Sunday, 23 October 2011
MONKEY USA PART 1: BUDDY GUY'S LEGENDS CLUB, CHICAGO, ILLINIOS
Chicago likes to call itself the Home of the Blues, even if there aren’t too many bluesmen left at home. Buddy Guy moved to the Windy City in 1957, started cutting records as a session man for Chess in 1959, and is still doggedly keeping the blues alive with his own club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, situated at 700 South Wabash in the studenty part of the South Loop area.
The first things you notice as you approach the club are the large blue and white checker mosaics on the outside wall depicting the likes of John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. Inside, it’s much how you’d expect, with photos, memorabilia and signed guitars hung on plain brickwork. It’s not dissimilar to a better equipped 100 Club with its wide but narrow layout and a bar at both ends and a low stage in the middle.
Me and Mrs Monkey popped in for a look on a lunch time and ended up eating catfish tenders, bourbon shrimp and having friendly locals offering us drinks. None of which is ever likely to happen on London’s Oxford Street. There were a couple of blokes on stage performing for the handful in there and luckily for them I didn’t catch their names. They did an atrocious version of “Goodnight Irene” - not that there has ever been a good version of that hideous song – and some other faux blues like every tin pot bus station busker from here to Timbuktu thinks is acceptable to pass off to the ill-informed or cloth-eared. It did though make us think that it would be a good venue to see someone half-decent.
So we went back that evening and Jimmy Johnson, a long standing Chicago blues guitarist and brother of Syl Johnson (got a couple of his singles tucked away somewhere), was on stage playing Junior Wells’ “Little By Little”. He had a cool laid back soul-blues style about him. Neat playing: nothing too showy, no face twisting histrionics. We stood at the bar with a beer and dug him. “Don’t turn around but I think that’s Buddy Guy behind us,” says Mrs Monk. I naturally turn around immediately and there’s a dude in the corner wearing a hat, blue smock, slouched on his stool, nursing a drink and chatting to a lady friend. We couldn’t get a proper look of his face but if he wasn’t Buddy he had the unmistakable look of being somebody. Not that we waited long for confirmation, it was him all right, as he soon climbed stage to hold court. You know in Raging Bull when Jake La Motta’s boxing career is over and he opens his own nightclub and drunkenly chats to the audience? It was a bit like that. I’ve no idea what got him on to the subject but he told how when he and Junior Wells arrived in Chicago (“you remember this too Jimmy”) the entire Chess crowd called them motherfuckers. “We thought it was our name,” he says, effortlessly breaking the Richard Pryor record for most motherfuckers and shits in a ten minute spell, only interrupted by singing his way through a couple of blues vamps. He also railed against the lack of blues played on the radio and how he keeps the club open as that’s the only way folk get to hear the blues in the city. Unfortunately he didn’t pull a guitar from the wall before the band went into the interval and he went into a photo and signing session by the club entrance.
It wasn’t possible to engage him in much chat but he was gracious in having his picture taken (one had to give their camera to his burly security guy to do the honours) and I did manage to tell him how I and others play his “I Dig Your Wig” single in clubs around Europe. It’s a popular tune. He pauses for a moment as if wondering what the earth I’m on about before a flicker of recognition hits his face. “Man, that’s from waaay back”. We shake hands. It’s a great moment. For me anyway.
Back in the main part of the club Jimmy Johnson was sat by himself with a coffee. He’d almost been upstaged at his own gig so we took the table next to him and asked him how he was doing. He said he was bit bored, which wasn’t the kind of answer we were expecting, but would be okay once he got back on stage. Jimmy turned out to be a lovely bloke and seemingly happy to chat to us. He said he’d been a professional musician since 1959. “What’s that been like? Bet there’s been some ups and downs?” I said, unaware that in 1988 his band’s van came off the road killing his bassist and keyboard player. It was hardly the right time for him to mention that horrible incident, and he struck a very positive note instead. “I been all around the world and I ain’t never bought no plane ticket.” I asked him about Buddy’s cussing; did everyone really call each other motherfucker? “Sure, that’s just how we spoke. We all call each other nigger too, like ‘hey nigger, how ya doing?’ Just how it was, don’t mean nothin’. Except say if you say it, there might be some meaning behind it. You know what I’m sayin’?” I knew what he was saying.
Jimmy asked where we were from and so told him London and that we got married on Saturday. When a man of 82, married for nearly fifty years, offers you advice, you listen. To me he says “you gotta learn to say ‘yes dear’” and to Mrs Monk he says “you’ve got to remember it’s we not me”. He also offered us advice about looking after ourselves when we travel to Detroit, and when back on stage he dedicated a couple of Motown songs to us, thoughtfully doing “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Get Ready”.
It’s hard to imagine how a night out looking for the blues in Chicago in 2011 could’ve been any better. Next stop: Chess Records.