Maxwell Street and the Chicago Blues

There is no doubt that growing up in Chicago and being exposed to the great music culture there and in particular on Maxwell Street, including blues, jazz, roots and gospel music are the greatest influences on my musical performance life. Being Italian, my great grandfather still lived in that area when I was young, as well as many great aunts and uncles. I had one uncle who was a successful singer and recording artist as a very young man, and another who worked in radio in the South. We visited Maxwell Street often and I still remember there being a great blues musician on every street corner. I was given stacks of old 78's from the South featuring great blues singers, and I grew up listening to the great Mahalia Jackson. Of course I loved the emergence of Rock and Roll, but I still have the greatest fondness for blues and jazz. This is a great traditional art form, with the most magnificent heritage of musicians and vocalists. I enjoy bringing this music to the attention of a new generation of listeners, who are truly digging it, and don't have much of an opportunity to hear it these days.
But Maxwell Street was more than a music stop.  It was a truly open market where new immigrants, whether African Americans from the South or foreign born, set up households and enterprises of every kind and description.  You could get a real polish and listen to great Delta Blues while a new suit was being tailored on the spot.  It was a truly ethically and racially itegrated phenomen where everyone left their attitudes, greivances and grudges behind them.  Over 20,000 vistors every Sunday, and on two cops on the beat.  Everybody just all got along and enjoyed themselves and each other.  This was an enormous tourist attraction as well, which is why it proved so lucrative for street musicians.  It was also the mainstay in Roots Gospel music in Chicago.  

Blind Arvella Gray: Captain He's A Hollerin'

Blind Arvella Gray: Good Mornin' Blues

On Maxwell Street. you could find on any day, the blues star of tomorrow or yesterday, down on his luck. But blues players went to Maxwell Street not just to make the big time, they went because it was their way of life. They went because they could jam with a multitude of people, learn licks, styles, songs. Bo Diddley: "Maxwell Street was the backbone of much of the music that you hear because people learned on Maxwell Street." Buddy Guy: "I came to this college because I liked the professors at this college, which was Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy...."Blues artists from the South would travel back and forth to Chicago, and even Little Walter was discovered on Maxwell Street. In fact, he continued to play on Maxwell Street even after he was a major recording star for Chess Records. This was "Sweet Home Chicago" for blues musicians who found green pastures playing on Maxwell Street, Chicago night clubs, and eventually recording.

Carrie Robinson has the "Power"

Maxwell Street Gospel Singers

The music scene in the 50's was dynamic, with the growth of radio, television,  sales of consumer record players and juke boxes (juke joints) across the country.  Chicago television had a regular prime time programming schedule filled with the top music performers in Jazz and Gospel music. This was the home of the great Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole and a host of other stars who appeared regularly on Chicago Television.  The decade also saw the emergence of Chicago as a leader in the recording of great Jazz, Gospel and Blues artists.

The demise of Maxwell Street was a great modern tragedy in urban mismanagement. This was a place where really "We just all got along." a completely open public integrated market where you could buy anything from anywhere, eat any kind of fresh food from any ethnic group, see a multitude of show people performing and earning their living on the streets, and witness the birth of the Chicago Blues. There was only one Maxwell Street. Irreplaceable.  I have a small collection of photos from the Maxwell Street era below,

Maxwell Street Memories