What is the "Maxwell Street Sound"?

Maxwell Street is significant to the history of blues not just because music was performed there, but because music was created there. Beginning in the 1920s, Maxwell Street was the first stopping place for thousands of African-Americans newly arrived from the Mississippi Delta. There, the newcomers could hear established city musicians, and vice versa. This continuous interaction over the course of several decades produced, in the period immediately following the Second World War, what is usually called Chicago Blues, but which could just as easily be called "The Maxwell Street Blues." Where in previous decades, recorded Delta Blues had been modified to fit the popular song styles of the day, on Maxwell Street it was left raw and simply amplified, both in volume and dramatic intensity. When recorded, the result became not only the dominant form of blues, but radically changed the emerging sound of rock and roll. The sound of bands like the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin and many others came about when English teenagers tried to duplicate the music of Maxwell Street bluesmen.

Here are a few examples of performers who influenced and helped develop the Maxwell Street sound, of the sound itself in its golden age, and of the music that grew from it.

Except where noted, the links will take you to Amazon.com, where you can buy the recommended CDs. In most cases, Amazon offers :30 second samples of some or all of the songs on the disc, so you can get a good idea of the artist's sound without buying anything.

After the discs, there are some videos and books that also relate to Maxwell Street's music and other history.

In Association with Amazon.com

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The Roots (1920-1945)

The Classics (1945-1970)

The Legacy (1970-Present)



The Roots (1920-1945):

Papa Charlie Jackson, the Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume One. Papa Charlie Jackson recorded more than 75 songs between 1924 and 1934. Volume One of the Document Records compilation, covering 1924 to 1926, is the most popular, in part because it contains "Maxwell Street Blues," in which he identifies himself as a Maxwell Street resident and describes the Maxwell Street milieu of the 1920s. While bearing little resemblance to the later Maxwell Street sound, this is probably a good example of what you would have heard on the street during that era.

Papa Charlie Jackson, The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume Two. (Document Records) covers the years 1926 to 1928.

Papa Charlie Jackson, The Complete Record Works, Volume Three. (Document Records) (no cover art available) covers the years 1928 to 1934.

The Young Big Bill Broonzy (1928-1935). (Yazoo Records) When Big Bill Broonzy came to Chicago in 1920, he hooked up with Papa Charlie Jackson and began to play on Maxwell Street. Later in that decade, he became part of the Lester Melrose stable of blues artists recording on the Bluebird label. He eventually became the unofficial leader of that group. As such, he is one of the fathers of Chicago Blues. He helped many younger musicians get started, including Memphis Slim and Muddy Waters. In the mid-1950s, he was the first major blues musician to successfully tour Europe, paving the way for many others. He died in 1958. This is a collection of 14 of his best recordings from that early period.

Big Joe Williams, The Complete Recorded Works, Vol.1 (1935-1941) (Document Records) is a collection of his early recordings for the Bluebird label. Of all the artists produced by Lester Melrose during that period, Big Joe remained closest to his Delta roots. Although he traveled continuously for most of his career, until his death in 1982 at the age of 79, he spent a lot of time in Chicago. Some of these tracks feature the original Sonny Boy Williamson on harp, creating a sound many believe was a preview of what Muddy Waters and Little Walter would do later.

Big Joe Williams, Shake Your Boogie (Arhoolie) is a 1990 CD release that combines two Arhoolie albums from the 1960s, "Tough Times" from 1960 and "Thinking of What They Did" from 1969. Amazon has it as "Special Order" but they offer sample clips of all 24 cuts, so you can get a pretty good taste of this very influential bluesman's work without buying a thing.

Sonny Boy Williamson, Sugar Mama, The Essential Recordings of Sonny Boy Williamson (Indigo) is a collection of tracks recorded between 1937 and 1942 in Chicago and nearby Aurora, Illinois. Sonny Boy (often called "Sonny Boy I," not to be confused with "Sonny Boy II," aka Rice Miller, who performed into the 1960s) was the principal harmonica player on the Lester Melrose roster. Accompanying him on some of the 24 tracks here are Big Joe Williams, Robert Lee McCoy, Henry Townsend, Yank Rachell, Walter Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind John Davis, Washboard Sam and Charlie McCoy.

