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Time for a Music Row to showcase the Blues

Updated: October 3, 2011 11:49AM



Before you read this editorial, may we suggest that you go to www.bluesheaven.com and listen to Little Walter sing “My Babe.”

Half our job today, which is to remind you of the timeless power of the Chicago blues, will have been done for us.

Then we can get on to our other business, which is to promote the terrific idea, kicked around for far too long without much progress, of a Music Row on the city’s Near South Side.

[Brief Intermission]

Did you listen? Little Walter still in your head? (“My baby don’t stand no cheatin’, my babe . . .”)

Good, then nobody has to tell you that the Chicago blues is one of our city’s great cultural contributions to the world, easily surpassing or right up there with deep-dish pizza, barehanded softball, Prairie Style architecture, the skyscraper, Saul Bellow and — forgive us, season ticket holders — the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

And it shouldn’t take much to convince you that Chicago needs to do a better job of celebrating, supporting and cashing in on that music legacy.

The plan, being pushed by Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), is to create a Music Row entertainment district along Michigan Avenue from Cermak Road to the Stevenson Expy.

Anchoring the strip would be a revitalized Chess Records, at 2120 S. Michigan, the legendary recording studio for many of the biggest names in Chicago blues, including Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. And let’s not forget Big Bill Broonzy, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and the Rolling Stones.

For too long, as Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dave Hoekstra once expressed it, Chess studio has been “the shrinking violet in the garden of American musical landmarks.”

It houses a blues museum today, run by the nonprofit Blues Heaven Foundation, but goes largely unnoticed and unvisited by locals and tourists alike. It has nothing of the prominence of, say, Sun Records in Memphis, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music — also in Memphis — Motown in Detroit or the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.

We’re a little unclear about what this new Music Row or Record Row (even the name is tentative) might look like, or how much private investor interest there really is. But Fioretti says he has had serious talks with entrepreneurs and musicians about developing clubs, studios, restaurants with outdoor dining and the like.

Ideally, Chess would become a fully equipped recording studio again, just as Sun is, and the strip as a whole might be reminiscent of Beale Street in Memphis, where tourists hop from club to club.

An excellent first step would be for the Chicago City Council to approve an ordinance, introduced by Fioretti two months ago, that would change the strip’s zoning from mixed-use to downtown service. That would mean no more loft condo conversions, but it would allow for more restaurants, businesses and offices.

Then the city should assign one department or agency to take complete charge of the project and push it forward. The revitalization of Sun Studio stalled for years until Memphis’ convention and tourism bureau took charge.

Somebody — and that would be Mayor Rahm Emanuel — just has to make it happen. We know the mayor has a lot on his plate, and this is a bad economy for big new projects, but we also know he’s a big fan of live music and theater.

One listen to “My Babe” and he could be hooked.

“Oh yeah, she don’t stand no cheatin’, my babe . . .”

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