Record Row remembered

By Amanda Murphy

On any day in the early 1950s, South Michigan Avenue between Roosevelt and Cermak roads radiated with the music of the Mississippi Delta. Top recording artists crowded the restaurants and walked the Cadillac-lined streets, bringing music like gospel, jazz, soul and blues to the ears of anyone who wanted to listen. This was Record Row.

It was a time when African-American musicians were finally able to be heard by a wide audience. Men like Leonard and Phil Chess recognized the appeal of the music and created record labels to document the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Etta James and many others. Even then, they knew the music was important, but no one could predict just how monumental it was for the creation and future of rock ‘n’ roll.

Chess and Vee-Jay Records, one of the few labels owned and operated by African-Americans, were the two most successful labels on the small stretch of Michigan Avenue. The Chess brothers owned the Macomba Lounge, a nightclub where they brought in soul and gospel singers, jazz musicians and blues men, said Kevin Mabry, office manager at the Blues Heaven Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the blues. Most of the musicians came to Chicago from the Deep South with the hopes of a better life. They were blue-collar workers in the steel industry or factories by day and record-holding musicians by night.

“It was a way for African-Americans to document a piece of their culture,” said Fernando Jones, an accomplished blues musician and instructor in Columbia’s Music Department. “It gave them an opportunity to be somebody. It gave people who were former sharecroppers or a generation away from sharecroppers the ability to have a job that was not necessarily a blue-collar job like most of their contemporaries. It was almost their university.”

When the Chess brothers realized there weren’t any outlets for the artists to record their music, Mabry said they closed their nightclub and operated their own record label from a few different locations, including the now-famous address of 2120 S. Michigan Ave.

At the heart of Chess Records was a truck driver by the name of McKinley Morganfield who would later be better known as Muddy Waters. Having come from the Mississippi Delta in the late ’40s like many of the other blues musicians, Waters set a standard for the blues with his amplified bottleneck guitar and eclectic vocal styling, according to the book “The Story of Chess Records” written by John Collis and Buddy Guy. And, as his records hit the airwaves, more greats followed.

Almost by chance, some of the premier musicians in the history of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll ended up in that one building and recorded some of the most influential tracks known today, Mabry said. It’s where Etta James recorded “At Last,” which is unmistakable with its orchestral opening and widely regarded as one of the most romantic songs ever written. It’s where Chuck Berry recorded “Johnny B. Goode,” a song noted as being one of the greatest and most influential rock ‘n’ roll songs. The Rolling Stones, who named their band after a Muddy Waters song, made a pilgrimage to the address in 1964 and recorded an album titled “12×5,” which included the song “2120 S. Michigan Avenue.” That same year, The Beatles released their debut U.S. album, “Introducing…The Beatles,” which appeared under the label of Vee-Jay Records, located just down the street.

But as the ’60s came to a close, the record labels became plagued with problems. Jones said musicians at Chess Records grew frustrated with the Chess brothers, who were known to not pay their musicians everything they were owed. Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon later successfully sued the brothers for unpaid royalties.

Other record labels were forced to shut down because of financial woes and the growing disinterest in the music they released. As the ’60s drew to a close, covers of the blues songs that had made Chess and its musicians famous quickly took over the pop charts, rarely giving credit to the original artist. The heyday of Record Row ended by the mid-’70s when almost all of the labels had closed their doors, including Chess Records.

The few-block stretch of the former Record Row is now a far different scene compared to its glory days. Many of the buildings are deserted and rapidly deteriorating. All of the record labels’ buildings except for Vee-Jay and Chess are home to parking lots or were torn down and replaced with new developments.

In the heart of what Record Row used to be, Chess Records still sits, now under the ownership of the Blues Heaven Foundation. Marie Dixon, widow of Willie Dixon, bought the property in 1993 to continue her husband’s work. Mabry said the foundation was formed to preserve Chicago’s blues legacy, promote new generations of blues musicians, protect copyrights and ensure blues musicians aren’t exploited the same way they were in the past.

According to Mabry, the building was in great disrepair when it was purchased and took almost half a million dollars to restore. Although the legendary recording studio equipment is no longer there and the foundation’s museum only has a small collection of artifacts, including some of Koko Taylor’s dresses, originally pressed albums and instruments, it still works to ensure that the genre isn’t lost as American music continues to evolve.

“When you listen to hip-hop, that to me is a modern-day blues,” Mabry said. “R & B is rhythm and blues. So you should not want to forget the significance of what you put into the world of music, especially when it was all created and born right here in Chicago.”

Blues musicians aren’t the only ones who would like to see the historic area restored.

Alderman Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward) released a plan last fall detailing the importance of remembering the former Record Row. The alderman believes that the area, if revived as a music row, would link the South Loop, Bronzeville and Chinatown.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has also expressed interest in restoring the area to its former musical glory. There has been some interest from potential business owners, like the members of Cheap Trick, to purchase land and preserve the landmarks with music-themed restaurants and other attractions. Currently, the area sits as a “dead-zone” void of any major commercial business.

But thanks to an outdoor garden area next to the former Chess building, the blues can still occasionally be heard throughout Record Row.

Snaking its way through the now desolate streets and bouncing off buildings, the blues is a reminder of Chicago’s past, of what Record Row once was and what that few-block stretch of Michigan Avenue gave to the world.

As Willie Dixon once said, “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”