That's Chicago's South Side. (Bluebird) is a collection of tracks recorded between 1931 and 1942, mostly in Chicago. They are all from the stable of artists recorded by Lester Melrose on the RCA Victor Bluebird label. As such they either suffer or benefit, depending on your point of view, from Melrose's distinctive formula. Is this what you would have heard on Maxwell Street in the 1930s? This was part of it, yes. This is number three in a four disc series, subtitled "The Secret History of Rock & Roll," so many of these recordings were influential on later blues and rock artists. Combined with some of the other collections suggested on this page, this disc will certainly contribute to your appreciation of that period in the music's development. If for no other reason, buy it to hear Memphis Minnie's "I'm Selling My Pork Chops but I'm Giving My Gravy Away."

The Classics (1945-1970):

And This Is Maxwell Street (Rooster Blues). Recorded on Maxwell Street in 1964 for the documentary film And This Is Free, the original master tapes were discovered a few years ago and have now (October, 2000) been released as a three CD set. Two of the CDs contain music, the third is an interview with Robert Nighthawk conducted by Mike Bloomfield. Featured on the music disks are Maxwell Street regulars such as Nighthawk, Johnny Young, Carey Bell, Arvella Gray, Jim and Fanny Brewer, and Robert Whitehead. Living Blues, the distinguished blues periodical, named this collection Best Historical Album of the Year for 2001. It also was nominated for the 2001 W. C. Handy Award for Best Historical Blues Album by the Blues Foundation. This is a tremendously enjoyable recording and as real as it gets. Highly recommended.

Floyd Jones and Eddie Taylor, Masters of Modern Blues (Testament). Although recorded in 1966, the tracks here--especially the ones featuring Floyd Jones--are very much what you would have heard Floyd and his cousin, Moody Jones, playing on Maxwell Street in the 40s and 50s. The first rate band here includes Big Walter Horton on harp, Otis Spann on piano and Fred Below on drums. Pete Welding was the producer and Norm Dayron was the engineer.

Modern Chicago Blues (Testament). A terrific collection of 21 songs recorded between 1962 and 1966 by the team of Pete Welding and Norm Dayron, it features Johnny Young, Wilbert Jenkins, Maxwell Street Jimmy, Big Walter Horton, Robert Nighthawk, John Lee Granderson, John Wrencher and William Mack, with Otis Spann and other notables in the band on various cuts. Recording locations are not identified, but Welding and Dayron typically recorded in clubs, homes and on Maxwell Street, rather than in studios, so this is about as real as it gets. The back cover photo of a band on Maxwell Street is a bonus.

Blues Masters, Volume 2: Postwar Chicago Blues (Rhino). A terrific collection of 18 songs recorded in Chicago between 1950 and 1962, with an appropriate picture of Maxwell Street on the cover. (It is reproduced at the top of this page.) The artists include Baby Face Leroy, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson (aka Rice Miller), Johnny Shines, Howlin's Wolf, Bo Diddley, Eddie Boyd, Robert Lockwood, J.B. Lenoir, Jimmy Reed, Jody Williams, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Earl Hooker and Junior Wells.

Little Walter. His Best: the Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (MCA). Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs) started his career on Maxwell Street and made his first recordings for the neighborhood record label, Bernie Abrahm's Ora-Nelle. With the passing of Sonny Boy Williamson I he became the ranking harmonica player in Chicago, though still just a teenager. He joined the Muddy Waters Band, had a solo hit with "Juke," quit immediately to form his own band, and never looked back. Although he was one of the biggest blues recording stars of the day, Walter never stopped performing on Maxwell Street.

Chicago The Blues Today (Vanguard) Chicago The Blues Today (Vanguard). The orginal set of 3 LPs was recorded and released in 1965. Sam Charters was the producer. This re-issue combines all three albums into a 3-disc set. Featured are Junior Wells, J. B. Hutto, Otis Spann, Jimmy Cotton, Otis Rush, Homesick James, Johnny Young, Johnny Shines and Big Walter Horton. Includes a 47-page booklet, with Sam Charters' original liner notes. The music is terrific, a prime example of classic Chicago Blues.

See also the American Folk Blues Festival series of DVDs, below.

