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Bad Talkin' Bluesman
by Nick Gravenites

           Nick Gravenites is the composer of "Born In Chicago" and "Buried Alive In The Blues." He is a link between the '50s folk scene, the early '60s blues scene in Chicago, and the mid-late '60s psychedelic west coast blues scene. His association with Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, the Electric Flag, Janis Joplin and various others is legendary. His recent recordings include Nick Gravenites and Animal Mind -- Don't Feed The Animals, available on Waddling Dog Records.

           Nick Gravenites' autobiographical column, "Bad Talkin' Bluesman," appeared in Blues Revue magazine (issues #18-26; July-August, 1995, through December-January 1996-7), where the original manuscript was edited or revised in some places.

           As seen here, columns #1-5 conform very closely to Gravenites' original manuscript, with passages that were altered or deleted by Blues Revue reinstated or returned to their original wording. Columns #6-9 are as seen in Blues Revue.

           All columns represent excerpts from the forthcoming book Bad Talking Bluesman: Nick Gravenites, My Life In The Blues by Nick Gravenites and Andrew M. Robble.

Part 1
"Welcome to the netherworld of the blues..."

Part 2
"I started to be bad trouble to my family at thirteen years of age..."

Part 3
"Man, it was blues heaven in Chicago in the late fifties and early sixties, and I was an angel in residence. I moved out of my mother's house, I had to pull a knife on her to escape out the door with my suitcase full of underwear and Kirkegaard..."

Part 4
"Little did I know that in my mean and crazy life lessons, I was being prepared for a life in the music business..."

Part 5
"The years 1964 and 1965 were the heyday of the white bluesman in Chicago..."

Part 6
"The bluesman's on stage, see, the joint is really crowded, and the couples are madly dancing and the wimmins is driving him crazy, and right in the middle of the song he takes this Coke bottle and he slips it down inside his pants..."

Part 7
"Them old Chicago blues, so funky, so raw, so tough, so free, nothing like it anywhere in the world, and nothing like Chicago people anywhere in the cosmos..."

Part 8
"Chicago has its own blues music style, and it is jealous of its application. If it ain't Chicago blues, it ain't nothin' at all..."

Part 9
"Where did all the good times go? Who the hell knows? I was drunk and stoned most of the time, wallowing in the Chicago flesh pits. Chicago is a meat town, meat-packer to the world and all that, and there was plenty of meat to go around..."

Part 1

           Welcome to the netherworld of the blues. I've been asked to write a column for Blues Review magazine, and I've racked my brain for a reason why I should do so. I know the pittance of payment certainly wasn't enough incentive for me to disclose my personal thoughts and opinions, things that I have kept to myself for so long. It's just that so many people call and write me asking questions about people I have known and worked with, and these people calling always had an agenda that certainly wasn't mine, I felt that it was important to advance my agenda, that of a bluesman. Not a blues player, a blues musician, a blues aficionado, a blues writer, or a blues performer, but a bluesman (person?). In the final analysis, blues is what a bluesman says it is. If you've heard Muddy Waters say the blues is this and you've heard Lightnin Hopkins say the blues is that, well, they're both right because they're both bluesmen. They've lived the life, they've paid the dues.

           To me, the blues isn't so much a musical style as it is a life, and a good life evolves and changes, it grows up and it grows down. As for the life of a bluesman, it is often irrational and mysterious, made up of complexities and contradictions. Music is often the only way these complex people can express themselves, should express themselves, because what is behind the music can be upsetting, even terrifying. It's better to be knocked out by music than be stabbed with a knife.

           I've read a lot of articles about blues, and the concensus view is that the music derived from Afro-American church music, or gospel. I'm sure a lot of blues music comes from the black church, but it is not the blues I am familiar with. The blues that captivated me was not of the church, but what the church called Devil's Music. This "Devil's Music" was played in whorehouses and funky dives peopled by sinners and criminals, drunkards, slackers and dope fiends, the underground elements of society. It was this underground element that I identified with, was kin to. I felt at home in this underground society because, lets face it, I'm a Chicagoan.

           I was born in the year 1938 on Thirty-Fifth Street in the Brighton Park area near Mayor Dick Daley's neighborhood of Bridgeport. It was, what I now call, a white ghetto. The ethnic mix of the neighborhood was German, Irish, Polish, Hungarian and Greek. We was honkies. While growing up there, I never met a Jew and the only black skinned person I saw around was the swamper "Smiley" who mopped the floor every morning at my family's confectionery. I know in the traditional blues story, the bluesman's family were blacks from the South, sharecroppers whose parents were probably slaves, and their first musical instrument was inner-tube strips nailed to the barn door.

           My family were Greek-American immigrants, and I'm a candy maker's son. The music I heard in the home was Greek string band music, the soul food I ate was Greek soul food. I went to the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at 56th and Peoria, and attended the Greek school there where I learned what I could of the Greek language. I spent many a morning traveling with my mother, taking the bus to her favorite foraging spots in the public parks and forest preserves of the city so that I could help her pick dandelion greens and grape leaves, staple foods of the Greek peasant diet. God, I still remember a dish she used to make, a soup called pacha. It consisted mainly of boiling a sheep's head in a large pot for a long time. The last thing you wanted to do was lift the lid of the pot and see the sheep's head, eyes looking right at you. My mother had funky country ways.

           My family name is Gravenites, which in Greek is Grevenitis, or I Greveniti, "those from Grevena." Grevena is a town in northern Greece known as a "massacre" town, a place where the Turks butchered the populace, and those who managed to flee and settle in other villages were called Greveniti. The Greek village my family escaped to, Paleohoriton, literally, "Old Town," was located deep in the inaccessible mountains of the Peloponnesos in the province of Arcadia. My family survived in isolation in a town so remote and dangerous to reach, adjacent to the second largest open hole on the Earth, that no stranger, no enemy could approach safely. The hole, the "Tripa," was where the bodies went, vanished from the face of the earth. My mother was raised in a society that considered women as dray animals, certainly not worth educating, and good for nothing but work.

           I remember my mother telling me that her mother told her that she had "five children -- two sons and three camels." So here's my mom, living in an isolated, xenophobic village terraced into the mountainside, bound by customs and attitudes from the Dark Ages, plucking greens and shooting rabbits, suddenly confronted with the sight of her future husband, my father, George Nicholas Gravenites, the man with the Homburg hat and the gold watch and chain, the home town boy that made good in the candy business in America. When my father told her that in America there was indeed bread that was already sliced, she had to go and see for herself this wondrous thing. The thing that always amazed me was that my mother and father could fit so well in Chicago. They had brought their own language, their own church, their own schools, their own society practically intact from Greece, and it didn't seem strange because all of the immigrants to Chicago from all over the world did exactly the same thing.

           Chicago is a city of distinct, separate neighborhoods isolated from each other by religion, race, language, country of origin, and it was many an immigrant that never left his own compound except to shop at the major stores in the Loop. This isolation of the neighborhoods wasn't confined to just the immigrant experience, but was shared by most of the inhabitants. The lines dividing the neighborhoods were by no means vague, but distinct points of embarkation. You could have an all-Polish neighborhood and an all black neighborhood living across the street from each other, but that street would be like a wall between them to be crossed only for business. My family also brought with them their old-country superstitions, witchcraft, and prejudices. I remember my mother taking me to a friends house so that I could have my fortune told by a process of dripping drops of olive oil in a pan of water and reading how the drops gathered. I don't know what the fortune teller told my mother, but I do remember my mother getting very angry at her and leaving her house in a huff. My family also practiced the old-world form of blood-letting, or cupping. This process consisted of rolling the folding bed into the kitchen, lying the sick person down on their stomach, slicing cuts in their back with a razor blade and placing heated water glasses over the wounds to suck the blood out. Every member of my family had razor scars on their back from this procedure. My mother swore to me that when I was a baby she saved me from a life-threatening illness by letting my blood. I watched my mother do it to her mother, and I could do it to you if you like.

           My family's prejudices could best be explained as xenophobia, that is, if you weren't a Greek you were an outsider, you really didn't count. It wasn't as if they hated others, they were just indifferent to them, with the exception of the Turks. My mother would spit and say the name Turk at the same time. Chicago is a town of alleys and basements, and my family had a lot of things going in our basement. I was seven years old when the second world war ended, but I still remember the ration books needed to buy food with. We made our own soap in the basement, we made our own wine, we slaughtered sheep and hung them on the basement ceiling beams to drain of blood and made sausages with the intestines, we canned peaches and pears, we made and bottled Greek "white lightning," we had a film darkroom down there. Talk about a busy place!

           My father died when I was eleven years old, and I got my first taste of the Greek blues. My mother was a country Greek to the bone, and she mourned like one. She wore black clothing for ten years. She would sit alone in the living room and sing and cry her pain in the sad, melismatic style we Greeks call METALOYIA, and it was music I will never forget. I went to work in the family confectionery soon after my father's death, and it was there I developed my public persona, started my Americanization. The store was called Candyland, and it was a brilliant world of mirrors and glass, marble, wood, stainless steel and tile. We made our own ice cream, made our own candies, our own syrups and flavorings, we had a giant humidor for every cigar made, custom display cases, a magazine rack with everything, a big Rock-Ola jukebox. I read every comic book, heard all the hits on the jukebox, wore an apron and served the people of Chicago, and I started to get a feel for things American.

           It was while working in the store that I first started to feel an alien trapped in an old world culture, the guy looking out at America from behind the counter. I didn't want to be behind the counter, I wanted on the other side. My family warned me about outsiders, well, the outsiders were Americans.

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Part 2

           I started to be bad trouble to my family at thirteen years of age. I was working in the family business from the age of eleven, but I wanted out of the restrictive culture I was born into, and I started hanging out with the local kids.

           The locals were lower middle class and lower class white kids of the immediate neighborhood. These kids had no money and little education, and their houses were dilapidated, few of which had hot water or showers. In the winter, they went down to the local gas station for their daily ration of fuel oil for the heaters. Ready cash was available to them through the Chicago growth industry of crime.

           Every chance I'd get, I'd be hanging out with the gang on the street corners trying to be one of the boys. I'd get involved in muggings, I stole from my family and my relatives and friends, we'd steal from the warehouse docks and spend the money on beer and sodas. We looked up to the older criminals, the armed robbers and burglars, and we looked forward to the day when we would get our first pistol, and rob banks like they did. With my father passed away, it was up to my mother to discipline me, and with her working all the time, she rarely knew where I was or what I was doing.

           I started smoking cigarettes at age thirteen and my mother kicked my ass to no avail. I got a tattoo of my name on my right arm at the local playground, and my mother kicked my ass to no effect. I'd be lying on the ground while my mother put the boots to me and I would look up at her and ask her if she was through and if she was hurting her foot. Pain and suffering for my mother, but I didn't feel a thing. I was starting to grow large and brutish and impossible to live with, and my mother felt she had no choice but to get me out of the neighborhood as soon as possible, and she enrolled me in the "West Point of the West," Saint John's Military Academy at Delafield, Wisconsin.

