Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation

Last April, I was in Chicago for a few days and I had a chance to swing by one of the holy places of music: Chess Records.

To be more accurate, I visited Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation of the history of blues music. The Blues Heaven foundation lives in the former site of Chess Records.

Chess Records was founded in 1950, and was located initially at several different locations. The main offices moved to 2120 S. Michigan Ave around 1957, staying there until 1965. Chess Records is where Chuck Berry recorded Johnny B. Goode. Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and some other lesser-known acts like the Rolling Stones recorded there.

There is still a functioning studio in the building- Chess Studios continued beyond Chess Records, and the Rolling Stones and other bands also recorded here. Marie Dixon, Willie’s widow, purchased the building in 1993 and reopened it a few years later as the Blues Heaven Foundation. The Blues Heaven Foundation does four tours a day from Tuesday to Saturday. The tours are inexpensive and well worth a look. While you wait for the tour to start, there’s a gallery filled with artifacts that will fascinate anyone who loves the blues.

The red dress in the gallery above was work by Koko Taylor, often referred to as the Queen of the Blues. Willie Dixon brought her to Chess Records in 1964, where she recorded Wang Dang Doodle. Here’s a slightly more recent recording of Koko just killing it live.

I happened to be there on an auspicious day- the Blues Foundation was opening a new exhibit about the blues festivals that Willie Dixon organized in Germany throughout the 1960s The gentleman in the hat in this photo is the son of Willie Dixon, on hand for the opening of the new exhibit. If I remember correctly, the other fellow was a representative from the German embassy.

Finally, it was time for the tour!

The absolute highlight of the tour was spending time in this room- the main studio. Countless legendary recordings were made here, like this one:

9/52

Music History*: Notes (both Major and Minor) from my childhood

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always liked comic books. When I was growing up, there were always comics around- old tales of the Green Lantern Corps, silver-age Superman stories with Jimmy Olsen, and even some Legion of Superheroes stories with Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl.  The Greatest American Hero hit television when I was eight years old, and it was a foregone conclusion that I’d love it.  With my nascent love of music already running strong,  I also loved the theme song by Joey Scarbury.  I remember sitting on the end of my mom’s bed, singing along to the song on the radio.  Mom was super amused that I knew all the words.


Along with my love of superheroes, I have a long-standing fondness for all things Disney.  One of my earliest Disney Music loves was the Main Street Electrical Parade.  This goes beyond mere Disneyana. I used to have a tape of a 1983 album by Michael Iceberg, the composer of the theme, with all kinds of neat stuff like a Robot Revolt theme.  One year, Michael Iceberg brought his pyramid-shaped synthesizer cubicle, the Amazing Iceberg Machine, to the South Florida Fair.  I got to meet the man after the show, and I remember someone commenting that he was spectacularly drunk at the time.  In any case, the original parade is long gone from Disney, but the music lives on as an amazingly persistent earworm. Mua ha ha!


Speaking of all things Disney, let’s talk about EPCOT.   When I was ten, my dad drove both of us up to Orlando one weekend to go to the theme park for the first time.   I brought back two souvenirs from that trip. The first was a brochure book about the park, detailing all of the pavilions, including the still unopened Horizons (coming soon!) and also detailing the planned but never built World Showcase pavilions for Israel, Spain, and Equatorial Africa.

The second souvenir from that trip was The Official Album of Walt Disney World EPCOT Center.  On vinyl.  I listened to that thing so much it’s a wonder the grooves didn’t flatten out.  I can still sing large swaths of the original music from memory, and the vocals in the American Pavilion song “Golden Dream” are directly responsible for an ill-fated and poorly considered audition for the Voices of Liberty that I may or may not have attempted in the early 1990s.

Some of the album is very, very dated – “The Computer Song” specifically comes to mind- but I will always love it anyway.  “Makin’ Memories” is another long-time favorite, left over from the early days of EPCOT when the pavilions were all sponsored by corporations.  See if you can guess which mega-corporation sponsored this one:

As an aside-  anyone who has ever gone on Journey Into Imagination with me can attest that I will always-and-forever sing the ORIGINAL version of Dreamfinder and Figment’s song, very very loudly, over the current iteration.


I’m skipping around my personal timeline a little bit, but I wanted to talk about 8-track recordings.  When I was a wee lad, cleaning day was a family affair.   We had an 8-track player in the living room, and we got those Columbia House shipments of new titles every so often.  On family house cleaning days, we’d fire up the stereo, throw a tape into the 8-track player, and everyone in the family would pitch in to clean the house.

I suspect that a hefty percentage of my readers have probably never heard an 8-track tape, so you may not know that an 8-track splits the album up into four sections. Our player had no fast-forward or rewind, but you could switch between the four tracks, and the music would loop.   If you let it play all the way through, our player would automatically switch from track to track in sequence.   It’s because of the 8-track of the original Star Wars soundtrack that I whenever I hear The Cantina Band theme by John Williams, I expect to hear a fade-out, track change, and fade-in at roughly the middle of the song.  That’s what it did on the 8-track.  You can hear the fade-out at one minute and 40 seconds in the video below.

