Perfect Sound Forever

Champaign/Urbana Blues

Photo © Kirby Vandivort

by Sam Leighty
(October 2009)

I wasn't exactly born into the blues. I grew up in the St. Louis area. Wood River and Brighton, actually. The first music I remember paying any kind of real attention to was the commercial rock and roll that was on KXOK and WIL from 1964 to 1970. KXOK and WIL were twin top 40 radio stations in St. Louis. Both were owned by the same corporation. They gently played off against each other. If KXOK was playing an "A" side, you could turn the radio dial and WIL would be playing the "B" side. KXOK and WIL were among some of the country's most important AM radio stations in surveys, statistics, marketing, and 45 RPM record airplay. Let's not forget stuff like Clearasil, Dentine, Pepsi, Potato Chips, Dippetty Do and Yardley Cosmetics. All this is probably because New York and L.A. considered KXOK and WIL as being "in the middle of the country". KXOK and WIL accomodated 2/3 to 3/4 of suburban and smalltown Illinois and Missouri. Eventually both stations segued into a "Top 30" format. But it really doesn't matter- Top 30 isn't much different from Top 40.

As a compliment to these two radio stations, my brother, sister and I read teenybopper fanzines like 16, Tiger Beat, Datebook, Song Hits, Dig and Hit Parader. Our bedrooms were littered with these publications. I'll have to confess that I didn't start properly caring for and storing my rock and roll collectables until the late seventies. So these mags were sort of commercial, but dammit, if The Beatles, The Monkees or The Rolling Stones were doing a new record, it was in one of these fanzines that you found out about it. The sixties were nearly over before most people had even heard of Crawdaddy or Rolling Stone, such as they served their purpose for those who would yet still wonder if Aesop's Fables, or indeed, Circus Maximus will ever arrive in due time. And we played our green tambourine. Anyhow, I bought 45's when I was a kid listening to KXOK and WIL. I bought 33 albums 4 or 5 times a year when I could scrape together the pennies or when on occasion at a grocery store or shopping center when Mom would say "put it in the cart". When I was 12 years old in 1968, I bought a copy of Rolling Stones Now at a Sav-Mart store in Wood River, Illinois. At the same time that I bought this bluesy album, Hit Parader ran a two-part history of the blues delineating its history, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, along with the best known blues singers and musicians from Chicago, Memphis, on Chess, Sun, Atlantic Records etc. and discographies of recommended reissue albums and the titles of some interesting books.

I was fascinated by all of this. I knew that rock and roll had its predecessors and there was other homegrown American music besides rock and roll. But this was all, for the most part, new to me. So I started buying blues records when I could find them. I became a musician, playing a 1952 Les Paul (more on that later) through a Marshall S80 Valvestate and I covered mainly blues, rockabilly, British Invasion, garage rock and heavy rock, trying to play in my own style. To this day I love garage rock, top 40 and the sort of metal/garage stuff that was making it big at the time I was starting to play guitar. But I didn't like playing that stuff in small bands with school friends. Call me too big for my britches but I did have some sense of composition and improvisation even when I was 12 or 13. Steppenwolf and Creedence Clearwater Revival's formidable string of hit records include a lot of songs that are so perfect that there's absolutely no embellishments to add on your own without goofing up those songs.

So I began to work up stolen flourishes and passages from my tiny collection of about 20 blues albums. I copied John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins. I made a fair attempt at playing slide guitar with one of the smaller makes of Coricidin bottles and I copied Brian Jones and Johnny Winter. I nailed what I could of Muddy Waters and B.B. King. I tried to copy guitar players from Clapton and Hendrix but it was sluggish at best. Mike Bloomfield too. Elmore James, Robert Johnson and Son House came a couple of years later. I got into Albert King and Hubert Sumlin a few years down the road too. I didn't play out more than 5 times in Junior High and High School. These were gigs with friends of mine who wanted to play everything exactly like the record. After I was out of High School for awhile, I gradually began to find opportunities to play electric guitar in an original music context. So I've got a few stolen riffs but I try to play it my own way. I've moved almost 20 times in Illinois, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin and the best small blues music scene I've ever encountered is in the twin cities of Champaign/Urbana in eastern central Illinois.

Champaign and Urbana are situated on a railroad line called "The Central" which goes to Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans. The Central has lines into St. Louis and Indianapolis and it runs the entire length of northwestern Mississippi's Delta. It was very pleasant to live in Champaign/Urbana from 1994 to 2005 and a big pleasure to have occasional (if limited) participation in the local blues scene which to a great extent could be described as "authentic". On a sad note, Chicago's J.B. Lenior died in Champaign at a local hospital in the late sixties as a result of what seems to have been negligence of some injuries on the part of hospital doctors and staff. Muddy Waters' car accident which had him bedridden for awhile happened on the old two lane which goes from Urbana to Kankakee, hardly 2 or 3 hundred yards from where it intersects with interstate 74. There are an unusually large number of bars and restaurants per capita in both Champaign and Urbana. On Friday and Saturday nights, there are a great many of these featuring blues bands and singers, both local and from Chicago, and also nationally known acts.

