A city in music: Chicago

Curtis Mayfield in concert

Curtis Mayfield in concert: November 1, 1972. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images) - Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Chicago is the blues. While today veteran bluesman Buddy Guy’s Legends club keeps the genre alive in the city, it’s a story that began almost a century ago. The Great Depression and the ensuing Great Migration saw millions of African Americans move from the southern states to the industrialised north in search of work, and they brought the music of the south with them.

While the likes of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton brought Dixieland jazz from New Orleans to Chicago, the blues of the Mississippi Delta was a more appropriate soundtrack to the poverty and crime migrants so often found in their new home. Yet, Robert Johnson’s 1936 song Sweet Home Chicago – now something of an anthem for the city – shows how Chicago retained an image as a promised land for black Americans seeking to escape the poor and segregated south.

Johnson’s song hinted at the new, urban blues that was evolving in Chicago – a sound which would become the foundation for almost everything that came after in popular music. The city’s Maxwell Street Market was one of the incubators of this new ‘Chicago blues’. Originally established by Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century, the mile-long market became a seething hub for the city’s black communities and a place where itinerant musicians plied their trade.

Bo Diddley, who had been brought up on Chicago’s predominately black South Side, was a regular performer at the market as a teenager in the mid-1940s, playing right there on the pavement, and such noisy, urban settings were key to the development of this new blues. The acoustic guitars of southern blues just couldn’t cut through the crowd, and Chicago blues would be all about electricity and amplification and would have a new sense of attitude and aggression derived from the struggle for survival in the city.

The Arkansas-born Big Bill Broonzy would have known Maxwell Street well, and was the figure who more than any other made the bridge between the country and the urban styles of blues. Born in 1903, Broonzy had arrived in Chicago as early as 1920 and honed his guitar skills by playing at social gatherings and clubs on the South Side while working menial jobs. He had made recordings on acoustic in the 1920s and 1930s but made the switch to the electric guitar in the early 1940s, and his 1945 recording, Where the Blues Began, with fellow southern migrant Big Maceo Merriweather on vocals, was a watershed moment.


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But it would be a man a decade younger than Broonzy who would take Chicago blues to its full conclusion. Mississippi’s Muddy Waters moved to Chicago in 1943, working as a truck driver and in a factory while moonlighting opening shows at the city’s clubs for Broonzy. He soon discovered that amplification was essential to make an impression in those garrulous settings, went electric and made some recordings for local label, Aristocrat Records. I Can’t Be Satisfied, with I Feel Like Going Home on the B-side, from 1948, showcased a new sound in which electric guitar riffs were front and centre, and the legend of Muddy Waters was born.

Aristocrat Records would in fact be crucial in the story of Chicago blues. Rechristened Chess Records in 1950, it was where not only Waters, but his contemporaries and fellow Mississippi migrants Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf, would make their names. Waters released his seminal Rollin’ Stone single the year of the label’s renaming. When a certain London group took that name and went on to record their 1964 instrumental 2120 South Michigan Avenue at the Chess Studios, now home to the Blues Heaven Museum, it was clear just how much this migrant music, developed 4,000 miles away, was directly responsible for Britain’s beat boom.

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But Chicago would also play a key role in the development of another world-changing genre – soul. Born at the same time as Chicago blues, Curtis Mayfield was a native Chicagoan who grew up on the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project, giving him a keen sense of the problems afflicting the city’s black communities.

He met Jerry Butler while both were singing in a church choir and the two joined local group The Roosters, later rechristened The Impressions. The band had 10 Top 20 hits between 1958 and 1970, migrating from doo-wop to gospel-influenced soul and rivalling Motown’s male vocal groups in their pop appeal. Certainly, Mayfield’s exquisitely sweet vocals held their own against any in Berry Gordy’s stable.

The Impressions would be a vehicle for Mayfield’s growing social consciousness. His writing talent was evident on civil rights anthem Keep On Pushing (1964), released the same year as the Chicago-raised Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, and songs like People Get Ready (1965) and We’re a Winner (1967) followed in the same hopeful vein at a time when Jesse Jackson was heading up black rights activism in Chicago and Martin Luther King was pushing the Chicago Freedom Movement, demanding better housing and conditions in the city. This Is My Country (1968) came at the end of a year that saw King’s assassination and the violence of the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago; the song stated simply “Too many have died in protecting my pride/ For me to go second class”.

Mayfield would deal extensively with black pride on his 1970 self-titled debut solo album, a record which segued into the funk sound and contained his jubilant, conga-laced Move On Up. The album’s other single, the opener (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go, directed itself to ‘Sisters! N*****s! Whities! Jews! Crackers!’, pointing out that all humanity is united in its ultimate fate.

The two singles from Mayfield’s acclaimed soundtrack to the 1972 Blaxploitation film Super Fly would give him his first and only solo Top 10 hits, and he performed both on Soul Train, a production of Chicago’s WCIU-TV station and a vital part of the city’s soul history. Mayfield’s influence echoed down generations of Chicago acts – Move On Up would later be heavily sampled by Chicago-raised Kanye West on 2006’s Touch the Sky, but in the 1970s he influenced everyone from multi-racial funk band Rufus, fronted by Chicago born and bred vocal powerhouse Chaka Khan, to the mega-selling Earth, Wind & Fire – founder Maurice White started as a session drummer at Chess, and the band explored soul and funk directions before they became synonymous with disco.

The sequin-adorned disco of the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire was precisely what led to the unedifying spectacle of 1979’s ‘Disco Demolition Night’, when disco records were blown up on the Chicago White Sox ground in the middle of a baseball doubleheader (Boogie Wonderland was in fact released just weeks before the stunt).

The implications of the incident were not a little racist and brought into focus the divide between black, dance-oriented music and white rock, but the former could not be silenced in Chicago.

When The Warehouse club opened on South Jefferson Street in 1977, few could have foreseen that it would give its name to a genre that would take over the world. New Yorker Frankie Knuckles pioneered house out of the ashes of disco as The Warehouse’s resident DJ before opening The Power Plant on out-of-the-way Goose Island in 1982, and later The Power House just a block away from the old Chess Records building.

While the Chicago club scene was thriving by the mid-1980s, and 1986 saw the opening of the legendary gay club, Club LaRay, in the Boystown area of the city, offering a steady diet of house music, house was ready to break out of the city’s underground.

That same year, Frankie Knuckles released his classic Your Love with Jamie Principle, and Chicago native Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley (aka J. M. Silk) had hits with I Can’t Turn Around and Jack Your Body. House made its way not only across the country but across the Atlantic – Jack Your Body was a UK No.1 for two weeks in January 1987.

The pure hedonism of house proved that much of Chicago’s music has been defined by its defiance of the realities of life in the big city.

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