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Maxwell Street Blues

The Sunday-morning market may be in danger, but thanks to a new generation of bluesmen the music is as strong as ever.

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During the week, the dusty vacant lots are more desolate than ever. Shabbily dressed old men sit silently on crumbling stoops and drink wine in garbage-strewn alleys; the few remaining buildings sag wearily, burned-out stairwells and boarded-up windows telling the perennial urban story of neglect and decay. But every Sunday morning, the energy of the Maxwell Street market area rises phoenixlike from the rubble. The crowds, the hustlers, the musicians, and the entire cavalcade of sights, sounds, and smells still combine to transform the desolate wasteland into a once-a-week carnival.

It's difficult to know which specter most threatens the street's rich history: simple neglect, or willful desecration at the hands of private developers, the University of Illinois, or the city of Chicago (depending on which conspiracy theory one believes). But as the threat of oblivion looms ever darker, and the breeze begins to acquire a touch of autumnal chill, every Sunday morning the energy has an increasing, determined intensity.

The street's musical history is well known by now. Some of Chicago's most famous blues musicians got their start playing on Maxwell (or "Jewtown," as it is still known among the regulars). Some of the very first postwar blues records were recorded at the now-defunct Maxwell Radio Record Company.

A surprising number of people, however, don't realize that the blues still rings joyfully through the air on Sunday mornings. True, the legendary names--One-Arm John Wrencher, Porkchop, Big Walter, Stovepipe, Playboy Venson, and just this year, Blind Jim Brewer--are gone, and more recent figures like Pat Rushing have abandoned the street-music scene for churchgoing respectability; but a new generation of eager musicians carries on in the grand tradition. For the first time in several years, three bands play Maxwell regularly. A music lover can wander through a one-square-block area bounded by Maxwell, Newberry, Halsted, and 14th streets and experience everything from traditional Delta blues to contemporary R & B. Here's a rundown on the usual participants:

Dancin' Perkins and His Band

John "Dancin'" Perkins is a tall, muscular bass player with a resonant baritone and a liking for cowboy duds. He used to go by the name "Mr. Pitiful" when he led what eventually became guitarist Magic Slim's band, the Teardrops. After Slim took over the Teardrops, Perkins played for years behind the late John Embry as part of a loose aggregation of musicians sometimes known as the Ghetto Kings.

Embry was the focal point for an entire musical fraternity on the south side. His solid musicianship and clean life-style, which provided some much-needed stability to the often-chaotic world of bluesmen, made many of Chicago's best-known musicians gravitate to him. Embry was one of Maxwell Street's most popular figures; and his shows, featuring in later years Little Nick on guitar and Perkins on bass, were convivial get-togethers of longtime friends. Their affection for one another lent an aura of warmth to the music.

John Embry died in late 1985--only days after playing on the last warm Sunday morning in late October--and within a year, Perkins established himself as the heir apparent to Embry's Maxwell Street throne. The band Perkins has fronted for the past few summers features Riler "Ice Man" Robinson playing his trademark bright green guitar. Robinson used to play on the corner of Maxwell and Newberry as a part of the ragtag little band led by bassist John Henry Davis. Davis was a limited musician, although luminaries such as Louis Myers would sometimes sit in, and the legendary eccentric, Muck Muck Man, used to perform his outer-space blues routine with Davis backing him. In recent years it became more and more difficult for Davis to find sidemen who'd tolerate his erratic timing and occasionally contentious personality. First Robinson, then guitarist L.V. Banks quit him; Muck Muck died two years ago. Davis's old corner is now taken over by vendors.

Perkins provides a much more solid foundation than Davis, above which Robinson fires off raw-edged slide patterns in a rough approximation of Elmore James. His rugged, strong voice enables him to run through James's standards ("The Sky Is Crying") as well as the usual B.B. King and Muddy Waters repertoire with conviction, avoiding the slavish imitation that's a common trap. This summer he's also been playing on Saturday nights behind vocalist Walter Scott at the Watering Hole Lounge at 14th and Western; regular work has honed his style into the most crisp and confident it's ever been. Unlike some Maxwell Street musicians, Robinson can carry a show in a club setting as well as in the open-air informality of the street.

