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A Shower of Good News for Blues Lovers in April



Lee's name in lights. Photo by Michael Lepek

With everything from the soft opening of Lee’s Unleaded and continued progress on the Muddy Waters MoJo Museum to a slew of up-and-coming artists headlining local clubs, April certainly was a banner month for Chicago-based blues lovers.


It’s also heartening that much of this activity was centered around the South Side of town. Lee’s is in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood while the Muddy Waters MoJo Museum is located on the site of his longtime home in Bronzeville. With much being made about Chicago’s lackluster efforts to promote its rich blues heritage, this push to preserve these invaluable pieces of blues history is a huge step in the right direction.


Lee's Soft Opening on April 26th and 27th. Photo by Michael Lepek

Lee’s had a long and legendary run as Queen Bee’s in the seventies before transitioning to Lee’s Unleaded beginning in 1983. This compact club at 7401 S. Chicago Avenue was the go-to place for a diverse clientele who came to the South Side for a true blues experience. Sadly, Lee’s Unleaded started to run out of steam and shut down shop in 2015. At the urging of former Fifth Ward alderperson, Leslie Hairston, Warren Berger purchased the property in 2018, but progress was slow due to the pandemic and the need to comply with city regulations.


Berger also owns the nearby LGBT-friendly Club Escape, but when it comes to bolstering Lee’s blues credentials, he called upon Jennifer Littleton to serve as the club’s managing partner. Littleton is well-known and highly respected in Chicago’s blues community. She was the longtime manager at BLUES on Halsted and has worked with the venerable Delmark Records in a variety of capacities.


Jennifer Littleton and staff work the room while John Primer entertains the crowd. Photo by Michael Lepek

So, it’s not surprising that Littleton pulled out all stops for the club’s soft opening on April 26th and 27th.  The headliner was none other than Blues Hall of Famer, John Primer and his Real Deal Blues Band. His tagline is “you can’t paint the blues without the Primer” and this southern-born gentleman boasts a colorful biography that stretches all the way back to Mississippi. He came up to Chicago at the age of eighteen to begin a blues apprenticeship that included stints at Maxwell Street and many of the classic clubs that once dotted the South Side landscape.


"You can't paint the blues without the Primer." Photo by Michael Lepek

Primer played behind everyone from Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, Willie Dixon and others before smoothly sliding into his present-day status as one of the finest front men around. This 79-year-old legend recently won two Blues Music Awards and always wows the crowds with a commanding stage presence, incredible vocal skills and guitar prowess. Primer also proved to be a master at busting chops as he jokingly admonished his longtime harp partner, Steve Bell, for arriving a bit late for the Saturday night show.


Steve Bell, Ari Seder. Lenny Media and John Primer. Photo by Michael Lepek

Back in the day, Lee’s Unleaded was known as a place for musicians to drop by, hang out and possibly join in a jam session. Littleton said that there are plans for Lee's to host open mic nights as they move forward with the club’s evolution. Based on the soft opening’s success, Lee’s Unleaded is now open every weekend with 9pm and 11pm shows on both Friday and Saturday nights.


The original Lee’s had an occupancy of 50 but the club has been expanded to seat 110. It still has an intimate feel and a juke joint vibe, albeit with gleaming code-compliant restrooms.  It’s also the new home to many familiar faces that are well-known to local blues fans. Littleton has brought on some former members from BLUES on Halsted including doorman Big Ray Stewart.  During the club’s opening weekend, patrons spotted several local stalwarts including Willie Buck and HolleThee Maxwell.


HolleThee Maxwell and Willie Buck at Lee's. Photo by Michael Lepek

In a recent interview with Block Club, Littleton stressed that she was going to concentrate on booking local musicians since “Our local guys are everybody else’s big, national acts.” She added that, “We’re gonna stick to a Chicago focus. I don’t see a reason not to.”


Littleton already has hosted a star-studded lineup of local artists with a list that includes Jamiah Rogers, Toronzo Cannon and Mzz Reese, along special appearances by Willie Buck and Charles CROS Mack. Next on tap is the always-dynamic Sheryl Youngblood on May 24th. Follow this link to stay looped in to all the latest doings at Lee’s. https://leesunleadedblues.com/ 


A few miles north of Lee’s, in Chicago’s iconic Bronzeville neighborhood, is Muddy Waters’ home where he lived with his family, hobnobbed with friends and held memorable jam sessions in the basement. This hotbed of blues history was the first home he owned and it cemented Waters’ status as “the father of Chicago blues.”