           I was thirteen years old when I arrived at St. John's in 1951, full of pimples, 5 ft. 6 - 1/2 inches tall and weighing 196 lbs. After three months of indoctrination, discipline, marching drill, church, scholastics, sports and hazing, I had grown three inches and lost thirty pounds. My ability to go home on leave was predicated by my scholastic average so I started to read and work on my grades.

           I was still the sullen troublemaker, but I was being contained by the system and, to my mother's great joy, away from south 35th St. I wrestled on the mats and played football on the gridiron, I used the library and started to write poetry. I spent the summers in Chicago up to my old tricks, hanging with the gang, drinking stolen whiskey and beer, dropping reds, whites and yellows, smoking reefers, driving around at night listening to the radio, but my mother found me summer jobs through her relatives which kept me away from any serious trouble. I was seventeen years old when a member of the gang was shot to death while trying to stick-up a tavern. His experience didn't change me. I understood nothing. What dominated my life was this feeling, this bloody rage, this murderous force bubbling beneath the surface of my skin, waiting to manifest itself in a torrent of blood and death.

           I hated so much, but why? And where was love? Of course, the love was hidden in the hate. I didn't know where I was going or what I was doing, the only reality I could count on every day was feeling. Nothing came easy to me. It took baseball bats to the head before I would learn a lesson. I took many an ugly turn. I had often wondered why my life was so difficult, so mean and ugly, and I finally realized that without this violent bent, this love of risk and crime, I would never have made it to the blues clubs of Chicago.

           I spent three and a half years at St John's Academy, and, with only a few months left before graduation, I was expelled for fighting. I hit some guy in the head, and his head hit the wall, and I was persona non grata. I arrived back in Chicago and enrolled at Central Day Y.M.C.A. high school in the loop area in an attempt to get my high school diploma. It was at Central Day that I met the teacher that would radically change my life.

           She was a vivacious red-head that taught English and was impressed with my creative writing skills. She lived with her husband in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that included the University of Chicago, and she took it into her head that I deserved the opportunity to enter the university. She invited me to her home for dinner where she played for me the first records of classical organ music that I ever heard. On subsequent visits, she and her husband took me to avant garde movies and all the while talked to me about applying to the university. She showed me the way to do it. I took the entrance exam at the University of Illinois, and scored high enough so that I qualified for my high school diploma. She had friends at the University of Chicago admissions office that smoothed the way for me to take their entrance exam, and to my great surprise, I passed with flying colors and was accepted even with my bad disciplinary record.

           Good God, the University of Chicago in 1956. Where do I start? You've got to know that the university had a very radical reputation in conservative America. It was as if Chicago was embarrassed to have such a place in its midst. The Hyde Park neighborhood, surrounded on three sides by the black ghetto, and on one side by Lake Michigan, was so totally isolated from the mainstream of white Chicago that most people, including myself, didn't know where it was located.

           It was an era of radical academic experimentation at U.of C., so much so that there was trouble with accreditation. You took a comprehensive examination when you entered, and they placed you in the university at the level you scored. If you scored at the third year level in mathematics, that's where they placed you in the undergraduate system. There was no minimum age limit on university applicants, and young achievers were encouraged to apply. There was no mandatory attendance requirement in class, and the only grade that counted was the one at the end of the year in the comprehensive exam.

           There were Korean War veterans, battle hardened marines and soldiers entered through the G.I. Bill mixing with sixteen year old geniuses in a neighborhood isolated from reality world and surrounded by hundreds of blues bars in the heyday of Chicago blues.

           In the first weeks of school, I made the rounds of the student organizations, pledged to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, and became a member of the largest student activity group on campus, the Folk Society. The University of Chicago Folklore Society was a hotbed of folk music fanatics, banjo players, guitar pickers, mandolin players, dulcimer, autoharp, harmonica players. They held affairs called Wing Dings and Hootenannies, giant group sing-a-longs, and they exchanged the latest records of Carlos Montoya, Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, Josh White, Harry Belafonte, Big Bill Broonzy, The Carter Family. The folk music craze was sweeping across America with university folk societies leading the way.

           Folk musicians started performing in coffeehouses and small clubs, and the Folklore society visited other schools, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. There were seeds being planted here that blossomed into the blues revival, and folk-rock.

           It was at a folk music hootenanny that I met Paul Butterfield. It was at a folk music shop that I met Mike Bloomfield. Butterfield was just learning to play the harmonica, and I was learning the guitar. It's been intimated that Paul was a student at the university, but he never was. He was a neighborhood guy, his family lived in Hyde Park, his mother worked for the university, and his father was a lawyer. He went to University High School but not the University of Chicago itself. He was a sixteen year old hanging out at the Folklore Society, and we wound up playing a lot together, learning our stuff, working out duets that we could do, sort of like Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, we were Nick and Paul. We were radically different personalities.

           I was being the tough guy, the bad talkin', gun-totin', pot smokin' hoodlum, and he was the innocent nice guy. We used to play tricks on him and call him "Jive Paul." He would ask me for reefers, but I refused to be the one to first turn him on. God knows, years later, with Paul leaking drugs and booze from every orifice in his body, I'd see him as this sweet kid, this nice guy we called "Bunky." So what happened?

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Part 3

           Man, it was blues heaven in Chicago in the late fifties and early sixties, and I was an angel in residence. I moved out of my mother's house, I had to pull a knife on her to escape out the door with my suitcase full of underwear and Kirkegaard. I moved into the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at 56th and Woodlawn where I was taught my first guitar chords by a physics student named Ed Gaines. He showed me the chords to E and A and D, and I started out strumming calypso rhythms, singing calypso songs. I sang songs learned from records by Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou and listened to the Jamaican singers Lord Flea and the Duke of Iron. My neighborhood buddies particularly liked "Shame and Scandal in the Family."

           I learned more chords from John Ketterson, another physics student, and it wasn't long before I was listening to and trying to play a wide spectrum of music. I bought the records of Josh White and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. I found recordings of Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy. I fumbled with the Flamenco of Ramon Montoya. I learned songs of the Spanish Civil War. I learned cowboy songs, bluegrass music, Appalachian sacred music, songs of Africa, the Boer War. I listened to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, all the Jazz organists, particularly Shirley Scott.

           I spent many hours at Rockefeller Chapel listening to classical organ and carillon concerts and practices. I met banjo players, harmonica players, fiddle players, mandolin players, autoharp and dulcimer players, piano and accordion players. I became a member of that proud class of Americans called "pickers." It was the "pickers" that eventually fanned out across America during the beatnik folk music-coffeehouse boom and became performers, singer-songwriters, the precursors of acid rock and white blues.

           I was bumming full time in Hyde Park, moving from someone's pad to the record store, then to the coffeehouse-photo studio, then the folk music shop, the shoe shop, the laundromat, the fraternity house, all the while hauling around a big guitar and case, playing songs or talking blues everywhere I went. My academic life was practically non-existent. I was burning the candle at both ends with endless partying, and I hadn't even started getting into the southside blues culture. That all changed when I met John Reiland and he took a group of us to the 708 Club, the club where Bo Diddley lived near and played at. My first live club blues experience was a Battle of the Bands, Little Jr. Parker's band versus the Otis Rush band with Louis Meyers. We were seated at a large round table in a high-backed booth directly facing the stage. When the bands started playing, alternating sets, my ears hurt so bad my brain went numb. It was the loudest music I had ever heard in my life, and after two sets, I was glad to get out of there.

           As we drove back to the university we were all highly excited by the experience. This was the life for me. The blues clubs were the perfect place for a reefer smoking, whiskey drinking goofball like myself.

           I shot a lot of pool at the University Club, and I got to be friends with the bootblack that worked the barber shop there. He told me that he worked nights as a bouncer at a club named Frader's Juke Box Lounge, and I started going there on a regular basis. Frader's was blues heaven for me. Frader's had it's own live radio broadcast, and a sound truck that would drive around the neighborhood touting the club. When you walked in the door, you were faced with a long rectangular room with booths along the left wall and a long bar on the right. At the very back of the room was a stage with a four piece blues band playing for the sporting crowd, but that wasn't where the real action was because immediately on the left was a door that led into the main show room, the big three-level dream palace. On the main floor were located the service bar, the hatcheck room, booths along the walls with tables surrounding the second level dance floor, and to top it all was the third level where a two-piece organ and drum band featuring Baby Face Willette would swing that huge room all night long. It always killed me that the small room had a four-piece band and the large room had a two-piece band.

           Frader's had a revue kind of show. It might start with a dance contest with the locals showing their stuff, followed by a "kootchie" dancer in a skimpy outfit dancing with or without snake. Next would be a feature singer like Good Rockin' Brown as part of the live radio broadcast, maybe one other feature singer, and all night long backing everyone would be Baby Face, his razor face sitting on a knifeblade body, the shoulderpads of his suit jacket hanging over his shoulders halfway down to his elbows, dark Ray Charles shades, feet dancing on the bass foot pedals of the big, double Leslie B3 Hammond swinging that big room 'til the walls came alive. In between sets, we'd drift with the musicians out the back door to the alley where the sound truck was parked and smoke reefers to get "straight." We got "straight" a lot. We'd drink so much we'd smoke reefers to sober up, and smoke so much we'd drink to calm down. We partied all night long way past the wee wee hours, into after-hour joints, and out to Maxwell Street to catch the bands setting up on the sidewalk, alternating pints of Thunderbird wine and "Jew" wine (sweet and red), sneaking reefers in between. These sessions often ended with me delirious and out of control, I'd pass out in strange places, or be rescued by passing friends, or wind up in the Bullpen at the jail. I learned some things on Maxwell Street -- that the blues was street music, straight forward, unpretentious and accessible. All it took was a harmonica and a hat and you were in business. That smiling, tuned-in guy who passed the cigar-box hustling coins for the band, he was show business in its most fundamental form. I drank wine in the alley with special black gentlemen and we talked philosophy and infinity, we talked about laundromats, we talked about God, we especially talked about "peoples." I learned that if people think you're "tetched," they leave you alone.

           My life got even wilder in 1959 when I turned twenty-one and got some inheritance money from my father's estate. Believe me, I became very popular at parties when I'd show up with half-gallons of gin and vodka, provoking excessive behavior. I went from party to party, and, after Frader shot some musician and went to prison, my bar scene drifted to Pepper's Lounge, where I was thrilled beyond belief, night after night, by the fabulous Muddy Waters Band. His guitar player was Pat Hare (somebody died -- Pat Hare went to prison), his pianist was Otis Spann. There were all kinds of mini-dramas happening within the band, involving drinking problems, money problems, women trouble. Otis Spann took it as a daily challenge to hustle somebody out of something, even a dollar, a drink, a trey-bag. They were all separate up there on the bandstand, individuals, they all stuck out.