The highlight of Sunday morning, though, is Perkins's dance. It usually comes after he's introduced all the musicians and given a solo slot to each. He mumbles laconically, "Now this is what we call shuckin' and jivin', y'know? Over here, we got Ice Man, and we're gonna check him out, see if he can do some shuckin' and jivin' . . ." Robinson obliges with some searing lead work, and then the pattern repeats itself, with each musician--the inevitable guest guitarists as well as Perkins's young son on drums--getting the chance to show his stuff.

Finally, it's the bandleader's turn. "OK, now I think I'm gonna check myself out, y'know?" Holding his bass behind his head or propping it up on the ground and spinning around it as if it were a dwarf maypole, he kicks high into the air, does groin-straining splits, and shuffles backward in a modified camel walk, all the while pounding out his trademark bass riff, sometimes using just his left hand. The dust swirls around his black cowboy boots (occasionally ornamented with huge spurs), and Robinson and the other guitarists get into the unmistakable Maxwell Street groove--raucous and distorted, the apparently dissonant chords and harmonic ideas somehow meshing into a grand, fuzzy-edged harmony. It would be impossible to duplicate anywhere else--and the crowd erupts into cheers and applause.

The show remains pretty much the same every Sunday. Perkins has a standard set of jokes and raps he runs through, humorous intros that poke irreverent fun at politicians ranging from President Reagan to Jesse Jackson; the songs consist entirely of well-worn standards. Regulars can call the introductions, the songs, even the musical patterns by heart before they're played. The atmosphere is like a family gathering, where everyone's stories and moldy old jokes create a warm, cozy atmosphere all the more treasured because it's predictable. Familiarity, in this case, breeds appreciation.

Maxwell Blues

There was great joy a few years ago when guitarist Willie James, formerly of Pat Rushing's band, brought a group of musicians down to the vacant lot on the east side of Newberry between Maxwell and 14th Street. John Embry was dead, and Perkins had not yet taken over Embry's old gig; L.V. Banks had quit the street; Blind Jim Brewer was drifting into semiretirement; and Rushing had finally taken stock of his health and retired to church. A lot of people feared that the decades-old Maxwell Street music scene had finally come to an end.

James and his band, immediately christened "Maxwell Blues," rapidly established themselves as the most exciting thing to hit the street in years. Equally dedicated to traditional and contemporary styles, they developed a set that ran the gamut from Jimmy Reed standards to Buddy Miles's "Them Changes." The addition of a saxophonist, a powerfully built white man named Mike, cemented the band's reputation as the street's most versatile and musically interesting group.

James has matured into an impressive guitarist. His personal creation, a triplet run the length of his fret board, is as original as anything I've heard from a young guitarist for quite some time, and he's picked up both speed and sureness over the last two summers. Drummer Froggy Daniels lays down an elemental blues shuffle behind James (and a variety of rhythm guitarists who come and go), and Mike contributes exemplary saxophone solos, incorporating everything from country-western influences to quotes from Ellington standards.

The best thing about Maxwell Blues, though, is the lineup of guest vocalists who come through every Sunday. Little Bobby and Little Al are a pair of accomplished B.B. King-style crooners; sometimes they're joined by B.B. (or "Big Voice") Odom, one of the most expressive vocalists in Chicago. Odom's music, which transcends the obvious King-Bobby "Blue" Bland influence, has a personal style that's as emotionally satisfying as it is well crafted. Mike boots out funky sax lines behind the vocals' mellow croon, as the aroma of soul food wafts from a table under a tree where a plump, taciturn woman every Sunday offers $5 plates of home cooking; and a long and joyous tradition of music, fellowship, and celebration comes to life.

Everything is prelude, however, for Kid Dynamite. Kid Dynamite stands four feet, seven inches (not four feet eleven, as one of his publicity sheets claims, and as I said in a recent Reader Critic's Choice); he's become a bit rounder in the past few years, but his dancing ability is undiminished. He cries out his repertoire of blues and soul standards in a high, gritty tenor, punctuating the music with stories, asides, and a polished stage rap he developed playing at now-defunct clubs like Morgan's Lounge at 61st and King Drive. His feet propel him through the dust with eye-blurring speed as he shouts commands to the band ("Hey, fellas! Let's get funky!"), directs flirtatious winks and smiles toward the ladies, and gratefully accepts donations from the appreciative crowd. By the end of the first song, his tiny fist clutches a wad of wrinkled dollar bills.

