Review: The South Side Chicago's lost club scene

Review: The South Side Chicago's lost club scene
December 9, 2009

Various Artists, "Light: On The South Side" (The Numero Group)

The latest release from reissue label extraordinaire, The Numero Group, is a sprawling documentation of mid-1970s Chicago night clubs like Pepper's Hideout and Perv's House that were tucked away on the South Side.

Capturing the shadowy aura of these spots through equal doses of photography and music, "Light: On The South Side" includes a 132-page hardcover book of Michael Abramson's transportive black-and-white photography and two vinyl LPs of the funkiest Chicago blues you've never heard.

The photographs set the scene.

A woman with eyes closed, entranced by the music, clutching a scrunched dollar bill. A man with the handle of a steak knife sticking out the back of a his pants. A stretch station wagon parked outside the club. Boxes of Kools and half-empty glasses decorating tables. A case of Pimp Oil car deodorant.

In the foreword, author Nick Hornby depicts Abramson as coming "much closer to recording the sound of these clubs than we would have any right to expect from a photographer."

As good as the pictures are, the music is better.

Titled "Pepper's Jukebox," the records compile the sounds you might have caught live. The lyrics are often as sexually charged as the sweaty mesh of slinking keys and ear-piercing licks underneath. Bobby Rush craves a "bowlegged woman" because he's "knock need man." Arelean Brown's got "hips like two-gun Pete when he's on duty." And the call-to-arms horn section on Hugh Hawkins' enticing "Bring It Down Front" is nearly impossible to sit through.

But as evidenced by Mack Simmons' harmonica snaking its way through these gems, it's still the blues. The reflective nature of some of the other performances suits the overriding theme. Willie Davis's "Learned My Lesson" has that heartrending ache of classic soul before the eruption of a ferocious guitar solo.

The sentiment behind the raw-throat musings of Lucille Span on "Womans Lib" (sic) helps illustrate just how far away that place is from today. Along those same lines, this is the type of archival release that's reason enough to go buy a turntable. If you've even a passing interest in the less-heralded side of the blues, funk or photography, you'd do right to drop in on this world.

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