           Muddy never started a show, he'd have the band do a few numbers to warm up the room, and when he came on the stage, he brought with him an aura of power and command that transfixed the audience and melded the band to him. Muddy looked good, he dressed well, he groomed well, his pencil-thin mustache trimmed and sharp, his pomaded hair newly conked and coifed. He wore a big diamond ring and sported a gold wristwatch, his shoes brilliantly shined, his skin smooth and blemish free. When he climbed on the bandstand, you could see that the band members were lesser mortals subject to the disappointments of life that spared Muddy. He'd play one slow blues after another, and these weren't laid back tunes, these were songs of power and concentration, the strength of one man's will reaching out to us in the audience, transforming us, engaging us to shout back at him, to agree, to encourage, to validate, to laugh and dance, and, in-between songs in the middle of the set, with him sweating from effort, he'd coolly lift his arm and, arching his eyebrows, check the time on his gold wristwatch. Damn, that always drove me crazy. Here we were in the audience on a wild rush with the music, and there was Muddy coolly looking at his watch. Muddy was letting us know that he was in complete control, he had an overview.

           Over the years I have seen many a bluesman look at his watch in the middle of a steamy set, most recently Buddy Guy, but nobody could do it like Mud. After the set, Muddy would come to "his" table, really three tables put together, and I'd be there to greet him and his guests with drinks for the table, a couple of pints of Old Taylor, some Cokes, glasses, some ice and cherries. There was a lot of laughing and mellow jiving going on, but there was no peace for Muddy. He couldn't sit by himself for more than thirty seconds without someone coming over wanting to talk to him about something, to say hello, maybe just to touch his shoulder, be close to him. He was a magnet for action. At either side of the long table would be standing small knots of agitated women arguing amongst themselves over who had the right to talk to Muddy, with sometimes the hierarchy being determined by fists, hair tearing, and stiletto high-heel attacks. Muddy would have to act as a referee. Man, what a commotion! Muddy was glad to escape to the stage and I would escape to the men's room where, after opening the door, it took an act of courage to step inside.

           Blues bathrooms were the funkiest bathrooms in the world. The stench was horrifying, the lightbulb non-functional, the toilet stopped up with the overflow of fluids and paper sopping in inches of ooze, you walked awkwardly on the outside edges of your shoes hoping for the best. If there ever was a Funkiest Blues Bathroom contest, Peppers Lounge would be in the top five finalists. If there ever was a Bluesman Looking at Wrist-Watch Contest, Muddy would win hands down.

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Part 4
Paul Butterfield
The Early Years

           Little did I know that in my mean and crazy life lessons, I was being prepared for a life in the music business. It was a tough and dirty business, this music business I was faced with. There were the jukeboxes, universally owned by gangsters, grinding out money for everyone but the musicians. There were the radio stations with manipulated play lists and a payola hierarchy. There was the concert business with money skimming and ticket fraud. There was the recording business where copyright theft and accounting rip-offs was standard operating procedure, and the contracts offered to the artists were akin to indentured servitude.

           There was the club business, jazz and blues, funny and cruel, where the featured artist got most of the money and the rest of the band was replaceable. There were the managers, the promoters, the entrepreneurs, who talked up-front about guiding their artists careers, but in reality were only interested in guiding the money into their own accounts. There was the record distribution business where the guy with the trucks determined what records got shipped and who got paid and when.

           This was the music business pie, a cherry pie, crumbly and gooey, sliced and divided up by the profane for their sticky fingered benefit, strangers need not apply except to bring cherries. A funny thing about pies. If you want a piece of pie you have to make your own pie and cut yourself a slice. There's no room at the other guys' table.

           I didn't see any room at the table for me except for the folk music revival that was gaining foothold at universities across the nation. College music was great fun. You had group sings, sing-a-longs, mini-performances, you showed off what you learned. You drank gallons of cheap beer and sang every known obscene verse to "Bang-Away on Lulu." This wasn't show business, it was all about having fun.

           In 1959 I read Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road," describing the Beat Generation and their hangouts, and I was seized of the idea that there was a beautiful spirituality in America to be found in the experience on the road to the unknown. My friend Ben and I drove his 1954 Ford to San Francisco in the summer of '59, and my life changed radically for the better. I felt at home where there were thousands of people my age meeting and greeting, thronging the street, the bars, the coffeehouses of North Beach, the doors wide open, the music everywhere. I went to the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, drank cokes, dropped "bennies," and listened to Billie Holiday on the Juke Box sing "Willow Weep For Me" over and over and over again.

           There was a powerful charge in the air and it spoke of energy and youth, for optimism, it spoke for good and truth and change, it spoke of a new awareness, it offered hope for the soul, my soul, my savaged, damaged heart. Change was what I needed and I took it. I became a "Beatnik" coffeehouse singer and I traveled around the country hanging out and playing in Bohemian bars and art galleries, living in lofts and houseboats, sleeping on available couches or floors.

           I had a summer job at a Jewish boys camp near Boston and on my days off I'd manage to get to Boston to check out the bar music scene. I wound up at a club that featured a band called The Green Men. I'd guess that you'd call it a white band except that everything about them, their hair and eyebrows, their shoes and clothes, eyeglasses, instruments, was colored green. They played a form of rock and roll that I wasn't familiar with, it certainly wasn't Chicago style and it didn't groove me much, but much to my surprise, people got up and danced to it and I caught my first glimpse of black people dancing to white rock and roll. I was stunned. How could they do such a thing, dance to music with no groove or soul? Wait until they heard about this in Chicago! I went to another club that featured a rock band that sang Philly a cappella style, an inter-racial group with bass, drums, guitar, organ, and sax. I was more at home with these guys, but it still was a long way away from the raw, funky, syncopated Mississippi style I was listening to in Chicago.

           On one of my trips to Boston I went to hear John Lee Hooker at a folk club called The Golden Vanity. Hooker was traveling around the east coast playing folk festivals and clubs, setting up on stage sitting in a chair with his electric guitar cradled in his hands, his amplifier off to one side, his foot stomping an incessant rhythm, his deep dark voice moaning no-rhyme blues. John Lee Hooker is a hero of the blues. It was these early folk music gigs that he did that gave the sophisticated east coast music crowd their first glimpse into the dark and powerful and simple majesty of the electric country blues.

           You've got to remember that, compared to the mid-west, the black population in the east was a long, long way from the farm and plantation. The last thing they wanted to hear was a drunken, plantation bluesman wailing away on one chord hypno-rhythm, playing through a distorted amplifier, singing verses that didn't rhyme. To them, the blues was Duke Ellington doing "Take the 'A' Train," black culture was perceived as in Harlem, on Broadway, with poets, jazz, writers, modern dance leading the way, a sophisticated culture.

           Well, Hooker's music came from what is best described as "stompin' on the levee," where the farmers and field hands would get way out on a dock somewheres with their music instruments and their moonshine and they'd play so hard and get so whacked they'd sing and clang their way to auto-hypnosis and the seat of the mysteries of the universe. This tableaux was a long way from the Broadway stage, or even show business.

           There's more to music than show-business, music can and often does save your life. You wouldn't believe the amount of resistance there was in accepting the Chicago Style electric blues as a natural extension of the country blues. Hooker brought his electric guitar through the east, and it was a heroic journey. There were about twenty patrons in the Golden Vanity, and after Hooker's set I went upstairs to talk to him, to let him know I was from Chicago and I was into the blues scene there and I was playing with a harmonica player named Paul Butterfield.

           When Hooker started to talk, he spoke with a stutter about his good friend Little Walter, and he told me the story of when Little Walter invited him to Chicago as his guest. Walter had been calling him in Detroit for a long time trying to get Hooker down to Chi-Town, and finally, Hooker took the train down and was met at the train station by Little Walter driving a big, shiny Cadillac, dressed to the blues nines with his camel hair coat, his gold jewelry, and his snap-brim hat.

           All this was happening at the time where Little Walter was the king of black Chicago. He was allied with the great Muddy Waters band. Walter went out on his own and cut hit after hit, Played all the clubs to standing room only, and was known throughout the scene for his flamboyant, partying lifestyle. Walter took Hooker to all the joints in Chicago, and everywhere they went they were greeted warmly as Walter introduced Hooker to life in the big city. After a crazy day and a wild night, they found themselves at the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove at about three in the morning, parked right on the trolley tracks in the middle of the intersection and Little Walter getting out from behind the wheel, pulling Hooker out of the car and telling him don't worry about parking or anything because "this was Chicago."

           Soon after I talked to John Lee, I went back to Chicago, and then back on the road and my beatnik life. I spent the next the next five years on the road, back and forth from Chicago and San Francisco. Paul Butterfield was traveling too, mostly with his girlfriend Ruth on visits to her family near Los Angeles. It was while on one of these visits that he came up to San Francisco to hang out with me, and I arranged a gig for us at a folk-music coffeehouse in Berkeley named The Cabal. Paul and I did a folk set with me playing guitar and doing the singing while he played the harmonica.

           After the set, a folk-music record producer by the name of Paul Rothchild engaged us in conversation and he made an offer to Paul to cut a record with him. Paul thought it was an interesting idea, but he explained that he didn't have a band together and wasn't ready in any way to record. Rothchild told him that whenever he was ready, he would record him.

           Later on in the winter of 1963, Paul visited me while I was living in Lake Hiawatha, New Jersey, and he tried to talk me into going to New York City and sitting in at some folk-club, but I hadn't played guitar for over six months, I didn't even own one, but he talked me into going and trying to borrow a guitar at some club so we could jam. When we got to Greenwich Village, we walked the streets and tried to talk our way into four or five folk clubs, but nobody would let us in. I remember talking to this particular doorman and giving him the big pitch about how great a harmonica player Paul was and that he really should hear him and the doorman says to me, "Hey, man, this is New York, it's not a Harmonica town."

           Now the Paul Butterfield I knew was a sweet guy, a nice kid who liked to jive, came from a good family in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, his father a lawyer, his mother employed by the University of Chicago, his brother Peter the more serious brother, an artist, an intellectual. Paul was raised in a Inter-racial neighborhood, had many black schoolmates and friends, and enjoyed rewarding relationships with many southside black and interracial families. There was no "thug" in him, no gangster vibes, no savagery, no violence, no hatred that I could see. Even though I was smoking reefers and dropping pills, I wouldn't give him any, I didn't want to be the one to give him his first drugs, that privilege being reserved for my partner, The Goon. I met The Goon at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Chicago, and we both had one thing in common, we thought we were tough guys, hard rocks, and the first thing we did together was cut cards for the privilege of carving your initials in the others arm with a razor blade. He had an NG carved in his arm, and I still have the SL sliced into mine.

           He was putting himself through college using armed robbery to help with his tuition. I was living in Inverness, California in 1962 when I got the news that The Goon was shot and killed in a gun accident. I returned to Chicago to try and be helpful, but instead fell into a whirlpool of powerful emotion swept along in a conspiracy of revenge and death, and I wound up in jail, along with my pregnant wife, Paul Butterfield, and two other friends. We were charged with drug possession, concealed weapons, we were driving a car that belonged to a witness in a wrongful death with the trunk full of stolen goods.

           But not to worry! Paul's father was an attorney, and I hired a top-rated defence lawyer and the case wound up being tossed out. I later asked my lawyer what happened, and he told me that it was all theater, that he had bribed the judge and that he bribed one of the officers to tell the truth and the other officer, of course, lied, and with the conflicting statements, the case was dropped. Justice Chicago style. You had faith in that old system, you could buy your way out of most anything, if you was white. You got a feeling of invincibility, an invisible plastic bubble that protected you from trouble, and it was this "bubble" that I brought with me when I traveled the blues clubs.

