KIM CURTIS – Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) – As we climb a narrow wooden staircase without windows, we hear from the portable speaker behind us play the sonorous opening bars of “2120 South Michigan Avenue” The Rolling Stones. Our guide encourages us to “rub a little fashion” off the railings as we climb up.
We visit Chess Records on the south side of Chicago, climbing the same stairs that Mick Jagger and the rest of the band climbed for two days of recording in June 1964.
“This place has changed music and the world,” said Janine Judge, 60-year-old executive director of Blues Heaven’s Willy Dixon, a nonprofit that has owned and offered Chess Records since it opened to the public in 1997. I still feel them all here every day. ”
By “all of them” Judge, in fact, means the canon of Chicago blues.
Some of the biggest, most influential artists and hits have been recorded on Chess: Muddy Waters, “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”; Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Hood,” Bo Diddley, “Who You Love,” and Holin Wolfe, “Lightning Chimney,” and these are just a few.
Originally the blues moved north, and blacks fled the south to Jim Crow during the Great Migration. Style has found a home in this working class industrial city.
Berry and Chess made each other their first big break. Berry originally signed with Chess. Then, when he met Waters, he offered to audition for Chess, and the label quickly became known as the Blues label.
The Stones, who named their band after the song Muddy Waters, were imbued with this story when they made the studio a must stop during their first US tour nearly 60 years ago. They recorded 14 songs here, including the hit “It’s All Over Now”, the first ever recorded acoustic version of “Satisfaction” and “2120 South Michigan Avenue”, which was reportedly recorded as an instrumental just because Mick Jagger was so nervous speaking in front of his musical idols that he forgot the lyrics.
Judge weaves these and other stories into his nearly three-hour tour. On a recent crisp mid-winter day she saved by keeping the heat low, almost off. As a non-profit organization, it primarily relies on tours and sales at gift shops to support the work of the building, recognized in 1990 as a historic landmark. She encourages visitors to gather.
Polish-Jewish immigrant brothers Phil and Leonard Shes (born Fischel and Lazor Chiszy) were drawn to gospel music at a young age; dad caught them as they sat near black churches and listened to the choirs inside. As young entrepreneurs, they first purchased a liquor store on the predominantly Black South Side of Chicago, and then, in 1946, acquired a nearby nightclub called the Macomba Lounge.
They soon realized that there was a huge and hungry market for the recordings of these black musicians, so they invested in Aristocrat Records and then acquired; in 1950 they renamed it Chess Records. They were located in several places in the South Side, but their most famous home was here, 2120 S. Michigan, from 1956 to 1967.
The building is a narrow facade, now next to the medical clinic and across the street from the garage. The inconspicuous section of Michigan Avenue is not far from Soldier Field, Millennium Park and the Great Mile. Free summer concerts are held at the nearby Willy Dixon Blues Garden.
But much of the building itself remains the same. The front door, the lobby that served as a waiting room for musicians, the California mahogany cladding are all original. The judge said the windshield needed to be replaced after Little Walter, Muddy Waters ’accordionist, got angry and deliberately crashed his car into the front of the building.
The building changed hands several times after the Shah brothers left, but Marie Dixon, the widow of bassist and songwriter Willy Dixon, bought it in 1993. She died in 2016.
In 1992, at the age of 76, Willie Dixon, the namesake of the foundation and longtime right-hand man of the studio, who led many artists and set up recordings, died.
According to Judge, the couple has designed a space to house a museum, a recording studio and classes for young people.
“The foundation was created to protect, promote and preserve the blues,” she said.
Willie Dixon has written about 6,000 songs, more than 600 for Chess Records.
The entire room on the second floor is set up to pay tribute to Dixon. The exhibition presents handwritten lyric sheets, clothes, awards, even his beaten bass.
But the highlight of the tour is the recording studio itself, which is still used today. There are children’s grand pianos, guitars and other Dixon equipment, but Judge’s passion shines through as she explains the details included by 23-year-old engineer Jack Sheldon Wiener, who originally designed the space, and how she spent 15 years figuring out exactly how acoustic panels were assembled. .
“Not a day goes by that I don’t realize what an honor and privilege it is to be here every day,” she says as she enters a darkened sound booth.
She asks visitors to sit in one of the metal folding chairs and imagine a day in 1960 when 23-year-old Eta James approached the microphone. The Shah brothers believed that her blues voice had a crossover pop appeal, so they led an orchestral ensemble for her debut studio album.
The judge asks the visitors not to sing along, but encourages them to dance. As a high string intro “At Last!” fills the space, easy to feel carried back in time.
“It’s the only song I play to the end because it would be angry if I didn’t do it,” says Judge. “And what would it be without her Chess Records?”
Starting April 1, Chess Records will be open for tours Tuesday through Saturday at noon, 1, 2 and 3 p.m., with a donation of $ 15 offered.
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