John's was only three years old when it close in September 1966.
But the music lives on, thanks to the musicians who played there
and their legions of blues fans everywhere. Check out this recent
photo of the Chicago
Blues Reunion (left to right)--Sammy Lay, Corky Siegel,
Barry Goldberg, Harvey Mandel, Nick Gravenites, and Tracy
Nelson are still keeping the spirit of Big John's alive
40 years after the legendary blues club closed. Click the
photo to visit their web page.
And, click here to watch
a video of one of their rehearsals.
article appeared in May 2001 on the web site of the
Jazz Institute of Chicago and appears here with their kind permission.
It is a memoir about when I worked at the legendary Chicago blues
club, Big John's, in the mid-1960s.
John's was the crucible for the urban blues scene across America
and beyond. The list of artists who performed at Big John's
reads like a blues Who's Who during the last third of
the 20th Century: Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, Muddy Waters,
Barry Goldberg and Steve Miller, Howlin' Wolf, Corky Siegel
and Jim Schwall, Otis Rush, Charlie Musselwhite, Buddy Guy and Junior
Wells, and others. Big John's was one joint that was always
Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield
at Big John's, November 1964.
Photo courtesy of Norman Dayron.
first time I went to Big John’s was on a cold Wednesday evening
in November 1964. I had just returned from graduate school at Stanford.
A friend and classmate of mine from Northwestern (Class of 1963),
Pam Teichner, took me there. As we walked through the Old Town club’s
squeaky swinging doors, I heard guitarist Mike Bloomfield and organist
Barry Goldberg tear into "Green Onions," the great song
T. and the MG's.
John’s was packed. Every table, every bar stool, every square-foot
of floor space was filled. Bloomfield’s band turned on everyone.
It mesmerized me. I went back the next night, and the next–and almost
every night until Big John’s was dealt the death blow by the powers
that be in September 1966.
those two years, I witnessed the beginnings of Chicago blues as
we think of it today. Not black blues, not white blues – but Chicago
blues. Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Nick "The Greek"
Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Steve Miller, Corky Siegel, Jim Schwall,
Harvey Mandel, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Little Walter, James Cotton,
Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Sam Lay – these were the blues
artists, white and black, who made Big John’s one of the best blues
clubs Chicago – and America – has ever known.
long after I began hanging out at Big John’s, I became acquainted
with its manager, Bob Wettlaufer (who earlier had managed the popular
Gate of Horn folk music and comedy club), and its owner, John Haas.
One night they asked me if I’d like to work for them – as maitre’d,
bouncer, I.D. checker, bartender, waiter, whatever! I jumped at
the opportunity! I've always been glad I did!
was in December 1964. I was 24 years old. Only yesterday....
Big John’s was located at 1638 North Wells on the west side of the
street, just south of Eugenie and three-fourths of a block north
of North Avenue. It appealed to musicians and customers alike. Everything
jibed: the long bar with Marsh’s caricatures of musicians and employees
hanging behind it; the beat up chandeliers with their dim, orange
light bulbs; the red-and-white checkered table cloths; the abstract
paintings by local artists Gerry Proctor, Jack Beckley, and Danny
Morgan; the old upright piano that was always in the way between
the service bar and the bandstand; the stage that was never large
enough to hold all of the musicians and their equipment; the frantic
dancing in the narrow, almost non-existent aisles (and often on
chairs); the kitchen in the rear that was open only when the cook
felt like working; and the two pool tables in the backroom that
always frustrated Chicago policemen looking for gambling – and where
Bob Dylan, in disguise, racked'em up until closing one night after
Azzarro, owner of the Bulls and co-owner of the Earl of Old
Town, and John Haas, owner of Big John's.
was the music and the musicians that turned people onto Big John's.
Bloomfield and his band were the first to play blues there, filling
the club every night, no matter what the weather was like outside.
For most people, including myself, it was the first time we had
seen anything like it.
As Bloomfield’s engagement came to an end, he recommended the Paul
Butterfield Blues Band, led by the young blues harmonica player
from Hyde Park. To everyone’s surprise, the Butterfield band proved
to be even more popular than Bloomfield’s band. With Jerome Arnold
on bass, Sammy Lay on drums (both black musicians and former sidemen
of Howlin’ Wolf), and Elvin Bishop from Oklahoma on guitar, Butterfield
developed his own musical concept of Chicago blues.
