BLUES AND JAZZ CLUBS OF DECADES PAST- By Bill Dahl

With the unfortunate recent closing of Katerina’s, one of the Rhythm Rockets’ favorite venues to play, Chicago has lost another splendid club specializing in jazz and swinging R&B. It joins a long list of legendary nightspots that exist now only in fond memory but once featured and nurtured the greatest innovators those genres ever had. 

The Sunset Café, located at 315 E. 35th Street in Bronzeville on the South Side, opened as a jazz joint in 1921 and offered a young Louis Armstrong one of his first big breaks as a leader in 1926, when he was just starting to make a name for himself. You can still visit the space and view some of its original murals—it’s now an Ace Hardware store. 

During the 1940s, the South Side was teeming with jumping niteries boasting full floor shows, dancers, and expansive orchestras.  The huge Club DeLisa, situated at 5521 S. State Street, opened in 1934 (when it burned down in 1941, the DeLisa brothers rebuilt it). For most of its run, drummer Red Saunders was its bandleader; singers LaVern Baker and Joe Williams were featured there early in their careers (the DeLisa was still in operation at the dawn of the ‘60s). 

The Rhumboogie Café, located nearby at 343 E. 55th, opened its doors in 1942 and briefly gave the DeLisa a run for its money. Jump blues bandleader Tiny Bradshaw was its first headliner; electric guitar pioneer T-Bone Walker spent a nine-month stint on its proscenium and cut 78s for its short-lived record label. The hallowed names of Wynonie Harris, Gatemouth Moore, and Little Miss Cornshucks also graced the Rhumboogie’s marquee. 

For true star power, it was tough to beat the all-star packages that regularly rolled through the Regal Theater at 47th and South Parkway. The posh Balaban and Katz-operated facility would screen a full-length film, then present a dazzling stage show starring Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, and Louis Jordan during the ‘40s and Jackie Wilson, the Supremes, and Solomon Burke two decades later. Little Stevie Wonder waxed his 1963 chart-topper “Fingertips - Pt. 2” there; B.B. King cut his classic Live At The Regal album the next year. 

Blues joints were scattered all over Chicago’s South and West Sides during the classic postwar era. You could find Muddy Waters, complete with Jimmy Rogers and harp genius Little Walter, at the Club Zanzibar, 13th and Ashland; Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James at Sylvio’s, 2254 W. Lake; Otis Rush and Buddy Guy at the 708 Club, 708 E. 47th; Junior Wells and James Cotton at Theresa’s, 48th and Indiana; and many of the above at Pepper’s Lounge, 503 E. 43rd St. (in 1971, Pepper opened a new joint at 1321 S. Michigan, in the heart of a then-fading Record Row). Guitarist Freddy King named his trademark 1961 instrumental smash “Hide Away” after Mel’s Hideaway Lounge on West Roosevelt Road, where he often rocked the house.    

During the 1970s, a sizable portion of Chicago’s blues action shifted to the North Side. Wise Fools Pub, situated at 2270 N. Lincoln, presented Otis Rush, Fenton Robinson, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Albert Collins’ local debut, and many more when Dave Ungerleider was in charge. A block north, Doc Pellegrino’s original Kingston Mines also brought in national acts such as Jimmy Witherspoon in addition to our own mainstays Jimmy Johnson, Eddy Clearwater, Detroit Junior, and Roy Hytower prior to moving to its North Halsted complex. 

Just south of the Chicago/Evanston border, Biddy Mulligan’s, 7644 N. Sheridan Road, boasted the most adventurous booking policy in town; boss Chip Covington brought in Professor Longhair, Albert King, Little Milton, and Lowell Fulson when he wasn’t booking local stars Otis Clay, Eddie Shaw, Lonnie Brooks, Koko Taylor, and Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows. 

With B.L.U.E.S., the Mines, Buddy Guy’s Legends, Rosa’s, and Blue Chicago still presenting blues nightly and the historic Green Mill, Andy’s, the Jazz Showcase, and several more clubs similarly devoted to jazz also keeping the torch burning brightly, Chicago’s live music scene continues to thrive. Still, its many defunct music joints from decades past continue to echo distantly through the nighttime air. 

--Bill Dahl

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