When the 20th annual Chicago Blues Festival kicks off this week in Grant Park, tourists and blues aficionados who want to check out the authentic blues institutions around town will have to cross the Checkerboard Lounge off their list.
The club, at 423 E. 43rd St., once a stop along a city-sponsored tour of historic sites, has a leaky roof and was closed last month by city officials who cited "dangerous and hazardous conditions."
L.C. Thurman, who took over the rented nightclub space with guitarist Buddy Guy in 1972, says he has done everything he could think of to save the club, known as the "Home of the Blues."
"I've offered to buy the place, but the owner said no," said Thurman, as he was packing up and moving his liquor, furniture, pictures and other belongings out of the club last week. "I've offered to fix up the place myself and he said no."
The shuttering of the club appears to be the last call for the Checkerboard--a hole-in-the-wall juke joint that grew into a rite of passage for young musicians who could jam with the greats who stopped in--Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, Junior Wells, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King and Eric Clapton among them.
Two years ago, Thurman said, he talked with Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd) about the possibility of the Checkerboard joining a blues district she wants to create five blocks away. But those talks went nowhere, and Thurman said he hasn't heard from Tillman in more than a year. There are still no blues clubs in the proposed district.
"I know several years ago, there were discussions with the alderman's office and the city and the owner of the Checkerboard about relocating to 47th Street," said Arnold Randall, deputy commissioner with the city's Department of Planning and Development. "Obviously, that did not materialize."
Thurman's landlord, Murphy Hughes, reached at his home, said he had "no comments" about the status of the Checkerboard.
The designated blues district in the 3rd Ward has drawn criticism from several groups who say it has moved slowly, displaced authentic blues and jazz nightspots, and failed to draw any new music clubs, other than one proposed by developer Elzie Higginbottom.
Tillman could not be reached for comment.
Higginbottom's East Lake Development plans to open a club inside the former Gerri's Palm Tavern. That nightspot was shut down in 2001 after city officials cited club owner Gerri Oliver for building code violations.
The University of Chicago is making overtures to lure the Checkerboard to Hyde Park, known more for generating Nobel Prize winners than for being a source of the blues.
"[The Checkerboard is] not just a Chicago icon, it's a national icon," said Hank Webber, vice president of community and government affairs at the U. of C. "It's an important place in history in a city where it is important to preserve it."
Seeking a new home
Thurman has expressed interest in the university's proposal because he stands to lose his liquor license permanently if he doesn't find a building in which to open his nightclub. U. of C. officials say the proposal is still in the preliminary stages.
In recent years, the blues have all but dried up in places where it once thrived, as clubs have beaten a path to the North Side. Even Guy gave his part of the Checkerboard to Thurman in the mid-1980s to open Buddy Guy's Legends in the South Loop.
But the Checkerboard had hung on to its South Side digs largely because of a steady U. of C. crowd, one reason the university is eyeing the club.
Blues fans like Gregg Parker, president of the Chicago Blues Museum, are hoping to find a place for the Checkerboard in Bronzeville.
"Everything that meant anything to us as a people too often becomes a vacant lot around here," said Parker, who will display several historic Bronzeville artifacts at the four-day festival. "I want to change that and keep something real here for the children to know their history."
One of the amazing things about the historic 70-square-foot club, with its small 14-by-12-foot stage, was that famous guests showed up to jam for free.
"Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones paid me $500 to play there," said Thurman. "Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Little Milton, Tyrone Davis, Led Zeppelin, Howlin' Wolf, and Jimmy Reed, all these people and more came there and played for me for nothing, no cover charge, nothing."
The Checkerboard is the last of the original Bronzeville stomping grounds, now joining the ranks of the Regal Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom, the Metropolitan Theater, Club DeLisa, the Parkway Ballroom, Pepper's Lounge, the Sutherland Show Lounge, the Palm Tavern and many other former sites, says Parker and other historians.
The end of an era
"We used to offer the Roots of Chicago Blues and Gospel tour, but we stopped this year, due to the fact that so many of these places have been shut down," said Patricia Sullivan, manager of Chicago Neighborhood Tours, a division of the city's Office of Tourism.
"These places were such a part of the history of the neighborhood," she said.
For veteran blues musicians like harmonica player Billy Branch, who will perform Saturday night at the blues festival, the closing of the Checkerboard symbolizes the end of an era.
"For years and years, the blues was always on the South Side and now it's all but gone," said Branch, who leads Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues. "I started going to the Checkerboard when I was still in my teens. At that time, you had a lot of the Chicago masters still living and sitting in on the jam sessions.
"You couldn't pay enough money today for the kind of talent that came through there back in the day."
Legendary blues club runs out of encores
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Los Angeles Times welcomes civil dialogue about our stories; you must register with the site to participate. We filter comments for language and adherence to our Terms of Service, but not for factual accuracy. By commenting, you agree to these legal terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.