Butterfield and his band played blues standards, such as "Stormy
Monday," "Every Day I Have the Blues," and "Mojo,"but
they also introduced a number of their own numbers, including "Born
in Chicago" and "Run Out of Time." Butterfield
and his band quickly earned the respect and admiration of both the
younger, aspiring white blues musicians and the older, established
black blues musicians. For eight consecutive months, it was the
Butterfield band, Wednesday thru Sunday, at Big John's.
Wettlaufer, manager of Big John's, in the pool room. He was
a wicked player.
was during this Butterfield engagement when I met Ray Nordstrand
of WFMT, Chicago's fine arts station and one of the best-listened
to FM stations in the United States, then and now. He was kind enough
to tell the listeners of his late-night Midnight Special
every Saturday who was performing at Big John’s each week. Before
long, people from all over Chicago and the suburbs were among those
forming long lines up Wells Street toward Eugenie, and sometimes
even down Eugenie. People often waited an hour to get inside.
In the summer of 1965, Butterfield signed a management agreement
with Al Grossman, Bloomfield’s and Dylan’s manager, and took his
band to the East Coast. Bloomfield joined Butterfield’s group and
gave it even greater vibrancy and drive. At the Newport Folk Festival
on July 25th, the Butterfield-Bloomfield band with Goldberg joining
on organ backed Bob Dylan. They played three numbers and nearly
caused a riot. Many of Dylan’s fans, who preferred traditional,
acoustic folk music, were outraged by what they heard. But many,
many others loved the new sound, dubbed folk rock.
Bishop, guitar, and Paul Butterfield, harmonica.
Dylan asked Goldberg to be his permanent organist, but Goldberg
declined and returned to Chicago, where he and his band followed
Butterfield’s at Big John’s. His guitarist, Steve Miller, was on
vacation from the University of Wisconsin. They also drew large
crowds to Big John’s, and soon their group was known as the Goldberg-Miller
During the Goldberg-Miller engagement, Wettlaufer decided it was
time for the club to showcase the older black blues bands as well.
The main question was whether these groups would want to play before
predominantly white audiences. Wettlaufer thought they would, and
he found that the black blues bands were eager to perform at Big
John’s. So he invited Muddy Waters, Otis Spann (his pianist), and
James Cotton (his harmonica player) to see how well the Goldberg-Miller
Blues Band performed and went over with the audience. They were
so impressed that they sat in -- and Muddy Waters agreed to a month’s
engagement beginning in early September.
at the 1981 Chicago Jazz Festival.
courtesy of Stanford Bonner
night Muddy Waters opened at Big John’s had been anticipated for
several weeks. Every seat was taken and people were standing six
abreast at the bar long before the first set began. At Pepper’s
Lounge on the South Side, Muddy only accompanied his band for two
or three numbers each set. But at Big John’s, he played almost the
entire set each time the band went onstage.
The audience loved Muddy, and he loved them. In fact, his band broke
all attendance and sales records at Big John’s-and convinced Wettlaufer
that the time had come for Big John’s to alternate black and white
blues bands.By the end of Muddy’s engagement, Otis Rush was appearing
on Mondays and Howlin’ Wolf on Tuesdays. On any night of the week,
Chicagoans could hear the best in Chicago blues at Big John’s.
Otis Rush played soft, rippling guitar beneath the lyrics of his
ballads, singing in a manner reflecting his quiet, gentle personality.
Howlin’ Wolf was something else. He cried, wailed, and snarled about
legends and superstitions. A tall, powerfully built man with a stare
that made Benny Goodman’s ray seem like a friendly wink, Wolf's
glance sent chills down the spines of his musicians whenever they
made mistakes. Wolf’s force resounded through every number he performed.
Both Rush and Wolf included saxophonists in their bands, adding
another driving tonal dimension to their sound.
Paul Butterfield Blues Band's first album for Elektra (1965)
is available on CD. This photo was taken on Chicago's Maxwell
Street. From left: Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Sammy
Lay, Elvin Bishop, and Jerome Arnold. Born in Chicago is on
"The Greek" Gravenites' 1999 album "Kill My Brain"
shows he is still going strong today. Nick is a widely respected
blues song writer, musician, and singer, known for his early
work with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Electric Flag.
Butterfield and Bloomfield returned with their band to Big John’s
for the month of October. Elektra had just released their first
album (see cover photo above). They perfected the band during the
October engagement, developing their fusion of blues and rock. The
band continued to play familiar blues numbers, but they introduced
us to something new, less of departure, more of a transition.
