By Ben Joravsky
Gregg Parker guesses he's already lived several lives, even though he's only 46. He grew up poor on the south side but wound up playing guitar with everyone from Mick Jagger to Stevie Wonder. And then he started collecting African-American memorabilia. He now has thousands of posters and pictures and other mementos, and he's trying to build a museum for them, preferably on the south side. "It's a struggle," he says, "but I'm optimistic."
Parker talks in stream-of-consciousness monologues. His friends and colleagues jokingly call him a poet, and when he gets going he's like an August Wilson character delivering a long speech. "I don't know where it all comes from," he says. "It just comes."
He was born in 1954, and for a few years his family lived in a little frame house at 3558 S. Cottage Grove. "Two doors down from Sam Cooke," he says. "I ain't making this up. My family knew Sam Cooke. I just saw his brother L.C. at a funeral for one of the Soul Stirrers [Cooke's old gospel group]. I actually filmed that funeral. When a famous guy dies I bring out my video camera. I've never been so depressed in my life, seeing those famous people die with no money. Matter of fact, I booked the Soul Stirrers at the Majestic Star Casino. People said, 'Why would you book a gospel group at a casino?' I said, 'Hell, if anyone needs God, it's these guys here.'"
Parker's father, Richard, became a decorator; his mother, Delores, an accountant. His older brother, Richard, is a chef. "He makes this chili--he's been selling it for years," says Parker. "Calls it Chili on My Mind. Everybody loves it. My uncle was Wellington Hubbard. He looked just like Count Basie. He played jazz--a jazz pianist. He played at all the clubs. I guess I got my musical talents from him. My mama bought me my first guitar at the old Lyon & Healy on Wabash. I used to listen to Broadway shows--West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The King and I. I loved that stuff. I'd see the movies, come home, and pick out the songs, note for note, on the guitar."
In 1967 Parker discovered Jimi Hendrix. "I saw him on the Dick Cavett Show, and I said, 'Wow, look at this dude.' I identified with him. He was the first guy I saw doing what I wanted to do on the guitar. I started listening to his records. I started dressing like him. Me and this other guy, David White, were the first hippies at Calumet High School. We used to go to the north side and play rock 'n' roll at all those rock 'n' roll lounges. Blues wasn't down there then. Wise Fools was still a folk club.
"I was sort of into two worlds, 'cause I was also in the R & B scene. I was playing backup for Ruby Andrews when I was 15. I played in the house band at this club on South Halsted. I was on Soul Train way back when it was on Channel 26. That was before Don Cornelius. The host was Quentin Gent. Black folks used to look at me and go, 'Who is that crazy dude?' 'Cause I was running around with my hair frizzed out, wearing an afghan coat while the other brothers were wearing leather. I loved that hippie stuff. It was a sense of freedom a lot of brothers never got to enjoy. But I never really got into drugs. That's just another way for black folks to kill themselves. Drugs killed Jimi. Most people see him as this rock 'n' roll icon, larger than life. But to me he was just a brother who got caught up in all that stuff and lost sense of who he was and died."
After high school Parker moved to Los Angeles and played lead guitar for Buddy Miles. Later he would make his living as a studio guitarist, playing for everyone from Ringo Starr to Mick Jagger to Isaac Hayes to Stevie Wonder.
He moved to the Bay Area, then to the Bahamas. Then back to Los Angeles, and finally to England. "That was in 1982--I got tired of LA." In 1991 he moved back to Chicago's south side. "People say there must be something wrong with me for giving all that up, but there ain't nothing wrong with me. I just wanted to come home. And what I saw when I did, well, it broke my heart. I've never seen so many burned-out, vacant lots. The movie theaters I used to go to, the houses on the corner, man, they were gone. I was depressed. I was thinking, 'Where's the next Gregg Parker gonna get an opportunity if he doesn't know about his culture?' You got kids today running around shooting each other and selling dope and thinking this is what it is. And meanwhile ain't none of them can tell Duke Ellington from Cab Calloway--and that's a damn shame. That's like not telling a Korean from a Japanese."
He and his European-born wife, Stefanie Mielke ("that's a whole other trip--an integrated marriage"), moved to his family's south-side house near Calumet High School. Within a few months he was playing gigs with his band (now called the Chicago Blues Museum All Stars), promoting concerts, and collecting memorabilia. "I read this article in Forbes by this Japanese businessman who said if he had developed the software first, then he wouldn't have to buy up all these companies--because it's what goes in the machine that's important. And I'm thinking, 'Yeah, I've got to get this stuff.' So I just started collecting. And I'm not going to tell you how I do it, 'cause if I told you I'd have to kill you.
"Hey, I'm only joking. I don't mean it to be a big secret. But you have to understand--if everyone knows my business I'm out of business. Understand? Sometimes I'm lucky. I was in a supermarket on the south side talking about the Regal, and this lady came up to me and said her father used to play there. She said she had all these archives from the past and I could have them. I went to her house over on South Indiana, and she gave them to me. The Sun-Times wrote a story about me, and so did the Tribune and N'Digo and the Defender. People start to call, and next thing you know, I'm rummaging through basements and attics all over the south and west sides. You wouldn't believe where I find it. Every brother on Cottage Grove's got a treasure trove upstairs just sitting around doing nothing but collecting dust. Most of them like me. I remind them of a brother or nephew or son. Half of them don't want any money for it. They just want to see it come to good use."
He calls his collection the Chicago Blues Museum, and it includes thousands of negatives, photos, posters, and film and video footage relating to music, politics, religion, and sports ("I got a picture of Don King when he combed his hair"). WVON disc jockey Richard Pegue calls it "the greatest collection of African-American memorabilia I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot." Tribune critic Howard Reich called it "Chicago's invisible museum." Parker stores most of it in warehouses, putting some of it in roving exhibits, such as the one at the city's Blues Festival.
He's been almost begging city officials to find him a site for a permanent museum. The closest he's come is a note from a deputy commissioner in the planning department, who wrote, "This letter is to assure you that [we] will assist you in your search for a site for your blues museum" near 47th and King Drive. "I can't afford to do this on my own," says Parker. "All I want is the city to help me get a building, even an abandoned one."
He and Rasheed Akbar own the New Legacy Theater, an old movie house at 12952 S. Western in Blue Island, where they show movies and hold concerts. It's also where Parker has his office. When I went there he showed me dozens of pictures--some framed, some not--of the Chi-Lites, Jerry Butler, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lefty Dizz, Curtis Mayfield (alone and with the Impressions), Lionel Hampton, Gene Chandler, the Dells, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, B.B. King, James Brown, Mahalia Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Billy Eckstine. He went back and forth to a storage room down the hall, bringing out photos of Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Dinah Washington, Al Green, Rosa Parks, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Big Bill Broonzy, and Robert Johnson.
We walked down the hall to a sound room overlooking the stage, where an R & B band was rehearsing. He showed me photo albums filled with pictures and newspaper clippings of his own life. As he turned the pages, he talked about the south side, London, the Bahamas, LA. About some rednecks who tossed bottles at him during a concert in Colorado. About a bunny he met at the old Playboy mansion. Then he went off on a tangent about the state of politics in Chicago.
The music filtered up from below, an instrumental version of "Midnight at the Oasis." Parker closed the photo album. "People talk about me as the most famous unknown person in the world," he said. "They call me the real Forrest Gump. They say, 'He's Zelig. He's been with all these famous people.' I don't see it that way. I'm just a brother from the south side of Chicago, still looking for that museum I'm gonna call home."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.