           I was under the initial impression that the ghetto was dangerous to me and that blacks were trouble for me, but after my initiation into the blues culture I realized that I was the dangerous one, I was potential trouble, because I didn't understand nothin' about nothin', living in a white man's fantasy world. I didn't understand about "Woofin'," the boasting, the name-calling, the bluster and bluff, the verbal give and take of the black culture I was a guest in. Sure, there was a lot of violence in the bars, but a lot of it was hollerin' and screaming, brandishing weapons, shootin' guns in the floor and in the ceiling, getting a brick from the street, but rarely did anyone get killed.

           White folks didn't understand that. You start threatening a honky and he might pull a gun and, instead of shooting it into the ceiling, wind up shooting you. And not just shooting you, but shooting you with the full knowledge that he could most likely get away with it. This privilege wasn't afforded to the black man. A black man shoot a white man in Chicago in the fifties and his ass was in jail and his money wasn't green. The bluster and the bluff was a great mechanism for keeping things happening, no matter what insult, what outrage, there was always one more thing to say. It was the ultimate cool, learning to talk "shit," to have the verbal reach, the nimbleness of thought, the complexity of argument and the blither of drugs and alcohol to talk about anything and everything whether it made sense or not.

           To improvise was important. Butterfield improvised well with the black community, he had an easy grace in his social relations in general, he was a lover, not a fighter. By the time I moved back to Chicago in early 1964, Butterfield had made his move into the Chicago blues bar scene, at first sitting in with local bands, and then becoming part of blues revue shows. He told me about the 1015 Club, and how he jammed with the Wolf's band at Silvio's, and the great revue band led by Smokey Smothers he was appearing with at the Blue Flame Lounge.

           I got a job at a steelmill on the south-east side and moved into a room at Butter's roominghouse on 53rd street. These were the best of times, these were the worst of times, the worst for me when I think of myself covered in red dirt and shiny black graphite flakes, the hot, dangerous work I was doing, drinking and doping on the job, coming back to the rooming house and passing out only to be woken a few hours later by Butterfield pounding on the door, imploring me to wake up because of something "really important," which really meant he wanted to talk to someone, maybe bum a joint.

           On my days off from work, Butter and I would bum around the Hyde Park neighborhood and do a few things to get ready for his gig at the Blue Flame. First stop would be the laundromat to drop off the dirty clothes and to rap a bit with the elderly caretaker, a black gentleman with a penchant for wine, and then off to the dry cleaners with the pants and the jackets, then off to the greasy spoon for a burger and a Nehi, looking for Baby Huey and his Baby-sitters to make their daily appearance at their hangout spot.

           We'd hit the folk-music shop, the local blues record shop, stop and hang with any friend that was home, stop at the Wilson brothers shoe repair shop to talk the blues, see if there were any "quarter" parties or rent parties scheduled, stop at various places around the university, maybe shoot some pool, and then get back to the rooming house in time to get ready for the Blue Flame.

           The Blue Flame, located at 39th and Oakwood, was a wonderful place. The owner, in his dress and physical characteristics, looked exactly like Elijah Muhammad. I was a large and airy place patroned by openly friendly people. They had a full-length stage set behind a full-length bar. In the back of the club was a hallway that led to the chicken-wing place around the corner.

           Paul would show up with a big smile on his face, set up his amplifier and harmonicas on stage and then come down and interact in a way that could only be called devilish. He'd eye and jive with the women and everyone was fair game. He'd disappear into the basement with any comely lass that wanted to get even with her boyfriend or just to check out the novelty of white boys. He'd take on anyone at the shuffleboard game and he was tough to beat.

           Paul was a piece of the musical review that included other regular performers, some special guests, and with bandleader Smokey Smothers on guitar covering everybody's action. Paul drank only beer, and he never got sloppy drunk or lost his senses. A lot of Paul's friends would show up on the weekends and everyone would party into the wee hours. The patrons at the Blue Flame really loved Paul's music and they considered his presence a breath of fresh air on their scene.

           Crazy things happened there. I once saw a poster plastered on the window that featured a blues guy, and, in big letters across the bottom, advertised the fact that he played guitar with his teeth. Sure enough, he played with his teeth. His false teeth. He'd take his denture out of his mouth and run it up and down the strings and play slide guitar. Truth in advertising.

           One night Paul and I stopped by the club to hear Junior Wells backed by Butter's rhythm section, Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold. Junior sees Paul in the audience and he introduced him to the crowd, which gave him a big hand, and then Junior invites Paul up on the bandstand to do a tune, and Paul starts in hard-driving and blue, his own rhythm section happy and snappy behind him. When he finished the tune, the crowd gave him a loud and enthusiastic response demanding more music, and this pissed off Junior because it was his gig and the crowd was dis-respecting him so he put on his jacket and walked out of the club leaving Butter to finish the night.

           A couple of months later I heard that it happened again the same way. Juniors' playing with Sam and Jerome, Butter comes in, gets introduced, gets up on stage and plays, the crowd goes crazy, Junior walks out, Butter finishes the night. Go figure.

           Lucky Paul, he was a happy guy. The men liked him and the women loved him, and his friends called him "Bunky." It was the black blues fans and club patrons that reacted so positively to Butterfield's music, that gave him his greatest encouragement as a bluesplayer. It helped me open my eyes to the knowledge that if you were a good player, you were good anywhere. The black blues audience was tough to please. I mean, you could be a white guy up there playing in the band and they'd accept you for at least being different, or just the comic value of it all, but to gas them musically was a thrilling experience.

           One day I was talking to Paul and he told me that he was thinking of getting a part-time job in commercial art and that maybe he'd give up music and start working for a solid future. Paul liked to draw, and the thing that he liked to draw the most was little devils. Tiny little devils less than an inch high trapped in grotesque positions falling through space in a burning orb.

           Just as Paul started his part-time job he got a call from a club on the near-north side called Big John's, a neighborhood bar that went to blues club through the efforts of Mike Bloomfield, Charlie Musslewhite, and Big Joe Williams. Bloomfield's band quit playing there in a tussle over money, and the owner of Big John's remembered Paul from when he sat in with Bloomfield, and he was calling to ask Paul if he wanted the gig. Paul was agonizing over what to do and he called Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold, Howlin' Wolf's rhythm section, and asked them if the were interested in joining his group for some steady gigging. Sam and Jerome were all for it because it meant that they would be getting paid some union money, something they weren't getting playing for the Wolf, plus they really enjoyed playing with Paul.

           The money was important. It was no fun being a sideman in a bluesband, you had to keep your day job. The big blues stars like Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, as great in their art as they were, didn't pay diddley. The ugliest word on a musicians lips was "raise."

           White blues players helped change the system, they didn't know any better, they paid everybody the same. Getting the money into the musicians hands was important. The great men of the music business, the ones with the mansions and the jet planes, those smiling faces you see in Billboard Magazine, living on the forty-fourth floor, they got their millions from musicians and songwriters, creative artists, usually by screwing them bad. There were so many rip-offs, double and triple dealing schemes, copyright thefts, crimes of omission and commission, that if you heard of some musician drowning in their own vomit, like, say, Jimi Hendrix, you'd know it was a fitting reaction to a bad situation. Pardon my spleen, but I feel like an endangered species, I feel the crosshairs on my back and the hair risin' on my head.

           Butterfield got his friend Elvin Bishop to play rhythm guitar, and Paul made the decision to play Big John's, and it was the beginning of the hey-day for white blues players in Chicago. Big John's was located in the Chicago neighborhood called Old Town, a section that featured folk-music coffeehouses, jazz clubs, improvisational theater groups, "head" shops, show-biz clubs, and, not co-incidentally, afforded inter-racial housing and race mixing. It was no accident that the two neighborhoods in Chicago that were the most exciting to me in terms of theater, music, and the arts, were places where blacks and whites could come together and deal with each other. This was at a time when they were throwing bricks at Martin Luther King in Chicago.

           I quit my job in the steelmill and Paul and I started going up to the north side on a regular basis to Paul's gig at Big John's. You entered Big John's to a long bar with a band-stand faced with tables and chairs in the middle of the room, and a back room that included two pool tables and a sometimes used burger pit. Big John's was my first white blues bar experience. There were other clubs that featured blues, but it was of the folk music variety featuring single artists, not the electrified band music I was used to.

           Big John's was a strange place with a personality and vitality all it's own. Everyone was welcome. You'd look down the bar on a crowded night and see a cast of characters that was both exciting and frightening. The person sitting next to you could be a contract killer, a mad poet, a police informant, an actor, a burglar proud of his profession, a house painter, a photographer, a concert violinist. a politician, a gangster, a one-armed piano player, a drug dealer, a nurse. They were so hard to read that you never knew them, you didn't want to know what they did, you just grooved to the music and had a good time. Butter started playing there two nights a week and the place filled up fast. Two nights a week became three nights a week, and then four. Eventually, the other nights of the week were filled by the likes of Howlin Wolf, A.C. Reed, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and the place was filled all the time and became the happening "in" place in Chicago. The black actor William Marshall became a regular patron, as did the classical conductor Seiji Ozawa, and D.J. and word jazz artist Ken Nordine hustled pool in the back room, the cast and staff of the Second City Theater would cruise by after their shows. Big John's became a magnet for other white bluesplayers who were forming bands. Barry Golberg and Steve Miller played there, as did Charlie Musslewhite, Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall. Mike Bloomfield started his band there. Harvey Mandel came by regularly, Boz Skaggs stopped by on his way through town. I was hanging out on the north side so much that I effectively moved my base of operations there and started sleeping on couches in a different neighborhood.

           Paul Butterfield's band played at Big John's for only a few months, and things were really starting to go well for Paul when, one day, he opened his mail and found that he had been drafted into the Army. This drove Butterfield crazy. Here he was with things starting to break for him and down comes the hammer. The only way out for him was to get married as soon as possible and claim a marriage exemption to the draft. Paul frantically called every girl that he knew or ever met and asked them if they wanted to get married to help save his ass from the Army. He finally found a waitress that he knew that would marry him, and they quickly got together and got blood tests and a license, and, with me as the best man, trained down to city hall and did the deed. Without this girl's help, he'd have been known as Corporal Butterfield because, as a married man, he was exempt from the draft and the killing fields of Viet Nam. It was during these wild and happy times that I got re-acquainted with Mike Bloomfield.

411-Winner Index > Archives > Nick Gravenites

Part 5

           The years 1964 and 1965 were the heyday of the white bluesmen in Chicago. Paul Butterfield had spent the previous seven years learning his craft, eventually playing music with some of the best of the black blues players throughout Chicago and he was now ready to front his own band. I came back to Chicago from San Francisco in 1964 fairly finished with my "beatnik" life and, bored with "folk" blues, ready to re-ignite the blue flame with that hot burning music called Chicago Blues.

           There was so much happening to me at this time that I find it hard to remember it all, but I do know that the neighborhood bar turned blues club, Big John's on North Wells, was my new clubhouse and I went there as often as I could. The original Butterfield blues band had four members, Butter on harp and vocals, Sam Lay on drums and vocals, Jerome Arnold on bass and vocals, and Elvin Bishop on guitar, and they had a steady four nights a week gig at Big John's and I don't think I missed a gig. I'd be a frequent guest sitting in with the band to sing a few numbers, usually "Messin' With the Kid," or a singing duet with Sam Lay of "Smokestack Lightning" or "Love is Strange."

