Oliver Davis, who owns the Delta Fish Market and also happens to play slide guitar, says he never really intended to become an impresario; he and his buddies simply needed someplace to jam. Back in the late 1970s, Davis had a fish store at Washington and Kedzie, and his friends from the west-side blues scene would come over for informal musical get-togethers after hours and on weekends. Word about the sessions began to get around; established musicians like Johnny Littlejohn and Sunnyland Slim started showing up, people came around to listen, and Davis realized he had a good thing on his hands. Around 1980 he moved the fish market a few blocks south to the corner of Jackson and Kedzie. He eventually built a stage in the parking lot and became the proprietor of Chicago's only outdoor blues club.
Throughout most of the early 80s, the Delta Fish Market was one of Chicago's most exciting and down-to- earth blues venues. Sunnyland, Littlejohn, and a wide assortment of musicians both famous and obscure played there on a regular basis. It became internationally known, and was the backdrop for several film and video projects; the Chicago Blues Festival used it for its first tribute to Howlin' Wolf in 1985.
Yet the Fish Market never lost its rough-and-tumble neighborhood feel. It was a little too far out of the way to make the tourists' "must see" lists, and even among regulars the combination of free-flowing whiskey and hot summer sun sometimes made for a volatile mix. There was a general sense of relief when Davis finally hired an armed security guard to direct traffic and ensure order. But no matter how chaotic the music or the mood became, the Delta Fish Market remained a prime location to hear the best in no-nonsense west-side blues.
For the last several years, though, the Fish Market has been in something of a decline. Davis has business interests in Mississippi, and he began spending more and more time there. Even when he was in Chicago, he seemed preoccupied with other matters. Without his guiding hand, the scene at the Fish Market deteriorated. The stage fell into disrepair, the better musicians started staying away, and the usual crowd--mostly neighborhood people, often still in their work clothes and with children in tow--dwindled down to a hard core of regulars consisting largely of wineheads.
These seem to be the days of resurrection for blues on the west side. The legendary 1815 Club is back in action on Roosevelt Road, and now Davis is in command again at the Fish Market, with a newly acquired liquor license and an apparent determination to keep things running smoothly. The fish are as fresh as ever; the old crowd--including characters like George "Mr. Smellgood" Robinson (aka Harmonica George), who plays harmonica and also sells yarn-woven voodoo charms drenched in cheap perfume--is back. And it didn't take long for Davis to round up a solid crew of bluesmen to pick up where they left off several years ago. A few--Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis (no relation to Oliver), guitarist Boston Blackie, keyboardist Foots Berry--had never left; others, like keyboard man Detroit Junior, drummer Ray Scott, bassist Robert "Pete" Peterson, and guitarist Vernon Harrington, are Chicago blues stalwarts who've recently been playing regularly at the Fish Market, often before making it to later gigs. A lot of musicians also come by to relax; there are sometimes nearly as many famous faces in the crowd as there are onstage.
One of the joys of the Fish Market is its unpredictability; you never know who's going to show up to play. Of all the regulars, though, vocalist Tail Dragger and drummer Kansas City Red probably represent the heart of what the music and the scene at the Delta Fish Market are all about. James "Tail Dragger" Jones (who drives the Fish Market's truck to Mississippi on a regular basis to pick up the farm-raised fish that Davis sells) is arguably the best of the west side's legion of Howlin' Wolf imitators. He stands apart from the others by virtue of his talents as a lyricist ("My Head Is Bald"); his high-intensity stage presence, if not up to the shamanistic standards of the mighty Wolf himself, is outrageous and unpredictable in a way that perfectly complements the gritty and occasionally incendiary atmosphere of the venue.
Kansas City Red has been a Chicago blues institution since the 50s, as bandleader, club owner, and mentor. He claims he gave Jimmy Reed his first Chicago gig, and his association with great names (Reed, Big Walter Horton, Sunnyland Slim) combined with his irrepressible spirit guarantees him a niche in blues history. Red's lyrics are clever and often outrageous; his percussion technique is busy and propulsive. His most unique gift, though, is his knack for facilitating jam sessions: with an unerring combination of encouragement and sternness, he manages to bring a semblance of order to even the most chaotic situations. Given the characters who pass through the Fish Market, that's an indispensable talent.
The Delta Fish Market, 228 S. Kedzie, is open all week; the music goes on every Friday and Saturday, from about 5 PM until 10 or so. Admission and parking are free; the phone number is 722-0588.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, James Fraher.