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Chess piece in place for landmark attraction


The Blue Heaven Foundation is sponsoring Record Row Concerts 2011. That’s a great idea, especially the “Willie Dixon’s 96th Birthday Event” that features Johnny Drummer & the Starlighters. The free outdoor event will be from 5 to 7 p.m. June 30. For more details, call (312) 808-1286 or visit

Otherwise, concerts are held between 6 and 7 p.m. every Thursday through Aug. 25. Highlights include Charlie Love & the Silky Smooth Blues Band on July 7 and Michael Coleman on July 14. In the event of bad weather, concerts are moved indoors.

Tours of the Chess Studios building are between noon and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon until 3 p.m. Saturday; admission is $10.

Updated: August 3, 2011 8:27PM

You know what gives me the blues? The inability of Chicago to recognize its own musical landmarks.

The roots of the Chicago music industry are honored all over the place at the Musical Instrument Museum in Arizona, but Chicago does not have any similar major destination.

I took a break from the 28th annual Chicago Blues Festival last weekend and hailed a cab to the Chess Records studio, 2120 S. Michigan. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters recorded at Chess. This is where the Rolling Stones created their early album “12 x 5.” The Yardbirds used the Chess studio. Singer Minnie Riperton was a desk receptionist at Chess.

The Blues Festival is supposed to be a world-class event, and the historic studio should be hustling and bustling during the fest, much as Sun Studios in Memphis is during the annual Elvis Presley death week in August.

Six people were in the lobby: two guys from Paris and four Canadian women. They’d learned about Chess from their hotel concierge. I get about 100 music-related e-mail blasts a day and never saw any information about Blues Fest-related activities at Chess.

The 2120 S. Michigan building was designated a city landmark in 1990. After Chess musician-songwriter-producer-arranger Willie Dixon died in 1992, his widow, Marie, purchased the shuttered Chess building in 1993. In turn, she donated it to the Blues Heaven Foundation, a non-profit organization started in 1980 by her husband (but separate from the Dixon estate). The Blues Heaven Foundation owns the building and spearheaded a $400,000 renovation. The Chess Records site reopened in 1997.

Today, Marie Dixon is president of Blues Heaven Foundation and daughter Jacqueline is executive director. (The foundation did have a booth at the festival.)

I’d love to see the Chess Records area built up to become a destination like Memphis’ Sun, which has a cool little diner next door. That might just happen if Ald. Bob Fioretti has his way.

The Chess Records site is in Fioretti’s 2nd Ward. The alderman envisions a Record Row entertainment district that also would include the Vee-Jay Records Building, 1449 S. Michigan, which is up for sale. Vee-Jay, which recorded the Staple Singers, Eddie Harris, the Four Seasons and the Beatles, operated from this site, as did Brunswick Records, which had the Chi-Lites, Jackie Wilson and Tyrone Davis. Fioretti also wants the city’s newest park at 16th Street and Wabash Avenue to be named after the late jazz legend Fred Anderson, who ran the Velvet Lounge in the South Loop.

“I introduced an ordinance last week to make the old Record Row an entertainment district from East Cermak Road to the Stevenson Expressway,” Fioretti said last week. “It’s real. There’s enough interest now that we’ve reached the simmering point, and we will go to boiling soon. Entities will be buying and leasing the buildings.”

The ordinance would change the zoning so Fioretti’s vision could become a reality.

According to Fioretti, a couple of Chicago area rock bands are looking at buildings for studios and rehearsal space. A microbrewery is being talked about in the proposed district.

“We’re also looking at 1,790 hotel rooms in two luxury hotels that will be tied into McCormick Place,” Fioretti said. “We need more hotels around McCormick Place. Chess Records could be an anchor for activity.”

Other pertinent landmarks include the site of the Cobra Record Co., 2854 W. Roosevelt (where Buddy Guy, Magic Sam and Otis Rush recorded between 1956-’58) and the Muddy Waters House, 4339 S. Lake Park. Last year, the Chicago Gospel Music Heritage Museum was to have opened in an empty building next to the Metropolitan Apostolic Church, 4108 S. King. Mahalia Jackson and the Roberta Martin Singers performed in the church, designated a Chicago landmark in 2007.

The Rev. Leon D. Finney, pastor of Metropolitan, said this week that the museum has been downsized to a virtual experience: “We’re on track to open as early as October.”

“We are getting ready to scan in the collection over the summer,” Finney said. “Most of the collection [500 to 600 pieces] will be electronically stored. There’s not enough room at our property to commit to a freestanding, walk-through museum.”

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