           I'd spend most of my waking hours listening to blues, talking blues, hanging with bluespeople in bluesbars, going from one blues scene to another, reeferin', pillin' and drinkin', partying and jamming my way to blues oblivion. I remember sitting with friends on bleak, hung-over afternoons, steeped in the blues, trying to figure out what blues band to hear that night, who could it be that could possibly excite us, be blue enough to reach us, to get us up and out and alive again. Should we go see Walter? No, we saw Walter two nights ago. How about the Wolf at Silvio's? No, he's coming to Big John's tomorrow. How about Muddy at Peppers? No, it's always Muddy, lots of Muddy. Detroit Junior on South State? Junior Wells or Earl Hooker at Theresa's? Magic Sam on sixty-third street? Cotton on Cottage Grove? Smokey Smothers at the Blue Flame? Otis Rush on the Westside? Maxwell Street sidewalk blues? Big Joe Williams at the Blind Pig or a rent party? Big Bill Broonzy or Little Brother Montgomery at the Old Town School of folk music? Bluesy jazz on Randolph Street or the Airway? The choices were endless, but deep down we knew that no matter how funky we felt in our burned out blues ennui, we had a comforting ace in the hole because there was always Elmore James. Elmore could reach you no matter where you were, he could raise the dead.

           Mike Bloomfield was a big part of the re-vitalized blues scene in Chicago. Mike was a guitar player of uncanny virtuosity. The first time I heard him play was at a folk-music shop near the University of Chicago called The Fret Shop. He was sixteen and brash, and the sounds he got out of the guitar mimicked exactly the authentic folk styles of the American music he was mad about. I'm not talking about approximating the sound, which is what most of the guitarists I knew were doing, I'm talking about doing it exactly right, the right chording, the right fingering, the right feel.

           I remember my first impression of him was that he pissed me off. Here I was grinding away at my folk guitar, fingers a-hurtin', trying to make something that sounded like music, and here was this sixteen year old smart-mouthed wise-ass that had it down, and he did it with a smile. Mike attacked the guitar like a hungry wolverine on a carcass. When he was nineteen years old he was managing a folk-music coffeehouse on the near-north side called The Fickle Pickle, and he'd search out these old bluesmen of the twenties and thirties, guys that hadn't been heard of in years, some whom people assumed had died, men who had blues hits on "Race" records and then somehow disappeared, and he'd find these guys, get out in the ghetto and search for them and get them gigs at the coffeehouse, and, while they played, Mike would be there watching their every move, learning at the feet of the master blues stylists of America. This was an extraordinary situation that can never be repeated, and it helps to explain Mike Bloomfield's mastery of the blues guitar.

           Mike's masterful guitar technique wasn't limited to the Chicago Blues style, it encompassed the many voicings of the blues, the complicated idiosyncratic picking styles, the myriad open tunings, the unique gospel chordings of the American South, the Hawaiian slide, ragtime, and jammin' the jazzy blues. Mike was a masterful stylist making a song sound authentic in its many specifics. Authenticity was very important to the folk musicians that we knew, after all, we were looking for America in its roots so we could be real Americans and we felt that we were keeping the music alive in its original form for future generations, like good Americans should. Mike Bloomfield's encyclopedic grasp of American music styles qualified him as a scholar in the field and, towards the end of his life, he gave a popular series of lectures on the subject at Stanford University.

           Aside from his charismatic personality, the soulful depth of his character and his brilliant instrumental technique, Mike's enduring interest in music was as a musicologist, and he could not only talk the talk, he could walk the walk. Michael's vast knowledge of music forms made him an exceptional band leader. He not only knew the guitar parts of a song or style, he knew exactly what the other instruments in the band should be playing, and if needed, he could play every instrument at least well enough to show you what you should be doing.

           Mike brought the jamming he was doing with Big Joe Williams to Big John's and made that club into a successful blues bar, and, in a dispute over money, quit to form his own band with Charlie Musslewhite, and play at a club further north. Paul Butterfield got the job at Big John's after Michael Bloomfield left, and I moved up to the near north side to be close to the action where I started to bump into Mike around the music scene.

           I remember when Mike got married and I helped him move into a new apartment. He had just returned to Chicago from New York where he had been doing a series of recordings with John Hammond at Columbia Records, and he told me that he was putting a band together for some local gigs and asked if I wanted to be the singer. Hey, what was I doing but hanging out? Since I'd left the steelmill gig, I was back in the care of others, sleeping on friends' couches in Hyde Park, my mother's basement in Evergreen Park, a photographer's studio on the Near North Side. I was broke but happy because I was running with creative, exciting people in a city that was loaded with artistic dynamite. Somehow, I was taken care of, and, many years later, I realize that it was supposed to be that way. People are supposed to take care of artists, give them food if they're hungry, drink when they're thirsty, a roof when it's raining, comfort when they're lonely, pay them homage, buy their magic potions, maybe even kiss their ring.

           Mike and I started to look for places to work, and it was a difficult task. We went to the funkiest Southside honky joints imaginable, and were turned away time and again, but Mike had solid family connections that got us work on the North side. We played some coffeehouse gigs that allowed us to get a few things together and the seeds were sown for the later renditions of "Born in Chicago" and "East-West" by the Butterfield Blues Band.

           We wound up at a club near Rush Street named "The End," and it was one of the strangest gigs I've ever done in my life. We had a full six piece band that played on a large stage behind the bar, and it was the only place I ever played that actively discouraged business. The band would be cooking along with a hot blues number, and there would be no customers in the place. I mean none. People would come in off the street and sit at the bar, and no matter what they ordered, the bartender wouldn't have it, and if they changed their order to something else, he didn't have that until, eventually, they'd walk out, leaving us scratching our heads and playing to the wall. Every half-hour or so, somebody would walk in and talk to the bartender for a few minutes and then he'd leave. Every night at the end of the gig we would be paid union scale, thanked, and told we were expected there the next night because we were doing such a great job. We were gigging there one night and right in the middle of me singing "Messin' with the Kid" I heard some strange noises coming from the direction of the piano which caused me to turn around and catch the piano player playing the piano not with his fingers but with the side of his head, smashing his head on the keys as the band members, one by incredulous one, stopped playing to stare in disbelief at the breakdown of one of their own. Who ever knows? It could be one of us next.

           I had a lot of fun with that band. I got to do more than the traditional Chicago Blues, I got to develop and perform a lot of originals, my own stuff, my own blues, and Michael Bloomfield, the master interpreter, made it easy, helped give me a voice that I never had. I guess I can use that band as a prime example of a Michael Bloomfield band, who was in it, and for what reason. The drummer was Bennie Ruffin, a black man of great musical talent, humor, and charm, a warm smiling personality whose family's musical roots went back to vaudeville. He brought to the band his wide knowledge of black music styles from jazz, blues and pop. He'd crack me up when it was his turn to sing a tune because he always sang "Chew That Gum," and we'd chew along with him. Michael could easily find amongst his friends piano players, harmonica players, bass players, guitar players and sometimes singers, but it was practically impossible to find a good blues drummer. Blues drums wasn't something you could show your friends how to do on the gig like you could for keyboards and guitar (play these chords), or bass (play these notes), you had to bring it all with you or take the years to learn.

           The harmonica player was a young Charlie Musslewhite. Charlie had followed his own road from his home in Mississippi through Memphis to Chicago in search of his blue dream, and he wound up on the Near North Side sleeping on a couch in a record shop surrounded by thousands of blues records and hundreds of blues players. Charlie met Mike at the record shop and they became good friends through their singular passion for the blues, and Charlie, like Mike, searched out the old bluesmen for what he could learn. Mike would sometimes make fun of Charlie, like the time he tried to convince him to dye his hair and eyebrows white, wear a white hat, suit, shoes and tie, and feature himself in the band as MISTER CHARLIE WHITE. Charlie was poor southern rural white, Mike was rich northern city Jew, they met in the blues and they had fun together.

           The new piano player was a city black man named Whitehead, a sophisticated musician who could play anything you could play, and he left you with the impression that he knew a lot more than what he was called on to do. He was as solid as a rock and he lent a certain dignity to the band. The bass player was a neighborhood friend of Michael's, a clean-cut, goodlooking white guy that played straight ahead bass with no frills attached and he made it look simple and easy. I was the singer, and this was in the days of my youth when I sill had a falsetto. Years of shouting into microphones that didn't shout back, trying to be heard over the din of electrified music played very loud by Mike Bloomfield, who was one of the world's loudest guitarists, left me with a narrow range that is best suited to singing into a bad microphone through a lousy sound system. Man, the early sound systems were pathetic, the whole business of sound was in the prehistoric age. The recording studios were using three-track tape machines, getting ready to graduate to four-track, and live sound on stage was in it's primitive stage and it stayed that way until the advent of the San Francisco hippie bands, when their large auditorium shows and giant outdoor events precipitated a revolution in live sound and recording technology. Hey you guys with your digital toys, remember where we started? This was a typical Mike Bloomfield band, peopled by people that basically got along, some whose friendships were more important than their musical ability, some otherwise, but basically a family feeling that transcended their differences in that time, in that bar, in the blues.

           I have often wondered what life would have been like if that band had stayed together, freeze-frame that time and play it over and over again, delay the passage of time and warp the future, but it was not to be because change was in the wind and we were blowing it. Big John's was burning as a blues club with Butter there four nights a week and two nights a week a succession of the blues legends of Chicago. Howlin' Wolf played most Monday nights, he'd have his regular band with Hubert Sumlin, and his gigs were solid comfort. Wolf felt right at home at Big John's, he'd sit in a chair and smoke his pipe and play what he pleased. It was like sitting in his living room. He had a certain riff, a "Cleo's Back" riff, with the stop at the turn-around, and he'd start with that riff and play it over and over again, time and again, one minute, five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and each time that riff went by it gathered the force and energy of a long-line freight train pulling a steep grade, and when it finally stopped you were disappointed that it had ended so quickly.

           Otis Rush's band appeared regularly, as did A.C. Reed. I caught Little Walter there when he was on his last legs. Walter was shot, his body had nothing left, he was a mere shell of a human being, his body was painfully thin, his face a roadmap of scar tissue, his eyes rheumy and yellow, a ghost with a harp leaning on a microphone stand, but, you know, he could still play the blues, and not just play them, but knock you on your ass with them. When he played "Blue and Lonely," it made me want to beat my head against the wall and beg him to stop.

