Stars aligned in '69 to bring the blues 'Back Home'
June 6, 2004
BY JEFF JOHNSON Staff Reporter
Every year the Chicago Blues Festival trots out a cute name to signify the
age of the event. For the 21st annual fest, which begins Thursday, the
theme is "It's About Time." But anyone who was in Grant Park on Aug. 30,
1969, for "Bringing the Blues Back Home" would maintain that the blues
festival is really 35 this year, with a 14-year gap after the first -- and
greatest -- day of live blues this city has ever seen.
One year and two days after the Battle of Balbo, when the streets ran red
with the blood of young demonstrators during the Democratic National
Convention, the city extended an olive branch to younger, hipper Chicagoans
in the form of a free blues concert in the old bandshell at 11th Street
under the Operation Reach Out summer youth program.
Murphy Dunne, a blues-loving young Democratic precinct captain and Second
City member, went to Mayor Richard J. Daley's administrative assistant,
David Stahl, with his idea for the concert. "David said, 'This would be a
nice thing to do in Grant Park because what happened there last year wasn't
so fabulous,'" Dunne recalls.
The actor-musician, reminiscing by phone from his home near Los Angeles,
admits his secondhand clout as the son of "The Mayor of Cook County,"
longtime Dem kingpin George W. Dunne, opened doors for him in City Hall.
"That certainly made it easier to go to the mayor's office," Dunne says. "I
knew the mayor ... not that we'd go out for a beer together, but the mayor
came to my sister's wedding. I was not really intimidated approaching him,
but I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's the mayor.' He was very open [to the
When it came to putting together the lineup, Dunne turned to another ally,
songwriter-producer-bassist Willie Dixon. Dunne met Dixon through his
brother-in-law, who worked for Chess Records, and the two co-produced the
"Willie did all the leg work," Dunne says. "We called it 'Bringing the
Blues Back Home' because it was an opportunity for all these great players
who had been playing for countless years to get a chance to be appreciated
before their hometown crowd."
And what a show Dixon put together! A promotional poster lists the
following artists: Luther Allison, Fred Below, J.T. Brown, Eddie
Chamberlain, Eddie Chamblee, Ernest Cotton, Bobby Davis, Johnny Davis,
Jimmy Dawkins, Bo Diddley, Sleepy John Estes, Betty Everett, Buddy Guy,
John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Homesick James, Walter "Shakey" Horton,
Sam Lay, Lafayette Leake, Johnny Littlejohn, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Big Mac,
Little Brother Montgomery, Little Milton, Otis Spann, Koko Taylor, Hound
Dog Taylor, Sonny Thompson, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells,
Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Young and Mighty Joe Young.
Wolf didn't perform, Dunne says, because he was feuding with Muddy at the
time and refused to appear on the same bill. And Dunne couldn't recall
Hooker showing up.
Other than those snags, the 10-hour concert couldn't have gone better. It
took place on a bright Saturday that started cool but made it up to 90
degrees. Bo Diddley was the opening act, and as Dunne recalls, "I looked
across the street at the hotels, and all these hung-over conventioneers
were opening up their windows when the music started like, 'What's going
Dixon's Chicago Blues All Stars did yeoman duties, following Diddley with
their own set and backing up other acts.
As great a musical event as "Bringing the Blues Back Home" turned out to
be, it was even more significant from a social standpoint. It was perhaps
the first time that the embryonic Woodstock generation had gathered in
Chicago in a racially mixed setting to hear music created by
African-American artists. Young suburban white teenagers mingled with their
black inner-city counterparts, many of whom were passively hawking Black
Panthers literature. A year earlier, Black Panther Bobby Seale had implored
his followers to "burn the city."
The Sun-Times reported the following day, "Saturday's crowd included
teeny-boppers, straights, college types -- a potpourri of persons held
together by their love of the blues." Stahl, who had helped get Daley's OK
for the concert, was greeted with Bronx cheers when he welcomed the crowd.
The Sun-Times reported the crowd as being more than 10,000 people, although
other media accounts estimated the gathering at 20,000.
Naturally, the curtain closer was Waters, the king bee of Chicago blues. He
came onstage at sunset for one of his last major Chicago shows before
suffering debilitating injuries in a head-on car crash on Oct. 27 -- and
the great Mississippi-born bluesman was at the height of his powers. Fans
had stacked the park benches seven or eight high and danced atop their
dangerously swaying constructions. Muddy's encore was "Got My Mojo
Working," and nobody wanted the show to end. He came back and did "Mojo"
Chicago's finest, accused during the '68 demonstrations of a "police riot,"
were downright mellow during the event, standing down in the face of clouds
of marijuana smoke. But perhaps fearing a repeat of the rowdiness at the
Woodstock festival of two weeks earlier, they formed a barrier between the
stage and the crowd during Waters' encores.
After Waters finished his regular set, Dunne says, "The police came out
from the sidelines of the bandshell in case anybody rushed the stage. When
Muddy came out to do his encore, the police started bopping their heads up
and down to the music. It was the funniest thing."
He also recalls Dixon playing bouncer with a wannabe blues player. "Willie
was a strong and tough guy who was a former Golden Gloves champion," Dunne
says. "He just picked the guy up and threw him down the stairs. He had
driven people so crazy that everyone appreciated the effort and cheered."
Dunne and Dixon persevered with the Free Music Program, which presented
other blues and rock concerts in Grant Park the following summer until the
infamous Sly & the Family Stone riot.
Dunne kept his funny side up in show business, creating a lounge lizard
pianist character for "The Big Bus" and "High Anxiety." Through his
friendships with Booker T. Jones, Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper, forged
during his Free Music days, he took his character to "The Blues Brothers"
as the bandleader of Murph & the Magic Tones. His friendship with Dixon
continued on the Left Coast, where both relocated. Dixon, who founded the
Blues Heaven Foundation, died in 1992, and today he's considered one of the
finest and most prolific songwriters in blues history.
While the 1969 concert certainly influenced Dunne's career, it had an even
bigger impact on a 17-year-old incoming freshman at the University of
Illinois at Chicago. Billy Branch had arrived in Chicago just a month
earlier from Los Angeles and decided to attend the concert on a whim.
"I didn't like blues or know anything about it," Branch says. "Like the
typical young black teenager, I said 'turn that crap off' when I heard a
blues song. I didn't know anybody in Chicago. I was there by myself and I
didn't have anyone to talk to, so I didn't have any frame of reference. I
was a stranger in a strange land."
Branch heard live harmonica played onstage for the first time that day, and
"I remember being totally blown away." For several years, he had blown a
harp that he bought in Woolworth's for $1. He went home and cranked up the
only blues album he owned -- John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers with Eric
Clapton -- and tried to play along, but the harmonica was in the wrong key.
It took him months to figure out that harmonicas came in different keys.
But Branch credits the music he heard that day in Grant Park with steering
him in the direction of the blues. Today he is one of the world's foremost
harmonica players, fronting Billy Branch & the Sons of Blues. He thinks it
was his fate to attend "Bringing the Blues Back Home."
"It's nothing logical, other than I'm a firm believer in the creator and I
believe in destiny," he says. "I had bought that harmonica those seven or
eight years ago to prepare me for that day."