Does Detroit have the blues?

Jan 22, 2003 at 12:00 am

When is the blues going to get the respect that it deserves in Detroit? No, I don’t mean Royal Oak, the home of Memphis Smoke, and I’m not talking about Dearborn, home of the relatively new George and Harry’s, and the soon-to-be-opened Sully’s Roadhouse. Not talking about St. Clair Shores, home of the Blue Goose, either, and I don’t mean Clinton Township, home of another relatively new blues club, Garfield’s on Moravian (formerly Mega Blues).

I’m talking about Detroit, man. Motown. The city.

I’m not dissin’ the burbs. The majority of blues gigs are located in the burbs because there’s hardly anywhere left in the city for a blues musician to find an audience. So God bless the suburbs. Live long and prosper. OK?

But here’s the thing; Chicago has more or less been anointed as the blues capital of America — at least when it comes to electric blues. (Mississippi still holds the heavyweight title when it comes to the original Delta blues, and that, of course, is not even a contest.) Every summer the Windy City hosts one of the largest — if not the largest — free blues festivals in the country. The crowds get so thick you practically have to do mouth-to-mouth with your neighbor just to draw breath. In between festivals there are more than enough big-time blues clubs packing in crowds who travel from around the country to hear what they have been told is the real deal. Buddy Guy’s Legends, Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. and Koko Taylor’s are a few of the hot spots.

I’ve heard from friends that the tourist-oriented setup can be considerably better for the sightseer than for the musician because it usually means the bands are required to fit both a certain appearance and sound. For example, a band that has a heavyset black woman up front growling the blues like a thundercloud has a good shot. On the other hand, a Detroit keyboardist buddy of mine told me that when his band played a Chicago venue a few years back the group was initially given somewhat of a cold shoulder because they lacked a bass player. The keyboard player was covering the bass line. This type of left-hand bass thing is an apparent no-no in Chicago, where a standard bass player is a must.

Meanwhile, here in Detroit there are but a handful of venues that feature the blues. There is the Music Menu, the Attic (which is actually in Hamtramck), and the newest Fifth Avenue located downtown (which can hardly be said to focus on the blues). Although the Motor City has a blues heritage to rival Chicago’s, you’d never know it unless you already knew it. (Sure, Chicago’s Chess Records made stars of greats like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but Detroit’s less-heralded roster can hold its own with the Windy City’s.)

Detroit musicians themselves are the best — and only — ambassadors of the local scene whenever they hit the road. Admirable as that is, it simply isn’t enough. I think promotion of Detroit blues needs to be a vital and central part of this city’s revitalization effort.

Unlike D-town, Chitown cherishes its blues heritage. The city works hard to promote the image of Chicago as the blues capital, and its bureau of tourism is on the front lines pushing that image as a major attraction just as former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young promoted Atlanta as the shining face of the so-called New South. When something gets pushed that hard, sooner or later the stars begin to align.

That’s what I would love to see happen in Detroit.

This is not the impossible dream. Some of you may remember that there once was a Detroit Blues Festival, thanks in large part to the untiring efforts of the late Bobo Jenkins. Why can’t we have it again? I mean, if there’s a Detroit Electronic Music Festival and a Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival and a Downtown Hoedown, then isn’t it obvious what’s missing in the very place where John Lee Hooker got his start?

I used to live in Chicago more than 20 years ago, before there was a Buddy Guy’s Legends or a Koko Taylor’s. Then, Buddy Guy’s spot was the Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street just off King Drive, which wasn’t far from where I lived on 46th. The South Side. I would also hang at Theresa’s, another long-gone South Side institution.

During visits to Chicago since then, I’ve definitely seen evidence in clubs like the Checkerboard Lounge that the blues business has become more scripted, but the music is still considered an integral part of the city’s fabric. A strong blues economy would generate more than just a few good tunes in Detroit; it would generate work for the musicians, money and positive exposure.

Oh, Detroit, won’t you please come home?

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer and musician. E-mail to [email protected]