CHICAGO -- Chicago Blues Festival starts tomorrow in Grant Park.
Blues greats Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters performed at Chicago’s very first blues fest in 1969. And as WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, family and former band mates are converging on the city for a centennial tribute.
(Harmonica solo) It’s mid-day on a Wednesday; a time many blues musicians sleep.
But not today.
“In my opinion, blues is the most powerful music on the planet. It’s the most universal.”
Billy Branch, a Willie Dixon protégé and long time Chicago blues ambassador with his “Blues in Schools” program, is running this rehearsal at the old Chess Records on South Michigan Avenue (more music) Branch helped the city bring together some of Willie Dixon’s children and grandchildren, as well as former bandmates of both Dixon and Muddy Waters. They’ll be among Sunday night’s headliners.
“August 30, 1969 the very first time I ever heard “live” blues.”1969; ”The whole world is watching.”Just one year after Chicago hosted the bloody Democratic National Convention in 1968, the city held its first ever blues concert.
“Willie Dixon co-produced that festival and 7 years later I was in Willie Dixon’s band.” (laughs) Branch says Chicago was hoping the blues might erase that 1968 black eye with an outdoor concert in Grant Park. “Guys was out there smoking pot right in front of the cops, and the cops just smiled.” (Willie Dixon song) Willie Dixon, the songwriting genius behind Chess Records- was recruited to book the banks. Not one turned him down. “This was the greatest festival ever produced. It boasted what Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy.”
Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters were part of the group of southern born blues guys who moved North in the 30’s and 40’s and electrified the Delta blues to create the Chicago sound. (music up) Memorabilia on the walls of the old Chess Studio is a tribute to Willie Dixon and the music he created in this hallowed place, songs later recorded by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.
“Everyone should be aware that all of America’s music came from this often neglected art form which we call the blues.” Freddie Dixon is Willie’s second son. He says his father realized early on that the real money wasn’t in performing, but in publishing; writing songs about real life. “He had a saying, “You might have the blues today ‘cause your wife or girlfriend leave you. And you’ll have ‘em tomorrow cause she returned.” Rick Kreher fell in love with the blues as a Chicago teenager. He hung around South and West side clubs long enough to get an audition. And he played with Muddy Waters during the glory years. “When I got with him he never played small clubs anymore, hardly ever played in Chicago. It was all either overseas or college concerts or big festivals.” Rick now plays Chicago gigs with Muddy’s first born son, Mud Morganfield- a spittin’ image of his father.
(Mud singing) Rick has also been working to re-unite other bandmates for Sunday’s centennial concert. Both Muddy and Willie would have turned 100 years old this year. “There’s not really a whole lot of us anymore so I tried to get as many as I can. It will probably be the last time that we’re all get together cause I’m not gonna make it another 100 years I don’t think.” Singer and songwriter Tomiko Dixon proudly calls herself “The Granddaughter of the Blues.“Not only do I sing the blues, but I sing and write other genres of music.And at the end of the day it all brings me right back to the blues.” Willie and Muddy are gone now. But their musical legacy continues in Chicago all weekend long. And every performance is free. “I figure all of us have a piece of this puzzle and if you put it together, then it should be something phenomenal. Yeah. (BIG LAUGH)”
Blues Fest opens tomorrow at 11 am, and runs through Sunday from 11am to 9:30 pm. You can find the complete line-up that includes Buddy Guy, and Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, by clicking these links.
The YouTube link is to 1981 video at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge when the Rolling Stones jumped on stage during a Muddy Waters show.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Mike D’Angelo contributed to this report.