Delta Fish Market

West Side 1980s Music Hot Spot

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By Bonni McKeown

At the corner of Jackson and Kedzie, now a neatly fenced parking lot, once stood a West Side music landmark: the Delta Fish Market.

In the 1970s, Oliver Davis, a native of Greenville, Mississippi, brought down home food to his neighbors at his fish store at Washington and Kedzie. Southern fried music came along with the fish; Oliver played a Delta-style slide guitar and his West Side musician friends gathered at the store to jam after hours and on weekends. Touring professionals began to show up; singer Johnny Littlejohn brought his guitar and Sunnyland Slim toted his keyboard. People came around to listen, and Oliver realized he had a good thing on his hands. 

Around 1980 he moved the fish market a few blocks south, fixing up a former gas station on the corner of Jackson and Kedzie. Oliver set up tanks to hold live fish, which he trucked in from Mississippi. He built a stage in the parking lot, and the Delta Fish market thrived there until around 1993.  Every weekend, a basic band would start to play in the afternoon, while the crowd danced, ate fish, and waited to see what guest musicians would show up.  Might be Matt "Guitar" Murphy, featured in the "Blues Brothers" movie; might be Hubert Sumlin, who played guitar with the late Howlin' Wolf. 

Singer/drummer Larry Taylor played at the market along with his brother Tim and their world-touring guitarist father Eddie Taylor Sr. He remembers Isaac Hayes stopping in. Visiting white musicians like Twist Turner, felt amazed to see international celebrities mixed in with neighborhood musicians.

A 1985 documentary from Germany in 1985, shows Eddie Taylor Sr. playing crackling riffs on his red Gibson guitar at the Delta Fish Market, calling other performers to the stage;  late that year he became ill and died.  

In the film Taildragger lures his women neighbors, singing "My Head is Bald." Honeyboy Edwards sings the Delta classic, "Wish I were a catfish, living in the deep blue sea..." Johnny Littlejohn rings out with his guitar slide. Night falls on the West Side as the musicians continue to wail away.

Along with the neighborhood's woes and those of Oliver Davis, the fish market declined, revived and declined again in the 1990s, as Chicago Reader critic David Whiteis reports in the Reader and in his book Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories.  While gutbucket blues prevailed onstage at the fish market, the owner of the neighboring Woods Tavern featured soul and R&B music.  Sometimes the drinkers in the crowd got rowdy and Oliver deputized musician/cops Sam Lay and Ray Scott to keep order.

By the mid-1990s, crime and trouble began to overwhelm the block. Taildragger fatally shot another musician, "Boston Blackie" Houston after they feuded in 1993 at the Fish Market. When the city bought out Woods and his lounge in 1994, the market scene, and a classic blues venue, was gone.  Oliver died in 2007.

Wallace Davis (no relation to Oliver) at Wallace's Catfish Corner at California and Madison has somewhat revived the soul food/music tradition in recent years, often featuring singer/harmonica player Cyrus Hayes.  Look for Cyrus and friends there,  some Fridays and Saturdays.

For more West Side Blues stories, click the author's name above.

 


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Denise from Chicago  

Posted: April 25th, 2016 9:19 AM

I was very enlighten on the history of this brilliant man. Especially how he took an basic necessity and turned it into a thriving success. This man was an great innovator... Would have loved to know him.RIP Mr. Oliver Davis Sr

Oliver Davis Jr, from Calumet City  

Posted: October 16th, 2013 11:14 PM

Thanks for that nice article my father was a hell of a dude. if have any questions just call me OLIVER DAVIS JR. thanks

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