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Remembering the Chicago blues

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image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionHip Linkchain and his band relax between sets one hot August evening outside B.L.U.E.S

British journalist and photographer Alan Harper was still a student when he made his first trip to Chicago in 1979 in search of one of its most famous exports: the blues.

When he went back in 1982, he was armed with a camera and notebook. "It was a bit like a gap year that got out of hand," he says.

The Chicago blues in the late 1970s and early '80s was far from fashionable in the era of soul, funk and disco.

Additionally, the old blues neighbourhoods of the city's South and West Sides were blighted by neglect.

image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionJunior Wells at ChicagoFest, 1979

However, the few surviving original blues clubs had been joined by new establishments in mainly white neighbourhoods, and the city retained a lively blues scene where singers of the older, southern-born generation played alongside younger musicians.

One band, the Sons of Blues was so called because it featured Carey Bell's son Lurrie on guitar, and originally had Willie Dixon's son Freddie on bass.

Below, founding member Billy Branch blows his "harp" at Biddy Mulligan's, a club on 7644 North Sheridan Road.

image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionBilly Branch, of the Sons of Blues, blows his harp at Biddy Mulligan's
image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionArkansas bluesman Floyd Jones at B.L.U.E.S. in 1979
image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionTheresa Needham, 70, proprietor of the legendary Theresa's Tavern at 4801 South Indiana Avenue

Theresa Needham, 70, was the proprietor of the legendary Theresa's Tavern at 4801 South Indiana Avenue, which in 1982 was one of Chicago's few surviving original blues clubs.

She was born in Mississippi and arrived in Chicago in the early 1930s. She opened the club in 1949.

Although Theresa's has since closed down, a North Side club called B.L.U.E.S. has remained open since the late 1970s.

image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionGuitarist and blues singer Johnny Littlejohn plays B.L.U.E.S, in 1982

Guitarist and blues singer Johnny Littlejohn plays with bass player Harlan Terson at B.L.U.E.S.

Littlejohn played and sang in the traditional Mississippi style, and his artistic roots could be traced back through Elmore James to Robert Johnson and beyond.

image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionLegendary blues impresario and radio DJ Big Bill Hill, and admirers

Legendary blues impresario and radio DJ Big Bill Hill, and admirers, sit in his broadcast studio.

However by this time he wasn't broadcasting blues any more, but gospel music, and his studio served as his church.

He would also stand on the street outside and preach.

image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionOtis "Smokey" Smothers and his band on stage in the North Side club B.L.U.E.S.
image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionThe great singer-songwriter Willie Dixon in performance at Stages

Singer-songwriter Willie Dixon performs at Stages, a theatre-sized music venue on North Clark Street.

Dixon arrived in Chicago from Mississippi in 1936, worked for Chess Records in the 1950s, and wrote a string of classics for renowned Chicago bluesmen including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.

Good Rockin' Charles gives a young French musician a harmonica lesson in the alley outside a club.

He was a fine musician who worked with some prominent bluesmen and recorded an album, but by 1982 he was rarely sober.

He died just seven years later, aged 56.

image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionGood Rockin' Charles gives a young French musician a harmonica lesson
image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionBuddy Guy at ChicagoFest, 1979

Singer and guitarist Buddy Guy is captured on stage at ChicagoFest 1979, an annual music festival organised by the mayor's office, which ran for five years on the city's dilapidated Navy Pier.

Guy was co-owner of a traditional blues club, the Checkerboard Lounge, on the city's South Side. But you were lucky if you saw him play there as he spent much of his time on tour.

At the Lounge, Walter Williams, known to all by his stage name of Lefty Dizz, is seen mid-solo.

An entertaining if unreliable character, he once missed a gig at his own birthday party.

image copyrightAlan Harper
image captionWalter Williams, known to all by his stage name of Lefty Dizz

More of Alan Harper's stories and pictures from his book, Waiting For Buddy Guy can be viewed on his website.

Related Topics

  • Documentary photography
  • Chicago
  • Photography