How Chicago Became The Unlikely Birthplace Of Rock And Roll History

Almost every last aspect of the histories of bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin has been covered in countless books, longform retrospectives, and anthologies. But what often gets ignored in the stories of two of the biggest bands in rock and roll history is where they took their cues from. The Stones and Zep didn’t form in a vacuum, and both British acts owe quite a bit to an unexpected place: Chicago.

The Windy City is the birthplace of a distinct strain of blues music known (strangely enough) as Chicago blues. During the Great Migration, six million African-Americans left the South, utilizing the country’s railroads. A nexus point for Southern lines that ran through the Mississippi River delta, Chicago served as a perfect endpoint for many of these migrants. These Southerners brought the blues with them, and the noisy bars and street markets of the city’s African-American neighborhoods eventually added its own stamp to the American art form – forcing the musicians to plug in and turn the largely acoustic genre electric. The new, urban backdrop also added a hint of grime to the formerly rural genre.

“Chicago blues is urban, it’s a little bit edgier and more hardcore,” said blues musician Joanna Connor.

The genre flourished in the city due to the proximity of like-minded artists and the abundance of labels willing to record, press, and promote these new musicians. The network of recording studios and labels gave permanence to a genre that had long been ephemeral, with live recordings surfacing only through the work of field recorders and ethnomusicologists like Alan Lomax. In Chicago, the blues was able to spread beyond the ears of a live audience.

Over a relatively small timeframe, the city developed legends like Howlin’ Wolf, Big Bill Broonzy, Mighty Joe Young, and Billy Boy Arnold.

These artists mingled with proto-rock acts, especially at the massively influential label Chess Records. Chuck Berry was so impressed by Muddy Waters’ unique playing style that he convinced the singer to sign with the label.

To say that British groups like The Stones and Led Zeppelin were influenced by the electric blues sound that emanated from this period would be a grave understatement. And it goes beyond hearing a few choice 45s before they hit the studio. Even after their bands broke big, Mick Jagger and Robert Plant were known to hang around Chi-town blues bars like the Kingston Mines and Rosa’s Lounge, drawn to the music that had such a profound impact on their own lives and eager to hear it straight from the source.

“Hell, without Chicago blues, man, there wouldn’t any Rolling Stones, there wouldn’t be any Led Zeppelin,” said musician Sugar Blue, who later played harmonica for The Stones on Some Girls.

Jagger and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page would even jump on stage and join the city’s blues musicians from time to time. Plant was far less conspicuous, frequently donning disguises to enjoy the local acts without being recognized. However, the influence of Chicago’s signature sound is far from hiding in the background on any Led Zeppelin recording. Any one who has heard the crunchy, electric blues that came out of Chicago wouldn’t have to strain their ears to make the connection between this scuffed-up and amplified Delta sound and the British Invasion acts.

In spite of the love from big-name acts, Chicago’s own blues musicians rarely broke outside the city. And even inside city limits, their reach was limited. Dave Specter, a blues musician from Chicago, says he found out about the music in his own backyard through covers by massive rock and roll stars.

“I grew up listening to rock and roll and I started looking at these records by The Stones and Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers, and I saw they were covering people that lived in the same city that I did,” he said.

While the influence of the Chicago blues is evident in rock acts of the ’60s and ’70s, that doesn’t mean that it has ceased to be important and vital to a later crops of rock musicians. Acts and musicians as varied as Mumford & Sons, Metallica’s James Hetfield, and Hozier have popped up at Chicago’s blues institutions.

And the influence of Chicago blues looms even larger if you consider the genealogy of American music in the back half of the 20th century. It’s fair to say that Chicago changed the face of rock and roll, and all that came after.

“Country, hip-hop, funk if you take the blues out all of the sudden, none of these musics exist,” said Sugar Blue.

Like the city itself, serving as a hub for all those railroads, the Chicago blues connected to almost all genres that came after it and branched out to connect with genres that continue to rule the radio well after the city’s own heyday.