TERRY GROSS, host:
In 1975, Michael Abramson was a Chicago college kid with an interest in photography. One night, he took his camera to the city's South Side in search of blues, and his life changed. The Numero Group, a Chicago-based reissue label, has put out a deluxe book of the photographs Abramson took in Pepper's Hideout and other clubs, called "Light on the South Side." Along with the book comes a two-record set, vinyl albums called "Pepper's Jukebox," with some of the music that could've been played on the scene.
Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.
(Soundbite of music)
ED WARD: When Abramson started taking his remarkable photographs at Chicago's South Side, Chicago blues was almost finished as a popular music. It was already in danger of becoming moribund in the mid '60s, when Junior Wells and Magic Sam saved it by injecting some soul into it. But young people saw that there was plenty of straight soul in Chicago, and blues became something for an older crowd and for recent arrivals from the South.
But of course hope springs eternal for musicians, and some of them thought it was just a matter of updating the lyrics.
(Soundbite of song, "I'm a Streaker")
Ms. ARLEAN BROWN (Singer): (Singing) Im streaker baby and I dont think it's no disgrace. I am a streaker baby and I dont think it's no disgrace. Oh I feel like an outhouse with not a brick out of place.
WARD: Arlean Brown was 51 when she recorded "I'm a Streaker," a wonderfully nasty song which pits her against younger rivals but never seems to indicate that she had the slightest idea what a streaker actually was. Still, it launched her career in music after selling a purported 78,000 copies, and the former cab driver and corner grocery owner became part of harmonica player Mack Simmons revue at Pepper's Hideout and eventually broke out with her own Arlean Brown X-Rated Revue.
Another woman who tried to be topical was Lucille Spann, the widow of Muddy Waters' great piano player, Otis Spann. Once again, she didn't seem to get the concept.
(Soundbite of song, "Woman's Lib")
Ms. LUCILLE SPANN (Singer): (Singing) I'm going join the women's lib. Got to find myself a job, oh yes I am. Said I want to join the women's lib. Got to find myself a job. You know you dont, you didnt love me from the start. I'm going to pack my clothes...
WARD: Although there were certainly women who joined the women's lib, because they'd been treated badly by a man, Lucille seems to think it'll get her a better man. It doesn't seem to have gotten her anything, though; she never made another record.
Others on the scene were veterans who were updating their sound. Detroit Jr. had been in Chicago since 1956, and was Howlin' Wolf's piano player, but to make ends meet he also waited tables at Pepper's and cut the occasional record.
(Soundbite of music)
DETROIT JR. (Musician): (Singing) Young blood baby. That's my name. They call me young blood because, you know what? I can do most anything. And all the girls can't help it. They just got to say something when they see me here. I can boogaloo and I can do the shing-a-ling. They call me Young Blood 'cause I can do most anything. Now listen baby...
WARD: There was, actually, some young blood on the scene. Bobby Rush, who is unavoidable today, being a major self-promoter, was only starting out in the 1970s.
(Soundbite of song, "Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man")
Mr. BOBBY RUSH (Singer): (Singing) Sitting in car and the car won't go. That's the way you spell Chicago. A knife and a fork and a plate of greens. That's the way you spell New Orleans. Hello girl in the tight, tight sweater. Hey baby, sure looking mellow. The girl over there with the hot pants on, turn her loose, James Brown. Let her turn me on. 'Cause me and you baby go hand in hand. You the bowlegged woman and I'm a knock-kneed man.
WARD: "Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man" was one of Rush's first records, and already the formula of blues guitar and funk rhythm section that would make his career is in place.
Abramson's remarkably intimate photographs evoke a vanished world, one that comes further to life listening to the record. Although most of the music on "Pepper's Jukebox" is pretty pedestrian, lacking a real spark of inspiration, in the context of the club it filled the bill for something to dance to. Today the jukebox at Pepper's is silent and those of the lovers and dancers in the photos who are still alive have gray hair. With luck, they might still have one of the prints Abramson traded for access, and like us can look back across the decades.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France and blogs at wardinfrance. He reviewed "Light on the South Side."
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