Big Bill Broonzy, famed Chicago bluesman, for much of his life, sang the blues on Saturday nights to make a living and engaged in some “fire and brimstone” preaching on Sunday mornings to honor his father. This battle between the Devil owning Saturday night and the Lord owning Sunday morning is a fine old southern metaphor passed on for years.
Twenty five years ago, I had my own little blues metaphor going on with a wild Saturday night on the south side of Chicago where the devil shook my hand and my world. This was immediately followed by redemption, as the Lord’s own gospel singer shook that same hand Sunday morning.
It was April 1993. I was in Toronto doing some graduate work and the school year end was approaching. I spent a lot of time on Queen Street West and had a big appetite for live music especially the blues.
One evening I noticed a scruffy hand drawn poster advertising a bus tour down to Chicago for the tenth annual Chicago Blues Festival. I did not have a lot of money but the cost was incredibly affordable so I called and booked it.
Turns out the affordability was understandable … it was not a classy tour package.
The rain was pouring down as we huddled outside Union Station. The bus came … a rickety old yellow school bus. Soon a couple of dozen hard-core blues enthusiasts were boarded and heading south. Like the bus, many were sallow of complexion, half in the bag and running on seven cylinders.
I was seated with Sudbury Bob, a blue-collar guy with a part time gig as a blues disc jockey up in the Big Nickel. We got along fine, thank goodness, and were to find out that we were to be roommates as well, when we finally hit Chicago. We were billeted in the historic old Drake Hotel, a home away from home for years for the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Frank Nitti, (Capone’s successor of the Chicago Outfit) and other assorted Chicago characters holding court over the years.
The festival was a wonderful weekend of rain soaked, deep dive, live blues with the likes of Johnny Otis, Elvin Bishop, the Youngbloods, Guitar Shorty and Chicago’s own piano man, Sunnyland Slim. The first day highlights for me, was the music and storytelling honoring Big Bill Broonzy led by his old buddy and iconic Chicago writer Studs Terkel. Thanks to my own little magic pass, I got to meet Studs backstage and we had an amazing conversation about the state of journalism twenty-five years ago. He had already figured out the looming impact of technology on the writing culture and to this day I feel blessed to have spent a little time with one of those old school writers who hammered out such great work, through a cloud of smoke, on a classic manual typewriter.
The second night in Chicago, the wheels fell off the bus …
A few of us Canucks decided that we could not come to Chicago without having some kind of “authentic” blues experience. Buddy Guy’s joint downtown was fine but if we could just find our way over to the fabled “Southside” where all the real blues joints like Kingston Mills and Lee’s Unleaded Blues were still jukin’ it out. Sudbury Bob had something else on the go that Saturday night so I was with some folks from the bus who were not yet, real familiar to me. Perhaps bad choice number one …
At every point in the following timeline, I must admit there was a little voice saying, “turn back fool, turn back.” But the devil was the tour guide that Saturday night and I was buying the ticket …
- First of all, we had no transport of any kind ourselves … we were wholly dependent of the goodwill and knowledge of others.
- No less than three cabbies flatly turned us down … “no suh, I will not take you folks out there, I cannot be responsible.”
- Finally a cabbie agrees and drives us to the Southside. We pass through derelict streets; cars burnt out and stripped by the side of the street, streetlights out and a sense of passing through an urban war zone.
- He drops us off at Lee’s Unleaded Blues where he puts us through a drill of where to get and into a car, where not to stand on the street later that night and a little talk on how dangerous it is out here.
There you go … four really good reasons why I should have stayed in that cab and gone back to town with him.
But it was Saturday night and the wolf was howling …
That night, I must say, was handmade blues on a stick. We were the only bleached out, non-neighborhood patrons but we were treated well and soon felt right at home. The music was high test. I learned some new dance moves from some big-bottomed ladies and I was now completely sure that this was a great decision. I pitied those fools back in the city in those ersatz downtown clubs … we were in the real thing!
Then the lights went out … one in the morning, lights out and no one was loitering. People were gone in minutes it seemed.
I look around for my colleagues. Not only are they completely unaware of the sketchiness of the situation, they have chosen to get even drunker over the course of the evening. No one had called a cab. I asked the barman if he would be so kind as to call … he laughed his ass off …”no cabs come out here especially at this time of night,” he chuckles.
Timeline continues …
- 1:30 I go outside and hang out on the step where the original cabbie told us to never leave … Maybe I could hail a cab. Are you kidding? There were two vehicles over on the main drag in the first 30 minutes.
- 2:00 I drift over to the main street, putting the cabbies voice out of my head. Still no cabs, just a few noisy low riders slowing down to take a look at me … not in an Eagles moment, by the way.
- 2:30 the other three blockheads finally get kicked out and come outside to join me. They are so mercifully drunk that they still don’t seem to comprehend the gravity of the scene.
- 3:00 My Jim Croce moment arrives. I am fully aware how scary this is and I know we are not getting home by any conventional means this night. I was looking for a Plan B … I noticed a junkyard full of derelict vehicles across the street. I imagined dashing across and crawling into the back seat and hiding out till daylight or gentrification. Jim’s lyrics were floating in my head. Bad Bad Leroy Brown was the number one hit in 1973 …
Well the south side of Chicago
Is the baddest part of town
And if you go down there
You better just beware
Of a man named Leroy Brown
Then the line that later in the song that goes … meaner than a junkyard dog and it gives my Plan B a second thought.
- 3:30 a beautiful old black man comes out of the joint and locks the door behind him. The click of the lock makes me look at the junkyard once again. He opens the door to his Oldsmobile. This is the end of the run. Then suddenly he turns and looks at us fools on the street in the baddest part of town at 3:00 in the morning.
He is Mr. Lee and I believe he saved our lives that night or at least our asses. He offers to drive us, not downtown, but at least to a place where we will find a cab. I finally get into the Drake and my room around 5:30 where there is no sign of early riser Sudbury Bob. I decide to take a shower and hit the sack.
I am naked, wet and still troubled when there is a terrible banging on the bathroom door … someone is in my room!
“Where’s your money man!” screams a guy just outside the door. I leave the shower to lock the bathroom door … the lock is broken.
I grab the knob (the door knob) and hang on for dear life, pleading back, “its in my wallet in my jeans.”
I hang on for what seems enough time for him to get my money and leave. Trembling, still damp and cold I open the door. There sits my asshole roommate, grinning like he just pulled the greatest bluesman prank of the century.
“You have no idea,” I yell, but he really didn’t and never will. He never lived the timeline.
I woke later to a lovely Sunday morning and I needed a little Sunday redemption from the wicked Saturday night. It was the last day of the festival and my dream group; The Staples Singers were the closers. My luck held and I got to meet Pops backstage and we had an amazing conversation about gospel music, Pentecostal churches and the history of family bands in the gospel tradition.
The Staples closed the evening with the incredible Mavis and Pops lifting is up with I’ll Take You There’ and “H.A.T.E Don’t Live Here Anymore.” The field was in love with them and maybe even a bit with each other.
Back on the bus, I was feeling more than a little sanctified for the long journey home…
One of the first songs I wrote ten years ago is called Preacher’s Kids and I wonder if this line had a little Chicago in it …
“She was front pew Sunday morning, she was back seat Saturday night …”