It's 11 o'clock on a Friday night at Lee's Unleaded Blues, an oasis of light and music on a desolate strip of South Chicago Avenue near the South Shore neighborhood. The featured band, Johnny Drummer & the Starlighters, has been onstage for more than an hour, but Drummer has sung only one or two songs. A singer and harmonica player called the Arkansas Belly Roller took the microphone shortly after the set began; he stormed through primal re-creations of "Driving Wheel" and "Shake, Rattle & Roll," stopping occasionally in the middle of a verse to lift his shirt and perform a couple of his trademark midriff undulations.
Leeroy Jones, aka the Junk Yard Dog, hobbled on his crutches to the center of the room, took the mike from the Belly Roller, and delivered Latimore's "Let's Straighten It Out" and Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" in a sweet-sour croon. He writhed as he sang, the stump that was his right leg jutting out from his body at a 90-degree angle. Ladies hollered their approval, and several walked up and stuffed dollar bills into his fist.
Meanwhile Calvin "Kadakie" Tucker set up a djembe in front of the band. During the day Kadakie, who's originally from Bermuda, works as an electrician; he's currently helping rewire Lee's to accommodate a mirror ball and a battery of multicolored lights. Another guest vocalist, Delores Scott, eases into a sultry "Dr. Feelgood," and Kadakie's polyrhythmic punctuation adds an exotic Afro-Cuban texture to her rendition of Aretha's soul-blues classic.
No one seems to mind that the featured attraction has barely had a chance to do his own show. At Lee's, a blues set is more a party than a formal gig. Tonight, though, the celebration has a bittersweet quality: for the first time since anyone can remember, Ms. Lee herself is not presiding over the fun.
Ray and Leola "Lee" Grey purchased the bar, then called Harper's Point, in 1983. But Ray had been managing taverns since 1954, when he took over the Go-Go Sox Club, on 35th across from Comiskey Park. In those days it was almost unheard-of for a black man to run a bar in Bridgeport, but Grey maintains that with his gift for making connections he was able to pull it off without any problems. "Of course I was aware of it," he says. "I wouldn't want to be caught [on the streets] in Bridgeport after nine o'clock at night. But I was on the inside; I knew Grace Comiskey personally. It didn't bother me. I did a good white trade there. During the time when the Cardinals played there, football, and when the White Sox was playing good, I made money. So it didn't really affect me."
Ray had hoped to buy the Go-Go Sox Club, but the owner opted to raze it and put in a parking lot. So Ray scouted out property farther south, and in 1962 he bought his own bar--the Clock Lounge, at the corner of 73rd and South Chicago. He began booking some of the south side's leading blues acts there, and to provide music when the bands weren't playing, he hired a deejay named Effie Taylor, whom everyone knew as Queen Bee.
"She was a hell of a woman, that Queen Bee," he says fondly. "She would drink anything--if you drinkin' Scotch, she'd drink Scotch with you; if you drinkin' bourbon, she'll drink bourbon with you. If I'm drinkin' gin, she'll drink gin with me. She drank cowboy-style! But she was a good businesswoman."
In the early 60s, Taylor opened her own bar, just down the street, at 7401 S. South Chicago. Within a few years Queen Bee's Lounge had outpaced the Clock to become one of the best-known attractions on the south-side blues circuit. Artists like Junior Wells and Lefty Dizz played there on a regular basis; in the late 60s and early 70s, as whites ventured south to investigate the blues scene, Queen Bee's--along with Theresa's at 48th and Indiana, and the Checkerboard on 43rd--was one of the places they visited.
As a nightclub owner, Queen Bee was in her element. "There was a magnetism about her," Grey says. "People just wanted to be around her. She knew a lot of heavyweights. Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy--too many of 'em! Monday she'd close, and she'd stop by and pick me up. 'Raymond'--she'd call me Raymond--'we goin' out tonight!' She'd take you to dinner, lunch, or whatever, all the late joints. That's the way she was. She enjoyed her work, she enjoyed her business, she enjoyed her life. She bought a Cadillac--she always liked to travel. She had a lot of clothes, she had money. And she was on top of her game. But her lifestyle was against her health."
In December 1974, at the age of 34, Queen Bee suffered a fatal stroke at her club. Her daughter Regina Collins took over for a while, but after a few years she leased the room to a man named Roosevelt Harper. He kept the tavern open as Harper's Point, but didn't book any bands. Meanwhile, Grey had moved on. In December 1969 he'd met soft-spoken young Leola Dawson, who'd come north to Chicago from Mississippi the previous year.
