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Up the Down Staircase

I have been working on a book about Leonard and Phil Chess and Chess records for 18 months. My research has included considerable work with documents, hours of interviews with Phil and Marshall Chess, the engineer who built the famed studio at 2120 Michigan Ave., the city official at the Chicago Landmarks Commission who documented the architectural history of the building and several Chess musicians. I have also had the opportunity to listen to tapes of interviews with musicians who recorded for Chess but who are no longer alive.

I believe it is important to correct an unfortunate assertion in your story "Strange Voodoo" about the Michigan Avenue studio. Nothing I have found supports the claim that black musicians had to use the back door and the back stairway. Perhaps piano legend Johnnie Johnson, who made many records at the studio, put it best in a recent interview: "We could go in any way we wanted."

One other point: Leonard Chess never owned or operated the 708 Club. Records from the Illinois state liquor commission and the city of Chicago show that Leonard operated a small liquor store at 708 E. 47th St. for about 18 months between early 1944 and 1945, but he had long since moved on by the time that location became so well-known as a blues club.

Nadine Cohodas
Washington, D.C.

Down the Up Staircase

I have just finished reading "Strange Voodoo." Never in my adult life have I read anything that is so riddled with malevolent inaccuracies — particularly the quotes credited to Shirli Dixon-Nelson.

It was my privilege to have worked for and with the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, for eight years in Chicago. During that time, I was intimately acquainted with all aspects of Chess Records. I can state, categorically, that the presence of a back staircase at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. was for the convenience of the Chess executives, not the inconvenience of, or disservice to, any other people — white or black.

To describe the Chess brothers as anything resembling racists or to even suggest that they acted as such, is preposterous.

Dick La Palm
Los Angeles, California

On the Back Stairs Case

For more than 30 years, the everyday backdrop of my life has included sitting at the feet of legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Brother Montgomery and a revolving cadre of studio musicians that worked behind the scenes at Chess Records, an extended family that in many ways encompassed most of the blues community. At age four, Sunnyland Slim taught me my first blues song; a year later I recorded with Little Walter and Victoria Spivey. Through this experience I was confronted with artists’ perceptions, both professionally and personally, that may startle and upset what is commonly presented about the blues.

There are various confirmations that the back stairs were used by musicians to access the second floor studio and rehearsal room. One by Mr. Tim Samuelson, who in 1992 was employed by the Commission of Chicago Landmarks. He documented the history and design of the building and ultimately wrote the report which granted 2120 the Chicago landmark status. He said, "The back door was often used by musicians as a convenient way to haul musical equipment upstairs." He also urged that we preserve the back door for its historical significance, evidenced by its inscriptions.

Since the publication of "Strange Voodoo," Koko Taylor has stated she "never used the back door, but was escorted around" by my father. My mother, Marie Dixon, added, "Traffic on South Michigan Avenue was very heavy, preventing anyone from unloading their equipment safely." Other artists, such as Jimmie Lee Robinson (Little Walter’s guitarist, 1957–’58) stated: "I never liked the back stairs because they were too steep. Yes, I used the back door and stairs. I brought up my amp, guitar or whatever or I may have been helping other musicians. We were exploited. Some people were not part of the clan, like their secretary, A&R men or producers etc. and were kept in their place." Recently Jerry Butler described the musicians’ situation in a documentary about Record Row as "musical sharecroppers or musical slaves."

It is important that everyone make an effort to collect and record information regarding this historically significant period in the life of the blues to help them form their own opinion. We welcome all accounts and will continue to give these oral histories the respect that they deserve, as a treasure to be shared with future generations.

Shirli Dixon-Nelson
Blues Heaven Foundation
Chicago, Illinois

Ed. note: For more on the mysterious back staircase at 2120, see Rooster Pickin’s.

More Texas Coverage

Been meaning to send a note in appreciation of the magazine ever since I read the Butterfield series online a few months back. I remember thinking at the time, "This is the best music journalism I’ve read since they retired Guralnick’s number." (Ed. note: Not quite. See more on Guralnick in the hard copy version of BLUES ACCESS.)

Then I recently laid hands on BLUES ACCESS #36 to find the piece on Jr. Boy Jones, Gregg Smith and Robert Ealey by the cantankerous old Yank, Tim Schuller.

Twentysomething years ago, when I was a recent emigre to Texas from the North, I used to work in a record store in Dallas with Schuller (where I depleted their stock of Checker Little Walter 45s). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this was the same guy who’d written the liner notes to Robert Jr. Lockwood’s Does 12 on Trix, plus various Living Blues and Guitar Player pieces, etc.

I’ll take credit for introducing Tim to the FW blues scene, since I brought him over to the old Bluebird on Horne Street to see Robert Ealey not long after I moved to the better half of the Metromess circa 1978. I have many fond memories of hearing Ealey there, as well as others famous and less so, like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Ray (Mr. "Linda Lu") Sharpe, the Juke Jumpers, Freddie Cisneros, etc.

Today’s D/FW blues scene remains vital, with artists like Jim Suhler, Mike Morgan, Kirby Kelley, Kenny Traylor, Smokin Joe Kubek with Bnois King, Anson & the Rockets and Bob Kirkpatrick ripping it up on the Dallas side, while here in Fort Worth, we’ve got Ealey, Randy McAllister, Will "Smokey" Logg, Robin Syler, Dave Millsap and Rollo Smith, the Groove Daddies, Oaklin Bloodworth, Hosea Robinson and a host of others. I’m looking forward to reading more of Tim’s coverage of D/FW blues in BA.

Ken Shimamoto
Fort Worth, Texas (where the West begins)

The Hawkins Factor

I enjoyed your piece on Chess Records. I’d like to add a historical note to the author’s mention of Willie Dixon’s classic song, "My Babe." Among the many covers alluded to, let us add the name of white rhythm & blues great Dale Hawkins, who recorded "My Babe" at Chess studios in June 1958 — the first white artist to record for the Chess brothers, according to Hawkins himself. The lead guitarist on that session was a young Roy Buchanan, making his recording debut. I’m currently finishing a biography of Buchanan, so if anyone has photographs, clippings or leads on Roy, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

Phil Carson
Colorado Springs, Colorado

Uncle Tom’s Guitar

In regards to your article "Blue Kids on the Block" : Do you remember Shuggie Otis, Lurrie Bell and Eric Gale? All talented, and young at the time, blues/rock guitarists from different eras — ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. While all achieved some artistic success, none achieved the commercial success of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. The major difference amongst the guitarists is their skin color. In the blues/rock guitar world, the most acceptable role for a black man is that of the older, elderly bluesman-mentor, Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom to the young white guitarist.

Burnham Ware
Owenton, Kentucky

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