Here are samples of other artists that twisted the mind of proto-Steven from cleaning day 8-tracks- The Lettermen (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), Neil Diamond (America, September Morn), and John Denver (Country Roads, Thank God I’m A Country Boy).

(I just know I’m gonna get flack for the John Denver tunes.)

What music do you remember listening to with your family?

8/52

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*This post is the second in a series on music throughout my life.  Part one is here.

Music History: Firsts

I love music.

This may be the most understated thing I will say all year.   Long-time readers of this blog probably figured out a long time ago that most of my non-work trips start with me going, “Ooh, a concert I want to see!”    I’ve talked a great deal about music on this blog already- I’ve talked about They Might Be Giants, and Leonard Cohen, and Eurovision.   I ‘ve posted about musicals in general, and about Starlight Express and A Chorus Line in particular.   I’ve also talked about my first ever concert (New Edition), and about my memories of the Ghostbusters soundtrack in that glorious red plastic Arista case back in 1984.

And of course there’s a page on this blog that I keep updating to show the artists that I’ve seen play live.

I’ll say it again:  I love music. I need music.  If I don’t listen to music for a while, I can get downright cranky.  It’s as vital to me as breathing, and I go to concert after concert after concert for the love of music, even though I hate crowds and I have a fair amount of travel anxiety.  I can’t not go. (FOMAC, or Fear of Missing a Concert, is an entirely different blog post that I may come back to later.  Shut up, it’s a real thing!)

With that introduction in mind, I want to talk about music throughout various parts of my life.  I’ll start at the very beginning.

My earliest memory of music, any music, was all the way back in 1978.  I was five years old, and I remember being in some sort of a school or daycare center or something along those lines- it wasn’t a usual place for me.  I was waiting near some other kids while we picked up one of my siblings. The kids I was hanging out near were playing with original first-generation Star Wars action figures. I remember they made me be C3PO. While we played with the Star Wars toys, there was a radio on.

There were two songs in heavy rotation on the radio at that time, and they were the first songs to ever penetrate my tiny little head.  Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” and John Paul Young’s “Love Is In The Air.”

Those two songs played back to back. I can’t remember ever hearing music before that day. I’m sure I did, but I don’t remember it.

I also recall the very first album that I ever owned.  When I was ten years old, there were advertisements in the back of comic books that said that if you sell stuff from their crappy catalog, you could win prizes.  This company sent an army of tiny Willy Lomans (Lomen?) door to door to sell magazine subscriptions, Christmas cards, pecan turtles, and wrapping paper.  With enough sales, you could get yourself a tent, a bicycle, or any number of other “fabulous prizes.”  It took a hell of a lot of sales to get anything substantial, but in 1983, I used my hard-earned prize bucks to get a voucher for a cassette tape from one of those music places like Columbia House or BMG, only not quite as obnoxious. That first album?  I was grooving to “Future Shock” by Herbie Hancock.

I had seen the video for Rockit, of course, and the kicking-pants robots made me want to dance.  Or something.  The entire album turned out to be really phenomenal, but I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much in 1983 as I do now.

My mom got me the second album I ever owned- we were in a Richway, which was sort of like the larval form of the retail chain now known as Target.  Richway’s parent company sold all of their stores to Dayton-Hudon Corporation around 1988, and that company closed all the stores, stripped them for parts, and then reopened most of them as Target stores.  The specific Richway from this story is actually some other non-Target store, according to Wikipedia.

But I digress.   We were in Richway, in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1984.  It was an amazing day for eleven-year-old Steven because not only did I get my first transforming toy there, a red Gobot sports-car named Turbo, but  Mom also bought me a cassette of Rockwell’s first album.   Again, I was familiar only with the first single released, a popular song called “Somebody’s Watching Me,” which had Michael Jackson on backup vocals. The rest of the album was a lot of fun, though, and I still listen to it sometimes.  “Obscene Phone Caller” was always one of my favorites songs, even though it would be years before I actually understood how pervy the song really is.

What was your first album?  Your first concert?  The first song you remember hearing?

5/52

Two They Might Be Giants Shows, Twenty Years Apart

I went downtown to see They Might Be Giants this week.  The show was at a venue called The Beacham, which is a large and venerable concert space right on Orange Avenue.

TMBG did a rollicking two-set show, where they served as their own opening act.  They made jokes about Clippy the paperclip and Phil Collins, and kept their audience thoroughly entertained while doing a combination of their classic hits and their new stuff.

While I was listening to “Whistling In The Dark,” I was thinking about the last time I saw this band- twenty years ago, at another show in Orlando.  They Might Be Giants played at the Embassy Music Hall in 1998.

