Veterans of West Side Blues recall the music

Carl Norington and Milton Houston remember the music's golden age

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By Bonni McKeown

In Garfield Park, at the corner of Lake and Kenzie — south and west of where the 67,000-squarefoot Hatchery promises to incubate new food businesses — stands an empty, fenced-in lot. 

Four decades ago the spot was Ground Zero for the West Side's most powerful blues music. At the bottom of the steps from the Green Line stood the front door of Silvio's — the famous den of Howlin' Wolf and other blues giants that attracted filmmakers and photographers from outside of the community.  

Bass player Carl Norington, who has lived a block away on Walnut Street since 1959, says he was most familiar with the back door.  

"The back door of Silvio's faced across the alley to the back door of our apartment," said Norington, whose most recent assignment was in the band of Elmore James Jr.  

"Standing on our back porch I'd hear the music," he said. "A bunch of us kids would go stand at the back door and look in. There was a big exhaust fan and bars on the back door. I won't forget that tavern smell of smoke and alcohol." 

Norington laughed and recited the lyrics to one of Willie Dixon's famed songs, sung by Howlin' Wolf: "I was the 'Back Door Man.'" 

Nearby was the Bossanova lounge. Two blocks away at Lake and Sacramento was the Boula Boula. Duke's Blue Flame and the Avenue Lounge stood at California and Madison, near the site of now-closed Wallace Catfish Corner.  Ma Bea's lounge was at Sacramento and Madison. 

The Delta Fish Market began in the 1980s in a storefront at Washington and Kedzie. Owner Oliver Davis moved it to a converted gas station at Jackson and Kedzie, where he built a stage and featured live blues to go along with the fresh fish he hauled up from Mississippi. Ike Sims, whose family came from Augusta, Ga. ran a lounge, Martin's Corners, on the eastern West Side at Wolcott and Lake. Then Sims, uncle of former 29th Ward alderman Ike Carothers, opened the Oasis on Lake and Kedzie across from Silvio's.  

It would take a book to describe all the blues, jazz, R&B and soul clubs operating on Chicago's West Side from the 1950s through the 2000. This is the music of the African American Great Migration.

Norington was born in Chicago in 1948; his mother had lived in Chicago since she was two, and his dad moved here from Panola, Ala. Carl attended Ralph Waldo Emerson grammar school, as did a future Alligator recording artist, guitarist Lil Ed Williams. From 1963 to 1967, Carl went to John Marshall School, where jazzman Ramsey Lewis' sister was a teacher. The school spawned a whole generation of skilled musicians.

"I was interested in music, but too shy at the time to get into it, " said Norington. "I played as a kid by myself, sometimes in the washroom, but nobody knew it. I started out playing guitar. At that time everybody wanted to be (jazz guitarist) Wes Montgomery with his double octaves. I listened to a lot of jazz and took lessons at Crown Music on Chicago Avenue, but it was going too slow for me." 

Then Norington realized he really wanted to play the bass guitar. 

"We were trying to get a teenage band together at one of the houses down the street," he said, before referencing a photo of the band. "All the guys in the photo are dead now. I'm the only one left. One of my bandmates, Gerald Moore, would switch between guitar and bass, and that's how I got the idea to learn the bass." 

When he was around 18, Norington started playing professionally at local joints in the neighborhood. There was music around the city at all hours. He played one gig on the South Side with Little Howlin Wolf (aka Lee Solomon) that started at 6 a.m. 

Bobby Rush, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Magic Sam, Eddie Taylor Sr. — they all played at Silvio's, later renamed the Riviera, and the other clubs. Carl watched an Alligator Records recording session at Silvio's featuring Koko Taylor and Mighty Joe Young. 

"Then, in 1968, the riots came," Norington said. "The Riviera wasn't destroyed, but it was broken into. Everything slowed up in the area, but I kept playing and started my first band, the Brotherhood, in the late 1960s, with John Primer, who lived at Fulton and Kedzie." His other 'brothers' were Dennis Woodard and Willie Prowell.

Norington had found other bluesmen and women living around Lake and Kedzie, including singer Mary Lane, bass player and singer Willie Kent on Carroll Ave., Eddie King on Homan and Fulton, guitarist Luther Allison on Maypole, and Lee Solomon on Walnut.  As a security guard at the Riviera for big Howlin' Wolf, Solomon began learning to sing like him.

In 1977, Norington was surprised to discover another musical neighbor, guitarist Milton Houston, a cousin from his father's Alabama hometown. Houston was in a wheelchair, recovering from a variety of illnesses, including a nervous breakdown.  

When Houston had come to Chicago in 1959, he was already playing professionally, along with his brothers Sweet Man, Whoopy and Boston Blackie. 

"I can't tell you all the places I played," Houston said. 

Houston played with Same Cooke four nights at the white-owned Graemere Hotel, with its fancy circle driveway, at Homan and Washington (a senior apartment building stands there now). They played "You Send Me" and other hits.  

Houston played with Art Stalwell, known as Shorty, in the mid-1960s, on Maxwell Street, where he sold bags of peanuts and vegetables from his own stand. He played with the country band Rhythm Aces. He played with guitar great Freddie King in Cicero.  

He also played with harmonica ace Little Walter at the infamous corner of 16th and Kedzie, cater-corner to the ElDorado lounge. Milton said the owners named Bert, Eugene and Frank sold cheap liquor at their bar and liquor store. They bounced out anyone who tried to fight, but then they went outside and cut each other with knives. People got to calling the place "Bucket of Blood."  

Houston tried to dodge the fights, but playing everywhere took a toll.

"In 1977, I had three jobs and three women," Houston recounted his own blues story.  "My wife left. The kids were little at the time.  I had a nervous breakdown. For months I didn't know who or where I was. I lost my mind, forgot everything, couldn't walk. One day my mother and daddy came over. I got up out of the wheelchair, followed my mom's voice and started to go down the steps after she left. I couldn't walk right, fell down the steps. When I hit the bottom door I came to myself. Felt like I had been dead for a while."  

Kansas City Red, a drummer who led a band, and Willie Buckner talked Houston into coming back to play guitar.  

Illinois Slim — a white guitarist and serious student of West Side blues whose real name was Tom Moris — asked Houston for pointers. 

"They got me up on the bandstand," Houston recalled. "I said, 'I really know who I am now.'  I'm glad God pulled me through."

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com  

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