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FEATURE: Maxwell Street Part 2
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Maxwell Street: The Birth Place of Chicago Blues

Part 2

 By Tom Smith (photos & text)

Maxwell Street aerial view
Aerial View -- 1993

The Golden Age of Chicago Blues is legendary for its influence on the entire blues genre. It’s most evident in the British Blues Invasion of the early 1960s.  British Rockers like the Yardbirds, The Animals, Led Zeppelin and others brought this music to a much broader audience that included myself. As Muddy Waters so famously said, “The Blues had a baby and they named it Rock and Roll.”  A prime example from that era are The Rolling Stones who took their name from the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone”. The Stones began as a blues cover band in 1962. In 1964 they came to Chicago to record part of their 12 x 5 album at Chess Records. They paid tribute on the album in a song titled “2120 South Michigan” the street address of Chess studios where they wrote and recorded the song.

Chicago Blues have always been the underpinning of the Stones music. They never forgot. There is a great film of the Stones performing live with Muddy Waters in a jam session in Chicago at the old, original Checker Board Lounge in 1981. Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones: Checkerboard Lounge -- Live Chicago 1981 is now available on DVD. One time Maxwell Street bluesman Junior Wells also sat in, as did Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz.

More recently Mick Jagger and Keith Richards covered the cost of guitarist Hubert Sumlin’s funeral expenses in 2011. Sumlin, a major influence on the British blues rock guitarists, moved to Chicago in 1952 to play guitar for Howlin’ Wolf. He also played with Muddy Waters on and off. Muddy was another musician who played Maxwell Street when he first came to Chicago.

Maxwell Street with Skyline
Aerial View with Skyline -- 1993

The influence of this music around the world can still be found today; but what were the influences that helped shape Chicago Blues? One of the places that stands out is the old Maxwell Street Market where many of the Mississippi Delta blues artists that had migrated to Chicago --  Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Honeyboy Edwards and Big Bill Broonzy to name a few -- played on the streets before recording for major Chicago record labels like Chess and VeeJay. (In fact, The Beatles’ first record, with Tony Sheridan, was released on VeeJay.) Timing and technology played its part too. The introduction of electric guitars and amplifiers was ideal for the street musicians playing outdoors in the noisy market place.  It helped create their rough and rowdy sound. 

Piano C Red on Maxwell St.
Piano C Red -- 1994

It was the legend of the music that brought me to Maxwell Street in the mid- 1970s. I found the music, and I also discovered the environment in which it was born --the atmosphere of blues. The musicians were not abstractly singing the blues; they were surrounded by it. The market was THE place to truly experience the blues. It was where one could go beyond just listening to the music, to becoming completely absorbed in the blues.  It was those experiences that prompted me to do a 30-year photo documentary to capture and preserve the birth place of Chicago Blues.

sax player by Mississippi van
Sax player with band in front of Mississippi van --1980s

This time around, for Part 2 of my Maxwell Street series, I chose pictures -- not of the musicians themselves on the street (you can see my musician photos in Part 1) – but photos of the scene that surrounded them, that influenced them and at times inspired them. And inspired me, too.

Palm reading gypsy woman
Palm reading gypsy woman -- 1982

The Gypsies, the con men walking around peddling fake gold jewelry, the children selling beer from coolers. It was truly a free market -- first come first serve for space. Sadly, time and urban renewal took its toll. The once-crowded ghetto was reduced to empty lots, thus making it difficult for the musicians to find electricity for their amplifiers. The old timers are now long gone and not much music followed the market when it was relocated to Roosevelt Road and Desplaines Street. Gone is Gold Mine Corner, the intersection of Maxwell and Halsted Streets, which got its name from the immigrants that came to start their new life at the Old Market. This included Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals and other groups that came in on their ethnic wave over the decades. All this is gone now, but the story continues to live on in the spirit of what is known as Chicago Blues.

Woman at grill
Woman in white at grill

African masks
African masks -- 1990

Morrie selling watches
Morrie selling watches -- 1989

Shoe Salesman on Maxwell Street
Shoe salesman on Maxwell Street --1980

Vendor sitting on curb
Vendor sitting on curb with suitcase -- 1979

looking east on maxwell street w/ shoe vender
Looking east down Maxwell Street with shoe vendor -- 1990s

Looking West Down Maxwell Street
Looking west down Maxwell Street -- 1981

Ghetto Lounge
The Ghetto Lounge -- 1981

Unknown Band Rush Tavern
Unknown band in front of Rush Tavern -- 1983

Lil Ed amp
Lil' Ed's amp -- 1970s
Today Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials are international blues stars. But Ed Williams had humble beginnings; he learned to play raucous slide guitar on Maxwell Street, mentored by his uncle J.B. Hutto.

Junkyard dog
Junkyard dog -- 1990s


Maxwell Street Jimmy DavisYou can see Part 1 of Tom Smith's Maxwell Street series: CLICK HERE. Highly recommended!

To see and hear more of the sights and sounds of the Old Maxwell Street Market visit Tom Smith’s outstanding website:

You can visit today’s version of the Maxwell Street Market, which hosts blues acts on Sundays during the warmer months. It is located at Roosevelt Road and Desplaines Street.

You can read CBG’s reviews of these Maxwell Street documentary DVD’s by clicking on the title:

And This is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street by Mike Shea

 Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street by Phil Ranstrom

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