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Night Life: rebirth of a blues club

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Music once rang from the building at 1815 W. Roosevelt Road, filling the west-side night with the sound of the blues. Some of the greatest masters in the music's history--Howlin' Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Freddie King played there.

For nearly a decade that address has been one of those ghost-filled meccas that draw blues fans to Chicago from around the world. You'd see the pilgrims occasionally, especially in the summertime, driving by slowly, maybe getting out of their cars for a few quick snapshots, and then lingering at the padlocked entrance, as if trying to hear echoes of the past--the faint scream of a guitar or the sobbing of a harmonica.

The sense of history there is so pervasive that it's hard to believe the blues club shut its doors in 1980. It reopened for a while as a dance club--the Brown Sugar Show Lounge--but for most of the decade it's been empty, the largest of several vacant buildings on the block. Like many structures that once housed music and celebration, it seemed quieter and even more barren than the garbage-strewn vacant lots and crumbling houses nearby. Underneath peeling paint on the east wall the old sign could still be seen: "1815 Club, Home of the Blues."

A lot of places have called themselves the home of the blues, but few have had a more legitimate claim to the title. When Eddie Shaw purchased it in 1974, it was called the Alex Club, and through the years it had featured performances by the cream of the west-side blues crop--Otis Rush, Magic Sam--as well as Muddy Waters, Freddie King, and others from around the city. Shaw played sax in Howlin' Wolf's band, and the club soon became Wolf's local base. Throughout the mid-70s, the 1815 Club was his musical home.

But by 1974, the Alex Club had fallen on hard times. Blues wasn't the draw in the black community that it had been, and to make matters worse, a good part of the neighborhood had burned down during the riots after Dr. Martin Luther Kings assassination in 1968. The original owner died, and his wife ran the club for a few years until she passed away. Then her brother inherited it. "He really ran it because it was handed down to him, not because he liked it so much," Shaw recalls. "I was driving down the Dan Ryan once, and his cousin pulled me over on the Dan Ryan. He knew that I was kind of into clubs a little bit. So he asked me, 'You think you want a club, Eddie?' I said, 'I dont know, man.' 'Come on by and we'll talk about it.' So I went by, and we got together, and they let me have it. It was just kind of handed down."

Despite the informality with which the deal was consummated, things went smoothly for several years. The club had a good reputation, and musicians were eager to play there: Otis Rush, the Aces, Mighty Joe Young, and Freddie King, who by now was world famous. On tap were other big names, including Jimmy Reed. "The week that he died out in California, he was scheduled to play at my place the next week," says Shaw. "We had just did all the paperwork, and he left--it was even in the paper that he was coming back to play at Eddie Shaw's place."

Ironically, Shaw says, the club had one of its best years in 1976, the year following Howlin' Wolf's death. His death had been covered widely in the popular music press, and it spurred renewed interest in the blues, especially among whites. The 1815 Club, like Theresa's and the Checkerboard on the south side, was one of the neighborhood blues venues where white patrons, who might not otherwise have experienced the music on its own turf, felt comfortable. Shaw always took care to make all his guests feel as safe as possible, even hiring a security guard to walk them to their cars if they wanted.

Within a few years, however, the club was in decline. Shaw now admits that it was foolish to go into the business as he did, alone and with little preparation. After Wolf died, Shaw took over his band. Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang toured frequently and sometimes went to Europe for extended periods. That, Shaw says, is what killed the club. "It's a mistake for a musician to go into [running] a club alone, unless you're going to be there. I didn't have good management after I left. That's what happened."

The spacious room with its red-and-white wallpaper, mirrors, and multicolored lights became harder and harder to fill. Even when Shaw was in town, he spent too many nights pacing nervously from the front door to the bandstand and back again, watching the street for patrons who never came. He finally gave up in 1980.

But after nearly ten years, Shaw has decided to try it again. His cousin LeRoy Edwards is his partner now, and Shaw says that Edwards's experience and trustworthiness will provide what was lacking last time around. The New 1815 Club opened nearly two months ago; its grand opening featured such contemporary west-side luminaries as Little Addison, Big Mojo Elem, Johnny Dollar, Willie D., and Norma Jean, as well as Shaw and his band.

The time may be right, despite the still-bleak nature of the neighborhood. There aren't any blues clubs in the immediate vicinity--the closest is the Water Hole Lounge at 14th and Western, which has live music only one night a week. Local people are slowly coming back to Shaw's club, and he hopes to again draw young white musicians and fans, perhaps from the new dorms at the nearby University. of Illinois.

It's a struggle to open a club in Chicago--witness the depressing litany of recently failed ventures, the latest being Cotton Chicago on the north side. Shaw is confident, however, that his club's mystique, combined with the wealth of good music that's still available here, will result in success. There's a legacy, he feels, and it's up to him to see that it's honored. "I kind of put it on the map 15 years ago. People still know about the 1815 Club. We're just trying to get it back in the right perspective, where it should be."

The New 1815 Club features live blues every Friday and Saturday night; the West Side Blues All-Stars, featuring Little Bobby, will play this Friday and Saturday at 8:30 PM. The cover is $4. Call 666-1500 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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