High-Octane Sound

Lauren Hunter Thomas

Johnny Drummer wants to know if Lady Cadillac is in the building. A woman at the back of the joint in white go-go boots, ostensibly not Lady Cadillac, calls out to the septuagenarian bluesman, letting him know that he is  “S.O.L. tonight,” and proceeds to raise her highball. She’s either flagging down a hostess or saluting the piano, drums, guitar, and harmonica-playing house band who has just elected to play right through the break scheduled for the middle of their three-hour set.

It may not be the Caddy Johnny Drummer is looking for, but tonight at Lee’s Unleaded Blues there is at least one sleek-finned machine to admire: a powder-blue 1950s Eldorado idles outside the elbow of concrete upon which the club sits, an isosceles impingement on the 74th block of South Chicago Avenue.

While praise for Lee’s Unleaded Blues Club is not exactly in short supply, as press clippings in the entryway attest, the music showcased here over the past few decades has proven that the acclaim is well-deserved.

The juke spot began as Queen Bee’s Lounge, and changed hands at the end of the 1970s when Lee himself bought the property from Bee’s daughter.  At that time, some of Alligator Records’ biggest names–Son Seals, Snapper Mitchum–were regulars on the lounge’s stage.

Forty years on, Lee’s still has nothing but “quality acts” to offer, as bouncer Ernest describes the musicians that owner Yvonne Davis brings to the joint. Tonight, she sits at the end of the red-trimmed, floodlit bar, holding court in red bifocals, a beret, and skirt suit,. At Lee’s, a five-dollar cover charge is a relatively recent institution–unlike the musicians themselves, who have played on the South Side for most of their lives. Drummer, born Thessex Johns in Alligator, Mississippi, even worked for the Board of Education and then the CPD, after cutting his first record in 1962.

The breath of chattering patrons warmed up the door’s single glass pane, and a few improvisational minutes proceeded to do the same for the Starliters, whose set kicked off with a little bit of banter punctuated by kick drum and cymbals. Decked out in three-piece suits, the musicians frequently leave the stage to weave amongst the crowd, a motley assortment of both high-spirited locals and curious young folk. The overwhelming impression of the guests at Lee’s, whether they’re mixing drinks, plucking on stage, perched on a barstool or bouncing the door, is of a crowd in their Saturday-night best.

The tunes are just as polished. In contrast to the more bare-bones style of the Memphis school, Chicago blues–or at least what’s on tap at Lee’s–errs more on the side of soul and even jazz. Willie Dixon’s blues standard “Wang Dang Doodle” is perhaps the best example of this sound, and it aptly opened the Starliters’ set. First performed by Howlin’ Wolf, and not too far from Lee’s, the tune speaks to Dixon’s personal transition from down-home rhythm and blues to a more urban up-tempo, big-beat style.

The Starliters drew on a wide swath of the 20th-century catalog: the early R&B number “Fever,” famously performed by Peggy Lee in 1958, followed later in the night. The audience didn’t hesitate to chime in.

The challenge in keeping this institution hopping three nights a week involves juggling more than a few variables. There’s the difficulty inherent in hiring musicians of both talent and repute, on top of  the challenge of keeping cover fees, drink prices, and operating costs down. What’s more, the South Side population hasn’t really been able to anchor the joint, as Ernest attests: “as far as having a core group of 40 or 50 regulars, or locals…” He trails off and shrugs. “Someday, we hope.”

For now, Davis and her staff enjoy the patronage of a diverse and lively crowd. Three men speaking Japanese sit at a table littered with Ray’s potato chip bags and empty bottles of Zinfandel, and in the front row, no fewer than four guests celebrate their birthdays with cake on the house and flutes of a sparkling grape. In the nearly impossible case that Drummer’s own compositions, odes to Chicago’s juked-up sound, hadn’t already charmed the ever-loving ears off of the guests at Lee’s, a fifteen-minute plus rendition of “Happy Birthday,” complete with saxophone serenades for the birthday boys and girls, surely did the trick.

Lee’s Unleaded Blues. 7401 S. Chicago Ave. (773)349-4377. leesunleadedblues.com