Champaign/Urbana comprise an urban area of over 100,000 people. The main campus of the University of Illinois sits sandwiched there with approximately half of it in the Champaign city limits and the other half situated within Urbana city limits, all of it in one big rectangular chunk. The campus gives Urbana as its mailing address. The University complex is vast. It's possibly one of the largest and most complex in the whole country. The two cities and the University of Illinois campus are always undergoing construction booms and even though Champaign/Urbana isn't as large as Chicago or St. Louis, the campus has several architecturally well-designed skyscrapers and many high-rise buildings. On the streets coming into the campus complex are several blocks of very interesting businesses called "campus town," which has some excellent restaurants. You can eat lunch for less than a full five dollars at the South Indian "East West Fast Foods."

I ran into some good luck in 2003 when a friend of mine got me on the bill at the very last minute for The Boneyard Creek Blues Society Festival. This was being held indoors at a convention center in The Jumer Hotel complex in Urbana. Boneyard Creek is narrow, running through a suburban area of Champaign. It gets its name because there was a frontier era packing house that threw its garbage in there. Anyway, it was a real pleasure to be there and I decided to do an acoustic set since my band was up in Michigan anyway. On the bill were Kilborn Alley, Reverend Robert, Unfinished Business and myself. The convention center held about 300 people and things moved along quickly. Reverend Robert let me mike my old Sears guitar with his foldout P.A./Monitor. It's a bit 'stars of stage and screen' but I found out somewhere later on that Reverend Robert is nationally known. I've known some of the guys in Kilborn Alley and I used to run into them around town but that doesn't influence me to say that Kilborn Alley and The Delta Kings have always been my picks for best local blues rock bands in Champaign and Urbana. Both bands have been written up in National magazines and have released several CD's.

I came on for my set after Unfinished Business who featured an African-American guitarist who played a beautiful mint condition old Stratocaster. The guitarist was very confident and he played really well. The whole time the rest of us played he was standing at the bar sipping a drink with his back to the entire room. So I played 6 or 7 slide guitar instrumentals including a couple of Robert Johnson songs. It's just that simple. I bought my first Robert Johnson album in 1971 and through repeated listening, the slide configurations slowly came to me after years and years. I don't play those songs exactly like the record. I played an original slide guitar instrumental that night. I also played a couple of straight leads. I myself was getting tepid applause and I started to think that maybe the folks that night were beginning to get enough of the honky blues times 13,000. So after I assumed I'd played enough (and the other acts didn't play for long anyway), I played John Jackson's "Rocks and Gravel" and then I said "thank you" into the mike and left the stage.

Five or ten minutes went by and I was at a table with a few friends drinking a Coke when Unfinished Business plugged back in for another 5 or 6 songs. I was astonished when the first thing the Stratocaster guy said into the mike was "that was great". I found out a couple of hours later that he was Ben Stone, who'd been with Muddy Waters Band for a long time. Ben gigs in Eastern Central Illinois a lot and of course, Chicago. I knew a guy in Danville who took guitar lessons from Ben. But it's all a bit 'stars of stage and screen.'

Malibu Bay Lounge featuring Exotic Dancers is just outside of Urbana and presents regular blues festivals and concerts on some acreage adjunct to the main building. In fact, these festivals and concerts are very genuine and all the big names in blues and younger bands have played these shows in the past 30 years. Fortunately, the atmosphere is totally informal. A typical crowd is about 1200 people and the place isn't overwhelmed with groupies and trendies. The audiences are a mixture of suburbanites, hippies, townspeople, students and for a touch of authenticity, there are always a few people who drifted into town on the Central. I was at a festival once 5 or 6 years ago with my sister and nephew and we talked to an African American man in his early 60's who had been riding the rails in the southwest. Man, talk about "I will die on this train"! On a more hopeful note, he seemed in good health. But the unlikely happens and there's surprises when you least expect it.

I was at one of these shows, waiting to see Artie Blues Boy White and Bobby Rush when I noticed a rather tall and thin yet energetic man with near to shoulder length blondish-whitish hair and an almost Shakespearean beard of the same temper. You could say this guy was buried behind his sunglasses and he had on a suit that looked like something in a daguerreotype photograph of Franklin Peirce. And he was wearing a Cravat! The suit was tailored perfectly and looked oddly 19th century with the jacket cut to the knees like Abe Lincoln or Andy Jackson. This man was 6 feet tall and thin but not starved. He was shaking hands and exchanging greetings with 5 or 6 people involved with The Festival and he was as polite as Mr. Rogers. He said "Yessir" and "No Mam," about 30 feet from where I was sitting. My nephew and I weren't the only ones, I'm sure, who were mystified by this ballsy and expensively dressed, yet courtly and polite stranger. But first, a few people with the Festival walked up on stage with this guy and set up a microphone. There was still a lot of crowd noise and the place was filling up. The guy with the sunglasses and the Cravat exchanged a few quick pleasantries with the small cluster of people around him then he tested the mike. Those festival people stood back and the guy started to sing. Surprise- it was Johnny Winter!

