CHICAGO (Reuters) - Music that went silent nearly 40 years ago on an historic stretch of Chicago’s celebrated Michigan Avenue is poised to return, thanks to an unlikely mix of rock stars, politicians and real estate developers.
Chicago has rezoned Motor Row — near Chess Studios, the famed “home of the electric blues” — as a live entertainment district, set to open in early 2013.
The building stock is “quite remarkable,” says developer Pam Gleichman, CEO of Landmark America, Illinois, the company spearheading the project.
“This historic location gave birth to all this wonderful music that we listen to today. Chicago is astounding for playing a role in all that history.”
Early in the last century, Motor Row was one of the nation’s showroom districts for the nascent automotive industry. The buildings themselves were used as marketing tools as they featured large glass storefronts, generous spaces and exotic ornamentation.
Music bloomed nearby — just north of Motor Row was Record Row, the center of Chicago’s recording industry between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s, once second only to New York City. Record labels Vee-Jay, Chess, Wonderful and King all operated studios along the strip, which mainly housed large record distributorships.
Landmark recordings by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and others were made there. The Rolling Stones recorded an early EP at Chess and titled one of the songs, “2120 South Michigan Avenue” - the building’s address - in its honor.
The dozens of labels that operated on Record Row produced a wide range of genres, said Chicago music historian Robert Pruter.
“It was jazz, it was blues, it was R&B, it was soul, it was gospel and, in some places, it was country and western,” Pruter said. “It was a flourishing area.”
Today, all the auto showrooms but one are shuttered and no remnants of Record Row remain except Chess Studios, which is operated by a non-profit and is only open intermittingly for tours.
Gleichman said the district will incorporate both the automotive and music narratives and the live music component will feature a variety of music, not just blues.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel started the process by green-lighting a new $50 million L train stop adjacent to the site, Gleichman said.
At least five buildings will be used for live entertainment and restaurant venues as well as a hotel. A former Buick dealership will feature a 9,500-square-foot restaurant with a live entertainment stage and adjoining outdoor space. Running the restaurant is Grant DePorter, which runs the Harry Caray chain of steakhouses.
Partnering on the music end is Cheap Trick, the Midwest rock band that started its career in nearby Rockford, Illinois. The band will operate an Internet radio station from the building, which will also serve as a museum curating the band’s nearly 40-year history, including memorabilia and Rick Nielson’s vast collection of guitars.
The band plans to approach the venue with no limits, which means either establishing a regular residency or staging special events with special guests.
“Ultimately, if they could play there and not play anywhere else, that would be ideal,” said band manager Dave Frey. “It will be like their sandbox.”
Alderman Bob Fioretti sponsored an ordinance forcing all new development in the district to be commercial, not residential. The city also plans to widen sidewalks and make streetscapes friendlier for increased foot traffic and outdoor dining.
Fioretti said that despite the Cheap Trick connection, he hopes the district will incorporate the city’s deeper blues music past.
“It’s easy for the political folks to forget the history. We are the home of the blues and it’s something we need to revive,” he said.
The revival is a long time coming, say music historians who complain Chicago has done little to acknowledge the many blues, jazz and gospel greats who made their best work here.
“Chicago doesn’t really celebrate its musical heritage except for the lakefront festivals,” said Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of Alligator Records, the Chicago-based blues music label.
Iglauer said New Orleans, Nashville, Austin and Memphis have capitalized on their unique musical heritages to erect museums, statues, parks and business districts to cultivate a cultural identity that boosts tourism.
“There were visionaries in those cities who could see music as a tourist attraction. That never happened in Chicago. It would be wonderful if it invested in the image of Chicago as a music city on a national level,” he said.
Chicago blues star Buddy Guy said he has fond memories of getting his start at Chess soon after he moved to Chicago in 1957. He recalled the first time he saw the Rolling Stones, who came into the middle of one of his sessions.
“I had never saw white guys with hair that long. I said ‘what the hell is this?’ That was the Rolling Stones and they were trying to get started in Chicago,” Guy said.
Guy has called on the city to advocate for a blues museum that would honor the Southern musicians who created and popularized electrified blues in this city.
“Now they call Austin, Texas the live music capital of the world,” he said. “But it belongs here.”
Reporting By Mark Guarino; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Tim Gaynor