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Sunday Journal: Muddy Waters mesmerizes a preacher's son in 1969

It was another one of those pile-in-the-station-wagon-and-go-on-a-picnic Sundays. My big family did that now and then. But I was a high school junior, bored and confined.

Earlier that day, I'd read in the Chicago Sun-Times that Muddy Waters was in town. He was to play at the Deep End club in Park Ridge, a bedroom suburb on Chicago's northwest side.

All day, I plotted how I'd get my parents to let me go. Even though I was 15, I'd led a pretty sheltered life. Dad was a minister and mom a no-nonsense housewife. I missed my chance to see the Beatles in 1965 because no one would take me downtown.

But it was now 1969, the world was coming apart, and I'd become restless.

Being a bookworm and news aficionado, I knew the lay of the land, and we were getting close to Park Ridge. I saw the names of towns as we proceeded south, and counted them down as if I were announcing a rocket launch.

"Park Ridge!" I exclaimed. This was my chance. "Mom, Dad, Muddy Waters is playing here tonight. May Kevin and I go?" Quickly followed by, "We'll hitchhike home." Kevin is my younger brother and he liked whatever I liked. To this day, he is a blues and music enthusiast.

Mom said yes. Such a simple word, but on this occasion nothing less than astounding.

She had never let us do anything like this before. After all, we were about 13 miles from our home in Evanston, and it would be late by the time we left the show.

We got out and said goodbye before they had a chance to reconsider.

It was still early, about 7 o'clock. The club was small and cozy with pool tables along the wall and a stage the size of a gas station bathroom. Greasers, their hair thick with Brylcreem, leaned on their pool sticks and eyed their next shot. Out of their other eye, they kept watch on their statuesque females, who were propped in high heels, carefully smoking cigarettes and conspicuously blowing smoke from their painted red lips. Both the men and the women seemed very concerned with producing a striking profile.

For me, a preacher's kid from a teetotaling, tobacco-free, Ozzie and Harriet home, this was like walking into a scene from an Ernest Hemingway story. I'd read about these places. I'd seen them in movies and on TV, but I had never actually been in one. I loved it.

We asked what time the show started and were told not for two hours. Hang out. Soak it up. Drinks were out of the question. Neither of us was of age, and we wouldn't know what to order anyway.

So we just kind of milled around. People started trickling in, sitting down close to the dance floor to get a good seat. We joined them, since it appeared to seat only 30 or 40 people and we wanted to see Muddy up close.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Muddy Waters!"

He walked up to a three-legged wooden stool, guitar in hand, smile wide and warm. Got right to playing, no nonsense with his three-man backup band.

"Hoochie Coochie Man!"

A petite brunet about center crowd called out those three words incessantly, pleading for what was apparently her favorite Muddy song.

Banter bridged the tunes, and appreciative fans sat cross-legged, mesmerized by this diminutive giant of the blues world who had first traveled north to Chicago with other Mississippi Delta bluesmen in the '40s and '50s. The address was a storefront on State Street called Chess Records, run by two brothers with that same last name.

After the show ended, Kevin and I hung around to meet the band members. We cornered them in the doorway as they were about to leave, instruments in hand.

A bit nervous and shy, we introduced ourselves, and they were as gracious as could be, apologizing for being delayed by a day.

Explaining they were at Madison Square Garden for a concert celebrating the Rolling Stones' birthday, it all made sense. The rock band's name comes from a Muddy Waters song, Rollin' Stone.

We chatted for a few minutes and then explained we had to go. It was a long way home. Into the rain we walked, glowing from the experience, oblivious to the dark and desolate streets of Park Ridge. Thirteen miles from Evanston, we stuck out our thumbs.

Stephen Lee Goodman has a bachelor's degree in mass communications-news editorial from the University of South Florida and is a truck driver in Tampa.

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Sunday Journal: Muddy Waters mesmerizes a preacher's son in 1969 03/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 6:26pm]

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