Chicago is a city of music, there’s no denying that. Jazz, blues, rock: each of these genres have had incredible music born from this unbelievable city. From Benny Goodman to, well, Chicago, there has been no dearth of musicians who have called Chicago their home. Recently, Joe Bonamassa played a couple of shows at the historic Chicago Theatre and it seemed like a great time to peer into the wonderful world of Chicago music. Of course, Chicago is the birthplace of electric blues, the genre Joe Bonamassa is happy to call home, and so my list is filled with quite a bit of that genre. In addition to the blues, I take a look at some of the more interesting and special rock bands that have come out of Chicago in recent years. And finally, I sneak a little bit of jazz in for good measure! So here we go: 10 amazing artists to come out of the chicago scene.
1. Howlin’ Wolf is one of the founding fathers of the Chicago blues scene, and a legend of the genre. Born Chester Arthur Burnett in White Station, Mississippi, he met the legendary bluesman Charley Patton in 1930 when he was 20 years old and studied guitar with the master musician. By the end of the 1930s, Wolf was all over the Mississippi club scene playing harmonica and guitar. By 1951, he was recording music with Sam Phillips and becoming something of a local celebrity in Memphis. After signing with the Chess label, Wolf moved to Chicago where he really established himself, scoring hits on the Billboard charts like “Smokestack Lightning” and “How Many More Years.” When Howlin’ Wolf sings, the whole world shakes, as his voice is armed with the powers of heaven and hell combined. Here’s Mr. Wolf playing one of his great standards, “Killing Floor.”
Howlin Wolf – Killing Floor – American Folk Blues Festival
2. Muddy Waters – McKinley Morganfield, otherwise affectionately known as Muddy Waters, has often been called the “father of modern Chicago blues,” a form of urban blues that sprouted from the Great Migration of African-American workers from the rural south to the industrial centers of the north, including Chicago. Although he started in the acoustic rural delta blues tradition of greats like Son House and Robert Johnson, in 1945, he was given his first electric guitar by his uncle, a move which would definitively help to shape the Chicago urban sound. He also started playing with one of the most exciting and acclaimed bands in blues history, featuring Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass, Elgin Evans on drums, and Otis Spann on piano. Muddy and his band had a string of genre defining songs that included “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love To You,” two of my very favorites and songs that had a huge influence not just on the blues, but on rock as well.
Muddy Waters – I’ll Put A Tiger In Your Tank (Live) – Newport Jazz Festival
Willie Dixon – Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf get much of the glory as the stars of early Chicago Blues, but their success might not have reached the same heights had it not been for master tunesmith Willie Dixon writing many of their greatest hits. Not only was Dixon a master blues composer, he was a singer, arranger, bass player, and guitarist as well. But it is hard to argue that his most important contribution to the Chicago blues scene was with notes on paper, writing such seminal classics of the genre as, “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” Dixon was also a formative influence in the development of rock and roll, working with such towering figures as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. “Spoonful” is one of my personal favorites – seriously, sexiest song ever – so may I present to you the man himself, Willie Dixon, performing his raw, sultry tune “Spoonful.”
Willie Dixon w/John Sebastian – Spoonful (Live on Sunday Night 1989)
Little Walter – Little Walter was a true musical revolutionary and virtuoso on the harmonica. He represents to blues harmonica what Charlie Parker did to jazz sax and Jimi Hendrix did to rock guitar. He’s so good, he happens to be the only artist that’s ever been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame specifically for his harmonica playing. He was a first rate innovator, expanding people’s minds as to what was even possible on a blues harp.
Little Walter’s Jump – Little Walter live
Otis Spann – Otis Spann is almost universally considered the leading Chicago blues pianist of the post-war era. He was a member of Muddy Waters’ band starting in 1952, in what is often considered the all-time greatest blues ensemble, featuring musicians such as Little Walter and Willie Dixon as well. But Spann continued to work on other side projects as well as launching a solo career. Here’s a tasty sampling of Spann playing his song “Spann’s Blues” from 1963, with some rollicking piano soloing and featuring Spann’s accomplished vocals.
Otis Spann – Spann’s Blues – 1963
The Smashing Pumpkins – 1979 (studio)
Wilco – Sometimes classified as rock, sometimes as an alternative country act, no matter how you categorize them, Wilco is one of the great bands on the contemporary rock scene. The band features frontman Jeff Tweedy on lead vocal and guitar duties. A funny story about Wilco: Working for the Warner /Reprise record label, owned by Time Warner, they recorded their fourth album and gave it to their record company to listen to. Well Reprise decided that the music wasn’t “commercially viable” enough and refused to release the album as it stood. Wilco wound up buying out the tapes from the record company and quitting the label. And then they found another taker for the album – the label Nonesuch Records, who happened to be owned by – none other than Time Warner! I guess it was destiny, or somebody high up at Warner Brothers realized what a big mistake they made letting the band walk away with the phenomenal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Here’s the band playing the album’s closing track, the emotional, straight for the gut ballad “Reservations.”
Wilco – Reservations (Live)
Tortoise – Tortoise, a band that formed in Chicago in 1990, is part of a very interesting sub-genre of rock known as “post-rock.” Post-rock is a mostly instrumental genre, sometimes featuring odd lineups of instruments though with some of the main ingredients of rock such as guitar and drums, that features non-rock timbres and musical textures. Rather than focusing on the punky sound that categorizes so many other indie bands, post-rock music and specifically Tortoise is far more keen to incorporate elements from styles such as electronica, jazz, Krautrock, and even classical minimalism (I hear major echoes of Steve Reich in this music, for example). I once had the great pleasure of seeing Tortoise play with another one of my favorite artists, super-producer and solo artist Daniel Lanois, in San Francisco, and it was seriously one of the more entertaining live music experiences I’ve personally attended. This video especially excites me being taped on a rooftop in Brooklyn, since I’m a native New Yorker – enjoy!
Tortoise – Gigantes
Liz Phair – Liz Phair broke into the indie rock / alternative music scene in Chicago with her highly critically acclaimed 1993 album Exile In Guyville. Her method of fusing lo-fi indie production techniques to more traditional singer-songwriter material proved highly influential, although she did not achieve a great deal of mainstream commercial success. She had her partisans in the Chicago indie-rock scene, such as fellow artist Urge Overkill, she also had her detractors such as noise-rocker and alternative rock producer Steve Albini, due to resentment towards her significant success. Her independent album eventually went gold, an impressive achievement, and she topped many “best of” music lists that year such as ones featured in Spin Magazine and The Village Voice. She has also said that her Exile In Guyville is a structured response to similarly titled Rolling Stones classic, Exile On Main St.
Liz Phair – Supernova – Studio
Herbie Hancock – Herbie Hancock is one of the greats of contemporary American jazz. Once a member of Miles Davis’ band, Hancock has gone on to have an incredibly successful solo career in jazz and even sometimes crossing over into the pop world with his brand of funky, soulful music. Hancock helped to usher in the post-bop era in jazz, embracing elements like synthesizers and funk beats in his music. Hancock found diverse influences, even drawing upon the avant-garde electronic sounds of contemporary classical composers. After releasing a few experimental recordings in the late 1960s, the influence of Sly and the Family Stone motivated Hancock to try and make funk music himself, helping to cause the birth of jazz-funk. In 1973 he released his album Headhunters which was highly successful commercially for a jazz record, and it featured a mostly new band. The clip below is a fantastic cut of Hancock playing “Actual Proof” on The Tonight Show.
Herbie Hancock – “Actual Proof” – Live on the Tonight Show
– Brian R.