           I caught Buddy Guy's band there one night, and I got caught up in a weird situation. Buddy was playing and he was drunk and his guitar was out of tune, and his bass player was drunk and he was out of tune, and the whole set just disintegrated into a crank ending with Buddy putting down the club and it's patrons for being jive and not understanding the blues. After his set I went up to him and engaged him in conversation letting him know about Big John's, the great blues bands that played there night after night, the patrons who were quite knowledgeable in the blues and that he was drunk and out of tune, so was his bass player, and his set was bullshit and the people didn't deserve to be put down. He started to agree with me and admitted that yes, he was out of tune and drunk, and so was his bass player, and maybe that was the reason the patrons didn't respond favorably to him. Things settled down and Buddy finished the night without any problems, and I haven't seen or talked to him in thirty-two years, but I kept tabs on his career, and I heard horror stories of more drunken put-downs and mad goings on with Junior Wells. I love the blues. It is a great blues story that Buddy Guy survived the years of alcohol and anger and mis-direction in his life to become the great star and erudite spokesman of the music and life I love so much. I'm glad he dodged the bullet.

           Otis Rush was a regular at Big John's, and I never missed the chance to hear him and his band. Otis has always fascinated me as a great guitar player and a fabulous singer. I first heard Otis as a teenager, listening to live blues radio shows that were all over the radio dial in fifties Chicago. Otis was a big hit while he was still a teen-ager, a young man that excited everyone that heard him, and he was considered the cream of the West Side bluesmen. His singing style was so intense that you felt he would break the microphone and amplifier along with your heart, and his guitar style was highly unusual in that he played a right-handed strung guitar left-handed, upside down and backwards, like Jimi Hendrix. It wasn't until years later after hearing him on the radio that I got a chance to see him in person, and my first impression of his style was that of shock and disbelief. For all of his emotional singing style, the high falsetto and the intense passion in his voice, he himself looked calm and unemotional, almost like a block of ice. I could never reconcile the two persona, the fire of his music and the coolness of his continence. It still fascinates me. I could talk for hours about the blues people that congregated at Big John's, nice people, good people getting along and getting ahead, the great good fun of social interaction with the likes of Luther Tucker, James Cotton, Louis Meyers, Otis Spann, Corky Siegel, Barry Goldberg, Steve Miller, Andrew Jeffries, Doug Jones, Sammy Lay, Elvin Bishop, Jerome Arnold, and a whole cast of characters from the sublime to the obscene, the poets, the stoolies, the waitress, me.

           It was now time for the Big Break. Butterfield's action at Big John's was so heavy it attracted the interest of the professionals, the money men, the guys who could turn music into cash, and it arrived in the form of Albert Grossman, a successful personal manager in the folk music field who was handling the career of, amongst others, Bob Dylan. Albert had a Chicago background that included a political job with the Chicago Housing Authority managing public housing, a bratwurst and folk-music club, the owner of the best folk music club in America, the Gate of Horn, owner of a sort-lived French restaurant and music showcase called The Bear, and he had the reputation as a "all-or-nothing" crapshooter that led to a couple of bankruptcies before he finally got it right. Paul Rothchild of Elektra Records arranged for Albert to visit Butterfield at Big John's, and Albert made him an offer to manage his career, which would include a recording contract with Elektra and travelling to the east coast to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. Butter made an agreement with Grossman and he got ready to go on the road. Butterfield approached Mike Bloomfield and asked him to join the band to play the festival and record the album, and since our band was going nowhere, Mike agreed and he started to rehearse with Butter's group.

           Butterfield was extremely agitated and nervous about what lay in store for him in the great unknown, and he asked his friends for back-up, for support, to help him out by travelling to the Newport Folk Festival as a group to make their presence felt, and we got two car loads of people together for the trip east. Barry Goldberg was in one of those cars. I remember when Mike first took me to hear Barry play. Mike had talked to me about him as a good bluesplayer and an old friend, and we went to this club on Rush Street where Barry was playing organ backing up Bobby Dee, a singer whose claim to fame was an inane hit called Cherry Pie. All Barry wanted to play was the blues, and here he was stuck up on the bandstand on a straight gig playing pap, and you could see the pain, the grimacing, the physical illness darkening his face with every meaningless chord. Trapped on stage making money when he should be playing blues. When they finally played Cherry Pie, it looked like Barry was going to seizure and die.

           Barry went to Newport as a man possessed. At the start of the trip he wore a blue bandana around his head and he never took it off. When you talked to him he got a far-away look in his eye, he didn't want to talk, he was somewhere else, he had a vision, he was going to do something, anything to be heard, to force the future to his will, to cross the river, to climb the mountain, to ignore the nay-sayers, to walk on stage and play the blues with Mike Bloomfield if front of thousands of people, to play organ in Bob Dylan's band.

           There was more than music being played at Newport in 1964 -- there were the head games and the power trips of the music business, the vested interests with their own agendas protecting their turf against the new, young, and hungry. Alan Lomax Jr. gave Paul Butterfield's band a desultory and condescending introduction, almost apologizing to the audience for their presence at the festival, he introduced the question "Can a White Man Play The Blues?", and this so infuriated Albert Grossman that he confronted Lomax and they wound up punching it out, rolling around on the ground in the dust of the backstage area. Hey, it was good to see dirt under their fingernails.

           The Newport Folk Festival was essentially Bob Dylan's show, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was just a bit player in the larger drama of his persona, his music, his playing electrified music to a folk music audience. On the afternoon prior to Bob Dylan's performance, a group of people that included Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman, Al Kooper, Bobby Neuwirth, George Wein and Mike Bloomfield gathered at George Wein's large house on the festival grounds to help plan Dylan's intended electric performance. Mike Bloomfield was in his usual role as a bandleader as he sat in a chair with his guitar showing a succession of musicians the chords to Dylans songs, trying to determine who could play well enough to be in the band. I was sitting on a sofa with my feet up on the coffee table when Bobby Neuwirth (Dylan's sidekick) came over and kicked my feet off of the table.

           I got my chance to sing at Newport when Butterfield asked me to perform at an afternoon blues workshop. I was a member of the Butterfield-Grossman entourage, hanging at their hotels, and Albert Grossman asked me to drive one of the cars to the festival grounds and I wound up driving Dylan to that momentous gig. He didn't say a word to me, he was in another world. It was good to see Dylan up there on stage playing with those Chicago guys, Barry Goldberg, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Sam Lay, men who had earned their chops in the bluesrooms of Chicago, they were the best in the world. Long and late after the show at about six in the morning Mike Bloomfield was doing an insomniac's wander around the grounds when he bumped into Bobby Neuwirth coming back from a late-night party. Mike walked up to Bobby and said that he couldn't believe his eyes, that it was really him, that he was still alive, that he had to touch him to make sure that he wasn't dreaming because Mike thought Bobby was dead and he was talking to a ghost. Bobby was a bit freaked out, of course he was still alive, why shouldn't he be, what was Mike talking about? Mike said, "You remember that guy whose feet you kicked off the table? Don't you know who that was? That was Nick the Greek, man, and he's going to kill you! I'm surprised that you're still alive, here, let me touch you once again to be sure." Bobby sought me out later in the day and we talked about the incident and I told him to forget it, that it meant nothing to me, and we had a long laugh about crazy Mike Bloomfield appearing out of the early morning mist, a modern day Hamlet talking to ghosts.

411-Winner Index > Archives > Nick Gravenites

Part 6
Chicago 1965

           The bluesman's on stage, see, the joint is really crowded, and the couples are madly dancing and the wimmins is driving him crazy, and right in the middle of the song he takes this Coke bottle and he slips it down inside his pants and he makes it stick out and he flops it around like it was his dick, and the audience goes crazy, egging him on, shouting for something even more outrageous. It's up to the individual to take it from there.

           You can imagine the effect a scene like this would have on a whitebread honky new to the blues life in late-fifties Chicago. You'd be sitting in the audience looking up at this and you would think, wow, I could never do this, white people just don't act that way, they don't fondle their private parts in public, especially on stage for the whole world to see, that's for black people, they can do that, I could never do that. Most white people couldn't do that. The bluesman's up on stage and he's big and black and sweaty, and he's dressed in overalls, and he weighs three hundred pounds, his hands as big as a baseball fielder's glove, his fingers the size of sausages. He takes his guitar and he changes the tuning to one pleasing to his ear and he takes out of his pocket the neck of a broken wine bottle and starts sliding the bottleneck up and down the strings and goddamn if it wasn't music. White people couldn't do that. And that carefree blues lifestyle, the whores and pimps, the dope fiends and the dealers; the wine women and song, the way late night life, the hot music, the petty thieves and con men, why, that was for black people, white people didn't live that way. My god, do you remember Elvis Presley's first appearances on television where, when he started twisting his hips, they blacked out the picture from the waist down?

           Most white people weren't into the blues lifestyle, they weren't musicians, it wasn't a life journey, they were either academicians, reviewers from Europe, record promoters looking to make two hundred dollar albums, or musicologists doing research. They left the club at night and went back to their own lives, they were outsiders looking in and I never saw them in the alley drinkin' wine. It was these people, these white people that couldn't conceive of themselves ever playing this music, that assumed that because they couldn't or wouldn't play, no white people could, it was a racial thing only black people could do. They became the White Protectors of the Black Race, they protected black culture while they pontificated on blues matters and wrote the reviews and the history.

           Of course, history is bunk. I've read articles and seen television shows on the history of the blues and, lo and behold, I'm told that it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones that popularized the blues for white America, and if there are facts that indicate otherwise, well, just ignore the facts. What the hell do you think the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was doing the years they spent playing blues for white America? They weren't playing rock and roll. I remember when the Butterfield band was playing the Fillmore Auditorium and the promoter, Bill Graham, was talking to Mike Bloomfield, telling him what a great guitarist he was. I remember Mike telling Bill that if he thought he was great, wait until he heard the guys he had learned from, people like B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddy King. Bill asked him if he knew how to get in touch with these people and Mike told him the name of B.B. King's agent and Bill got a hold of this agent and hired B.B. King for the Fillmore, and this was the beginning of B.B.'s meteoric rise to the top in show business, that got him into the big money and the showcase gigs in the best places. I didn't see no Rolling Stones hanging around. The blues is not a racial thing, it's a human thing, it's a lot bigger than these little boxes people try to fit it in, it's a lot bigger than the area of their closed minds. If it's in you, it's got to come out. My feeling is that if you say someone can do something because of race, you can also say they can't do other things because of race, sort of like black blues players and white dentists. Pardon my racial blithering, but don't make the blues small, don't make it a purveyor of cheap stereotypes, a free ticket to a dues paying organization. The dues happens over and over again. When you finish paying old dues you start paying new dues.

           When Butterfield was finished at the Newport Folk Festival, his band went to New York to start recording their album for Elektra Records, and I returned to Chicago with the blues entourage. Believe me, things got boiling wild in Chicago in 1965. Steve Miller took over Butter's old gig at Big John's and he and Barry Goldberg kept the place hot. I was sleeping around at various friends' houses in Hyde Park or the Near North Side, and I was hanging out with a fast, thrill-seeking crowd that included jazz and blues musicians, bartenders, clavichord players, students, actors and actresses, models, photographers, drug experimenters, burglars, filmmakers, thugs and common drunks. Regular Chicago people, I thought.

           I got phone calls from Butterfield in New York and he complained bitterly about the way the recording sessions were going. The record producer, Paul Rothchild, was new at recording electric music, and his method for assuring success was to have the band do endless repetitive takes of every song the band knew or could conjure up. These takes were from the top, with Butter singing every take, and he told me that his voice was so screwed up that he was finding little flakes of what he assumed was lung tissue on the microphone. He said that he ran into Mark Naftalin in New York and that he was thinking of having him play keyboards in the band.