The Future Home of the MOJO Museum in 2020. Photo by Robin Zimmerman

Waters purchased the home at 4339 S. Lake Park Avenue in 1954 and lived there until making the move to Westmont in 1974. But, while Waters was upwardly mobile in the western suburb, the property on the south side languished. The home laid dormant and empty for over a decade with squatters and the ravages of time taking a considerable toll on the old Victorian home. The future of the home looked bleak, and with the property in such a sorry state, it seemed like demolition of this key piece of blues history was imminent.  


After much red tape, court dates and other lengthy delays, the home was purchased in 2000 by Waters’ great-granddaughter. Chandra Cooper. Her mother, Amelia Cooper, lived in the home with Waters and his wife, who taught a young Amelia how to cook for the hungry musicians after their late-night jam sessions.


Cooper’s efforts to preserve her great grandfather’s legacy came to fruition when the home was incorporated as the non-profit Muddy Waters MOJO Museum in 2019. After that, the grants and sponsorships began rolling in and the home was awarded the coveted Chicago landmark status in 2021. For more information on the museum’s fund-raising and other initiatives, visit https://www.mojomuseum.com/.


With landmark status in place, the MOJO Museum team have set their sights on creating a welcoming space for musicians and community members alike. On what would have been Waters’ 109th birthday, many braved the chilly April rains to attend a ground-breaking ceremony for a new garden and performance center. This lot will be transformed into an aesthetically pleasing area for outdoor concerts and other celebrations. It is slated for completion by the end of summer.


Future site of the Muddy Waters Garden and Performance Center in October of 2020. Photo by Robin Zimmerman

While one of the stated missions of the MOJO Museum will be to nurture a greater appreciation for the blues and aid in the development of new talent, some young blues artists were already busy making their presence known on both the south and north sides of Chicago.


Nicholas Alexander had an energetic album release party at Buddy Guy’s Legends on April 27th. His freshman effort, “Lil Hoochie” has been climbing up the blues charts. Since songs on this CD include a remake of James Brown’s “Popcorn,” you can bet that Legends was hopping.


The son of acclaimed bluesman, Linsey Alexander, “Lil Hoochie” also recorded his single, “Mona Lisa was a Man,” in homage to his dad’s 2006 release of the same name.  Although he gives his dad plenty of props and musical shout-outs, Alexander stressed that “I’m not my dad, but I’m me” as he continues to blaze his own trail of good-time blues.


The younger Alexander added that he would love to bring back the pre-pandemic "fun atmosphere" to local blues clubs and is doing his part to make sure that his shows get the crowd going. Alexander is following up his Lil Hoochie release party with Kingston Mines appearances on May 23rd and May 26th.


April 27th also marked the date that 17-year-old Harrell “Young Rell” Davenport made his Chicago club debut at Rosa’s Lounge on Armitage. This highly anticipated appearance attracted some of the brightest names in blues including Matthew Skoller, Billy Branch, Bob Stroger, Deitra Farr and several others. This comes on the heels of a wildly successful turn at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he played alongside Charlie Musselwhite and Kirk Fletcher.


Harrell Davenport, Charlie Musselwhite and Kirk Fletcher at the New Roxy in Clarksdale. MS. Photo by Michael Lepek

At the Rosa’s gig, Davenport was backed by an all-star cast that included Edward McDaniel on bass, Brother John Kattke on keys and Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums. Another rising blues artist, Stephen Hull, played guitar at the gig.


Despite still being in his teens, Davenport possesses an old soul mentality and a blues knowledge wise beyond his years. The self-taught musician has been playing guitar and harmonica ever since he was seven. His harp work has been praised by Billy Branch who said, “in my 20 years of teaching blues in the schools, never have I encountered anyone as young as Harrell Davenport with such a laser focused drive and the ability to play the blues as it was played in the bygone era of the masters.”


Harrell Davenport opening up the 2024 Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, MS. Photo by Michael Lepek

This talented teen from Vicksburg, Mississippi is just one of the many younger blues artists on the bill at Rosa’s. In the coming weeks, Rosa’s has booked everyone from the Stephen Hull Experience and Melody Angel to Stefan Hillesheim, Joey J. Saye and more. Visit https://rosaslounge-com.seatengine.com/home for the complete schedule.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment


joseph.picone
joseph.picone
May 24

Excellent story!

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