When I lived in Orlando twenty years ago, the Embassy Music Hall was part of my regular rotation of clubs to go dancing; they had a Wednesday night (as far as I can recall) with lots of 80s and new wave music. I have loads of great memories of dancing there with friends.

The Embassy was a nondescript looking place, situated on the side of a big shopping plaza off Lee Road.  It was kind of nondescript, even when it was open.  This picture is long after the Embassy closed, but it didn’t look much different than this:

The Embassy had a regular rotation of amazing concerts.  While I was looking up details about the club for this post, I found information about shows by Love and Rockets, KMFDM, Green Day, Primus, The Damned, Collective Soul, The Lemonheads, Snoop Dogg, Marilyn Manson, Anthrax, and Iron Maiden, all from the late 1990s.  I got to see TMBG there in ’98, and I also saw Project Pitchfork and Front 242 there.   The Embassy Music Hall was awesome.

Sometime in 1999, Embassy shut its doors and was re-imagined as a sort of after-hours raver club called Cyberzone.  Cyberzone had problems right away, including multiple drug arrests and the deaths of two people.  I never went during the Cyberzone era, and the club closed in early 2001.

I hadn’t heard much about the place in a really long time, so while I was getting ready to see They Might Be Giants for the first time in two decades, I checked in on the old place with some Google Map action.

It’s a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Grocery now.

Yup, that sounds about right*.

*There’s a song on TMBG’s 1992 album Flood called “Minimum Wage.”  It uses a whip-crack to hilarious effect.   Seems about right.

What happened to your favorite places from years ago?

Bob’s Burgers Live, and the Los Angeles Intro.

Up until the middle of this month, I’d never set foot in Los Angeles, not counting layovers.   When I found out a few months back that Bob’s Burgers was doing a live show, I could not resist.  I bought tickets right away.  The first night sold out and they added a second night, but we didn’t need to go twice even though I’m sure it was just as awesome on the second night.

The show was on Saturday evening.  We flew in Thursday night and out Monday morning, so that gave us a full three days to explore sunny California.  We covered Hollywood, Long Beach, and various points in between.  I took 810 photographs in three days, and distilled them down to 121 for the blog.   102 of the photos were from the Walk of Fame, but those stars are really all kind of the same, so I’m only going to post one of ’em.  There were 118 photos at Madame Tussaud’s, because that place is just fun, but that’ll be one whole post with about seventeen selected pictures.   Nobody needs to see every photo I take.

I’m not going to put all 121 of the finally chosen photos in one post though, that’s just nuts.  I’ll break it up a bit.  This is the first of many California posts.  I’m gonna start with the show that initiated our trip to California, Bob’s Burgers Live at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

The Orpheum is a lovely old theater 2000 seat theater.  It was originally opened February 15, 1926, and was reuilt in 1989.  It has a “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ installed, one of the last three pipe organs in Southern California venues.  I wish I’d heard it while we were there. I bet that thing sounds cool.  I also just learned that Taylor Swift filmed her video for “Mean” at the Orpheum.  Neat!

We were there for Bob’s Burgers, and that’s what we saw!  Each of the primary cast members is a comedian on their own, so the first half of the show was a series of comedy routines from the cast members.  The second half of the show was where it got really good though-  they did music from the show, along with Matt Berninger and the National. (Bonus!  Now I’ve seen the National in concert!)

All of the primary cast members were present for this gig.  The next picture is Eugene Mirman (Gene), Kristen Schaal (Louise), and Dan Mintz (Tina) singing “The Fart Song!”

Eugene did Gene’s masterpiece, “The Snake Song.”  I’m so happy they did this one.  In the left part of the photo, you can see the giant puppet snake that wound its way through the theater during this song.

Here’s the short version of The Snake Song, for your enjoyment:

On this next photo, sisters Louise (Kristen Schaal) and Tina (Dan Mintz) sang “Bad Girls.”  I love the keyboardist from the National to their left.  He was having a great time for the entire night.

Near the end of the show, there was a giant puppet Tina and a giant puppet for “Electric Love.”  Alas, no Kevin Kline or Megan Mulally were present to do their parts.  That would have been quite nifty!

This was the finale, though, with the entire cast on stage.  From left to right:  H. Jon Benjamin (Bob Belcher) in the yellow and blue shirt to the left, Larry Murphy (Teddy) in the suit, Dan Mintz (Tina), Eugene Mirman (Gene), Kristen Schaal (Louise), John Roberts (Linda Belcher) in the white t-shirt, and Matt Berninger from the National in the red suit.  Not visible in the photo, but sitting in with the National, was Loren Bouchard, the creator of the show.

The merchandise line at this show was run by a bunch of people who severely underestimated demand for their wares, and it took a long time to get out of the theater.  By the time we left, I had a new t-shirt or two, and Amelie had some official Louise ears.   Success!

Who’s your favorite Bob’s Burgers character?