Photographer illuminates '70s South Side clubs

Photographer illuminates '70s South Side clubs
December 20, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times

South Side nightlife moved like lightning in a bottle of cognac between 1975 and 1977. The songs of gritty artists like Bobby Rush, Artie "Blues Boy" White and Lee Shot Williams were the soundtrack to a player's culture influenced by disco music, dancing and fashion. Sparks flew. There were high hats and low necklines. The characters assembled at places like Pepper's Hideout, the High Chaparral and Perv's House, owned by Pervis Staples of the Staple Singers.

Maybe you had to be there.

Photographer Michael Abramson was.

While in his early 20s, Abramson set out to chronicle Chicago nightlife by paying homage to the misty influences of Parisian nightlife photographer Brassai. Now more than 100 of Abramson's black-and-white images from that effort appear in Light: On the South Side, a riveting 132-page, 12-by-12-inch hardcover from Chicago's acclaimed Numero Group record label. The set also includes a double-LP, featuring 17 tracks from a dream jukebox at Pepper's Hideout, on 23rd near Congress, which was Abramson's portal into the project. The club was co-owned by blues singer Johnny Pepper (Johnny Robinson).

The project began a couple of years ago, when Abramson attended Pepper's 83rd birthday party at a South Side senior home. Abramson, now 61, is no longer shooting blues clubs, but he interviewed and photographed Pepper at the party.

"Some interesting things happened," Abramson recalled during a recent Light: On the South Side release party at the Parkway Ballroom in Bronzeville. "Pepper was talking about his own history, Pepper's Show Lounge [43rd and Vincennes], Pepper's Blues in the Loop, Pepper's Hideout, where Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf came. I looked down and his grandchildren were on the floor. Their mouths were agape. They didn't know this about their grandfather. His lounge life became family folklore."

Light: On the South Side focuses on each club's clientele more than what was happening onstage. For example, during the mid-1970s, Lonnie Brooks was a regular performer at Pepper's Hideout, which is where Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer found him. Harmonica great Little Walter Jacobs hung around Pepper's toward the end of his life.

When asked about current whereabouts of his subjects, Abramson answered, "Most of them are dead."

"My phone numbers are 35 years old," he said. "I couldn't find anybody. Pepper looked through the pictures and reminisced about them. He said, 'They're dead.' That was an opinion of the lifestyle of the lounge people on the South Side. To date, no one has contacted me. I'm hoping someone does."

• •

Chicago soul-blues legend Otis Clay was on the scene, often running with his late pals/singers Harold Burrage and Tyrone Davis. Burrage wrote the jazzy B.B. King-influenced "You Made Me Suffer," an Andrew Brown track which is included on the Light: On the South Side record.

"It was the epitome of nightlife in the black community," Clay said. "Everybody would like to bury soul music, but it was at its peak at that time. An artist who just had a hit could be booked at the High Chaparral [7740 S. Stoney Island]. It held about 1,300 people. Pepper's was a totally different thing. That was a hard-core blues audience, maybe getting 300 people in there at the max. It was a younger audience. The soul audience had young and old. I went to all of them. There were more blues clubs on the West Side. Bobby Rush was the bandleader at Walter's Corner on the West Side."

Clay then added, "It was also a time before drugs flooded the community."

The music is like Chicago: smoky and with a sly sense of humor. There's lots of harmonica and few flashy guitar solos that would become the rage at the future Chicago Blues Festival. The album begins with Arlean Brown's 1977 sultry jukebox hit "I'm a Streaker, Baby" with lyrics like: "I'm built like an outhouse / with not a brick out of place. ... Chest like headlights on a pimp car / Diamonds in the back ..." Bump 'n' grind performers like Rush, Blues Boy White and Chicago's Syl Johnson (his deep blues instrumental take of "Is It Because I'm Black?") are presented.

• •

Listen to the music as you page through the book and you will grasp a sense of place. Most of the artists enjoyed notoriety on the Southern Soul charts (formerly known as the "Chitlin' Circuit"), where musicians depart from 12-bar blues and deploy bawdy horn sections and/or harmonica. The sound is devoid of elaborate electronics and is known for sly double entendre lyrics.

The box set was curated and designed by Tom Lunt of Numero. Although writer Nick Hornby's exposure to the Chicago blues scene is minimal, he contributes an essay.

Abramson shot "98 percent" of his pictures with a vintage 1953 Leica 35mm camera. The Leica was popular with news organizations in capturing world events. The camera's small size made Abramson somewhat unassuming, although he used a flash and was generally one of the few white people in the clubs. Abramson commuted to the South Side from his Evanston apartment in his beat-up gray 1969 Volvo. "It was a car that my friend Ed and I once used a hacksaw to chain the headlights," Abramson said.

"Get the picture?"

Abramson was not a hard-core blues photographer in the manner of Mark Po Kempner, the late D. Shigley, Paul Natkin and others who were on the scene. "I love lots of different types of music," he explained. "I went to country-western bars and they're no longer around, either -- the Bar RR, the Texas Ranch. I was enamored with photography. I wasn't going to these places for the purpose of hearing music. I was going there to take photographs. I was learning about Brassai and Weegee in New York, people that wandered the night and photographed cabarets, discos or general people. I never considered photographing musicians unless something happened on the stage that was exhilarating to me. I was interested in the relationships of the people, the clothing, the gestures. At Pepper's you would have the blues, bump contests, talent shows and transvestite reviews. There was always music happening, whether it was live or from the jukebox.

"It was a guttural response."

• •

The book's appendix includes ephemera Abramson collected, including placards for Pepper's promotions, such as the March 2, 1975, "Bad Hobo Contest" (with prizes for the best-dressed hobo) and a Feb. 16, 1975, "Wine Drinking Contest" that began at 2 p.m. -- and ended at 10 p.m.

Could a scene like Pepper's have existed in any other major urban city? New York is compact. Los Angeles is spread out. Chicago has space to play. And Chicago's neighborhoods, to put it politely, are well-defined. There's even a difference between West Side and South Side blues.

"That's probably true," Abramson said. "Maybe not the same concentration and history in other urban areas. I was attracted to the Chicago nightlife. I photographed everything from hanging out in Humboldt Park in the summer to a series of photos on Chicago ballrooms."

The lanky photographer is originally from New Jersey. "I was new to Chicago in 1974," said Abramson, who lives on the Northwest Side and still takes pictures for companies and magazines. "What is this book? It documents where I visited. It has nothing to do with anything thought out. It was never set up by trying to blend in the woodwork and sneak something off. In the continuum of documentary photography, there's the invisible person, the person who is in your face and there's people who are considered participatory in a photographic sense.

"I wasn't part of this in the true sense, but photographically -- yes, I was."
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