The Legacy (1970-Present):

Early Days; The Best of Led Zeppelin, Volume 1 (WEA/Atlantic). There are many Zeppelin box sets and all of the original albums are available as CDs, as Zep has been one of the most enduring bands from the 70s. They also never strayed far from their roots. Except for the Middle-Eastern stuff, most of their music was based on the style of blues pioneered on Maxwell Street. This collection of early hits is a cheap way to get a taste. The CD also includes a video of a very early performance of "Communication Breakdown." Another good choice would be their self-titled 1969 debut, which featured songs originally performed by Howlin' Wolf and Otis Rush that aren't on the "Early Days" compilation.

The Rolling Stones, 12 x 5 (Uni/ABKCO). On their first few albums, the Rolling Stones were essentially trying to duplicate the Chess sound of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and Little Walter. This is probably the best of them and includes their homage to Chess, "2120 South Michigan Avenue."

The Very Best of Cream (Uni/A&M). They only made four albums, so this 20-song compilation tells you most of what you need to know. Although Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were always more jazz-oriented, Eric Clapton was and remains a devotee of blues in all its forms. Along with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, Cream made the Maxwell Street sound the world's sound.

Maxwell Street Blues, Jimmie Lee Robinson (Amina). Jimmie Lee Robinson, aka "The Lonely Traveller," was born on Maxwell Street in 1931 and grew up there. His running buddies were people like Jimmy Rogers, Earl Hooker and Freddy King. He is one of the true living legends of the street and its music. He has also been a stalwart in the struggle to preserve the Maxwell Street neighborhood. This CD contains three of his original compositions about Maxwell Street, including "Maxwell Street Teardown Blues."

Melvin Taylor and the Slack Band (Evidence). Melvin Taylor was born in Mississippi in 1959, but his family moved to Chicago three years later and he was raised here. As a teenager and young adult, he performed regularly on Maxwell Street. Today he is a star in Europe but seems content while in Chicago to play every Tuesday and at least one weekend a month at Rosas Lounge, which is a huge treat for those of us who know about it, because he is an awesome guitarist. His sets are about half jazz, but you can still hear his Maxwell Street roots when he plays the blues.

Piano "C" Red (New Rose). Here's some confusion for you. Piano "C" Red is not Piano Red, who was from Georgia, died in 1985, and was more famously known as Dr. Feelgood (real name Willie Perryman). This Red was born James Wheeler in Alabama in 1933 and came to Chicago in 1969, but he's not the James Wheeler who is a popular Chicago blues guitarist. He is Piano "C" Red, a cab driver by day, blues man by night, who still plays on Maxwell Street at every opportunity. If you go see him there (virtually any weekend when the weather is nice), he'll sell you a copy of his self-issued, 1999 "Cab Driving Man" CD, but many of the same songs are on this import from 1992.


And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell St. (2008) And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell St. (2008). Of all the documentary films made about Maxwell Street (and there have been quite a few), "And This Is Free" is the best known. Shot on multiple Sundays during 1964 by director Mike Shea, you experience both the market atmosphere and the blues and gospel music. Mike Bloomfield had a behind-the-scenes role in getting this made. Long unavailable in any format, it finally has been released on DVD in a package that is loaded with extras. In addition to Shea's documentary, you get Shuli Eshel's 2002 documentary, "Maxwell Street: A Living Memory" (available separately, below). There's also a narrated slide show about Maxwell Street produced and narrated by Shuli's partner, Roger Schatz. The package also includes a CD of excellent Maxwell Street-related music, but if you want the real "And This Is Free" soundtrack recordings, you have to go here. The package also includes a substantial booklet, part of which was developed in conjunction with the Maxwell Street Foundation.

Maxwell Street: A Living Memory. A Film by Shuli Eshel Maxwell Street: A Living Memory. A Film by Shuli Eshel, on DVD or on VHS (2002). A 30 minute documentary in which the children and grandchildren of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who created Maxwell Street vividly remember their experiences of the market. Their memories, complemented by rare archival footage and still images, bring the market to life again. Price: DVD $37.95. VHS $32.95. Price includes U.S. shipping and handling. (NOTE: This video is not available through Amazon. The link goes to "The Chuck Cowdery Shop" order form. The Maxwell Street Foundation receives a portion of the sale.)

