Monday, March 12, 2012

Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Allows Pivotal 'Chess' Piece of Music History to Keep Moving Forward

Attraction Review

Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven
Former Chess Records Studio and Headquarters
2120 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago

Arriving at 2120 South Michigan Avenue shortly after noon on Saturday, my friend Dave and I found the door locked. Upon ringing the doorbell and being let in, the only other visitors in the former home of Chess Records were a pair of college-age girls and a woman with a child of perhaps 6 or 7.

But also accompanying our visit were Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and Etta James and Chuck Berry and Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley and Koko Taylor and Maurice White and The Rolling Stones and, playing the upright bass, Willie Dixon, whose descendants now own the building in which they operate the educational foundation dubbed Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven.

Although the no-longer-operational studio is largely devoid of original recording equipment & musical instruments and rather light on actual exhibits, as tends to be the case at other historic studios turned tourist attractions--such as Sun Studio in Memphis, Motown Records in Detroit and RCA Studio B in Nashville--the appeal for me was much more ethereal than tangible. And that was just fine.

Sure there were display cases featuring a dress hat and sport coat worn by Dixon--plus some hand-written lyrics, as he not only was a staff musician at Chess but the composer of hundreds of songs--as well as a tour jacket worn by Muddy Waters and a couple of guitars signed by Buddy Guy (these three immortals are seen in the photo at right, which adorns a studio wall).

But even if the piano on hand were the actual one Johnnie Johnson had used on numerous classic Chuck Berry singles or Dixon's bass--presumably one he used in accompanying nearly every Chess recording--wasn't locked away in storage until more robust security can ensure its safety, it's not as if these instruments would today be making the groundbreaking sounds that prompted Dave and I to stop by for a visit.

Rather, the luster of standing in the studio at 2120 S. Michigan derives from one mentally filling in the blanks of musical history and considering how instrumental this exact spot--which was Chess' home from 1957-67--was in the development of electric (i.e. Chicago) blues and the complementary evolution of rock 'n' roll.

It was here that Chuck Berry recorded "Johnny B. Goode." It was here that Etta James recorded "At Last." It was here (presumably) that Muddy Waters recorded a Willie Dixon-written tune called "You Need Love," later to be ripped off by Led Zeppelin as "Whole Lotta Love" (and even before that by The Small Faces).

Zeppelin would also cop--and only years later pay proper credit and royalties for--Dixon's "Bring It On Home" and turn Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" (also recorded here and later covered by Jimi Hendrix and many others) into "The Lemon Song."

Bo Diddley would also record at Chess, with "Road Runner" being just one of his songs covered by British Invasion bands like The Beatles, Stones, Animals, Who and Zombies. Starting as a teenager, Maurice White was a Chess session drummer, backing among others The Impressions (with Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler) before going on form Earth, Wind and Fire.

Under the seminal leadership of label owners and producers Phil and Leonard Chess, Polish immigrants who came to Chicago in 1928, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Koko Taylor and Buddy Guy are just of the few other blues legends who climbed the rear staircase that led up to the second floor studio, rehearsal room and control room.

And famously, the Rolling Stones--who took their name from a Muddy Waters song recorded for Chess before this studio was utilized--would come here on their first U.S. Tour in 1964, when in addition to meeting Waters and other musical influences, they would write and record the instrumental "2120 South Michigan Avenue."

It's not hard to see how the Chess Records story, as portrayed in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, is one from which the progression of blues, rock, soul, funk, R&B and much popular music is very directly written.

Sharing A Kinship with the Blues

Although in visiting an old recording studio, much enjoyment is fueled by one's own musical memories and appreciation, a great tour guide offering insightful stories can serve to make the experience more fully interactive than a hi-tech science museum.

Fortunately, we had one, and besides being very friendly and knowledgeable --excepting his being a Chicago-based Yankees fan--it turns out he was rather intimately related to the musical history Blues Heaven celebrates.

Keith Dixon, shown above in the former office of Phil Chess--Leonard's was right next door--is the grandson of Willie Dixon.

Though he is also a college student and part-time harmonica player, Keith is at Blues Heaven most days--it is open for tours Monday-Friday 11am-4pm and Saturday Noon-3pm--and it was fun to hear him tell stories about his grandpa, such as the time he was so urgently inspired about a new song, he wrote the lyrics on the walls of his home bathroom. As Keith relayed it, his grandma was none too pleased and ensured Willie always had note pads nearby from that point on.

Providing nice insights and anecdotes about the memorabilia displayed, Keith explained that a Rolling Stones platinum award for their 1995 live album Stripped--which closes with a cover of Willie Dixon's "Little Baby"--was there because the band had donated some of their publishing rights to his grandfather's publishing company, Hoochie Coochie Music. He also reflected on the time Stones guitarist Ron Wood stopped by the studio during one of Blues Heaven's music education classes--not coincidentally four pieces of artwork created by Wood are prominently displayed--and noted with affection how the recently passed Etta James could be a bit gruff over the phone.

Keith also adroitly fielded my barrage of questions, about Led Zeppelin (he didn't exactly absolve them of outright plagiarism), Cadillac Records (he said the movie was largely accurate) and his favorite songs among his grandfather's vast songwriting output ("Hoochie Coochie Man," "Back Door Man," "29 Ways" and "If It Don't Make Sense, You Can't Make Peace" were four he cited among "many favorites").

When I asked him to address the importance of the preservation of the Chess studios and continuing to promote awareness of Willie Dixon and the Chess brothers, Keith Dixon provided this dead-on analysis:
"This is a big part of American history; blues and jazz music are the only two types of music that actually started in America, and the home of blues music is Chicago. My grandfather and a lot of the other blues artists helped start up rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll evolved into rap music and all different forms of music. If you eliminate blues, you're eliminating all the other main sources of music today. As my grandfather said, 'The blues are the roots and everything else are the fruits.'"
Getting to converse with someone so closely rooted in his grandfather's music and Chess Records' storied past helped make an enjoyable visit--which started with an informative video about the blues, although it ran a bit long--considerably more so.

Willie Dixon's quote that ends Keith's comment above stands atop the Blues Heaven website, which informs that the building was purchased by Willie's widow Marie in 1993. I believe it re-opened to the public under the auspices of Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation sometime in 1997 and along what was once Chicago's Automobile Row, a pretty garden sits next door and is used for summer concerts.

I don't know what took me so long to get there, but I'm glad I was finally moved to check out the home of Chess, one of Chicago's greatest landmarks to the rich musical legacy it has engendered.

1 comment:

John Bone said...

Excellent review by Seth, underlining how much the site of Chess Records is worth visiting, in spite of the lack of exhibits you might expect in a former recording studio. The spirit of the old bluesmen can indeed be felt, partly through the presence of Keith Dixon and his entertaining inside stories of the old days. 2120 was a real highlight of my recent visit to Chicago.