Johnny didn't play any guitar that night. Though he was a guest at the show, he wasn't officially on the bill. But he did get off one long and lowdown accepella straight blues. The weather that day was in the 90's with forecasts of 100 degrees. Johnny was dressed as he was and seemed not phased by the weather.

It's my pleasure to report that these festivals and shows are catered by Jackson's ribs and tips. You have to be on your toes because sometimes they run out of barbeque before the first opening acts have started to play. The ribs are the best I've ever eaten. This is genuine Southern barbeque like they make in Tennessee or Mississippi. It can take a few days to fix up a batch of this and the meat has to be smoked and treated with spices and marinades. Jackson's is usually sauced but I've found out over the years while good barbeque seems to require a rub or a marinade, many Southerners don't take their barbeque sauced. Once while I was waiting in the rain for a Little Milton show to start, the Jackson's ribs and tips stand had rib-eye steaks on hamburger buns for $4. They were priced to sell quick and cheap like a sale at Walmart or K-mart, I suppose. These steaks were delicious. You sauced to taste with a delicious strange purple sauce. At $4, I thought why not and I went back later for a second steak. The drinks at the shows are several brands of beer and wine, bottled water and RC Cola.

Champaign and Urbana have lots of park and street festivities featuring blues bands. I've seen Lonnie Brooks play on the streets in downtown Urbana three times over the past 6 or 7 years. With some help from Drew and Jaden in Kilborn Alley, I got Lonnie's autograph for my nephew about 10 years ago. One guy who plays very bluesy if you think about it is Greg Rollie, who sings and plays a Hammond B-3 with a Leslie Speaker. Greg was an original member of Santana and he played in downtown Urbana several years ago with his band, doing something like 10 old Santana songs and there were I think 5 or 6 guys in his band who had actually also been in Santana. But the new guitar player played differently than Carlos Santana and Greg and his band play this sizzling, steaming, burning Otis Rush song that for the life of me I can't remember the title of it. Their set got rained out about halfway through but it was at least enough to show you what they can do.

One of the best club gigs I've ever been to was Luther Allison at the Blind Pig in downtown Champaign in 1995. Luther was kind of showy with a big cherry red ES-335 and the level of energy of Luther and his band was unparalleled. They were super loud.

As a side note, there's also a history to my 1952 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop that relates to the area. The guitar came from Champaign but I bought it in Carbondale at Golden Frets in the '80's. Carbondale and Champaign/Urbana are both on The Central and Interstate 57 line, about a three hour drive apart from each other. The Goldtop sat for years in some guy's leaky basement in Champaign not long after its original purchase in the Chicago-ish part of Illinois in 1952. It has some cracking of the finish which occurred in the leaky basement. But it's NOT smart to try to refinish these older '50's and '60's guitars or to add unnecessary embellishments like new pickups or a whammy bar. They should be left like they are because if they are intact with the original parts, that's your best indication that the guitar is the year and make you claim it is. If a section or component of the guitar is actually broken then yes, you will have to repair or replace that but don't drill holes in the body of the guitar or try to refinish it! Along with a good amp such as the "converted" Fender Bassman or a small tube driven Marshall, this '52 Goldtop is incredible and it produces an almost perfect blues sound. Many of the bluesmen who were recording in the Korean War/McCarthy-hearings era played one of these. So the Goldtop finally left the leaky basement and ended up with a Champaign/Urbana guy in the late sixties who was in a band but over the years, things kinda piled up and he didn't have time for playing music. He contacted Terry and Bill at Golden Frets to sell the guitar on consignment and I bought it on time payments over six months in 1987. Golden Frets was a very cool music store in Carbondale which Terry Meuller and Bill Carter started in 1973. The selection of instruments and supplies was the best I've ever seen. Businesses exist to make profit for the owners of course, yet it was a plus that Terry and Bill know a thing or two about music. Golden Frets had to change location three times in the past 15 years because of highway construction. Sad to say, they went out of business in 2002.

Thousands of people do come to Champaign/Urbana for University of Illinois sports and the motels and restaurants (which seem to be in the hundreds) are packed at times like that. Of all the different Illinois towns in the southern and the central part of the state I've lived in, Champaign/Urbana probably has the most things to do and attractions than any of them. Various people have been putting out xeroxed fanzines for years with lots of information about the area, which should tell you something. Though I can't promise you that there's enough going on for you to start booking a week in a motel and get guided tours of the town but as you proceed from Chicago out into the state and south of there, some of these middle-sized towns are pretty nice "little Chicago's." If you've been traveling for several days by car or riding the rails, the sound of the blues is always welcoming.

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