Lay, an alumni of the world’s greatest blues label: Chicago’s Chess Records.

Formed by brothers Phil and Leonard Chess in 1950, Chess was the quintessential sound of Chicago electric blues, that decade introducing the music of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Muddy Waters, and so many more. Sam played with all of them - he was in Wolf’s band for seven years - then in the Sixties was in the interracial blues rock group The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and in 1965, was behind the kit for Bob Dylan when he “went electric” at that year’s Newport Folk Festival.

“I came to Chicago with Little Walter,” the Alabama-born Lay tells Clash. His professional career had started in Cleveland, Ohio, in a jazz group called The Moondog Combo (“They asked me would I play with them. “I can’t play no drums!” “All you gotta do is keep time.” I was looking at my watch - I didn’t even know what that meant!”) and ended up in Chicago with future Chess sensation, Little Walter.

“You know what they mean by ‘Chicago Blues’?” Sam asks. “Chicago Blues is amplified. You didn’t have no amplifiers on them railroad tracks and in them cotton fields - you never seen an amp hooked up right there in the middle of a patch of cotton!” The big city had lured the musicians that would define its sound - had the train terminated anywhere else, it would be a different story (stops along the way, however, also developed its own music; St. Louis, for example, flourished with ragtime, jazz and blues, and was the birthplace of Chuck Berry and Josephine Baker).

Chicago witnessed the integration of blues in the Sixties, with the Butterfield Blues Band leading the way for a regeneration of a minority music, as white teenagers were being turned on by the sounds of Muddy and Wolf. The result is today’s sanitised city, where the blues is commerce and not a way of life, and is encouraged in the safety of downtown while its south side, much like the city’s gangster history, is brushed under the carpet. It’s a sad fact, and one that becomes more lamentable as our trip goes on, that in the revivalist spirit of America, where old buildings are merely knocked down to make room for new models, more isn’t done to preserve rich homegrown cultural legacies.

After dropping in on the most famous address of Chess Studios - it’s now a small museum named Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, a trust named after the Chess maestro to maintain the welfare of the blues - it was time to go. We had a date to keep in Detroit, and a five-hour drive to make it...

Buddy Guy’s Legends: 700 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, 60605
Kingston Mines: 2548 North Halsted Street, Chicago, 60614
Chess Records: 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, 60616

Clash stayed at Hyatt Regency Chicago (151 E. Wacker Drive, Chicago 60601), a great central location for all the city’s blues sites. Thanks to Gretchen Spear.

Many thanks to Timm Martin and the hospitality of Corky and Holly Siegel.

Watch a video, and read the transcript, of our interview with Sam Lay HERE.
Read an interview with Sugar Blue, the harmonica player best known for his appearance on The Rolling Stones’ ‘Miss You’, HERE.

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