A long-lost side of South Side

Categories: Chicago Tribune

In the part of the city where Chicago blues used to shriek, howl and moan, you could see an amazing transformation just by hanging out at the clubs

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

Live entertainment featuring blues and jazz may have ruled the South Side for years, but in the mid-1970s, clubs sprang to life, serving up some funky soul sounds.

Perv’s House, Pepper’s Hideout and the legendary High Chaparral gave locals, many of them workers in the steel mills and stockyards, a chance to ditch the dungarees and strike out in high fashion.

Donning hairstyles and heels, fedoras and fur, leather and suits, club-goers turned the local taverns into Chicago’s most unexpected weekend glamour palaces. A new picture book, “Light on the South Side,” captures much of that lifestyle by focusing on the people who lived it.

“The people in the clubs were as much a part of the creation of the music as the musicians themselves,” said famed harmonica player Sugar Blue, who lived in Chicago intermittently in the 1970s. “These places were, in a sense, homes of a great musical cuisine. If you have no customers, there’s no point cooking.”

Blue said the club scene represented how tight-knit the neighborhoods were at the time, which directly nurtured development of the music.

“Everybody knew everybody. It was a very insular kind of a situation,” said Sugar Blue. “The music came from these neighborhoods. Because people knew each other, they sang about what they were talking about, what happened last weekend. They basically communicated in a song format people and events everybody knew.”

Photographer Michael Abramson, a white kid from Evanston, made himself a regular in many of those clubs, which catered to blacks. He pointed his camera lens not at the musicians onstage but on the people on the dance floor, the sidewalk and at the bar. But even before Abramson stopped taking photographs, near the end of the 1970s, things had changed. Live entertainment was shrinking with the continuing migration of the black middle class to the south suburbs. Urban renewal meant many clubs were knocked down to make way for new buildings, some of which were never built.

“You need a clientele that has a steady paycheck. No matter how low the cover is, it’s still something,” said Dominic Pacyga, a Chicago historian and author.

“When the black middle-class people started to make money, they became the fastest growing part of the middle class, and they’re not going to hang around there; they want to move, like every other American, to a bigger and better house, farther and farther away,” Pacyga said.

The loss of jobs in steel plants, stockyards and manufacturing contributed to the decline of the area, but it wasn’t just economics at play. Tavern life flourished in the South Side because blacks did not feel as comfortable in downtown clubs as they did in their own neighborhoods, said Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, the Chicago blues label. While integration broke down those barriers, it also contributed to “the cultural disbursement of self-nurturing black communities.”

Abramson’s black-and-white photographs capture the last great era of entertainment on the South Side, as well as “the little intimacies that occurred when people have conversations at tables,” he said. There are seemingly innocuous images: a man whispering into his date’s ear, a woman raising her arms in delight while sitting alone at a table, couples locked together on the dance floor, debonair young men in suits posed against a wall of mirrors. But they capture the emotions of South Side residents who were released — at least for a while — from real-life cares.

“Even though I was hearing the music, you couldn’t escape the booze and the cigarette smoke, the people who were really happy but maybe only on the veneer,” Abramson said.

A few decades removed from the golden age of Chicago blues, the clubs operated in the disco era, which played out in high fashion as well as the music.

“[People] might be really decked out, and some of them might have no shirt on at all,” Abramson said.

If there was one impresario of the South Side during that period, it was Johnny Robinson, also known as Johnny Pepper, who operated three successive clubs from the late 1950s through the early 1980s: Pepper’s Lounge, Pepper’s and Pepper’s Hideout. His clubs became landmark music venues where such stars as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Ike and Tina Turner performed.

Lisa Robinson-Stevenson, who cares for her 84-year-old father in her Lansing home, remembers growing up in his clubs and, as a little girl, being stunned by the elegantly dressed crowd.

“The people were dressed up like they were going to a black-tie affair. I think that was the era. When they went out, they dressed up,” she said.

There is still live music to be found on the South Side, in venues such as Lee’s Unleaded Blues, the Checkerboard Lounge and Linda’s Place, but the majority followed the clientele to the suburbs, to places such as Genesis, a steppers club in Country Club Hills that features live blues every Sunday night.

Robinson-Stevenson said she took her father there four years ago and as soon as they walked through the door, the band members rushed over to thank him for giving them their start.

“More quiet, more safe, more laid-back,” she said of the new venues. “People who are in their 60s, they still want to hear the blues.”

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