I was in Chicago last week for a conference, and I had an afternoon with no interesting panels lined up, so I decided to do a little sightseeing. I went to the old Chess Records studio, which it turns out survives. It’s one they moved into in about ’57, so a lot of the classics weren’t recorded there, but a lot were. I didn’t know about it the last couple of times I was in Chicago. It’s been restored and now it’s run as a non-profit, Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven. Educational, etc.
So I walked about halfway there, all the way down Michigan Avenue until I ran out of park on the left, and got tired—my back had been hurting for a couple of days, and all this walking wasn't helping. Decided to take the El the rest of the way. Got off at Chinatown and walked back over to Michigan, and found no. 2120. Now, it was a windy and chilly day in late March in Chicago, so by the time I reached the place I was tired and cold and a little windburned and maybe a little sunburned; I’d also walked through what felt like a kind of sketchy part of town, between Chinatown and Michigan Avenue. I don’t know much about Chicago, but I think by the time you’re there you’re getting into the South Side, and it definitely looked rundown and a little dangerous, as per legend (which is all I know). I'm not complaining: it put me in a blues mood. I've been listening to Chess artists for years, and I just recently got the 4-disc Chess Blues box, and had been playing it non-stop since getting to Chicago. This was a pilgrimage.
And the place was closed. Sign on the door said “gone out to lunch, bank, post office, be back after 2:00. Sorry for the inconvenience.” It was just after one, and I had an hour to kill. Nothing to do in that area, unless I felt like hanging out in a lunchroom that looked none too welcoming. So I walked around some more. Found Prairie Avenue, once the elitest address in town, now just an oasis of high-priced condos and some vacant lots. Stepped in some dog shit. Great.
Eventually killed enough time that I felt I could go back. It was a little before two, but I figured maybe whoever was in charge would be back early to, you know, do some business. I was ready to drop some cash on souvenirs, let me tell you.
Nope. So I hung around the door. What else could I do? At least I was there. It’s a small building, with a plate glass front so you can see in to a big photo of Willie Dixon on one wall, what looked like a photo of Clinton and Daley on another, some chairs, a reception counter, and a gift shop behind that. Curtain over the counter was closed, but you could peek into the gift shop; a Bo Diddley box set was staring back at me, and some coffee mugs. Looked like a place I wanted to get into. Maybe I could walk around the old studio, like the website said. Maybe I could stand where Muddy Waters stood, and Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. Etta James, Buddy Guy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hound Dog Taylor.
I ended up waiting until about 2:15, but nobody showed up. I would've waited longer if I hadn't already been waiting so long, if you know what I mean. Meanwhile I was feeling more and more suspicious myself: I was dressed in old blue jeans, scuffed shoes, leather jacket, cap pulled low over my eyes; I’m sure I looked a bit skeevy. And uncomfortable among the boarded up buildings, barred windows, half-dead cars, etc. A big guy in leather and chains riding a mean-looking hog was circling around and around the block.
Anyway, I eventually gave up and walked back to Chinatown-Cermak Station. And that was my visit to the Home of the Blues.