American blues music has its roots in the South of the late nineteenth century, where African Americans paired African work songs and hollers with guitars and harmonicas to create songs that told of their troubles. The Great Migration of the twentieth century brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans to Chicago, many of them carrying acoustic guitars in their hands and blues licks, rhythms, and lyrics in their heads.
Though there are many variations, blues music can be characterized by standard I–IV–V chord progressions played over twelve bars, as well as "blue notes," flatted third, fifth, and seventh notes on the scale. Lyrics often tell stories about hard luck and hard times. The blues music that became popular during the early twentieth century in Chicago’s fast-growing African American neighborhoods retained these basic characteristics, but also evolved to reflect the new setting. Microphones and electric amplifiers boosted the traditional acoustic sound, reflecting the city’s industrial environment. Added to the somber Mississippi Delta blues, with its harmonicas and twangy guitars, were drums, piano, electric guitar, bass guitar, and alto saxophone. A distinctly Chicago version of the blues emerged.
Early Chicago blues artists included some of the biggest names the genre has ever known. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Alberta Hunter and Tampa Red were among the first blues artists to make a name for themselves as recording artists, along with a blues pianist known as Georgia Tom, who later achieved fame as the "father" of gospel music—Thomas Dorsey. The proliferation and popularity of these and other artists like Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Memphis Slim, and Howlin’ Wolf made Chicago the capital for blues recording, sprouting the Delmark and Alligator labels, and most notably, the Chess label, which captured on vinyl some of Chicago’s most legendary blues performers from 1956 to 1969. These recordings put the spotlight on Chicago blues nationwide, and brought more notoriety to Chicago performers. Muddy Waters’s popular recordings like "Rollin’ Stone" and "Hoochie Coochie Man" eventually became internationally known, influencing artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones overseas.
A new guard of blues musicians emerged in the 1950s and ‘60s and brought Chicago blues to even more prominence worldwide. Willie Dixon, who had built a modest career as a bass player in the 1940s, became a seminal influence on the development of Chicago blues behind the scenes, supervising recording sessions for Chess and accompanying and writing music for artists like Waters, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. He signed and produced recordings for the artists who would become enduring names, including Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Etta James, and Koko Taylor. Taylor’s powerful voice and forceful stage presence carved a place for her at the top of the male-dominated Chicago blues field, earning her the title "Queen of the Blues." Willie Dixon wrote Taylor’s biggest hit, "Wang Dang Doodle," which made her a fixture of Chicago blues and became her signature song. Until her death in 2009 at the age of 80, the Grammy Award-winning Taylor maintained a busy schedule of performances throughout the United States and around the world.
Ultimately, Chicago’s electric blues have influenced the evolution of many of today’s most popular music styles, including rock and roll, soul, and R&B, but the older blues tradition is still alive and well today. Chicago remains a touchstone for blues aficionados and historians, and today’s blues fans can attend sessions across the Chicago area. Some of Chicago’s most popular blues clubs include Rosa’s Lounge on the West Side, Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. on the North Side, and on the South Side, Lee’s Unleaded Blues, the New Checkerboard Lounge, and Buddy Guy’s Legends. The Chicago Blues Festival, held each summer since 1984 in Grant Park, is the largest free blues festival in the world, and the largest of Chicago’s annual music festivals, hosting close to 650,000 fans over three days.
Virtually anywhere a blues fan finds blues music, it probably contains some degree of Chicago influence. When you hear a rocking blues number played on electric instruments with an upbeat tempo that doesn’t sound sad at all, you can bet it was touched by Chicago. Perhaps the best example is the familiar blues anthem "Sweet Home Chicago," to which any Chicagoan can’t help but sing along.