Photos courtesy of Michael Lepek/Spectrum Productions
A real humdinger is in store for local blues lovers when the Harlem Avenue Lounge in Berwyn puts on its 30th anniversary party featuring Sharon Lewis and Texas Fire on Saturday, October 15th. It’s also Lewis’s 70th birthday celebration, so you can bet that this Real Deal blues woman will be gearing up for an epic show.
Ken Zimmerman has owned the Harlem Avenue Lounge since 1980 and still lives just a stone’s throw away from his establishment. At first it was your standard, neighborhood bar. But, as the eighties gave way to the nineties, Zimmerman saw that there was a need for a local place with a juke joint feel that would appeal to all the blues-loving baby boomers.
Zimmerman cut his teeth on Maxwell Street blues and feels fortunate that the Burlington Northern station was just a block and a half from his Berwyn home, allowing him to head out to Halsted Avenue on Sunday mornings. But with the Maxwell Street blues scene winding down in the early nineties, the Harlem Avenue Lounge was ready to fill the void.
Once the Harlem Avenue Lounge was reimagined as a blues bar, it drew music lovers from all over and served as a springboard for the careers of now-established artists like Mike Wheeler and Toronzo Cannon. Both gentlemen were part of the Harlem Avenue Lounge’s house band and had some of their first major gigs at Zimmerman’s digs.
Zimmerman also relishes the rapport he has established with many of the artists that he books. He says that many of the musicians who played there have become good friends. This certainly applies to Saturday’s headliner, Ms. Sharon Lewis. Zimmerman said that his association with Lewis dates to the Harlem Avenue Lounge’s early days when she was first starting out with the band "Under the Gun."
While Zimmerman’s a born and bred Berwynite, Lewis hails from the Lone Star state and didn’t settle permanently in the Chicago area until 1975. Although she sang gospel back in Texas and dug the Motown sound, Tina Turner tunes and classic R & B, she didn’t come to the Windy City to seek fame and fortune. She was a wife and mother first and foremost. But she caught the music bug after a talent show appearance at Northwestern University in 1992.
Blessed with a beautiful voice and a larger-than-life stage presence, Lewis found her blues calling while on stage and entertaining audiences. So, when she decided to audition as a lead singer in 1993, all the bands she tried out with wanted to snap her up. There was just one sticking point and that was the fact that Lewis did not want to churn out cover songs with a run-of-the-mill band.
Lewis could have taken the easy route and signed on to do “Sweet Home Chicago” and what not. But that’s not Sharon Lewis. There are only a few times when she’ll belt out “c’mon baby don’t you want to go” including when an over-served fan offered her five hundred bucks to sing it. She also obliged none other than Mumford and Sons and did an amazing rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” during their sold-out concert at the United Center in 2019.
Circling back to her early years, Lewis followed her heart and signed on with “Under the Gun” in 1993. The band’s first gig was at Buddy Guy’s “Legends” that same year. She also teamed up with guitarist and songwriting partner, Steve Bramer, whom she credits with kick-starting her career. Their long-running collaboration continues to this day. Lewis also writes much of her own material as demonstrated on the 2016 Delmark tour de force, the aptly titled Grown Ass Woman.
Lewis might be her own woman, but she clearly has a good time with her longtime backing band, “Texas Fire” who will join her on stage at the Harlem Avenue Lounge. This band is comprised of Bruce “Slim” James on guitar, Joshua “Teddy Bear” Lane on bass, and David “Slick” Standberry on drums.
Zimmerman admits that he often books bands and singers that he likes to listen to, and Sharon Lewis and Texas Fire fit the bill. When they take the stage on Saturday night, get ready for a blues throwdown by one of the businesses’ best singers. Stop in and catch a set starting at 9pm and don’t forget to give props to Zimmerman and his unassuming little spot for churning out great live blues since 1992.