Another blues legend cautiously follows his dream

Chicago Tribune

February 4, 2001

By Steve Knopper

Apart from the photos of a blues guitarist in full Native American headdress, the first thing you notice about the new Wicker Park nightclub Reservation Blues is how solid it is. Everything seems made of brick or wood, including the bar, uprooted from a nearby church basement and trimmed with copper.

It's symbolic of the owner, 66-year-old singer Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, who opened the live-blues club in a converted dry-cleaner building in mid-January and hopes it lasts even longer than he does. "This is like his legacy. It's what he can leave behind," managing director Brock Cattanagh says. "It's going to institutionalize his name that much more. It's somewhere he can call home."

Clearwater is not the first Chicago bluesman to have this vision. From Big Bill Broonzy's '50s South Side joint to the 12-year-old Buddy Guy's Legends in the South Loop, performers have dreamed of affixing their name to a building filled with the music they love. But as Clearwater well knows, even a big name is no guarantee for success in the difficult and political world of nightclub ownership. Though he has graduated from the informal Chicago School of Blueprints, Zoning Laws, Liquor Licenses and Lobbying-the-Chamber-of-Commerce, Clearwater's nightclub-management education is only beginning. Asked to relay advice, Eddie Shaw, a veteran saxophonist who ran two '70s West Side clubs -- Eddie Shaw's Place and Eddie Shaw's 1815 Club -- is less than encouraging. "I love Eddy -- he's been my friend for 30 years. I wish Eddy all the luck in the world," Shaw says. "But I just want him to know it's no easy street.

"I got into it with a lot of inspiration, and I got out of it with a lot of disappointment. I did all right for a while -- eight years! But everybody got to get paid out of a bottle of whiskey, you know? Rent man got to be paid, liquor commission got to be paid, taxman, insurance, all the musicians -- all out of a bottle of whiskey. I met a lot of people, I had some fun, I got a lot of recommendations from people all over the world there. But in the final analysis you got to pay the bills, man. It ain't no piece of cake."

Similarly downbeat is singer Koko Taylor, perhaps Chicago's best-known blues performer after Guy. In late 1999, she opened her second club -- the first one, near the Gold Coast, closed about four years ago -- Koko Taylor's Celebrity. Though she personally oversaw Celebrity's construction, right down to the pink ladies' restrooms, Taylor continues to tour, leaving day-to-day management to her team.

"Business is slow," she says, struggling to remain optimistic during a brief phone interview. "Maybe some nights, here and there, we'll get a really good night, but it has to be a constant, common theme to keep the door open. I'm really struggling right now to keep the door open. If I can't, I can't."

When Taylor and Guy first came to Chicago in the late '50s, blues clubs were everywhere. They opened, failed and opened elsewhere in quick succession, competing heavily to lure the steel-mill and stockyard worker for a shot and a sad song. Many performers -- harpists James Cotton and Little Mack Simmons (who died last year) and guitarist John Brim -- took a stab at management. Guy bought into part of the Checkboard Lounge, a South Side fixture where Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones have jammed.

Today, with established joints such as Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. and the House of Blues anchoring the market, it's difficult for anybody, let alone a performer with little business experience, to jump in. Guy is the only blues performer to make this leap with lasting success. After selling his stake in the Checkerboard, he opened Legends, in 1989, smartly placing it within walking distance of Michigan Avenue hotels, the growing Printers Row neighborhood and Columbia College -- and a cheap cab ride from McCormick Place.

Part of Legends' success stems from Guy's hands-on approach. Rather than being a figurehead -- fellow blues superstar B.B. King licensed his name for his namesake Memphis blues club but has no hand in running it -- Guy has been known to approve hiring decisions, tend bar, contribute to recipes and perform nightly in January. "I've seen Buddy Guy pick up napkins off the floor," says Scott Cameron, the singer-guitarist's personal manager. "He doesn't come in and say, 'I'm the owner -- hey, guys, sit around me.' He gets involved."

So Clearwater paid close attention a few months back when Guy offered congratulations for Reservation Blues, and said, "Remember, if you give away one shot of whiskey per night (for a year), that's the equivalent of one week's worth of rent." Says Clearwater: "I thanked him for that. That was really good advice."

Clearwater's vision of owning his own place began years ago, when he first read about a similar venture by jazz great Count Basie. It made more sense as he grew older; a few years ago, Clearwater had triple-bypass heart surgery and decided to ease away from the touring grind. In February 1998, he and his wife, manager and co-owner, Renee Greenman-Clearwater, bought the building at 1566 N. Milwaukee Ave.

They were naÔve. Clearwater, who has performed live since he first came to Chicago from Macon, Miss., in his mid-teens, had almost no experience on the guitarless side of the nightclub business. They figured they'd get permission from the city and immediately start loading in drinks and speaker cabinets. Instead, they ran into what Cattanach, an Australian blues fanatic who'd befriended the Clearwaters while booking bands for Detroit's Fifth Avenue, calls "the incredible bureaucratic maze that is Chicago."

At that point, the panicking Clearwaters hired Cattanach. He moved to Chicago and began the arduous process of hiring lawyers, drawing and redrawing plans and convincing city officials they weren't out to flood Wicker Park with deafening noise. In mid-January, a year later than the Clearwaters initially planned to open the club, the liquor license cleared and the club opened to the public.

It was Cattanach's idea to build the club's decor around Clearwater's Cherokee heritage -- the singer-guitarist titled a 1999 album "Reservation Blues" and regularly performs in a headdress. (A long one hangs on the stage wall behind the band.) Photos of Clearwater in various stages of performing and chatting with friends hang on a brick wall to the side of the audience. The kitchen serves Southwestern food.

Reservation Blues' biggest physical attraction is a circular, stained-glass painting of Clearwater in the window facing Milwaukee Avenue. Outside, you can see it for blocks. Inside, a few feet away, Clearwater sits at a wooden table in a sweatshirt and baseball cap and discusses his friend Eddie Shaw's less-than-optimistic nightclub advice. Though he plans to be "as hands-on as possible," Clearwater will focus on the music, leaving business operations to his wife and general management to Cattanagh.

He'll spend more time watching over the place than Koko Taylor does at Celebrity, but less time picking up napkins than Buddy Guy does at Legends. More than likely, Cattanagh predicts, he'll be a frequent presence at the bar, or a corner table, politely stepping up to jam at opportune moments in performer's sets. His demands were few: classy dressing rooms for the musicians, a good sound system and a clear pathway from the stage to the bar.

"It's a dream that I'm sitting here talking to you," Clearwater says. "Rather than just saying, 'I want a grocery store,' this is really what I want to do."