Blues Clubs are Back on the West Side!

Put on your Madison shoes

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By Bonni McKeown

Older West Siders in Chicago remember a time in the 1950s, 60s 70s and even into the 80s and 90s, when music filled the bars and lounges on main east-west streets like Madison Avenue, Chicago Avenue and Roosevelt Road.  While both jazz and blues flourished on the South Side,  the West Side was known for blues and R&B, because so many of its new residents in the 1960s had migrated directly from the cottonfields in states like Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.   

The West Side housed the dens of Howlin' Wolf, the studio of Cobra Records, and the back yard where Magic Sam hosted barbecues. Blues DJ Big Bill Hill broadcast his WOPA radio show.  The Delta Fish Market drew people from miles around for fish and blues. Singers Tyrone Davis and Bobby Rush developed their soul and funk sounds.

After the West Side lost jobs, and the city regulations grew tougher, many music places closed.  The musicians, well trained by their elders and their school music programs, kept on eking out a few dollars wherever they could find a place to play. 

But now West Side blues fans and musicians are taking a stand. Seniors are out, once again grooving to the blues of their youth. And the artists can be easily found by fans old and new.

The most obvious music place, at 4422 W. Madison Street in the fashion center of the West Side, is B&Bs, formerly Brick's sports bar—across from Out of the Post Records.   An old fashioned vertical sign announces  "BLUES CLUB" and the front says "B&Bs Madison Entertainment." Showing posters of recent and upcoming stars, the sign adds: "Live Blues and R&B. No rap or hiphop."  They're attracting the over-30 crowd.

B&B is a serious nightclub, with P.A. and spotlights, seating up to 400, complete with Bettie's bar—$6 for all mixed drinks except specialty liquors, and $4 for beer; a food counter to buy hamburgers and wings, and glossy black and gold B&B  T-shirts.  Brick's wife Bettie Johnson sells the shirts, puts up posters with the artists' faces, and keeps a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BricksSportsBarGrill/timeline

With their knowledge of the neighborhood, Brick and Bettie have created a peaceful spot to avoid the area's drug trouble.

B&B's opened as a sports bar in 2007, got into hiphop shows, and about two years ago began sponsoring occasional blues shows.  Eight months ago Brick talked with West Side soul great Otis Clay about B&B becoming exclusively a blues club.  Otis was scheduled for his first show at B&B early in 2016, but he died of a heart attack at age 73 on Jan. 8.  In the wake of that loss, R&B singer Willie White stepped in with his band and donated three shows to launch the club, for which Bettie and Brick remain very grateful.   (Hear Willie's music and buy his cd:  http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/williewhite  )  Willie White performs there every Sunday.

B&B has featured shows by West Siders Vance Kelly (Tuesday), and national headliners like Denise LaSalle. Soul singer Nellie Tiger Travis performs May 20 and 21. Last Wednesday Cicero Blake appeared.  More acts are coming, including Willie Buck, Mz Reese, Theo Huff, Lil Harvey, Larry Taylor, Carol Lynn, Mz Peachez, Sherman Moody, Mary Lane, Ms. Carol. Legendary Godfather is the MC.   Currently there's no cover charge. When the crowd builds up in the next few months, they plan to have an affordable admission fee to help sustain the music.  Showtime is  9 p.m.

"People from all nationalities feel comfortable here," says Bettie. " We're like family. We have political functions here with our Alderman, Jason Erwin. " They have security and free parking. If necessary, they help people call a cab to get home. The Best Side of the West Side!

Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of the West Side, blues is also coming to life at the Water Hole, a small corner bar under the bridge at 1400 S. Western Ave. Proprietor Tony Anthony has been offering Lori Lewis's blues jam 8:30 p.m. to midnight Wednesdays, plus a Thursday night show 9 p.m. featuring a West Side band led by Joe B. with singers Mississippi Wolf and Della. This Saturday May 14 Ms. Rodeo and the Riders invite you to a show with Killer Ray Allison's Bottom Dollar Band, featuring special guests Lil Johnny from the South Side, Larry Taylor (substituting for Bobby Reynolds) from the West Side, and Natdog from Memphis.  A retired cop, Tony keeps things cool, and people from all  over the city have fun together.  Cover charge is generally $5.

In the heart of K town, the Ashunti community center at 4350 W. 16th St. serves people who are homeless, need social services and otherwise have the real-life blues. To keep everyone's energy up Ashunti has started hosting Sunday early-evening shows geared to seniors who want to get out of the house. The  5-10 p.m. Sunday shows feature West Side blues ambassador Larry Taylor  . Their crowd shows out, classy and well mannered.  Admission $10 including free food and a cash bar. 

"We have a lot of talent on this West Side," said Congressman Danny K. Davis, speaking at an April 3 fundraiser at Ashunti for Larry Taylor's movie-in-the-making, The Rhythm and the Blues  "It's just that we've been disconnected." 

Look out ! West Side blues is reconnecting. It's the most powerful, most rhythmic, most soulful music in the world.  You MUST be there!  Right now!

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JT HAINES from Chicago  

Posted: May 11th, 2016 9:14 PM

Great article Bonnie! Let's bring 'em sll back. Support bar owners who invest space, $$$ and marketing of Blues Music in their clubs. If joints like Rosa''s Andy's and Green Mill can do it, and Rock joints like Double Door make it why cant we do it on the West SIde! Let's get those folks from Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park to travel east 6 blocks and make Madison Street the "New Entertainment Destination" of Chicago!

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