           Butterfield was about to embark on a touring schedule that can best be described as "Sloggin It." It was the white version of the "Chitlin Circuit," maybe it was the "Psychedelic Cheeseburger Circuit." It included driving vans and station wagons to music bars, small dance halls, go-go joints, definitely not too many glamour stops, maybe some television appearances to hustle their new record, trips back to the studio to record some more. Any ideas that Butterfield might had that it was going to be an easy road to the top were jarred loose by the rear axle of a van thudding across the potholes on the highway to the next gig.

           Yes, Albert Grossman, the big-time manager, was taking care of his business, but, unfortunately, Paul was just a small cog in the Albert Grossman machine called Bob Dylan. There was so much of Bob Dylan's money passing through Albert Grossman's hands that it was a full-time job for him just renting places and hiring people to collect it and to count it all. Everybody was recording Dylan's music, The Byrds; Peter, Paul and Mary; Ritchie Havens, god knows how many groups around the world and in how many languages, and Albert had his fingerprint on every dollar that went cruising by. Albert's trip was money. He was no tapdancer, no musician, he was a businessman and the business he took care of best was his own. Ostensibly, he was managing the affairs of his clients, but the advice he gave them wasn't necessarily the best for them. You can be sure it was the best for him. If he was really managing other people's affairs, the best advice he could give them was to fire him. Of course, Albert got all the songs of all his artists published through his own companies. Now, it seems to me that if he was really managing his artists' affairs and giving them good advice, he would have advised them to form their own publishing companies so they could keep the hog share of the money while paying the manager a share of the proceeds. What a joke!

           Albert Grossman managed this huge deception with his clients, purporting to be in their corner for their interests. Meanwhile, he used his own lawyers, his own accountants, his own agents, his own record production companies, to keep most of the cash for himself, and by the time anybody wised up to what he was doing, the contracts were all signed, the money went to Albert, and there was nothing you could do about it.

           When Albert died, it was as if Pharaoh died, and when Pharaoh dies, everybody dies. Most of the records, the files, the contracts from these early Grossman days, why, they're "lost," they've "disappeared," "lost in a fire," they went into the tomb with Pharaoh, the only thing left was a punched ticket on a one way-trip to the morgue.

411-Winner Index > Archives > Nick Gravenites

Part 7
Hangin Out In Chicago In 1965

           Them old Chicago blues, so funky, so raw, so tough, so free, nothing like it anywhere in the world, and nothing like Chicago people anywhere in the cosmos. Chicago people is special. They're too smart to know where they are and too crazy to know what they're doing.

           While Butter and Bloomers were on the road, I was having a ball back in Chicago. There was folk music, jazz, and blues everywhere I went, and the music clubs was where I hung out. I got to meet a lot of new people on the Near North Side, and a fun-loving bunch they were. I met Todd Cazeux, a free-lance photographer and a bartender at the Second City Theater, and I made the improvisational theater one of my many hang-out stops. Improvisational theater people weren't very different from the blues crowd I was hanging out with-most of them were crazy in some way and they used their weirdness to make a living, they used language in the same way as jazz and blues musicians used music, right off the top of their heads. Many of the people working Second City went on to future fortune and fame in the theater and movies and, more importantly, they spread out across the country and formed new improvisational theater groups in many of the major cities of the United States and Canada.

           The director of Second City Theater was a man named Paul Sills, a kind and unassuming man surrounded by the wild and impetuous people he directed; he was the center, the eye of the hurricane. The origins of the Second City Theater lay in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, the same place that gave birth to my fascination with the blues, in the back room of a bar called the Compass Tavern. Actors from theater groups at and around the University of Chicago formed a back-room group named the Compass Players, and these people eventually moved to the Near North Side and evolved into Second City Theater, the home of comic genius.

           Sills eventually opened a new theater on the Near North Side and called it Game Theater, and I was asked to participate in their training sessions. I was having a lot of fun at Game Theater working under Paul Sill's direction, and one day he asked me to formally join the group under a scholarship, and I had to do some thinking before I formally turned him down. I told him, "Paul, thank you for your kindness and generosity, but for all the people you are working with in the theater, none compare to the people I'm working with in music." The musicians were smarter, funnier, and they were laying down a heavier message. Theater wasn't my life, the blues was.

           It was years later, after I had some success in music, that I talked to Paul Sills in Chicago. I asked him why he was still in Chicago when he could be in New York or Hollywood doing big-time things where all the action was. He told me that Chicago was such a challenge, the streets were so mean and cruel, the obstacles to success so daunting that if he could achieve something here he knew it would be something spectacular that would hold up anywhere in the world. He was talking about Chicago people.

           I also got caught up in the lives of a couple of photographers, Cazeux and Norris McNamara, and spent a lot of time in their free-form photo life. We spent a lot of time breathing the noxious fumes of the darkroom and the herbal fumes of grass. When Martin Luther King marched for open housing in Chicago, Todd and Norris covered the action armed with their motorized Nikons and dressed in their tennis shoes (for fast and dartful running) and helmet liners (for protection against brick throwers). Norris arranged a crazy LSD party at his family's estate on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and we wound up recording some bizarre music that was later used as the soundtrack for a radio show on LSD.

           McNamara's studio was a great place to hang out, especially when there was work to be done. The boys hustled everything they could to make money with the camera, they photographed music groups, fashion models, whiskey ads, helped with research for a professor at IIT, plus a lot of free-form, off-the-wall photo work. Boy, we had some fun times.

           I'd make my stops on North Wells Street. From north to south, I'd start at the coffee shop at the Lincoln Hotel for coffee and refuge from the elements, then I'd walk a little west toward the house of the blond bombshell who let me sometimes sleep on her couch, then back to Wells St. and the nightclub Mother Blues to talk to Lorraine Blue, Curly Tate, Spanky McFarland, whatever folksingers were around. Then I'd walk on south to Big John's, where there was always something weird going on either inside the bar or out on the sidewalk. A lot of times I never even went into these music clubs, maybe I was too broke, maybe I liked the sound of the music from just outside the front door, where it sounded mixed just right; maybe I was just feeling isolated with my own blue funk and wanted to hear the music straight, no people, preferring to stand out in the wind and the rain to be alone with the music.

           I'd stop at the head shops at North and Wells, go around the corner to the dress shop and say hello to clothes designer Christine, two blocks west to O'Roarks, the Irish bar for serious drinkers, then back to Wells St. and south to McNamara's studio with the great barbecue joint across the street. I was constantly looking for places to sleep, some food to eat, some cash for my pocket, some action, and when the Near North Side got tight, I'd have my stops in Hyde Park, my stops along 35th Street, my stops at mom's.

           More and more of my life was being taken up by my relationship with my friend Jeff Spitz, a man with a great love of music, beautiful women, well-crafted guns, mercurial wits, fancy cars, exquisite hi-fi, business, theater, art, medical science, high times, and psychedelic buffoonery. I tell you, the boy had style and a bankroll, and we did a lot of crazy things together. He made home recordings of me and Butterfield. We once drove his '64 Buick Riviera to Miami to record the Chicago jazz great, Ira Sullivan, at a live jam session. We flew to Los Angeles to discuss the color spectrum and its practical applications with actor, director, wired genius Delbert Close at his QuirkOptics workshop.

           Jeff decided that it was time to go into the record business, and he arranged a session at CBS studios in Chicago for his new label, Out Of Sight Records, a name suggested by Pete Welding, a musicologist and record producer who was living in Hyde Park. We cut two of my songs, "Whole Lotta Soul" and "Drunken Boat." These are the musicians on my first recording session: Nick Gravenites, vocal and guitar; Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, guitar; Paul Butterfield, harmonica; Erwin Helfer, harpsichord; Scotty Holt, Bass; Steve McCall, drums; Lester Bowie, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; Roscoe Mitchell, alto sax.

           We got two bizarre-sounding songs, had a thousand copies made; five hundred got lost in a warehouse somewhere, we gave away four hundred and sold a hundred. I gave my only copy to John Goddard of Village Music in Mill Valley, California.

           It was now Spitz's brilliant idea to open a psychedelic nightclub, a music place on the Near North Side. We were "partners"-he had the cash and did the leg-work, I knew the musicians and did the dirty work. We found a filthy place near North and Wells, and named it The Burning Bush. We were right next door to what John Gotti would call a "social club," and we went about the business of opening the joint. Jeff would take a walk a few blocks west to the local clam house to get advice as to how to deal with all the building inspectors, the health inspectors, the politicians, the police, the liquor license board, what vending machines to use, what laundry service to call, what liquor distributor to deal with, what beer to use. It was a full-time job just trying to figure out who to bribe, but the "outfit" provided Jeff with a road map, sort of a bribery directory, and Jeff provided them with the latest information on anti-bugging devices. Thus I got into the nightclub business and being an alcoholic.

411-Winner Index > Archives > Nick Gravenites

Part 8
Life Inside The Burning Bush

           Chicago has its own blues music style, and it is jealous of its application. If it ain't Chicago blues, it ain't nothin' at all. Chicago blues is essentially Mississippi blues electrified, and the people who played it best were from the Mississippi Delta region. When it came to listening to blues, Chicago was Mecca and Jerusalem, and I feel privileged to have been there during the late 1950s and early '60s, the heyday of the Chicago sound, when the music was fresh, thrilling, and raw.

           The transition from listener to player wasn't easy. I wasn't Mississippi, I was a Chicago Greek. My influences were not only Delta blues, but the wide spectrum of music from all over the world. Music is people, and the people I was hanging out with were blues fanatics, not necessarily blues people. These blues fanatics were people of all races and backgrounds, a hodgepodge of cultures and personalities, less a pig-ear sandwich than a vegetable soup.

           The Burning Bush, the music bar I ran with Jeff Spitz, was our soup pot, and it was bubbling from the get-go. There's nothing glamorous about opening and running a music bar, it's mostly hard work and frustration, the dirty work of construction and cleaning, of turning desire into design. We were to have a "psychedelic" club, complete with a flashing colored ceiling and an up-to-date sound system, and we encouraged musicians of all styles to participate. After the initial construction and opening, my routine consisted of opening the bar at eleven a.m. and having a quick beer for breakfast, (we called it an Irish breakfast). Then I'd mop the floor and dump the garbage, check the bar supplies and wait for the first rehearsal band to show up and use our facilities to get it together. I formed a music group with some of my friends, called The Chicago Folk Quintet, and we played exclusively at the Burning Bush. The band consisted of drummer Roger Wundershide, guitarist Bob Perry, bassist and songwriter Lou Hensley, guitarist and songwriter Gilbert Moses, and myself playing guitar and singing. Most of the music we played was composed within the band, and some of it was strange stuff indeed.

           We needed a band for our opening weekend, and, through a strange series of events, got the James Cotton Blues Band. James Cotton didn't even have a band at the time, he was still playing with Muddy Waters, but he was feeling abused and neglected and was looking for something new. He went to Muddy and said that dirty word, "raise," and he was turned down, but it wasn't being turned down that depressed James, it was the way Muddy put it. Muddy said that he wasn't about to give a raise to no harmonica player, and he made it sound like harp players were at the bottom of his agenda.

