CHICAGO -- In search of musical roots and a legacy of living blues, I journey to the old Chess Records building in a once-proud South Side neighborhood reduced to vacant lots and warehouses. Shivers course through me as I gaze at the building's weathered facade as a student of classical architecture might ponder the Parthenon. Here, in a second-floor studio, the ghosts of the blues masters still play the music transplanted from the Mississippi Delta and electrified with a new, raw energy.
I picture Willie Dixon - rotund, balding, full of laughter and life - clutching his stand-up bass and "Walking the Blues"; Muddy Waters wailing through "Hoochie Coochie Man"; Buddy Guy leaving no doubt what it means in "The First Time I Met the Blues."
In my mind's eye, Chuck Berry's doing the duck walk, rolling over standard three-chord blues into another realm. Staring into the door in the storefront facade, it's easy to envision Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, smitten with the rare Chess imports they discovered, coming in 1964 to pay tribute - by appropriating the songs black bluesmen had cut in the same room just a decade earlier.
Chess Records, long since closed but undergoing a multimillion-dollar restoration led by Dixon's survivors, seems the logical place to begin this pilgrimage, an overdue one. It's been more than 15 years, after all, since Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page led me to a Japanese Stratocaster guitar - a steady, if at times much under-appreciated refuge in the shoals of adolescence.
For way too long, like most of my generation, I had considered these white British virtuosos inventors of their craft.
But in time, the Stones showed the way to Muddy Waters, Clapton carried me to Buddy Guy, Jimmy Page to Willie Dixon.
Elvis and the Beatles owed the blues more than too many ever would acknowledge. The Stones and their countless imitators could never have been but for the new sound born on Maxwell Street. The Yardbirds would be unthinkable without Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
Here, outside Chess, the debt becomes real. Without Chicago blues, without the musical tornado unleashed when Muddy Waters plugged a guitar into a box of wires with a speaker, [See Blues, 5f] we would have no rock and roll as we know it.
Son Seals reaches way up the neck of his Gibson hollow-body, bends the skinny strings just so and unleashes a searing riff so sweet it weeps. Riveted, a few hundred mostly thirty-something white people fix their gaze on this bearded, graying black man. His eyes focus somewhere else entirely. His mind travels to a faraway place and time.
From someplace deep in the big bluesman's lungs comes the melodic moaning, punctuated by growls:
"I do all the hard work but my boss he takes all the money./That's why I got to leave this country, boy, Lord, and go to some big town./You know I got to leave this country, boy, Lord knows that I got to put it down."
Another blues song, another bit of everyman's poetry as raw and pure as it comes, Seals' "Cotton Picking Blues" in many ways tells the story of the Chicago Blues, of blacks who journeyed from the cotton fields and poverty of the Delta to a better life in the big town, then transformed their country blues into a new, electric sound that forever changed music.
Between sets, Seals sits in a tiny dressing room at Kingston Mines, a North Side club where some of the world's best bluesers play until 4 a.m. every day. Seals, 54, came from Osceola, Ark., in 1971, a generation after the post-World War II blues explosion in Chicago. Now he's among the last of a dying breed, bluesmen who sing about hard living they know first-hand.
In a raspy voice that works overtime almost every night, Son speaks wistfully of home and roots, his own, and that of the
blues and all it inspired: "I tell you, it all came from those old farms, man, these cotton fields, people singing when they wasn't supposed to be singing. I was raised up there. I know what it is, man, to see people like that chopping and picking cotton and doing it all day, barely getting enough money to feed their kids that night and gotta go back to do the same thing tomorrow."
But if his tiny hometown in the Deep South gave him heartbreak and ultimately forced him to leave for Chicago to make a living, it also imbued Son Seals with this dream of bringing to others the abiding joy the blues brought him from the time he could talk, maybe sooner. His father, Jim Seals, played guitar, piano, drums and trombone and ran a juke joint offering dancing in front, dice in back. So it happened that baby Son Seals fell asleep to the sounds of blues legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk and Albert King and dreamed in shades of blue. By age 13, Son would play drums behind them, before switching to guitar and playing razor-sharp leads that made Albert King proud and Son Seals a legend in his own right.