Jewish Women in American Sport: Settlement Houses to the Olympics (2007). This is another Shuli Eshel (maker of "Maxwell Street: A Living Memory") documentary. The words "settlement house" in the subtitle refer largely to Hull-House, which served Maxwell Street and other Near West Side Chicago neighborhoods. If you enjoyed "A Living Memory" and are interested in the Jewish period of Maxwell Street's history, you probably will like this one too. 27 minutes. Price includes U.S. shipping and handling. (NOTE: This video is not available through Amazon. The link goes to "The Chuck Cowdery Shop" order form. The Maxwell Street Foundation receives a portion of the sale.)

(NO IMAGE) Maxwell Street: Saving Chicago's Heritage (1999) is a 10-minute documentary about the struggle to preserve Maxwell Street and stop its destruction by the University of Illinois at Chicago. Includes images of Maxwell Street past and present, and testimonials by current Maxwell Street merchants, musicians, residents and visitors. Jimmie Lee Robinson sings and MSHPC president Chuck Cowdery narrates. Price: $15.50 (includes shipping to U.S. addresses.) (NOTE: This video is not available through Amazon. The link goes directly to "The Chuck Cowdery Shop" order form. The Maxwell Street Foundation receives a portion of the sale.)

American Folk Blues Festival Vol 1 DVD The American Folk Blues Festival Volume One (1962-66). Why it took 40 years for these tapes to be released has not been adequately explained, but this much I know. European tours by American blues artists began in the late 50s, with Big Bill Broonzy. In 1962, two German promoters, Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau, launched the American Folk Blues Festival, an annual fall tour of major European cities by a troupe of blues artists, mostly from Chicago, and mostly selected by Willy Dixon. Horst Lippmann also directed a show on a television station in Baden Baden, West Germany, and each year during the tour he featured the troupe on his show. The programs were recorded on first generation video tape equipment. They are in black and white. The fact that these performances of people such as Son House and Lonnie Johnson, not to mention Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, exist at all is incredible. The fact that the video and audio quality is suberb is nothing less than a miracle. The DVDs are compilations of performances from multiple years. This is how the music spawned on Maxwell Street reached the rest of the world. They were introduced to it by these tours and things like the television broadcast that occurred in conjuntion with them. This is why Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Cream and the rest of the British blues bands happened. Direct Maxwell Street connections include Little Walter, Hound Dog Taylor, and even a young Jimmie Lee Robinson playing behind Big Mama Thornton on "Hound Dog."

See also The American Folk Blues Festival Volume Two (1962-1966) and The American Folk Blues Festival Volume Three (1962-1969).


(Note: Listed here are books about Chicago [i.e., Maxwell Street] Blues, but also books about the history of Maxwell Street that don't have a lot of blues content.)

Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories, by David Whiteis (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2006), is a personal meditation on the recent and present Chicago blues scene by someone who knows it as well as anyone, and who thinks and writes about it much better than most. This is definitely not an introduction to the blues, but if you are a fan of the music, especially of the artists who are still getting it done in the Windy City, and if you have ever done any big picture musing on what the blues is all about, then this will give you a lot to muse about. I loved it. Trade Paperback. 322 pages. (ISBN 0-252-07309-6). NOTE: Great blues content, not much Maxwell Street content.

Jewish Maxwell Street Stories by Shuli Eshel and Roger Schatz (Arcadia Publishing, 2004) is a collection of personal recollections from residents of the historic Maxwell Street neighborhood during its Jewish heyday. Eshel and Schatz collected these stories from former Jewish residents of the Maxwell Street neighborhood after Ms. Eshel, in cooperation with the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition, directed and produced the highly-praised documentary, "Maxwell Street: A Living Memory, the Jewish Experience in Chicago." This book is an anthology, offering more details of stories from the documentary as well as many new stories collected from the hundreds of people who offered them after seeing the documentary. The book also includes vintage images of the century-old businesses and homes in the Maxwell Street neighborhood that promised a new beginning for Jewish immigrants early in the 20th century. Trade paperback, 128 pages, (ISBN 0-7385324-0-1) NOTE: Maxell Street content but no blues content.(Note: The link above allows you to purchase this book through the Maxwell Street Foundation. This benefits the Foundation financially. If you would prefer to buy it through Amazon.com, click here. This benefits the Coalition too, but not as much.)

