In the late 1970s, at age 23, British college student Alan Harper traveled across the Atlantic to Chicago, where he had no job, no friends, and no family. He came for one reason only: to listen to the blues. In his new book, Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads (Univ. of Illinois), Harper chronicles his pilgrimage to a city and a music scene that was undergoing great change.
“It was quite a revelation to have a friend play for me the original Robert Johnson song that Led Zeppelin borrowed for their ‘Lemon Song,’ and the original Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster,’ which became a single for the Rolling Stones,” Harper says of first hearing the blues in England. “It engendered in me a desire to find out more, because these people, the original blues musicians, seemed to be lost in the mist.” At the time, the blues wasn’t very fashionable in England, he says. “I found it difficult to find out more about the blues, which made it an intriguing quest.”
Harper was determined to hear Chicago blues live in its element, in the smoky bars and played by the musicians who shaped the American music form into a rich, significant genre. But while there was glamour to a 20-something crossing paths with his musical heroes—blues giants like harmonicist Big Walter Horton and pianist Sunnyland Slim—what Harper felt most in Chicago was a sense of community. That’s what’s stuck with him all these years later, and that’s why he is thrilled to be back in the Windy City.
“I heard some great music,” Harper says, “but it’s the people that have lingered in my memory, the musicians, the club owners, the record label people. I felt really privileged to be, albeit temporarily, a part of the blues community in Chicago.”
But it was also a city and a community that was changing. The black Southern roots of Chicago blues were beginning to lose their hold when Harper arrived. As white fans and white musicians came to the blues in larger numbers, guitars replaced the harmonicas and pianos, and the blues as Harper and others knew it, began to fade away.
“White fans who came to the blues from rock music — a bit like me,” says Harper, “focused on just the small part of the blues that influenced the white practitioners—the Stones, Clapton, people like that.” Because that white fan base was such a huge potential market, it atrophied the blues, explains Harper. “White blues fans loved it to death.”
If you know where to look, you can still catch glimpses of the old Chicago blues, Harper assures Show Daily, and maybe hear some piano music between all the guitars. And while he’s in town, he plans to do just that.
“Buddy Guy, of course, is still alive,” Harper says. “He has a famous club, which I’ve never visited, called Legends, and I want to go to that. And of the clubs I used to hang out in, there’s two that remain: one is called B.L.U.E.S., and that’s on North Houston Street, and across the street is the Kingston Mines. So I should go up there and see what’s going on.” He recommends that blues fan visiting Chicago do the same.
Harper will be signing today at the University of Illinois booth (614), 11 a.m.–noon.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.