The highlight of Dynamite's show is his James Brown tribute. It starts off with "There Was a Time," complete with exhortations to "Maceo" (usually Mike, although Dynamite calls any saxophonist he's working with by the name of Brown's legendary tenor man), and a series of dance routines--the mashed potato, the camel walk, finally the James Brown. These he spins off with amazing dexterity, considering the rough, rocky surface on which he's got to work. On any given Sunday, Dynamite's show may also feature R & B standards ("Rockin' Robin") and contemporary blues (Z.Z. Hill's "Down Home Blues"), but the Brown routine culminates with the anthemic "Please, Please."

When John Embry was alive, Dynamite would perform "Please, Please" complete with a personalized version of Brown's famous cape routine. A woman named Hazel--one of the entourage of blues vocalists who regularly accompanied Embry--would drape the diminutive singer in an old coat at the song's climax and pat him tenderly on the shoulders, only to have him wrench himself away and return to the microphone for another chorus. Since Embry's death, Dynamite hasn't performed that routine, but his screeches and surefooted dancing continue in the great Brown tradition. His puckish, round face, the professionalism with which he comports himself at all times, and his physical dexterity have made him the most popular performer on Maxwell, especially among the women.

Maxwell Blues and their guests provide variety with the same flair with which Perkins and his band establish a feeling of familiarity and warmth. Between the two bands, a listener can experience both tradition and exploration, several generations of blues heritage within half a block. For most of the summer, this was sufficient to keep the scene cooking on Sundays. In recent weeks, however, an exciting new element has been added.

Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis

The happiest news on Maxwell Street is the remarkable rehabilitation of Jimmy Davis. Jimmy has been playing the street since at least the 1950s; Blues Who's Who says he was a medicine-show dancer in the south long before then. In the mid-60s he cut a solo LP on Elektra that showcased the droning, hypnotic Delta style he claims to have acquired under the direct tutelage of John Lee Hooker.

In recent years, though, Davis had become something of a pariah. His musical ability seemed to have deteriorated beyond redemption, and his personality, altered by years of frustration and alcohol, had crossed the line from eccentric to unpleasant. Strident, out-of-tune flailing characterized his guitar playing; he sang endless, monotonous versions of Howlin' Wolf standards in a weak imitation of Wolfs patented growl; and his habit of reminding everyone of his name and (faded) reputation seemed a pathetic, feeble attempt to re-create his own self-made legend.

From out of nowhere, Jimmy Davis has returned. Fronting a little band of earnest white sidemen--mandolin, harmonica, and drums--he has reached into his past and summoned both his musicianship and emotional stability to bring some living history back to Maxwell. His voice now roars darkly through the early-morning air from the makeshift bandstand across the street from Maxwell Blues, recalling the intense urgency of the great Delta singers. His modal guitar style is perfectly complemented by the band's sympathetic backing. His repertoire has grown as well: he's now added a few contemporary blues numbers ("Cut You Loose") to the Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf standards that he's sung for years.

A good deal of the credit for Davis's comeback must go to young mandolinist Dave Andersen. A good-natured, gentle man with a deep love for both folk and contemporary music, Andersen saw in Davis a spark of still-burning creativity that others had missed. The spontaneous love between Davis and his young friend is as inspiring to observers as it obviously is to the musicians; there are none of the eerie, Svengali overtones that often pervade such associations.

Listening to the music of Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis can transport one deep into the soul of Chicago blues history. These are the sounds that set Chicago on its ear in the early 50s, the throbbing, electrified updating of traditional Delta themes set to the harsh jangle of the new urban reality. Davis runs the show with his usual hyperkinetic energy, introducing the band in clipped, rapid cadences--and still repeats his own name a few times too many. His timing is still erratic too, but it's nothing the band can't handle. In a matter of weeks, Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis has rebounded from near-oblivion to become a living symbol of the resilience of the blues spirit. If he can hold it together over the winter, he should be a welcome member of the blues community for some years to come.

The unexpected, triumphant return of Maxwell Street Jimmy, the playful adventurousness of Maxwell Blues and their guest vocalists, and the warm sense of local tradition that pervades Dancin' Perkins's show--all are part of the heritage that comes alive on Maxwell every Sunday morning. Echoes of half a century of blues history can still be heard on that street.

According to the Friends of the Market (an ad hoc group of merchants, patrons, and conscientious young newcomers to the neighborhood), pressure is building to shut the market down and open up the area for development. Whether it can be preserved is uncertain; what's sure is that as long as the weather holds out this year, there's no better place to experience the rich cultural history that makes Chicago unique.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, John Booz.

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