"We got to courtin' and whatnot," he says with a chuckle, "and pretty soon she liked me and I liked her. I had reached a point where I had to slow down a little bit--I needed a wife. And she was ready to marry. During the ensuing companionship we got a son, Ray-Ray. He's 28 years old now. The Clock Lounge got burned out, June 1977--it's still a mystery--and for a year my wife and I just traveled. Did it up like a big dawg! Go where I wanted to go! After a year and a half I opened up 3rd Base, 75th and Vincennes. Friend of mine had a place in Philadelphia, and he named his place Third Base. I always did like that logo: 'You gotta touch Third Base before going home!' I should have copyrighted that. We stayed there until 1983."
It was quite a change in lifestyle for Lee, who'd grown up in Fort Adams, Mississippi, and scarcely knew what the inside of a tavern looked like. "My father was a farmer on a little plantation," she recalls. "Then he did what you call logging. My mother was a housewife. In the south they played the old blues, but I really was raised up in church. I came up here because my sister and my brothers were here. My oldest brother introduced me to my husband. He was in the liquor business, and by him being in the liquor business, that's how I really got into the blues."
By the time Ray had decided to purchase Queen Bee's old place from her daughter, Lee had become enamored with both the music and the nightclub business. The couple decided to go into the new enterprise as a team.
"The people in my home, my parents, wanted me to be a church person," Lee says. "I tried, I did, a number of times. But once you get into the liquor business, and you're up until three in the morning on a Saturday night, you be just so sleepy and tired."
"This was a brand-new game for her--she's a country girl," says Ray. "She didn't know one brand of liquor from the other. But I taught her, and I taught her well enough that this place didn't have to have my presence. I've been in the game a long time; I'd rather put her out front. Fellow tell me, 'Ray, you shouldn't tell your wife all these things. What if she get rid of you?' I said, 'Hell, she ain't that strong.'" They both laugh.
Ray came up with the new name for the club. "I was watching Channel 11," he recalls. "Buddy Guy--I knew him when he came from Louisiana, he used to come to the Clock Lounge--Buddy Guy was on. We were puttin' down a lot of names, and we would x them out, y'know? All of a sudden it hit me. I hollered, 'Lee! I got a name for you!' 'What is it?' 'Lee's Unleaded Blues! Ninety-three octane! That's pure blues--ain't no lead in it!' And that name caught on."
It didn't take long for the club to draw a crowd. "Me and my husband, we knew a lot of people," says Lee. "Artie White--very good name--he gave me a play for a while. Johnny Christian played here--he was very good. Johnny Laws [who currently does maintenance around the club], Queen Sylvia played here. Lefty Dizz, L.V. Banks, Vance Kelly, Johnny Drummer. Buddy Scott stayed with me nine and a half years. He helped build this place up, brought in people from all over. Buddy Scott was very sweet. He died in '94--nothing you can do when it's cancer. If Buddy had been living he'd still be right here with me. When [Scott's wife] Patricia has a weekend free, she can always come in here whenever she wants. She sings with Johnny Drummer."
Lee's abstemious ways and genteel demeanor were far removed from Queen Bee's hard-partying style, but she nonetheless earned her customers' respect. "I like people," she says. "We drink--whatever little bit I drink, my Sharp's beer or my club soda or whatever--and we dance together. We'll get up there and try to sing together. I participate, they like that. I'm not stuck-up, I'm not the saditty owner. I earned my name. Most people call me Ms. Lee. Not Lee; they call me Ms. Lee. That really is saying something to me, because I earned that name from my patrons."
"Known all over the world," Ray adds. "We got people coming in here from Japan, from China, from Taiwan, from Belgium, from Germany, from England, all over the world. They go back home; their friends want to come to Chicago, they'll recommend Lee's Unleaded Blues." The club's international rep got a boost in 1999, when photos taken there by William Albert Allard were included in the National Geographic feature "Traveling the Blues Highway." By then, though, the Greys had begun to think about selling the business while they still had time to enjoy their freedom.
"I got a chance to get out while I'm on top of the game," Ray says. "I'm still relatively healthy. You wouldn't believe I only have one lung, much as I talk. But I only have one lung--I had lung cancer. I had colon cancer, I had prostate cancer. And I had a stroke, at the Imperial Palace in Vegas. Went all the way to Vegas and had a stroke. But I'm in relatively good health. I'm 74, and these few years that I have left, I want to enjoy myself. Get out on top of your game, you know? Get out on top of your game."
"I want to relax for a while," Lee agrees. "I'm tired. I'm just ready to give it up."
Toward the end of last year, they finally decided to sell the club to a burly ex-secretary of state police officer named Stanley Davis, a longtime patron who says that purchasing Lee's was a dream come true.