           Enter Gordon Kennerly, a friend of mine who had met James Cotton in California when Muddy was touring. James and Gordon became fast friends. Gordon came out from San Francisco and tried to talk James into leaving Muddy's band and putting something together on his own, but James was fearful of leaving a known quantity and regular job and he came up with a lot of reasons why he couldn't start his own band. Where would he get the musicians? Gordon told him to give him a list of names of musicians he wanted to work with, and Gordon went searching throughout Chicago and sought these people out and talked them into giving James a try. Where would they rehearse? Gordon found a number of clubs that would let them rehearse during the afternoon. Where would they work? Gordon found some clubs that would give James a chance. Gordon's idea was to get the band tight in Chicago and then take it to the West Coast to play the psychedelic clubs and halls that he was familiar with back there.

           Their first gig was at the Burning Bush, and, of course, the band was great and we had a wild opening. By the next weekend, I had gotten my band together enough to start playing, and we offered up our own version of music, and I tell you, we got the "look." The "look" was, essentially, "what the hell is this?" It certainly wasn't Chicago blues; this was our music, our own expression, a mixture of blues, folk, flamenco, and jazz. We had other musicians show up to dig the band, and I saw a lot of slack-jawed gaping going on. Chicago didn't take easily to change, and I think that was the reason so many of my contemporary musicians left town for greener pastures. If the music wasn't straight blues or jazz or folk, people didn't cotton to it.

           God, I get to thinking about all the great young musicians in Chicago at that time, all of them playing small clubs getting their own thing going, people like Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Harvey Mandel, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, and all they got from Chicago was the Chicago shuffle. Bad gigs, thieving promoters, exploiters and such, and if there was only one person, one bar owner or promoter that would have treated them right, the scene would have stayed in Chicago and someone would have gotten rich.

           I remember doing a show in Madison, Wisconsin, and on the same bill was Steve Miller and his New Music. When it was time for Steve's show, he came out on stage with three guitars, two tape recorders, and a microphone for his voice. He started up his tape recorders playing pre-recorded tracks and he picked up his guitar and started to play and sing, up there all by his lonesome. More of the "look." Steve Miller was doing a lot of experimental things with his music, doing a lot of wild things in the blues clubs, and he was getting complaints about the weirdness, he was being requested to stop playing that shit and get back to the blues. The griping finally got to him and he went back to his family home in Dallas to work things out in his father's studio. I called him in Dallas and told him that we were opening a new club in Chicago and if he wanted to play there, he was more than welcome to play any kind of music he wanted. Steve took me up on the offer and returned to Chicago and formed a new music group to play at the Burning Bush.

           Steve had a crazy band, and the two musicians I remember best were the drummer and singer, Andrew Jeffries, and the sax player, Richard Corpolongo. Andrew Jeffries had a great drum style and he was a superior blues singer. Richard Corpolongo was a brilliant and inspirational musician. Andrew also formed another band with the guitar player, Doug Jones, to play at the Burning Bush, and everybody had a great time with Doug because he was so funny and easy-going and talented. He used to sing the Willie Mabon song, "Got to Get Some," and he'd signify on everyone in the club.

           Andrew was a B.B. King clone singer, (how many bluesmen started their careers as B.B. King clones?) and he used that high B.B. falsetto scream to great effect. Andrew was playing with Doug Jones at the Burning Bush one night and at the end of a long set he got into doing those high falsetto screams over and over again, sweat pouring off of his forehead and dripping down over his open shirt, repeating those high screams like a man possessed, and I'm behind the bar watching him, thinking he was crazy or in a trance state or something, and I recoiled in horror as he closed his eyes and came crashing down through the drum set and collapsed unconscious in the middle of the dance floor.

           I came racing out from behind the bar thinking that Andrew had finally done it and died from a brain hemorrhage, and I shooed away the crowd that had gathered around his collapsed body. "Stand back, give him air!," I shouted, "Give him room to breathe." I got down on my knees and shook his shoulders and shouted, "Andrew, are you O.K.? Say something, speak to me!" Andrew was still breathing but he hadn't moved a muscle and I was really getting scared and wondering what to do next when Doug Jones came over and reached into his pocket and brought out a pair of women's panties and he waved these panties over Andrew's face, and Andrew came leaping up off the floor smiling and laughing and the whole crowd cracked up and started pointing to me and shouting "Speak to me. Speak to me." It was all a joke, and I was the jokee. I was pissed off, but pleased that nobody had died. Andrew, speak to me indeed.

411-Winner Index > Archives > Nick Gravenites

Part 9
Leaving Bad Luck Blues In Chicago:
California Here I Come

           Where did all the good times go? Who the hell knows? I was drunk and stoned most of the time, wallowing in the Chicago flesh pits. Chicago is a meat town, meat-packer to the world and all that, and there was plenty of meat to go around.

           Whiskey, pussy and drugs was the name of the game, and I was a daily player. I'd start drinking before noon and I'd scrounge drugs throughout the day, a little pot, some acid or DMT, some speed, and by the time my shift ended at the Burning Bush, I was drinking shots of 151 Rum and washing them down with scotch and sodas. Not to mention that because of my early experiences with psychedelics in California, I was the designated "tester" of any West Coast LSD that arrived on the scene. My partner in the Burning Bush, Jeff Spitz, had the cash, cars, and toys to play with and the Burning Bush was a nice playground. I had no money, no car, no toys, and my playground was in the mind.

           I remember the time I was playing with my band, the Chicago Folk Quintet, and the guitar I was playing was a Fender Mustang that belonged to Jeff. One time between songs the guitar brushed up against the microphone stand and there was a big explosion and a blue flash that melted the strings off of the guitar. Luckily, I had the guitar hanging loosely from my neck with my hands not touching or I would have died from the electric shock.

           I've been living with the nightmare of death by electric shock ever since. Being a singer keeps you close to the microphone and I've had a lot of shocks over the years, but nothing to compare to that one experience at the Bush. If running your fingers across steel strings gives you calluses on your tips, constant electrical shocks gave me calluses on my lips. Every time I get on a new stage and I look at the microphone I'm thinking, "is this the big one?" If I could, I'd have an expendable, tax deductible slave whose job it would be to touch the microphone while holding the guitar to see if it would kill. It's a crap shoot every time you get on stage.

           Spitz was spending a lot of his time on the Near-North Side close to his business, and he was getting more involved with the fast crowd in the neighborhood. I knew he was married and I'd met his wife a few times, but Jeff didn't act like a married man when it came to his relationships with other women. He eventually became involved with a dramatic woman, a sculptress, and Jeff's life as a married man was about over. Jeff's personal life was tumultuous at best, and his grasp on his businesses had loosened up to the point where the boys at the local clam house were starting to worry about their investment. I'd get visits from large, jovial men who would laugh with glee as they described to me how they sucked people's eyes out.

           I had no relationship with the men Jeff had borrowed money from so I wasn't concerned for my personal safety. My own worst enemy was myself. One morning, I was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the Burning Bush when I looked across the street and thought I recognized the members of Big Brother and the Holding Company walking towards me. I knew Janis Joplin, Peter Albin, and James Gurley from my folk-music beatnik days in San Francisco, and I waved over to them, dropped my broom and started walking across the street.

           The Big Brother Band were hippies from San Francisco into long hair and colorful dress-a stark contrast to the working-man look of Chicago. They looked fearful and confused when they spotted me walking across the street to greet them, and they grouped together for protection against what they thought was a thug approaching them to accost them. I had to get really close before they recognized me and they were so relieved that they collapsed all over me with hugs and handshakes. I invited them over to the Burning Bush and poured them a drink, and they told me of their Chicago experiences.

           Big Brother were the only people in Chicago you could call hippies, and they stood out like a sore thumb. People were giving them dirty looks everywhere they went and they were feeling lost such a long way from home. Janis told me that they had been playing in San Francisco at a dance hall run by Chet Helms called The Family Dog, and were having trouble getting other gigs, particularly the Fillmore Ballroom, because of a business feud between Chet Helms and Bill Graham.

           Big Brother thought that if they got out of town things might go better for them, so when Chet got them a gig at Mother Blues in Chicago, they jumped at the opportunity to leave San Francisco. They invited me to their gig and I was looking forward to hearing what they were putting down.

           James Gurley was one of the few people in Beatnik San Francisco who was playing the blues, and I knew from personal experience that he was a strange character. We used to hang out together at a folk music bar in North Beach called The Coffee Gallery, and one day I saw him on the street and he had his head shaved bald and had stopped talking. I heard from friends that he had had a motorcycle accident while visiting his family in Detroit and had ceased communicating with words. The only way he would communicate was with facial expressions. He had a girlfriend who carried a beanbag frog everywhere she went, and they made an odd trio, James, his girlfriend, and the frog. Instead of talking to James, you'd talk to the frog. Somehow, the frog made it all make sense.

           I went to the gig the next night and it was the first time I heard Big Brother. The band was beat. They were living in cheap hotels, eating lousy food, Janis was sick and her voice was shot, the sound system was way overloaded, the guitars were too loud and slightly out of tune, their musical style was an amalgam of folk, blues, children's songs, and psychedelic tomfoolery. Their clothing was a mix of home-made bead work, Indian leather work and feathers. Janis was wearing a madras bed sheet dress, her hair was unkempt and ratty, and she stank of patchouli. Her voice, because of the bad sound system and her terrible cold, sounded like a chicken about to die.

           The audience was struck dumb, they didn't know what to think, they just sat there and stared. The Chicago blues crowd didn't take them seriously and the folk crowd was embarrassed to call them their own. I was sitting with a guy I knew, a man in the music business, and after the show he told me that he liked Janis but it was too bad that she would never make it. To him, the reasons were obvious. She had a pimply complexion, her singing voice was impossible to understand, she dressed like a bag of laundry and her band was amateurish. Of course, he was dead wrong, because he was looking in the wrong place, he could never see her deep soul and her cast-iron guts.

           Big Brother hung around Chicago for a while longer visiting music agents and record companies to see if they could get something going. They wound up signing a record deal and cutting a quick album to get enough money to return home to San Francisco. Jeff Spitz decided he was going to divorce his wife and take his girlfriend to Florida and re-marry, and as I waved good-bye I didn't know it was the last time I would see him alive. He was killed in a motorcycle accident on his honeymoon, and I was left with a business I didn't own with partners I didn't want to know. My drinking and doping really got bad and I was a complete pain in the ass to anyone who knew me. I was angry and hostile to people, got into fist fights over things that didn't concern me, got punched out a few times and when I wasn't hanging from a lamp post I was crawling in the gutter. One wee morning at about a quarter to four I was stumbling down North Avenue, drunk and violently angry, a pistol in my belt and hate in my soul, looking for someone to take it out on when, for some reason, I saw myself for what I really was, a drunk, a thief, and a thug. The toughest thing in the world is to see yourself, and what I saw I didn't like at all. I made a decision to leave Chicago and go back to San Francisco and leave all my bad-luck blues behind.

© 1997 Nick Gravenites

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