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The Chicago blues is a form of blues music indigenous to Chicago, Illinois. Chicago blues is a type of urban blues. Urban blues evolved from classic blues as a result of the great depression and developed in the first half of the twentieth century during the Great Migration, when Black workers moved from the Southern United States into the industrial cities of the Northern United States such as Chicago.[1]

Urban blues started in Chicago and St. Louis, as music created by part-time musicians playing as street musicians, at rent parties, and other events within the black community. For example, bottleneck guitarist Kokomo Arnold was a steelworker and had a moonshine business that was far more profitable than his music.[2]

One of the most important early incubators for Chicago blues was the open air market on Maxwell street. The Maxwell street market was one of the largest open air markets in the nation. Residents of the black community would frequent it to buy and sell just about anything. It was a natural location for blues musicians to perform. The standard path for blues musicians was to start out as street musicians and at house parties and to eventually make their way to blues clubs. The first blues clubs in Chicago were mostly in predominantly black neighborhoods on the South Side with a few in the smaller black neighborhoods on the West Side. One of the most famous was Ruby Lee Gatewood's Tavern, known by patrons as "The Gates". During the 1930s virtually every big name artist played there.[3]

What drove the blues to international influence was the promotion of record companies such as Paramount Records, RCA Victor, and Columbia Records.[4] Through such record companies Chicago blues became a commercial enterprise. The new style of music eventually reached Europe and the United Kingdom. In the 1960s, young British musicians were highly influenced by Chicago blues resulting in the British blues movement.

Notable musicians[]


Guitarist Buddy Guy performing at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2006.

Well-known Chicago blues players include singer/songwriters such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf,[5] Willie Dixon, Earl Hooker, Slim Harpo and Koko Taylor; guitar players such as Freddie King, Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Magic Sam, Magic Slim, Syl Johnson, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, Robert Lockwood Jr., Bo Diddley, Mike Bloomfield, Homesick James, Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, Floyd Jones, Eddy Clearwater, Mighty Joe Young, Phil Guy, Lil' Ed Williams, J. B. Hutto, and Elmore James; harmonica players such as Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells, Corky Siegel, Billy Branch, James Cotton,[6] and Jimmy Reed;[5] and keyboardists such as Otis Spann, Lafayette Leake, Blind John Davis, and Erwin Helfer[7]

Notable record labels[]

Bluebird Records[]

Bluebird was an important Chicago blues label, notably due to the work of A&R/producer Lester Melrose, who created what is known as the "Bluebird Sound.". Many blues artists recorded for Bluebird, if only briefly, while Arthur Crudup, Lil Green and Tommy McClennan spent virtually their entire career with the label.[8]

Chess Records[]

Chess Records, run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, was probably the most famous of the Chicago record labels to feature or promote the blues.[5] Musician and critic Cub Koda even described Chess Records as "America's greatest blues label." It was active from 1950–1969 when the brothers sold the company. Most solo artists also did double duty as session musicians on the records of others.

Checker Records was a subsidiary of Chess that recorded Chicago blues musicians such as Bo Diddley, J. B. Lenoir, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Sonny Boy Williamson II.[9]

Cobra Records[]

Cobra Records (together with its Artistic subsidiary) was an independent record label that operated from 1956 to 1959. The label was important for launching the recording careers of Chicago blues artists Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Buddy Guy. It signaled the emergence of a distinctive West Side Sound.

Cobra Records was started on Chicago's West Side in 1956 by Eli Toscano (a record store and television-repair shop owner). When his previous record label, Abco Records, failed to generate much interest, Toscano approached Willie Dixon about working for Cobra. Dissatisfied with his arrangement with Chess Records, Dixon joined Cobra. There he served in many capacities, including talent scout, producer, arranger, songwriter, and bassist, as well as guiding its artistic vision.


Delmark was formed when Bob Koester moved his Delmar label from St. Louis to Chicago in 1958 and remains active today. They are still known for jazz and blues. Artist recorded by the label includes Roscoe Mitchell, Junior Wells, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Sonny Boy Williamson II.[10]

Alligator Records[]

Bruce Iglauer, a former employee of Delmark, formed Alligator Records in 1971. Alligator Records remains a premier blues label to this day. They have recorded Chicago blues musicians such as Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater.[11]

Electric blues[]

