Blues In Chicago

Beyond the Blues/Blues In Chicago
Paul Natkin
Written By Paul Natkin

Photojournalist Paul Natkin captures his love for music through the lens of his camera; no wonder he has worked with the biggest names in music during his 40-year career.


During and after World War II, there was a Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural south to the industrialized north. Seeking to escape discrimination, find jobs and get a better life, they headed for Chicago and Detroit from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Many played music and continued to play once they reached Chicago, where they mingled with other first generation immigrants. 

In new surroundings the music changed from Delta blues to a new raucous Chicago sound. Musicians often played out on the streets, especially at the Maxwell Street open-air market on the near south side. They formed bands and performed in small clubs on the south and west sides of Chicago and amplified their instruments to be heard over the noise of the crowds. Thus was born electric Chicago Blues.

Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith is a world-renowned Chicago blues drummer, singer producer and more. The son of Willie “Big Eyes" Smith, also an award-winning drummer, Kenny grew up surrounded by Muddy Waters and other blues greats in the same house where Muddy once lived. Hear what it was like to grow up in a place where you lived the blues:


As the classic Chicago blues sound developed in the 1940s and 50s, so did record companies specializing in it. The most famous was Chess Records, formed in 1950 by Phil and Leonard Chess. They were responsible for signing and developing blues legends like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf.

The groundbreaking recordings made at Chess Studios brought Chicago blues to the rest of the world. They are credited with kickstarting the British blues movement, creating a roadmap for rock 'n' roll and influencing generations of musicians from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles to Eric Clapton to John Mayer. 

In 1958, Bob Koester, a record collector from St. Louis, moved to Chicago and founded the Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records, today the oldest independent record label in the US. Skip ahead to 1971. When one of Koester's employees, Bruce Iglauer, discovered Hound Dog Taylor, a guitar player on Chicago's west side, and Bob declined to record an album with him, Bruce decided to start his own company, Alligator Records. Since then, Bruce has been a leader in the contemporary blues revival, as he continues to develop new artists. Over the decades since then, Delmark and Alligator continue to record some of the best blues that the world has to offer.

Let Bruce Iglauer tell you why hearing the blues live in a club is an experience like no other: 


Where should you go to hear the blues in Chicago and why? Guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Toronzo Cannon is one of the most recognized Chicago blues musicians and has performed in cities across the US and Europe, while keeping his full time job as a CTA bus driver. Bruce and Toronzo share their favorite spots:

All photos in this adventure are by Paul Natkin unless otherwise specified.

Beyond the Blues

Blues In Chicago

Cookie image

We use cookies on this website. You are free to manage these via your browser settings at any time. For more information about how we use cookies, please see our Privacy Policy.