Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who've been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
When you delve into the history of Chicago blues, you hear a lot about singers, lead guitarists, and harmonica players. But what about rhythm sections? Surely the groove keepers are just as indispensable—and just as responsible for advances in the music. Such is the case with the Aces, who are as important to electric urban blues as the Funk Brothers are to Motown's polished pop R&B. When the Great Migration carried Mississippi Delta blues to Chicago in the 1940s, it evolved into the citified postwar sound that's still familiar to listeners around the world—and the Aces did as much as anyone to push it along. At the very least, they should be mentioned in the same breath as harmonica god Little Walter Jacobs, whom they accompanied on many of his biggest hits.
The Aces were founded by brothers Dave and Louis Myers, who grew up in a musical family near Byhalia, Mississippi. Dave was born on October 30, 1927, and Louis on September 18, 1929. Their older brother Bob played harmonica, and Louis and Dave both picked up guitar from their father before the family moved to Chicago in 1941 (though Dave would later switch to bass).
Dave and Louis started off backing various artists on the south side, then teamed up with harpist Junior Wells—the trio called themselves the Three Deuces, then the Three Aces. When they recruited drummer Fred Below (pronounced "bee-low"), who'd been born in Chicago on September 6, 1926, they became the Four Aces and eventually just the Aces.
Below had played in high school bands and in army ensembles, and he was trained in jazz. He struggled at first to adapt to blues rhythms, but he soon developed a swinging, sophisticated style that helped define the sound of urban blues and popularize the now ubiquitous shuffle beat. The Aces were influenced by raw rural blues, big-band jazz, and the pop hits of the day, and their innovations shaped the Chicago sound in such a thorough and enduring way that it can be difficult for modern listeners to imagine how transformative they were at the time.
In 1952, when Wells replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters's band, Walter sought out the Aces as his own backing group. They were a perfect fit for his revolutionary distorted harp stylings, which he thought of as emulating a saxophone. The Aces made their first recordings with Walter, cutting several sides that same year for Chess Records imprint Checker, including "Mean Old World" b/w "Sad Hours."
The Aces had already built a reputation for themselves under that name, so they were disappointed to be billed on these records as the Nightcaps (Walter had previously been backed by members of Waters's band as the Night Cats) and later as the Jukes (to capitalize on Walter's 1952 smash single "Juke"). Walter rivaled Waters's success during the heyday of Chicago blues, with ten national R&B chart hits and two number ones, so the Aces were hardly out of line to resent this treatment—and within three years, they'd all moved on. Despite some successful tours with Walter, Louis Myers quit in 1954, replaced by seasoned veteran Robert Lockwood Jr. (a stepson of Robert Johnson). Dave left soon after, his spot filled by young prodigy Luther Tucker, and then Below finally took off, with Odie Payne Jr. taking his seat.
In the late 50s, Dave Myers (nicknamed "Thumper" for his percussive style) became one of the first blues musicians in Chicago to adopt the electric bass, and each of the three Aces kept busy as a sideman—sometimes apart, sometimes by twos, and sometimes all together. Between them, Dave and Louis backed John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker, and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, among many others; Below worked with Chuck Berry on his groundbreaking rock 'n' roll singles as well as with the likes of Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Otis Rush, and Koko Taylor.
When the versatile trio re-formed, they played with Wells, Lockwood, Jimmy Reed, Roosevelt Sykes, Billy Boy Arnold, Louis Jordan, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor, and others, both in the studio and on overseas tours. By the 1970s, American blues had become a huge phenomenon in Europe, and in 1972 the Aces served as a kind of house band at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, supporting the likes of Berry, Koko Taylor, Bo Diddley, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Slim, and Jimmy Dawkins (they also played a set of their own). The festival was recorded, and much of this music was eventually released on Montreux compilation albums.
The Aces also made records under their own name, including the 1973 Vogue release Kings of the Chicago Blues Vol. 1 and the 1976 MCM release The Aces With Their Guests (both were French labels). Louis and Dave released solo albums as well, Dave as late as 1998.
Below died on August 13, 1988; Louis Myers on September 5, 1994; and Dave Myers on September 3, 2001. The Aces' legacy survives, though: in 2010 and 2016, venerable local label Delmark released archival Junior Wells concert recordings where they're the backing band. The Aces were inducted into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame in 2018, but by then their names had long been inscribed on the walls of Blues Valhalla. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.