A Blues Infused Tour of Chicago

Ten ways to celebrate the city’s musical heritage this June

Since the 1920s, when the Great Migration brought musicians from the south to Chicago, blues has been part of the city’s soul. From Muddy Waters to Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon to Koko Taylor, the music’s rich and unique heritage lives on today. Try these ten ways to get the blues. 

Local Legend

In the summer of 1989, the legendary Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy opened Buddy Guy’s Legends in the South Loop neighborhood. The
intimate space, with a blue and white checkered floor and kitchen serving Cajun soul food, hosts blues music nightly. Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Ray Vaughn have all graced the stage, and Guy performs each January. Settle in at the bar or a small table, but be sure to glimpse the walls covered with photos, Grammys, mementos and guitars signed by musical superstars. buddyguys.com

The Best Fest

Over the past twenty-nine years, the Chicago Blues Festival has become the largest free blues festival in the world, with five stages offering music to 500,000 fans over three days. The event began a year after the death of Chicago blues icon Muddy Waters. This year’s fest, held June 8–10 in Grant Park, highlights Texas Johnny Brown on Friday, Floyd Taylor on Saturday and Grammy winner Mavis Staples closing the celebration on Sunday. Don’t miss a special tribute to “Queen of Blues” Koko Taylor before Staples’ performance. chicagobluesfestival.us

Join the Club

You could spend years exploring Chicago’s blues clubs. But ranked consistently among the city’s best are Blue Chicago, B.L.U.E.S., Kingston Mines, Lee’s Unleaded Blues, New Checkerboard Lounge and Rosa’s Lounge. 

Spirited Singing

Come Sunday morning, some blues-style worship might be in store. Head to the House of Blues for its weekly Gospel Brunch. Fill your plate with offerings from an expansive Southern buffet brunch featuring omelets, waffles, seafood and more. Then take your seat and enjoy a performance by high-spirited gospel singers. houseofblues.com

Living the Blues

Living legends Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell and Carlos Johnson came together to create music and share stories about life in the blues. As Chicago Blues: A Living History, they released albums in 2009 and 2011, garnering a Grammy nomination for best traditional blues album.

Off the Wall

If you can’t think of Chicago blues without picturing Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in matching suits, don’t worry. The Blues Brothers Mural, created for the 1980 movie, is still visible at South Prairie Avenue and East 47th Street.

Listen Up

The Chicago Office of Tourism offers a free audio tour, the History of Chicago Blues. The downloadable guide explores blues music and destinations—narrated by none other than Buddy Guy. downloadchicagotours.com

History Comes Alive

While the Chicago History Museum as a whole makes for an interesting visit, blues lovers should check out
Chicago: Crossroads of America. Part of the permanent exhibition features a replica blues and jazz club, complete with photographs, concert posters, instruments and memorabilia bringing blues music history to life. chicagohistory.org

Home Sweet Home

In 1954, a house at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave. became Muddy Waters’ home. He, Howlin’ Wolf and other musicians would rehearse in the basement or jam on the front porch. The site is one of eighty Chicago Tribute Markers of Distinction, which commemorate notable Chicagoans where they lived or worked. chicagotribute.org

Preserving the Past

Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation holds a significant spot in blues history at 2120 S. Michigan Ave.—the historic site of Chess Records, where nearly every Chicago blues great passed through to record. Today the foundation promotes blues history and supports working musicians. Visitors can tour the building Mondays through Saturdays.  

Katie Vaughn is managing editor of Madison Magazine.

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