It's rough and gritty, raucous and raw and, at its best, a searing expression of life in this city. Part myth, part reality, the Chicago Blues are everywhere in this town - if you know how to listen. For though it's true that the heyday of the city's most celebrated blues clubs is long past - the demise of shrines such as the Checkerboard Lounge, Gerri's Palm Tavern, Theresa's Lounge and scores more attest to that - the music still sings out fiercely.
If this were not so, artists such as the high-octane Koko Taylor, the incendiary Buddy Guy and the exultant Mavis Staples would not thrive as stars at home and around the world. Nor would America's most revered blues label, Alligator Records, still flourish in Chicago, still setting the tone and the tempo for the music in the 21st Century.
But the power and reach of Chicago blues extends well beyond these landmarks. Any time a bona fide jazz band is hitting hard, you're hearing the blues, even if it isn't labeled as such. For the primal elements of Chicago blues - lamenting phrases, stripped-down chord changes, poignantly flatted melody notes - represent the DNA of Chicago jazz. Take the blues out of jazz, and you're left with a lot of commotion and, often, a dearth of soul.
Rock music, too, owes a debt to Chicago blues, no less than the Rolling Stones having built their early identity on the music. The iconic band made its first American record in Chicago on June 10 and 11, 1964, at the fabled Chess Records studio, 2120 S. Michigan Ave. Chess long had been home to a generation of Delta blues musicians who had migrated to Chicago - including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf - and the Stones drew their initial inspiration from the blues masters.
"We had no ambition to be the biggest or best band in the world," Stones bassist Bill Wyman once told the Tribune. "We just wanted to play Chicago blues for anyone who would listen to us."
If the Stones built on Chicago blues and took a hybrid sound around the world, the old masters epitomized its unadulterated, decidedly less-commercial side. Most of these first-generation blues masters are gone now, but a few - such as the brilliant pianist Pinetop Perkins and the incantatory singer-guitarist David "Honeyboy" Edwards - still epitomize the essence of the music.
They won't be with us forever, but their work will be, in the form of their distinguished recordings and in the countless jazz, blues, pop, rock and rap performers who have been transformed by the Chicago Blues.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times