Our Blues Heaven
Chicago is the home of the blues, and of bureaucracy as well. 2120 S. Michigan, where Leonard and Phil Chess recorded Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Willie Dixon, is where Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation wants to set up its offices. But the building is also a city landmark, so needless to say things are running a bit behind schedule. While the foundation–now run by Dixon’s widow and daughter–originally wanted to have the historic site renovated by Blues Fest time, the first weekend of June, the opening now looks like it’ll be in October or November. “Whew!” says daughter Shirli Dixon, a blues singer herself, diplomatically. “That’s all I’m going to say about it. We’re very appreciative of the landmark status, and the site is deserving of it, but it’s been quite a challenge for us.”
Willie Dixon was born in Mississippi and migrated to Chicago in the 1930s. In between spending time in jail for everything from some youthful indiscretions down south to conscientious objecting up north (“I said I wasn’t a citizen, I was a subject”), Dixon was an Illinois Golden Gloves heavyweight champ and a veteran of several not unsuccessful vocal and blues groups. He joined Chess in 1948 and spent about two decades as its preeminent producer and songwriter, overseeing the creation of arguably the most significant group of recordings in American history, from “Back Door Man” by Howlin’ Wolf to “I Just Want to Make Love to You” by Waters, from “Wang Dang Doodle” by Koko Taylor to “Bring It on Home” by Sonny Boy Williamson. In his spare time he played bass for Chuck Berry and recorded gospel. Later in life, he moved to LA for health reasons and founded the Blues Heaven Foundation. He died in 1992.
The Chess building, descriptions of which tend to feature the word “unprepossessing,” currently stands empty. The foundation bought the site last year, helped by a gift from John Cougar Mellencamp; it’s now in the middle of a complete rehab and restoration, right down to the recording consoles. When it’s done, Dixon’s widow Marie will return to her hometown. She, her daughter, and various other family volunteers (“11 kids and 30 grands,” Shirli Dixon says) will oversee about a half-dozen paid staffers’ work on two major projects. The first is the late Dixon’s beloved “Blues in the Schools” program. In the last few years of his life, Dixon traveled around the country preaching the gospel of the music to schoolkids, giving out, his wife estimates, about 14,000 harmonicas in the process.
Second is the foundation’s royalty recovery program: the group’s lawyers help older blues stars recover royalties their labels still owe them. The agreements between the seminal blues stars and the labels that recorded them were fast and loose at best, absent at worst. While several of the major holders of the blues catalog–Atlantic and MCA, which controls the Chess catalog–have in recent years rectified some of the more embarrassing situations (the books that sent Muddy Waters to his grave owing Chess money, for example), cynics will note that such conscientiousness came about only after reissues became a big business and that many smaller labels continue to keep money that is rightfully the performers’.
The foundation also steps in for contemporary blues artists. “We don’t have any vested interest,” Shirli Dixon says. “We just want to make sure the artist understands his options, that he doesn’t just sign what’s put in front of him, or just depend on his manager to tell him what’s appropriate.” Dixon relates a recent incident concerning a musician and a fairly well-known label. “They just presented him with a contract. He thought he would ask us to look at it, but they wouldn’t give him a copy of it.”
Jeez, Hitsville marvels, it’s just like the good old days. “Absolutely,” Dixon concurs. “These days, it’s no different.”
While the Blues Heaven office won’t be open by the time of the Blues Fest, the Dixon family will have a booth set up in Grant Park, and there’ll also be tours of the Chess Records building all three days of the fest. Call the foundation at 808-1286 for details. And the Dixons are still looking for donations to recoup the $800,000 restoration bill. You can drop them a line at the Blues Heaven Foundation, P.O. Box 590, 249 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, CA 91203.
Cath Carroll celebrates the release of her single “My Cold Heart” on the Teen Beat label with shows this Friday and Saturday at the Daily Bar and Grill, the Lincoln Square eatery owned by Metro’s Joe Shanahan and Joe Prino. There’s a $5 admission for the 11 PM shows. The restaurant’s at 4560 N. Lincoln; call 561-6198 for details….Cynthia Plaster-Caster, who has won back legal possession of her famous castings of rock stars’ penises (an LA industry type had them and wouldn’t return them), still has some lawyers’ fees to pay off. So she’s holding a party cum fund-raiser at Smart Bar next Thursday, May 19. The legendary groupie will read excerpts from her diary; music will be provided by the Denison-Kimball Trio, Johnny Thomas, and the Waco Brothers, each of these noms de benefit for well-known local talent. At $3, it’s a deal. Doors open at 9. Plaster-Caster will also be the featured guest on Tom Snyder’s CNBC talk show May 23….The succession of musical-act guest hosts on 120 Minutes is due to the fact that MTV finally canned resident lunkhead Lewis Largent.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.