Bishop, guitar, Sammy Lay, drums.
What Big John’s customers heard from Butterfield and Bloomfield
in October 1965 was the wave of the future.
During the first four months of 1966, the Butterfield-Bloomfield
Blues Band toured the West Coast, introducing Chicago blues to the
Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and to The Trip in Los Angeles,
both psychedelic emporiums featuring light shows and multimedia
projections. Big John’s never went that route; it was always pure
funk. Butterfield and Bloomfield inspired many of the acid rock
groups on the West Coast, including the Jefferson Airplane, the
Grateful Dead, the Mothers of Invention, and Janis Joplin and Big
Brother and the Holding Company.
Bloomfield really dug the West Coast and stayed there to form the
Electric Flag with Buddy Miles and Nick "The Greek" Gravenites,
who had written a number of songs for Butterfield, including "Born
author and his friend, Chris, about 5:30 a.m. at the Lincoln
Hotel Restaurant early Sunday morning after a long, long Saturday
night in 1965. Big John's was open until 4 a.m. on weekdays
and 5 a.m. on Saturdays (Sunday mornings).
John’s continued presenting the best of Chicago’s blues bands. Engagements
varied between two and four weeks. Joining the impressive roster
of Chicago blues legends appearing at Big John’s was a new group
led by two music majors from Roosevelt University, Corky Siegel
and Jim Schwall, which became Seiji Ozawa’s personal favorite. The
Siegel-Schwall band’s musicianship was so impressive that Ozawa
later recorded them with the San Francisco Symphony after he became
its musical director.
Blues Reunion Rehearsal (March 21, 2008)
Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Marcy Levy,
Harvey Mandel, and Corky Siegel
these Chicago blues groups weren’t appearing at Big John’s, they
followed Butterfield and Bloomfield to Café Au Go-Go or the Village
Gate in New York or to the Fillmore in San Francisco. But Big John’s
was home. By the summer of 1966, people were talking about Big John’s
from coast to coast. Club owners, record producers, talent agents,
and television producers came to Chicago to see what Big John’s
had. What they found was simply a small, crowded, friendly bar without
any glitter or pretense offering the most exciting music in the
nation every night of the week.
Then it ended. Fast. Big John's liquor license was suddenly
revoked in September 1966. Its owners, its employees, its musicians,
and its customers knew something wrong had been done to Big John's.
But no one knew precisely why or by whom. Charges were leveled against
Big John's for serving minors, for allowing gambling in the
poolroom, and for soliciting on behalf of a known Old Town prostitute
whom we had barred since the club opened. Chicago police from the
18th District had always been "friendly" to Big John's,
but now that was over.
Big John's and three neighboring taverns just north of Big John’s
-- Second Chance, the Witchburner's, and O’Rourke’s (the original
one) -- were housed in buildings that were condemned within a few
months after Big John’s was closed. Within a short time, Americana
Towers, a 42-story high-rise apartment (and later condominium) building
was constructed on the adjacent lots of the former clubs.
Towers has always reminded me, that Chicago, the city that works,
had worked again.
want to thank the late Arturo"Art" McCreary for providing
most of the links below. Art visited Big John's almost every night
with our northside buddies Kurt Teich, Gerry Proctor, Matt "The
Rat" Berman, and "Moustache Jack" Beckley. Art and
I renewed our friendship online in 2001. Sadly, Art died in December
2005. I'll always be grateful that Art and I met again online and
shared our memories via email.
also like to mention some of my female friends during those wonderful
days in the mid-1960s: the waitresses at Big John's -- Becky, Britt,
Donna, Franca, Karla, Kathy, Lois, Margo, Roz, and Sally; and the
women I dated while I worked at Big John's -- especially Corky,
Dori, Karen, Linda 1, Linda 2, Pam, and Rose.
Bloomfield - This web site is
an ongoing project by family, friends and fans of Michael Bloomfield.
Whether you are a long time fan of Michael's or just discovering
his tremendous catalog of music for the first time, you'll find
something on this web site that you will enjoy.
Siegel - A musicians'
musician, blues pianist and singer Corky Siegel earned the respect
and admiration of all who knew him at Big John's, including Chicago
Symphony Orchestra Conductor Seiji Ozawa, who often came by the
club to hear the Siegal-Schwall Blues Band. Seiji later recorded
them with the San Francisco Symphony after he became its conductor.