Experiments with over-driven distortion began with electric blues guitarists, including Chicago bluesmen such as Elmore James and Buddy Guy, in order to get a guitar sound that paralleled the rawness of blues singers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.[12] Elmore James was an electric guitar pioneer, using techniques such as distortion, power chords and slides in the 1950s to create an "explosive sound" that was "screaming with sustained tones" and was distorted and densely textured.[13] He was one of the prime architects of the Chicago blues school, while his hard driving blues guitar work, the "thunderous blast" of his guitar sound, and his slashing and bottleneck guitar techniques, had a strong influence on the development of modern rock music, particularly blues rock, heavy metal and hard rock.[14] Chicago blues musicians such as Elmore James, Albert King and Freddie King are credited with pioneering blues rock,[14] while Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Howlin' Wolf are credited with the beginnings of hard rock.[15]

Blues rock was pioneered by blues musicians such as Elmore James, Albert King, and Freddie King.[14] Elmore James developed blues rock by "energizing primal riffs with a raw, driving intensity."[16] Freddie King created blues rock music in the early 1960s, predating by about five years the British acts who were influenced by his work.[17]

Influence of Chicago blues[]

Chicago blues was one of the most significant influences on modern rock music. Chuck Berry originally signed with Chess records—one of the most significant Chicago blues record labels. Berry met and was influenced by Muddy Waters in Chicago and Waters suggested he audition for Chess. Willie Dixon and other blues musicians played on some of Berry's early records.[18] Although The Beatles were not significantly influenced by Chicago blues music, later British invasion bands and artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and Rory Gallagher[19] were all influenced by Chicago blues musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, Willie Dixon,[20] Muddy Waters,[21] and Howlin' Wolf.[22]

Elmore James had a strong influence on British blues bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and The Yardbirds, and rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.[14] Freddie King had a strong influence on British blues rock acts such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Peter Green.[17]

See also[]

  • Chicago record labels
  • Chicago Blues Festival
  • Maxwell Street
  • Music of Chicago


  1. William H. Frey, "The New Great Migration: Black Americans' Return to the South, 1965–2000", The Brookings Institution, May 2004, pp. 1–3, accessed 19 March 2008.
  2. Oakley, Giles (1976). The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. New York: Taplinger. p. 177. ISBN 0800821890. 
  3. Rowe, Mike (1873). Chicago Blues the City and the Music. London: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80145-0. 
  4. Oakley, Giles (1976). The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. New York: Taplinger. p. 172. ISBN 0800821890. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 4 - The Tribal Drum: The rise of rhythm and blues. [Part 2"] (audio). Pop Chronicles. 
  6. Kerzner, Barry (2013-06-06). "James Cotton’s "Cotton Mouth Man" Delivers". Retrieved 2014-05-18. 
  7. "Chicago Blues Significant Artists". Retrieved 26 October 2013. 
  8. "Bluebird Records | Big Road Blues". Retrieved 2012-12-10. 
  9. Rowe, Mike (1873). Chicago Blues the City and the Music. London: Da Capo Press. p. 126. ISBN 0-306-80145-0. 
  10. Sandra, Pointer-Jones. "Delmark Records History". Blues Revue Quarterly. Retrieved 27 October 2013. 
  11. Howard Reich (2011-10-11). "Alligator Records celebrates 40th anniversary at SPACE - Chicago Tribune". Retrieved 2013-03-11. 
  12. Michael Campbell & James Brody, Rock and Roll: An Introduction, pages 80-81
  13. John Morthland (2013), How Elmore James Invented Metal, Wondering Sound, eMusic
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Dicaire, David (1999). Blues Singers: Elmore James entry. McFarland. Retrieved 2013-06-02. 
  15. Jane Beethoven, Carman Moore, Rock-It, page 37,
  16. Elmore James Biography, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
  17. 17.0 17.1 Robert Santelli (1997), The Best of the Blues: The 101 Essential Albums, page 377-378, Penguin Books
  18. "Chuck Berry". Retrieved 15 December 2013. "While attending a nightclub in Chicago in 1955, Berry met his idol Muddy Waters and asked Waters where he might be able to cut a record. Waters directed him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records" 
  19. Connaughton, Marcus (2012). Rory Gallagher His Life and Times. The Collins Press. ISBN 9781848891531. 
  20. Inaba, Mitsutoshi. Willie Dixon's Work on the Blues: From the Early Recordings through the Chess and Cobra Years, 1940--1971. Diss. University of Oregon, 2005. N.p.: UMI, 2005. Print.
  21. Foundation for Research in the Afro-American Creative Arts. “Muddy (né McKinley Morganfield) Waters.” The Black Perspective in Music Vol. 11. No. 2 (1983): 230-31. Print.
  22. “Howlin’ Wolf.” Encyclopedia of Popular Music. 4th ed. 2006. Print.

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