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A Fading Legacy for Chicago Blues

COLUMN ONE

Men who invented hybrid of Mississippi Delta and urban music are aging and dying. Uncertainty marks efforts at preservation. Ironically, the sound has become lucrative.

February 28, 1998|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — The old men paused as they filed past Junior Wells' coffin and glanced at the bluesman's final show of splendor: his creaseless sky-blue silk suit and matching homburg, a shiny trove of harmonicas laid out beside him, a pint of gin nestled nearby to ease his journey home.

The 63-year-old musician had been "Junior" all his adult life, and now that the youthful peacock was gone, the mourners knew their own time was coming.

Two of them murmured low as they returned to the last pew of the South Side funeral chapel where Wells lay in state. As the hall filled, Sebastian Jordan and Henry Taylor caught up on lost years.

They had met in the late '50s, in ghetto bars where the rhythmic hybrid of Mississippi music and urban experience known as Chicago blues was born. The two had been out of touch. When they ran into each other last month at Wells' funeral, it was a time to mourn not only the passing of one of their stars but also the way of life they once knew.

"Junior was hardly a grown man last I saw him," said Taylor, 77. "Tells you how old we are," Jordan, 64, whispered back. "Too many gray heads around here, too many. One of these days, there won't be none of us left."

When Arkansas-born Arie McDavid, 50, heard that Wells had died, she threw on a fur coat and hurried to the funeral parlor to see the bluesman one last time. As she made her way past his coffin, McDavid remembered a night 30 years ago when a friend dragged her to an inner-city club to see Wells play.

McDavid had been aching from an aborted love affair, but "the moment I heard that man play, I just snapped. I hadn't heard that sound since I was a child. It made me forget what I was crying about."

This is a twilight for the Southern-born migrants who spawned Chicago blues--both the musicians who developed the distinctive sound and the black audience who nurtured the music long before it captivated white listeners and became aural wallpaper for beer commercials and film soundtracks.

Chicago blues is now woven deeply into the fabric of American popular culture. But as its last generation of migrants passes into old age, there is growing concern about what will become of their legacy. Black businessmen are trying to revive Chicago's inner-city blues club culture. Archivists are turning their attention to the post-war migration and the culture it spawned here--as a social movement deserving of preservation. But there is uncertainty over who should be the caretakers and what should be saved, who should provide funding and who needs it most.

"There's a whole generation that we're losing, and the great tragedy is that there's no concerted, well-funded effort to tell their story," said James Grossman, director of the Scholl Center for Family and Community History at the Newberry Library in Chicago. "I worry we're already too late."

Music Thriving Commercially

The dilemma is obscured by Chicago blues' robustness as a commercial enterprise. The music is a more lucrative business now than it was during its high-water mark in the 1940s and 1950s. Elderly bluesmen who were once lucky to reap $10 a night at bars in poor Chicago neighborhoods now regularly tour the United States, Europe and Japan. Many still make records, and their classic old recordings have been continually repackaged, selling briskly to new generations of fans.

"It's no longer a neighborhood music," says Bruce Iglauer, who owns Alligator Records, the city's dominant recording company. "But in terms of sales, the market's the healthiest it's ever been."

Young Chicago-born musicians ply a good living at well-appointed bars in the uptown entertainment districts, playing for tourists and suburban blues mavens. And more than 660,000 fans flocked to a four-day blues festival last year, spilling into North Side clubs and pumping $54 million into the city's economy.

Chicago blues' reigning king is Buddy Guy--once a Young Turk, now a grand eminence at 62. A lightning-fingered Louisiana-born guitarist and singer who once was Wells' stage partner, Guy sells hundreds of thousands of records and owns a thriving downtown nightclub. Despite his success, he is unnerved by the graying of bluesmen he once saw as "kids like me."

"I don't know what we're gonna do," he said as he left Wells' rites. "We're losing our best."

Guy and Wells prospered as the last wave of Southern-born musicians came north, arrivals to a community that "offered survival skills" for every migrant, says Adam Green, a professor of African American history at Northwestern University.

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