Corky and Jim are still playing, now with my favorite blues drummer
Sammy Lay and bassist Rollo Radford. They go on tour every year
and often perform at Fitzgerald's in my hometown, Berwyn, just west
of Chicago. Corky's web site
offers many sound samples of this legendary blues band.
"The Greek" Gravenites
- Not many knew the 1960s blues scene in Chicago as well as Nick
"The Greek" Gravenites. In this online article, Bad
Talkin' Bluesman, Nick recalls growing up on the southside,
his days at the University of Chicago, his introduction to blues
clubs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and his friendship with
Paul Butterfield, Big John's, and the blues scene as it spread across
the nation. Nick's recollections offer a loving memoir of this period.
Be sure to read it!
another look at the Paul Butterfield band in the early days, see
this excellent article
by Tom Ellis III.
Ken Nordine - Ken Nordine
is a genius, as you'll hear when you visit Ken's web site, Word
Jazz. And, you'll recognize his
voice, because Ken has made many radio and TV commercials over the
years. Like many of Chicago's creative community, Ken visited Big
John's often. You would always find him rackin'em up in the pool
- A marvelous pianist and singer, Judy Roberts is a vibrant, innovative
jazz performer. She is well known in Chicago and elsewhere, but
not as well as she deserves to be.Visit her site and buy her CDs
to hear this fine performer.
"The Earl of Old Town" Pionke
- Earl Pionke is a Chicago legend, a real dyed-in-the-wool, red-blooded,
tough guy who has been a fine friend to many over the years, including
me. In November 1966, Earl decided to feature folk music at his
club, The Earl of Old Town, located across Wells Street and down
the block from where Big John's had been. The Earl focused on up-and-coming
performers, beginning a long tradition. Visit this site to learn
about some of the folk music greats who had their start at The Earl.
Bonnie Koloc, Steve Goodman, Fred and Ed Holstein, and John Prine
are a few of the many performers whose careers Earl helped along.
Chicago, and the world, have been a much better place because of
"Mother Blues" Blue
- Before Earl offered folk music, Mother Blues often featured it.
But when Big John's closed, Bobbie Wettalufer persuaded Lorraine
to feature some of the blues bands who had done so well at Big John's.
Among those who appeared at her club in Old Town were Peter, Paul
& Mary, John Denver, Oscar Brown Jr., Janis Joplin, George Carlin,
Jose Feliciano, Sergio Mendez, Spanky and Our Gang, Muddy Waters,
Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy, Jefferson Airplane, Mike Bloomfield and
Paul Butterfield. Lorraine died in 2000, leaving behind a circle
of friends that will never be broken.
Close - One of the guiding forces
behind Second City, the late Del Close and his talented improvisationalists
spent many hours after work at Big John's. His web
bio is a journey through the best of American comedy during
the last half of the 20th Century.
Corner - Take a look at some
photos of the Chicago blues scene today.
Pokempner - Mark is a Chicago
photographer who has been chronicling the blues scene for many year.
Dunas - Another fine photographer
covering the blues scene today. His web site offers a magnificent
example of portrait photography featuring blues musicians as they
looked near the end of the 20th Century.
Town Today - This web page offers
plenty of photos of Old Town today. A few years ago, Old Town was
featured on the HBO's series, The Mind of the Married Man.
The fictional couple live in a brownstone on Wisconsin Avenue, about
two blocks from where Big John's was located, and only a block west
from where I lived at Kennelly Square on Wells Street before moving
to California in 1986.
Naftalin - Mark played piano
with the Butterfield-Bloomfield Blues Band.
- This site offers a glimpse of blues organist Barry Goldberg, who
often performed at Big John's with Steve "Fly Like An Eagle"
Waters - Read about one of the most influential musicians in
the history of the blues.
Credits: All photos were taken
by yours truly, George Spink, except the photo of Mike Bloomfield
and Paul Butterfield, taken by Norman Dayron, and the photo of
Muddy Waters, taken by Stanford Bonner at the 1981 Chicago Jazz
photographed Michael and Paul by the service bar near the bandstand
at Big John's in November 1964.
normally did not allow photographers to take pictures at Big John's,
unless they worked for a publication or record company, to protect
the privacy of our customers. I took my interior photos during the
first set of a weekday evening. Business was unusually slow, thanks
to lousy weather that night. I took the photo of Vince Azzarro and
John Haas during Old Town Art Fair Weekend in 1965 -- seems like