Blues Heaven

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Posted by Fleabit Peanut Monkey on May 31, 1999 at 21:37:34:

Over the weekend I was lucky enough to find myself in Chicago again, and once again the lovely Dandelion was gracious enough to act as my guide through a dream come true. This time the dream in question was a visit to Chess Studios.
For anyone who loves the Stones and has followed this love upstream to see what inspired THEM in the first place, Chess Studios is Ground Zero. Located at the address immortalized by the instrumental on 12x5, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, no other piece of real estate in the world can compete with this tiny white building for hallowed-ground status. You can talk about Abbey Road, Hitsville USA, Olympic and Sun Studios all you want - Chess is IT. Literally hundreds of songs which I would not want to live without were recorded there, not the least of which are the Stones' exuberant versions of Around & Around and It's All Over Now. The Stones' presence there was icing on the cake, though. The true claim to fame is that virtually everything you've ever heard by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and a dozen other blues gods and goddesses were recorded there. Little Red Rooster, I Just Wanna Make Love To You, Smokestack Lightning, Hoochie Coochie Man, Killing Floor, Wang Dang Doodle, Still A Fool, Standin' 'Round Cryin', 40 Days and 40 Nights, Built For Comfort, Got My Mojo Workin'....whew. I could go on and on. You get the picture.
2120 S. Michigan hasn't been used as a studio in decades. It now houses Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation, which does so much good work that I can't begin to do it justice -- go to and read for yourself.
No official tours were scheduled for this weekend, but since it was the second time I'd been there, the nice lady who answered the phone at 11:00 pm Friday (we expected a recording) said to come by the next day and she'd see that we got a tour. Besides Dandelion and myself, there was a young doctor, his wife and their infant daughter. We were led into a back room and shown a short video with interviews with Bo Diddley and BB King. Then a nice young guy, a volunteer student from NorthWestern University, started showing us around. There are wonderful framed black & white photos of all the important blues artists- including a great picture of the Stones circa '66 playing on Ed Sullivan. The Stones are invoked throughout the tour; unfortunately things have not changed much since the Stones' early evangelizing turned me onto the blues so long ago. Until he realized that he was preaching to the converted, the student guide often mentioned that Rock and Rap owed much to the pioneering work of the Chess stable of artists. How could it be, I thought, that even HERE the blues had to be explained?
We went through some storage areas to the back door, where artists unloaded their equipment, where legend has it the Keith Richards encountered Muddy Waters "painting the goddamned ceiling" (Marshall Chess claims Muddy NEVER painted any ceilings at Chess; Keith has countered by adding elaboration to the story - white paint was dripping down Muddy's face like a harlequin's tear the last time I heard it!) Then up a narrow back stairway. "You can imagine the musicians carrying their guitar cases up here," said the guide. I was a mass of gooseflesh by this time, entering a realm of serious unreality. Upstairs we saw the fireproof vault where master tapes were kept, and a rehearsal space where Chuck Berry was forced to play 130 takes of Maybelline before the precious tape was allowed to roll. In that room were more Stones' references - a gold disc for "Stripped", sent over because it included Willie Dixon's "Little Baby", and a plaque for Voodoo Lounge signed by Don Was - I don't know why that was there.
Finally we reached the epicenter - the studio itself. I could hardly contain myself. There is NOTHING to see in there, really - some rudimentary home-made acoustic panels, and the big glass window to the engineer's booth. But DAMN is that room full of ghosts! "The musicians set up over there in the corner, and the vocalists here," said the guide. I stood where he was indicating. I stood RIGHT where Muddy Waters first sang "Rollin' Stone", where Chuck Berry sang "Little Queenie", where Bo Diddley sang any number of songs which included the words "Bo Diddley", where Koko Taylor explained the immortal equation "when the fish scent fill the air, there'll be snuff juice everywhere." Where Howlin' Wolf howled. Jesus. I didn't want to leave that spot.
But we did. We saw the pvc pipes that stuck up out of the floor in the mixing room, leading to a maze of tubing which gave Chess recordings their eerie 3 am reverb sound. We went down into the basement and saw the room where Chuck Berry lived for several months when he was hard up for cash. We saw Leonard Chess' office. Then we went back to the reception area and met the angels who make Blues Heaven fly - since the great Willie Dixon's death, his work has been shouldered by his wife Marie and his daughter Shirli Dixon-Nelson, and as luck would have it these wonderful ladies were there, stuffing envelopes - invitations to the opening of the Blues Garden during Blues Fest next week. They were not only polite, they made us feel like family. We mentioned that we'd been there in April when the Stones played, and Shirli said that the band had tried to come by but were prevented by a big crowd and a news helicopter waiting for them. But they had sent over some stuff - a set of Charlie's sticks resided in a place of honor, and Shirli sent a helper upstairs to fetch the lithographs Ronnie had sent over (the lithos looked great! One of Bessie Smith & Billie Holiday, one of Woody, and one of all four Stones circa '94.) Also on display was a small battered Hohner Marine Band harp, played by Howlin' Wolf in 1966 when the Stones had him as a guest on Shindig.
Shirli & Dandelion discussed the difficulty of having Willie Dixon's upright bass accurately appraised so it could be insured & displayed - how do you put a price on something priceless?
Soon it was time to go. A cameraman was there, people were in and out, and Shirli was overseeing the work in the garden next door, but first she pressed invitations to the opening into our hands. Even though she was busy as hell, she insisted on posing for pictures with us, and, when I started blubbering incomprehensibly that this was all a dream come true for me, Shirli (who is a big beautiful woman, obviously her daddy's daughter) gave me a big hug. It occurred to me later that perhaps it is nice for her to meet people who know what a giant her father was, although it is still hard for me to grasp that not everyone knows how incredibly important Willie Dixon and Chess Studios were and still are. All I can say is, if you ever have a chance, take the tour. It's $10, tax deductable, and goes to support Blues Heaven.

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