The best books about the blues, Chicago, and the Chicago blues

Alan Harper Author Of Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads
By Alan Harper

Who am I?

Call me contrarian, but when most of my school friends were into Bowie, Zeppelin, and Genesis, I was saving up for Muddy Waters’ Greatest Hits and discovering how a single note from Albert King’s guitar could send chills down your spine. The music inspired me to spend a summer in Chicago in 1979, aged 20, and I went back in 1982. It took me 30-odd years to get round to writing it, but this book is the result of those adventures, when a guileless British youth found himself welcomed into the noisy, friendly, creative, chaotic, nurturing, and overwhelmingly black world of the Chicago blues, a long time ago.

I wrote...

Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

By Alan Harper,

Book cover of Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

What is my book about?

Waiting For Buddy Guy documents a period in Chicago’s blues history that has hitherto received scant attention - the late 70s and early 80s, when the city’s famous blues scene was coming to the end of one era, while arriving at the beginning of another. It was a transitional phase, when you could hear the deep-rooted blues of Mississippi-born musicians in one club, while across the street came the sounds of the up-tempo, whites-friendly blues-rock purveyed by younger bands. It was a thriving scene, and as a young blues nut I immersed myself in it, interviewing dozens of musicians, label bosses, club owners, and DJs. This lively memoir provides a vivid, unforgettable snapshot of a long-lost world.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta

By Robert Palmer,

Book cover of Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta

Why this book?

I had dipped dutifully into plenty of worthwhile books by Paul Oliver and Sam Charters, but it was only on picking this up in 1982 that I realised reading about music could be as rewarding as listening to it. Palmer was a musician who had played with Elvin Jones, and a journalist for both Rolling Stone and the New York Times. He was born in Arkansas. So when he went in search of the story of the blues in the South and in Chicago, he understood what he was hearing, understood what people were telling him, understood how all the pieces fitted together, and understood how to get it all down in his beautiful, spare and involving prose. If you only want to read one book about the blues…

Chicago Blues: The City and the Music

By Mike Rowe,

Book cover of Chicago Blues: The City and the Music

Why this book?

This originally came out in 1973 as Chicago Breakdown, and has probably never been out of print. Rowe is an English blues historian and record collector, and his obsessive fascination with the musicians, labels, and clubs that created the blues in Chicago’s golden years drips off every page, from Lester Melrose’s Bluebird label through to the Chess Records giants – Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin Wolf and “the last of the great blues poets”, Sonny Boy Williamson.  Much of Rowe’s work has no doubt been superseded by the veritable industry of blues research that has sprung up in the years since publication, but Chicago Blues was a major milestone, and remains the indispensable key to an understanding of the city’s music scene.

Urban Blues

By Charles Keil,

Book cover of Urban Blues

Why this book?

It began as a master’s thesis in the early Sixties, when the blues was still (just) alive and evolving, and still celebrated by its traditional black audiences. By the time the book was published in 1966, however, white fans had ‘discovered’ the music, and everything was changing. Pounding, repetitive tunes of the kind written by Willie Dixon at Chess and popularised by English R&B bands, became the canon. The blues, with a new rock audience unaware of its rich variety and deep hinterland, was reduced to a single rather tedious idea. It didn’t have to be like this. It’s not the fault of those white R&B bands, but if they had been less fixated on Chicago and opened themselves up to influences from Detroit, say, and Memphis, we might now be living in a different musical world. Keil provides a glimpse of it.

Feel Like Going Home

By Peter Guralnick,

Book cover of Feel Like Going Home

Why this book?

A series of profiles of the author’s musical heroes, along with erudite essays on blues, rock’n’roll, and Chess Records, this is an essential primer. You cannot understand the place of the blues in modern culture without also understanding Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the relationships between white label bosses and their black artists, and the ever-present, inescapable fact of musical cross-pollenation. Chess had Muddy Waters on its roster, and Howlin Wolf, but also Chuck Berry, Ramsey Lewis, and The Moonglows. Guralnick’s writing is elegant, informed, and self-aware, and from Skip James to Jerry Lee Lewis, in the 50 years since its publication, the reputations of his book’s iconic subjects have rocketed in value.

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

By Mike Royko,

Book cover of Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

Why this book?

There’s nothing about the blues or indeed any music at all in this. Mike Royko might well have been a blues fan, but he was primarily one of the best political columnists of the era, working for Chicago’s Daily News, Sun-Times, and Tribune from the Sixties through to the Nineties, and winning a Pulitzer Prize. His forensic account of the corrupt, scandal-prone but invincible party machine run by Mayor Daley, who had just been re-elected for his fifth term in office when the book came out in 1971, is merciless, shocking, and often hilarious. To a young outsider like myself, the pervading political cynicism in this most political of American cities was baffling. Until someone handed me a copy of Royko’s masterpiece and said, “Read this.”

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