Uptown is a poor man’s world tour. You might not be able to afford a plane ticket to Nigeria, but if you sit on the curb in front of the Riviera Theatre long enough, someone will walk by in a crazy-quilt kufi and robe. Wait a little longer and he’ll open a restaurant. Whenever there’s an upheaval–a revolution, a civil war, an urban renewal project–you can be sure its victims will end up on Lawrence Avenue, in studio apartments above grocery stores that sell malt liquor and phone cards.
If you never heard the blues on Maxwell Street, that’s come to Uptown too. A year and a half after the University of Illinois bulldozed their bandstands, dispossessed musicians are taking refuge in Uptown Maxwell Street Polish Sausage, a five-booth grill at 4429 N. Broadway. One of them is Frank “Little Sonny” Scott Jr., who played guitar on Maxwell Street for 50 years. Now he brings his music here every Saturday afternoon.
At noon the last Saturday in April, Scott pulled up to the curb in his peeling, bloodred Chevy. Out he stepped, dapper in a black suit, cowboy hat, and white moccasins. He carried a plastic violin case into the joint, set it down on a Formica table, and lifted out a sagging, jangling contraption that was half tambourine, half key chain. It was the world’s lone set of blues percussive house keys. Scott invented the instrument, and only he plays it.
“It goes good with the band,” he explained, popping an unlit cigarillo out of his mouth. “It’s good rhythm. It rides the top.”
Scott pulled out a flyer promoting the show. It was a collage, glued together from old Maxwell Street photos, flags, newspaper clippings, CD booklets, business cards, concert posters, and religious paintings. “Frank ‘Little Sonny’ Scott Jr. presents a Chicago blues celebration at noon to at least 3 pm,” it read. “Featuring ‘The Motavation,’ Chicago Reader.” How kind of him. I’d called ahead to tell him I was coming, and now I was on the bill. I ordered a Polish with fries and hid in a booth. Scott sat down and told me his story.
In the early 60s he had his own record label, Great Scott, out of Houston. Later on he built the famous stage–Frank’s Juke Town Bandstand–at Maxwell and Halsted. He played on the 1996 CD Lost American Bluesmen and was dubbed “Supreme Mayor of Maxwell Street” by the Save Maxwell Street Coalition. In the summer of 2000, UIC gave Scott the bum’s rush, and he had no place to play until Sam Sadou, a short-order cook, made him a deal: Sadou would open a restaurant if Scott would provide the music. Uptown Maxwell Street Polish opened in January, with walls covered in Scott’s “folk art” collages, which he works on every day in his Roseland apartment and sells for $20. The jam sessions started in March.
While we were talking, keyboard player Bobby “Top Hat” Davis strolled into the restaurant. He held a length of pipe employed as a walking stick, with a T-joint for a handle.
“I found it at the side of the building,” announced Davis, a hefty, mustachioed man wearing a bowler. “I need this T-joint. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it.”
“Are you going to make music with that?” I asked. I thought he might unscrew the T-joint and use it as a whistle. It seemed no odder than playing house keys. Davis shot me an are-you-crazy look and laughed.
“I’ll be here playing my keyboards tomorrow at 12,” he told me. “And a song about you.”
A van full of amplifiers and instruments arrived and the music started, with an opening band called Blue’s Crew jamming on Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” Scott, finding their guitar, bass, and drums insufficient for the blues, joined them, dancing like a shaman and shaking his keys. Inspired, Mr. H, another Maxwell Street expatriate, ran to the back of the room. Mr. H–who bears the title “Baron of the Blues”–was dressed in black from fedora to shoes and played the stratozuki. A stratozuki is the heel of a Dawn detergent bottle set inside the bottom of a plastic Sprite bottle and screwed to a board. Mr. H drew a rasp across the instrument to call up a washboard-type beat. During the final stanza Bobby Davis banged on his lead pipe with a drumstick, just to prove it could make music.
“This is what it was like every Sunday out on the street,” said Steve Balkin, a Roosevelt University economics professor and Maxwell Street historian who was circling the room, inviting everyone to eat from his basket of rib tips.
When Motavation came on, they brought with them singer Al Harris–introduced as “a legend of Maxwell Street”–who sweated through “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” “Down Home Blues,” and “a song by Tyrone Davis they used to do in the yesteryear down in Jewtown, on Maxwell Street.” It was “Can I Change My Mind,” and the four women celebrating a birthday in booth three swayed to every word.
Once Harris finished his set, Motavation–guitarist Tony Perales, bassist Rey DeLeon, and drummer Kurt Wollert–lost a little of their blues cred. A fan named Jimmy had been dancing up and down the room like a wingless pigeon. (“I’m 65 years old,” he said. “Keep me in shape.”) Now he was demanding to hear Muddy Waters. The band hedged.
“If you can’t play Muddy Waters, get off the floor!” he shouted.
“I ain’t that old, man,” Wollert said. “I love his stuff.”
“I’m gonna get him to play Muddy Waters,” Jimmy grumbled.
“We’re gonna play one more.”
“Play some Muddy Waters!”
“No. We’re gonna play Jimi Hendrix.”
Motavation played a slowed-down version of ZZ Top’s “Tush,” but no Muddy Waters. Eventually Harris returned to the microphone to sing one last soul number and to thank the host, who’d been up there for three hours playing his keys or shaking a pink rattle.
“Let’s hear it for one of the legends of Jewtown, Mr. Frank”–Harris leaned toward the guitar player, who whispered in his ear–“Scott. They stopped Jewtown, but they didn’t stop the blues–’cause we got it up here.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.