Once the primary recording studio of Chess Records, Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven is a shrine to some of the best and most legendary music ever laid to wax.
“It’s on every one of my tours,” says Wayne Galasek, a guide with Al Capone’s Chicago. A smile spreads across his face, causing his finely waxed handlebar mustache to curl even further as he leads his current tour group into 2120 S. Michigan Ave. “Folks,” he tells them, “you’re about to enter the Garden of Eden of rock ‘n’ roll.” Blues, jazz, gospel, and soul would be more accurate, but each genre’s connection with rock is undeniable, and the crowd still buzzes with excitement. After all, a dream team of music legends has recorded at 2120, which once served as the headquarters of Chess Records. At the height of its fame in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Chess roster read like a who’s who of blues and R&B: Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Muddy Waters, Etta James—the list goes on. Photos of many of these greats line the shoebox-size lobby, where we’re greeted by Willie Dixon’s jovial yet soft-spoken grandson Keith. Although his late grandfather is recognized as having been a pioneer of Chicago blues and a prominent vocalist, bassist, songwriter, and producer at Chess, Keith remembers him differently. “I just saw him as the old guy who’d get up at 6 a.m. to make me oatmeal,” he laughs.
We’ve stepped from the lobby to the second story, home to Chess’s spacious former recording room. Keith, after amusing his audience with more stories about Willie, a one-time boxer who taught his grandchildren how to sneak in jabs during games of patty-cake (“I punched Chuck Berry, I punched Bo Diddley”), points out some of the odd architectural features left over from Chess’s heyday. For one, you won’t find parallel walls in many of the rooms. The different angles made for different sonic atmospheres, with one wall made up of nine panels that could be adjusted at will. Open panels meant greater sound reduction.
But Chess is most famous among audiophiles for its homemade echo chamber. When recording, musicians would sing into a microphone that was wired to an amplifier in the basement. Their voices poured from the speaker and into the cavernous space, where another microphone picked up the sound and sent it back to the control room upstairs, which was separated from the recording room by a pane of soundproof glass. The setup is responsible for the lonely yet somehow full effect heard on many of Chess’s most famous recordings (see Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”).
Today, most of the recording equipment is gone from the control room and basement, but visitors can see some of it placed throughout other sections of Blues Heaven. Aged amplifiers and consoles sit among the memorabilia, nestled between glass cases filled with Grammy Awards, gold records, and cream- and copper-toned guitars once played by Buddy Guy. Downstairs, a rear room formerly used for pressing and shipping out records further showcases the building’s rich history, especially on the south wall. Its surface is covered with plaster face casts of many Delta bluesmen, each one created by blind sculptor Sharon McConnell-Dickerson.
Despite its trove of musical artifacts, Blues Heaven is more than just a museum. When Willie Dixon’s widow, Marie, purchased the property in 1993, she wanted to continue her husband’s philanthropy, from assisting Chicago college students with their educations to helping blues musicians reclaim the rights to their songs. These goals have been fully realized through the Blues Heaven Foundation, whose programs include the Muddy Waters Scholarship and the Royalty Recovery & Legal Assistance Workshop.
As Galasek leads his tour group back out into the brisk Chicago winter, a tinny voice reverberates throughout 2120, warbling underneath a crackle of guitar. It gets louder as I head toward the exit, and I expect to see Willie Dixon himself hunched over on a stool, singing his heart out. As I round the corner that leads to the gift shop, I discover that it’s just a radio playing one of Dixon’s records. Keith stands behind the counter, smiling. Chess might not be putting out any more albums, but the spirit of the blues is alive and well in the Windy City.
Want to hear more? Check out these upcoming blues and soul events:
Lurrie Bell | Friday, April 5, at B.L.U.E.S.
Lurrie Bell comes from Chicago blues royalty. His father, Carey, was a beloved harmonica virtuoso, and the two frequently collaborated until Carey’s death in 2007. Lurrie fondly remembers his dad on his latest album, 2012’s The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, a collection of songs they used to play together in church when he was a child. Fans can expect to hear these sanctified cuts as well as other recordings from Bell’s prolific career, all delivered through his rasp-tinged bellow and light-bending guitar solos.
Byther Smith | Saturday, April 26–Sunday, April 27 at Kingston Mines
The blues was once known for being as angry as it was mournful. Thankfully, Byther Smith still embodies both emotions. With song titles like “The Man Wants Me Dead,” it’s no surprise that his lyrics convey violence as well as romantic yearning, both of which sound equally impassioned when filtered through the grit of his sweat- and tear-soaked voice.
Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires | Thursday, May 9, at The Metro
Performing for years as a James Brown impersonator, Charles Bradley still channels his idol when performing original compositions that burst with gruff heartache offset by the celebratory horns, upstroke guitar, and galloping bass of his backing band, the Extraordinaires. Live, the 64-year-old earns his nickname, “The Screaming Eagle of Soul,” with his sharp style and stratospheric yowls as he performs fan favorites and new cuts off his freshly pressed second album, Victim of Love.
Ana Popovic | Thursday, May 23, at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn
The sultry grime of Ana Popovic’s guitar is matched only by her voice, which moves between honeyed bravado and a serrated howl. On her latest album, the aptly titled Can You Stand the Heat, the Serbian-born blueswoman is joined by bandmates of Al Green and B.B. King, who sizzle on tracks such as “Can’t You See What You’re Doing to Me.” The leadoff single recalls the funk-infused blues of Albert King with its whirlwind of organ and Memphis brass.
30th Annual Chicago Blues Festival | Thursday, June 6–Sunday, June 9 at Grant Park
A Chicago mainstay for 30 years, Blues Fest had to scale back its lineup in 2009. But 2013 sees it returning to a full four days, and with a compelling theme to boot. Focused on the migration of blues music from the Mississippi Delta to the Windy City, each day showcases a different region, starting with the swampy twang of the South and ending with the electrically charged scales of the Midwest. Shemekia Copeland and Bobby Rush are playing, with more acts to be announced soon.