Raeburn Flerlage was 44 years old when he finally found his vocation. One day in August 1959, a telegram arrived at his south-side home from Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records. Asch needed him to go to the Pershing Hotel to photograph blues pianist Memphis Slim for an upcoming album cover. Asch had seen samples of Flerlage's work from the Institute of Design, where Flerlage was studying under Harry Callahan. He was good enough, and Asch knew he'd work cheap. But no one expected a set of legendary blues photos to emerge from the session. "People say those shots of Memphis Slim were as good as anything I've ever done," Flerlage says now. "I guess I haven't learned much since."
During the 60s and early 70s, Flerlage became the foremost photographer of the Chicago blues scene. He shot at the dumpiest of the west-side dumps and in the swankest ballrooms. He went to recording sessions and to Maxwell Street, and often visited Muddy Waters at home. His subjects ranged from the famous, like Son House and Howlin' Wolf, to the now nearly forgotten. He photographed Martha Reeves, Jackie Wilson, and Little Walter. "Hell, I took pictures of B.B. King when he was still thin," he says.
Flerlage's pictures transcended ordinary blues photography. He caught his subjects in off moments, in human poses. His pictures, which had filled the pages of Down Beat and other magazines, were full of (for lack of a better word) soul. Yet by 1972 Flerlage had started his own business, and by the time he was free to take photos again, he was, by his own admission, too old. He, and his pictures, had become obscure.
In the mid-1980s a local writer and blues-preservation activist named Chuck Cowdery was doing some research for the National African-American Museum when he came across Flerlage's work. It was like discovering a lost city of the blues. Cowdery tried to persuade him to publish the photos in a book, but Flerlage didn't feel up to it. Then in 1995 film editor Lisa Day discovered Flerlage's photos while working on the documentary Eric Clapton: Nothing but the Blues. Together she and Cowdery wore Flerlage down, and the project began to come together.
The resulting book, Chicago Blues: As Seen From the Inside, was published last month by Canada's ECW Press. It combines Flerlage's own writings with oral histories compiled by Cowdery and a collection of photos curated by Day. The photos are moving and funny, nostalgic and immediate. It is a comprehensive work. "I wanted a simpler book," Flerlage says. "I wanted an easier book. I was old and I didn't want to do all this writing, but Lisa Day kept saying that she wanted my voice. This is the book that she had in mind. Oh, is it wonderful!"
Flerlage's biography is at its center. He was born in Cincinnati in 1915. He's worked as a music journalist, a disc jockey, a musical director at an aeronautical factory (where he chose the records workers listened to on the floor), a dining-car steward on the New York Central Railroad, and the midwest executive secretary for People's Songs, an organization that promoted social causes through folk music. In 1955 he became the sales representative for the midwest wholesale distributor of Folkways Records.
His various jobs had brought Flerlage into contact with the greatest musical artists of the time, including Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, and Leadbelly, many of whom he called friends. Living on the south side, he began to serve as a bridge between black musicians and their white promoters and fans. When he began taking photographs, his familiarity with the musicians was evident in his images.
"I just got very comfortable," he says. "And I must confess, I liked some of the girls. I've been advised by doctors and friends and counselors. They say, man, the Civil War is over. Are you gonna fight the Civil War the rest of your life? I say, yes I am. I used to walk around the south side with these cameras around my neck and I went into these clubs. You'd think these people would have wanted to cut your throat because you are part of the people who are giving them hell every day. But they treated me like a brother. And why? Because they're human. Can you say that about a lot of white people? Goddammit, I wonder. There was real response to the music at the black clubs. My God! You'd get a shot of electricity just being there. If you didn't have a musical bone in your body, those clubs would have made you alive. Those women were shooting their arms up in exultation! Oh, crap! It was wonderful!"
The intervening years were slow ones for Flerlage. In 1971 he began an independent record distributorship, which gradually failed. His health declined. From time to time he'd see one of his photos reproduced in a magazine or in an anthology, but figured his work had been forgotten.
The last few years have seen a revival of interest. Fender Guitars is using several images of Muddy Waters in a poster. A club in New York is using his shots of B.B. King. There have been record reissues and blues-magazine retrospectives--and now the book. He is gratified.
"My vision was always different," he says. "I could never see what other people see. I always saw something else."
Flerlage will sign copies of Chicago Blues: As Seen From the Inside this Saturday at 2 at the Blues Heaven Foundation in the old Chess Records building, 2120 S. Michigan (312-808-1286). --Neal Pollack
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.