"I've been coming to Lee's over a period of ten years," he says. "When I was preparing for my retirement, I said, I want to own a club. I had looked into building a place myself from scratch, or buying another building and renovating it. I retired, April of 2001, as a lieutenant--the highest-ranking black in the whole state. Ms. Lee said she was tired and they wanted to retire. 'So, would you consider me buying it?' And she said yes. I got contacts with people. Don't be surprised to see Jesse White in here--personal friend of mine. They say I'm one of the first guys on the south side to get a liquor license in a long time. I applied for it in November, March they called me in and asked me to pay my $1,000."
Davis faces the unenviable task of making his mark on a place that's been a neighborhood institution for the better part of four decades. Even Ray, who wishes him the best, predicts that he'll have some problems. "There's a different bag when you're sitting at the bar drinking, and you come to be an owner," he points out. "It's a new game. There are so many deterrents out here. When I was much younger, we drank. We didn't have a drug problem. The streets were safer then; we didn't need no wheel lock on our cars. We also didn't have as many things to spend our money on. Today we have the casinos, we have the lottery. That's what accounts for the liquor business and the lounges going down on the south side."
Davis insists that he knows his way around the entertainment business. Over the years he's put on various shows and benefits for charity, and he says that when he and his family lived in Beverly he coordinated "the biggest block party over there" on an annual basis. In January he organized a retirement party for Lee, which featured continuous live entertainment and drew more than 500 people to Mr. G's Supper Club at 87th and Ashland.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, Stan, can you run a bar?' On my last command I had 30 policemen--I can handle four barmaids, handle a few bands. That's nothing! I know properly how to handle and talk to people. 'Do you know how to order whiskey?' My father was a tavern owner, my grandfather was a tavern owner. My mother and stepfather, in 1976, at 922 E. 63rd, we opened up our first liquor store. I set that up for them and got them started. I had a back stock of $10,000 worth of liquor in the back room, so I know how to order whiskey. Matter of fact, my mother is part business owner with me in here--her name is Pauline Morrison. I owe a lot of my great entrepreneurship to her. I had my beautiful career in law enforcement, and I guess I'm going to do the same thing in entertainment.
"We have top bands here, they're here every week. Remind you of The Rocky Horror Show--everybody know what they're gonna sing, and the fans sing right along with 'em. You sit next to somebody, next thing you know they're up singing. That's what really made me like the club when I first came here. I'm talkin' to somebody, they say, 'Excuse me, it's time; they're callin' me up!'"
Eventually Davis wants to hire a limousine to carry people from downtown hotels; he'll also make it available to take customers home if they've had too much to drink. He plans to bring in a doorman who'll "give [customers] the service they need. Umbrella service, or they can call if they're parking down the street and they have a phone, watch them get in. If it's snowing out there he can clean the snow off your car. Give you the service that you deserve.
"People have a concept that blues clubs gotta have a different atmosphere. What I'm going to do is still have the atmosphere, but when we get through with our washrooms, when you go in there it's going to be like an evening in Paris! Ceramic tiles all over everything, black-and-red fixtures in there, full-length mirrors. I want a crystal ball; when I want to change the atmosphere, like when Vance Kelly do 'Purple Rain,' hit purple on there. I think that's really going to surprise the people. This [at the corner of the bar] is going to be the VIP section; put in real nice padded seats, put a brass rail around it....We're small, but we can be special here."
Lee and Ray have already bought a house in Magnolia, Mississippi. The location was Lee's idea. "I want to go there because my son is there," she explains. "Two granddaughters, three and seven. And a daughter-in-law. I'll be in the country. That's where I want to be, in the country."
"I tell you what I'm gonna do," Ray says. "I worked for 55 years. I'm gonna try not working. See how I like that. We had good times. We have a beautiful reputation here. You should see the tape of Lee's retirement party. It was big-time; it was truly big-time. Queen Bee, she would've been very proud of Lee and me. We kept the tradition going. And if she could be around here right now, she'd wave at us--or she'd high-five.
"A lot of these fellows on the jukebox live south. I have friends in Memphis, got friends in Louisville, Kentucky. I got friends in Little Rock, Arkansas, in Baton Rouge, in New Orleans. When I get ready to hear some noise, I know where to go. We've been collecting telephone numbers and addresses. If they've got something going, we'll go give the fellows a play."
He leans back with a satisfied smile. "I can hear 'em now--'We got Ray and Lee from Chicago, from Lee's Unleaded Blues!' And we gon' be there--like a big dawg!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner/Jim Newberry.