Called to another Chicago work assignment in the Summer of 2002, a small group of experienced road warriors with a common love of live music, decided to take a break from the week and see what they could see on a hot Thursday evening.
The only question that really remained was "where to go". A few club names were offered up including "Buddy Guy's" and "Blue Chicago" downtown, but the scruffiest in this group of four, the one who truly looked like a beatnik should he be wearing a beret, suggested that we make the pilgrimage to one of the original blues clubs on the south side of Chicago. And so, we made plans to descended on the "Checkerboard Lounge" after 9:00 PM. Beatnik would be driving.
We had heard that a local guitarist named Vance Kelly was a regular there on Thursday nights and we were guaranteed a visit with a hot guitar and a great backup band. We had seen Vance play here before but that was two years earlier. "Was it really that long ago?", said the second in the group, the man referred to as Dewey Oxburger, only because of his likeness to a former John Candy movie character. Time really does fly by when you're preoccupied with kids and work and bills and well you know, everything unrelated to having a couple of beers at a Blues club with your buddies.
We met at Beatnik's place, where we re-introduced ourselves to his charming wife whom we had met briefly some years before. Not to make the evening any more complicated than it already was, being a work night and all, we decided to order for pizza while waiting for the evening to "age" a little. Nobody sets foot in a proper Blues club until after 9:00 PM. These are street rules you just have to know in order to survive. The third person in the background thus far would be the anonymous author of this story, known only by the boyhood nickname, "Moose".
Our small group of three shot a game of cut-throat pool or two with a little John Popper playing in the background. Somehow back then, John Popper enjoyed a brief moment of success and nobody quite understood why. Eventually, you would get to a point where you wanted to cram the harmonica down John's throat. We spoke fondly of better days, of tequila and beer at the ranch conference in San Antonio or near the pool at the technical conference in Miami. Ox had gone off on a few stories from our happy Zydeco Jazz Club travels in New Orleans. I recall being wasted on Hurricanes and thinking that red beans and rice was the perfect snack food at 2:00 AM, all this while watching a guy blow chunks (of the same food variety) in the street right in front of me. "Good times" I thought.
Pizza was easy and cheap around Chicago and was quite simply the most basic of "Guy" foods. Beatnik was apologizing for the lack of "good" pizzerias in the area right about the time the pizza dude arrived at the door. I had thin crust pizza in Chicago only twice in my life and it seems to be the only place on earth where you'll see the thin pie cut into tiny squares rather than wedges. So why is Chicago the only place you can get really good thin crust Pizza? I mean a town known for deep-dish pizza shouldn't be known for thin crust too, but it seems to be true. It was quite perfect despite Beatnik's repeated apologies. Then again I'll eat dead rhino ass if I'm hungry enough, but that's just me. No, on second thought, Ox would be with me on that.
We took turns at verbal discourse and friendly abuse while waiting for the 9 o'clock hour. I called Ox a "dweeb" he called me a "geek" and we both called Beatnik a "spaz" and that's about as rough as it gets with pasty-faced suburban boys. 8:45 and we finally started our trek towards the Checkerboard Lounge. We grabbed Ox's sedan for the ride, mostly because it was parked behind everyone else in the driveway but maybe because I didn't have my rental with me, and Beatnik knew better.
The Checkerboard Lounge was legendary really, even the Rolling Stones had made a stop there on one of their infamous "after concert jam sessions". This was back in the early days when the Blues offered them more inspiration than pop. All the great Blues artists had appeared there as well. The club was buried on the south side of the city on East 43rd Street in what might be considered a "gritty" section of Chicago. The good folks that live there might object to that statement, but the Checkerboard was in a part of town where you need to pay protection money to park your car on a public street. If you're not from around there that is. A group of teenagers approached us on the public street across from the club with a greeting of "Nice car". Knowing the deal up front, Beatnik politely asked, "How much to park here tonight fellas?" "Five bucks", was the response. Cheaper than anywhere downtown.
We started our Thursday "Blues" adventure but saw on the exterior banner that Vance wouldn't be playing that evening. Instead the club was featuring a hot new stand-in band called "JoJo Murray and the Top Flight Blues Band". It didn't really matter to us, we were there for the beers and the Blues.
JoJo was a large man with a shaved head a small gap between his front teeth. He had a dominant look about him and he reminded me a little bit of Isaac Hayes. Jo Jo's band was tight and the sound was fat and though the room was still mostly empty, he was dishing it out. The room began to slowly fill during the course of the next hour, and JoJo was definitely keyed up for the crowd. The entire band was on that night, and the keyboard player was filling in the background with everything from muted piano melodies to a booming brass section. It was quite a show.
The original Checkerboard Lounge was an icon. If you thought back to every Hollywood picture that portrayed what a seedy south side Blues club looked like, this would be the place and the venue was used in several movies. The front of the building was nothing much to look at, with a hand painted sign above the door and a rusty chain across the entrance. You were met at the door with a stare that said, "you ain't from around here, are you boy" but the only thing that came out of the bouncer's mouth was "Five dollars".
We may not look as if we belonged there but it didn't matter. We were some of the loyal, some of the followers, former rock and rollers that knew where our musical roots were. All you needed to do was sit, close your eyes and listen to Aretha and Ray and Muddy and Bird and Miles, and you grew up with Motown too. Just sit and listen. Order a beer, and tip your waitress. This is the gospel according to B.B. read by Deacon JoJo. This is the Holy day of obligation known as "Blues Thursday".
The floor was made up of 40 year old mismatched broken tile while the pillars were loaded with staples and nails from the local band and event posters. Some of them still hung there featuring local bands and hall concerts from years earlier. The stage was just a small raised platform with two sides and another hand painted sign in the back telling you once again that you were in the "Checkerboard Lounge". The tables were nothing more than a 2 X 10 inch piece of long lumber covered in self stick vinyl shelf paper, just wide enough for two beer bottles to sit next to each other. There was no room for knees under the "table" but that forced you to turn your bowling alley chair to face the stage.
Our good buddy and fellow Blues fan, Mello, joined us late at the club for a beer or two after working late on some customer problem, but it was good to see him at the end of this long day. The four of us were content with our Budweiser long necks, uncomfortable plastic chairs and great music all around. We all took turns yelling at each other from across the table because that was the only way to communicate. "WHAT…. FORNICATE?……" . "NO….. COMMUNICATE". You just gotta love a place like this.
We stayed as long as we could knowing that we all had to be back at it on Friday morning on our various customer assignments. It was tough to leave when JoJo was still wailing and the crowd was into it. Too bad it wasn't a Friday night. The ride home was uneventful while we listened to a "Page and Plant" Live CD. Even with these guys being former members of Led Zeppelin, you could hear the Blues influences in their original music especially with Jimmy Page guitar tracks on songs like, "In the Evening". Amazing really when you think about how the American Blues movement influenced so many current recording artists.
It was good to hang with Beatnik, Ox, and Mello again. My chances to visit Chicago are few and far between and I always make it a plan to hit one of the clubs while I'm there. On my last trip to Chicago I convinced a small crowd to join me at "Blue Chicago" on Clark for a late night outing and they have been converts ever since. It only takes one visit. It is after all, a religious experience.
The old Checkerboard Lounge is gone now. I have to imagine the roof caved in or the walls fell down or some other epic tragedy brought the club to its end. They have taken the club name and moved the club to suburbia, but some of the original Chicago clubs still exist. We will miss the original Checkerboard, the broken tile, the self paper covered tables, the cheap bottled beer and the great music.
The thrill is gone.