Before the blues became a tourist attraction, bands like Tail Dragger‘s had their choice of more than a dozen South Side and West Side clubs in which to perform. They were dingy and smoky, and they were plentiful. Now, most blues clubs are tourist-oriented venues with valet parking, tacky souvenirs, and clean toilets–places you’d be comfortable bringing your boss or even your mother-in-law.
With a heavily hyped Blues Brothers sequel due out in February, the trend will almost certainly continue. Last year, enormous crowds met the opening of the House of Blues, which looks like an opera house for beer drinkers. A blues hotel–whatever that means–is slated to open next door this year. Two blues clubs are already crowded into the trendy neighborhood that is home to the Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood, and the Hard Rock Cafe. A blues t-shirt and poster store is preparing to set up in the same area this year. And, up the block, a Minneapolis-based chain has begun construction on an 800-seat restaurant and blues bar. The owner of the blues club across the street isn’t worried about competition because the demand for the music seems limitless these days.
Or at least it is for certain types of music. At 57, Tail Dragger, whose real name is James Y. Jones, has been singing professionally for half of his life. He’s also been invited to blues festivals all over Europe. Yet most nights he earns just $65 or so, plus tips. He sings in a rich voice, between a tenor and a bass, and he delivers lyrics with a rugged emotion that gives even tough men goose bumps. But he still works full-time as a diesel mechanic. Playing Chicago just won’t pay the rent.
Tail Dragger’s band plays a brand of blues that hasn’t changed since he first heard it on the radio 50 years ago in his native Arkansas. His sound, filled with raw sexuality and a homesickness for the South, descends from the plugged-in country blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. “You don’t hear too much real blues around no more,” he says, chatting between sets at a table near the back of the bar. He’s tall and powerfully built, wearing a handsome gray suit and a black Stetson hat. A gold-capped tooth flashes when he smiles through his graying beard. “A lot of people are going to the North Side to hear the jump-up blues [a more raucous blend of blues, rock, and pop]. They see black people playing, so they think it’s the blues. But they don’t put no feeling in the jump-up blues. If you came down here playing that stuff, these people would run you out.”
Behind the music, Tail Dragger has a resume of hard work and adversity–he served a 17-month prison term for second-degree murder. (He shot a blues man who he claimed was threatening him.) In contrast, most of his band members are from the suburbs. One sells chemicals for a living. This, too, reflects the marketplace. The black players get offers to start their own bands, slick up their sound, and play the North Side–where the money is better and producers are more likely to catch their acts. White musicians, meanwhile, have a hard time getting gigs on the North Side–so they end up playing for black crowds such as this one.
To be fair, there are many fine musicians playing the North Side, and it is the support of suburbanites and tourists which makes Chicago’s blues scene the world’s most robust. Buddy Guy, perhaps the city’s biggest star, has a club of his own. Magic Slim and the Teardrops, Eddy Clearwater, Melvin Taylor, Otis Rush, Otis Clay, Big Daddy Kinsey, and Pinetop Perkins can all be heard most every week. “The out-of-towners have really kept the blues alive,” says Gino Battaglia, who owns two clubs called Blue Chicago and markets blues paraphernalia around the world. He estimates that half of his customers are tourists. “Thirty million people come to Chicago on business every year,” he says, “and they have to go somewhere at night…. Michael Jordan and the blues: those are two things that really define the city for visitors.”
But the clubs give the novice audiences what they want, even if it’s not always what the musicians want to play. When Battaglia finds a band he likes, he hires them only on the condition that they use one of his female singers to lead the outfit. At most North Side venues, the bands usually play on stages, above and apart from the crowd. And they often play the same songs night after night, featuring most of the hits made famous by the Blues Brothers. Band leaders play fast and loud, sometimes plucking guitar strings with their tongues, striving for a sound closer to Jimi Hendrix than B. B. King.
One recent night at a popular North Side club called b.l.u.e.s. (the initials don’t stand for anything), a group of sales reps smoke burrito-sized cigars and chat on their cellular phones as they crowd around the stage to hear Big Time Sarah and the BTS Express. b.l.u.e.s. offers fine wine by the bottle or glass; the club, which charges $8 at the door, also sells b.l.u.e.s. t-shirts, boxer shorts, and lingerie. Big Time Sarah sings mostly about her gloriously large body and the many difficult-to-imagine sexual acts she performs with it. She thrills the sales reps by inviting them to sing along on stage. Twice during her act, she allows members of the audience to smother themselves in her bosom. “We ought to invite her to our next sales meeting,” one of the reps exclaims to his buddies.
This vaudeville act, almost completely devoid of musical meaning, attracts a strong following. Big Time Sarah appears several nights a week at the city’s top clubs, but, if you’ve seen her act more than once, you’ve seen enough. The songs and jokes are the same from one night to the next. The music, removed from its urban cradle, has already lost some of the sweet and sweaty force that made it great.
On the West Side, meanwhile, Tail Dragger’s joint has no stage and no spotlight. A pool table is pushed aside so that the band can play. Tail Dragger sometimes sings from his favorite bar stool like just another drinking man in a long line. And he sings the songs that mean the most to him, improvising lyrics to reflect his own experience. The audience doesn’t applaud so much as chide, chat, and laugh with him. The economy may no longer support a club in this neighborhood, but here, at least, the music is alive.