Chicago's Maxwell Street by Lori Grove and Laura Kamedulski (Arcadia Publishing, 2002) contains evocative images of Maxwell Street from throughout its history. It was photo-edited and written by Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition board members Grove and Kamadulski. Published by Arcadia for its Images of America series. The Chicago Historical Society cooperated in the production of this book, which contains virtually every historic photograph of the Maxwell Street neighborhood known to exist. Many photographs also came from private collections and have never been published before. Trade paperback. 200 photos, 128 pages. (ISBN 0-7385202-9-2) NOTE: Contains a significant amount of blues content. (Note: The link above allows you to purchase this book through the Maxwell Street Foundation. This benefits the Foundation financially. If you would prefer to buy it through Amazon.com, click here.) This benefits the Coalition too, but not as much.)

Chicago's Forgotten Synagogues by Robert A. Packer (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) The disappearing history of Chicago’s Jewish past can be found in the religious architecture of its stately synagogues and communal buildings. Whether modest or majestic, wood or stone, the buildings reflected their members’ views on faith and their commitment to the neighborhoods where they lived in a time when individuals and the community were inseparable from their neighborhood synagogues, temples, and shuls. From Chicago’s oldest Jewish congregation, Kehilath Anshe Maariv Temple (Pilgrim Baptist), to Ohave Sholom (St. Basils Greek Orthodox), to Kehilath Anshe Maariv’s last independent building (Operation Push), come and explore Chicago’s forgotten synagogues and communal buildings. Nearly 150 years of Chicago history unfolds in Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues as the photographs and accompanying stories tell of the synagogues’ past greatness and their present and uncertain future. The author, Robert A. Packer, is a Maxwell Street Foundation board member. This book is in the same Arcadia Images of America series as the two books above. Trade paperback. 200 photos, 128 pages. (ISBN 073855152X) Note: No blues content, lots of Maxwell Street content.

Near West Side Stories by Carolyn Eastwood (Lake Claremont Press, 2002) is a history of the Maxwell Street neighborhood as told by four residents who also were active in the struggle to save it. Eastwood's introduction provides a very clear explanation of the conflict that took place between three powerful institutions (the City of Chicago, the University of Illinois and the Archdiocese of Chicago) and ordinary people fighting to save their community. The four in-depth first person accounts are similarly insightful. Paperback. 355 pages. (ISBN 1-8931210-9-7) NOTE: Some blues content in the section about Nate Duncan (owner of Nate's Deli). (Note: The link above allows you to purchase this book through the Maxwell Street Foundation. This benefits the Foundation financially. If you would prefer to buy it through Amazon.com, click here.)

Chicago Blues; The City and the Music by Mike RoweChicago Blues; the City & the Music by Mike Rowe (DeCapo Press, 1973). Still the definitive book on the development of Chicago Blues up through the 1960s. Naturally, there is a lot about Maxwell Street. Paperback. 226 pages.

Urban Blues by Charles Keil (University of Chicago Press, 1964, reissued 1992). The other definitive book on the development of urban blues, including Chicago Blues. More analytical than Rowe's book, but Rowe's is better if you're primarily interested in the Chicago scene. Paperback. 255 pages.

Blues Legends by Charles K. Cowdery (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 1995). This book consists of biographies of 20 blues artists who powerfully influenced later developments in popular music. Most worked out of Chicago and many performed on Maxwell Street. Yes, I wrote this book, and the link goes to my on-line shop, not to Amazon. Hard cover. Lots of pictures, 10-song CD, 100 pages.

The Jews of Chicago, from Shtetl to Suburb by Irving Cutler (University of Illinois Press, 1996). Cutler's book gives good coverage of Maxwell Street's Jewish period, while also telling the larger story of Chicago's Jewish community. No blues content, but important for the history of the Jewish period. Lots of pictures. Hard cover. 316 pages.

Maxwell Street Blues, a Paul Whelan Mystery by Michael Raleigh (June 2000). A mystery novel set in the Maxwell Street market.

(NO IMAGE) Maxwell Street, Survival in a Bazaar by Ira Berkow. This book, by the sports columnist for the New York Times, focuses on the Jewish immigration experience, not on the later blues experience. Berkow is a Chicago native who worked on Maxwell Street as a child. The book is out of print, but this link will take you to Amazon's out of print search service. (That's how I found a copy.)


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