BluEsoterica *** Jim O'Neal

A retrospective on the 50th anniversary of Living Blues

When Living Blues’ cofounders were discussing plans for the magazine in February of 1970, Bruce Iglauer–who took on the main organizational tasks for LB before he launched Alligator Records the following year–predicted that LB would probably run its course in five years. By then, he figured, blues readers would know everything they needed to know. Little did any of us know how little we really knew, and how much more there was to learn. Fifty years later, LB is still on its missions to inform its readership and to document the blues as a living African-American tradition, and in many ways those imperatives are even more crucial in 2020 than they were in 1970.

LB coalesced at Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart/Delmark Records headquarters at 7 West Grand Avenue in Chicago. Not long after Amy van Singel (who knew much more about blues than I did) and I met at Northwestern University, she took me to the JRM, where Bob not only offered a wealth of blues and jazz records for sale but also posted a list of blues club gigs and a sign-up sheet to start a blues magazine. Blues Unlimited, the leading blues periodical, was doing an impressive job from its base across in the Atlantic in England, with help from both European and American contributors (including Delmark artist Jimmy Dawkins). But we wondered why no one had started a blues magazine in the U.S., especially in Chicago, the blues capital of the world. I submitted a review of a show Amy and I had seen on Feb. 28, 1969, at the Kinetic Playground (Chicago’s psychedelic ballroom counterpart of the Fillmore) by B.B. King, Albert King and Paul Butterfield to Bob but nothing happened with it. In the meantime I expanded my writing for the Daily Northwestern student newspaper from sports to blues, started sending articles, reviews and news to Blues Unlimited, and reviewed the 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival for a fanzine called the New Haven Rock Press.  

Even though Amy and I were still under legal drinking age, we were excited to find that we could still get in the blues bars on the South and West Side as long as we paid the cover charge (usually a dollar, sometimes two to see Howlin' Wolf).On the very first such club venture in April to Pepper’s Lounge, Otis Rush delivered such a brilliant, stirring performance–only typical of his performances at that time–that the power and passion of the blues really hit me in a life-changing way.  A few months later I submitted a short article on Pepper’s Lounge that I wrote for a journalism class to Rolling Stone. Publisher Jann Wenner accepted it by telegram and for the first time I got paid for my writing (about $25 as I recall). Bob Koester gave me a chance to do my first liner notes for Magic Sam’s Black Magic LP. Amy and I also used the Jazz Record Mart as a base to interview bluesmen Mighty Joe Young and the J.B. Hutto, and we interviewed Howlin’ Wolf for the radio show Amy had started on Northwestern’s WNUR when Wolf played on campus. For another journalism project on the Chicago blues scene l talked to Willie Dixon, Jimmy Dawkins, Junior Wells and Louis Myers, and fellow blues fan Tim Zorn and I taped a short interview with Buddy Guy at the bar in Theresa’s Lounge.

By the end of the year, Bruce Iglauer, who had booked blues at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, had found a job as Bob Koester’s shipping clerk. He joined our club expeditions amidst more talk about a magazine. Living Blues’ first staff meetings took place at Bruce’s apartment at 917 West Dakin Street. The initial staff included Bruce and two former Jazz Record Mart employees—Amy and our prewar blues expert, Paul Garon, photographer Diane Allmen, Tim Zorn and me, soon joined by another photographer, Andre Souffront, the only African American among us, although we wanted more. The seven of us were listed as editors in LB 1, dated Spring, 1970. Dick Shurman would have been on board, too, had he not left the University of Chicago to return to Seattle when he found the Chicago blues life was too distracting to his studies. He did become a key contributor and crony when he came back with his degree a few years later.

One of the features we wanted in the first issue was a tribute to Magic Sam, whose sudden death on Dec. 1, 1969, had shocked us all, but as we had decided that the magazine would, at Bruce’s suggestion, be called Living Blues, I pointed out that we ought to put a living artist on the cover. So we decided to print the WNUR Howlin’ Wolf interview and use a Les Blank cover photo of Wolf from the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival (a major milestone on the blues and in our blues education). Bruce and I gathered quotes for the Magic Sam memorial piece from Syl Johnson, Mac Thompson, Mighty Joe Young. Jimmy Dawkins, John Fishel of the Ann Arbor festival and others. LB 1 articles also examined how blues lyrics expressed attitudes towards the armed services and the draft (of special interest to me, as I was of draft age) and towards religion and the church (a Paul Garon analysis). The issue included a page of news, a few record reviews, ads from the Delmark, Chess, Arhoolie, Imperial, and Biograph labels and Dick Waterman’s Avalon Productions agency, and ads we ran for Blues Unlimited and Blues World in exchange for ads for LB in those British magazines. Bob Koester loaned us $300 to get us started, and we used a typewriter from the Chicago Seed, an underground newspaper, before advancing to typeset copy on LB 2. The company that printed the Seed was also our first printer.

As we tried to get the word out about LB, the first $2 subscription came in from blues queen Victoria Spivey, and overseas fans wrote in after seeing the ads in Blues Unlimited and Blues World. We put copies for sale at the Jazz Record Mart, Barbara’s Bookstore (Chicago’s headquarters for radical literature, where Paul Garon worked) and stores and newsstands in other cities, with Bruce handling the distribution. A plug in the June 11, 1970, issue of Rolling Stone gave us our first substantial batch of subscribers (about 300). We addressed copies by hand and applied eight-cent stamps or postage strips before we discovered a more efficient mimeographed addressing system and acquired a postal permit. Layout was also laborious in the pre-digital age involving rub-on headlines and typed copy glued to sheets that were shot as negatives by the printer.

We figured we would really hit our target readership by setting up a sales table at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Ten thousand blues fans would surely grab up all our copies of America’s first blues magazine. Or so we thought. In the end we sold about 200 copies that weekend and the reality of the blues publishing business set in. It took seven years for us to sell out of our LB 1 print run of 5000.

But none of us expected to make money from LB. All our work was volunteer and so were the articles and reviews contributed by fans—some of them experienced writers, most not—around the world. When the small record labels advertised, we often took payment in records instead of money and sold them through the mail order business we started to help pay expenses. All the staff had other jobs or business endeavors. We had no business plan other than to try to sell enough copies of one issue to pay for the next, and eventually fell behind in that, leading to the annual Living Blues Benefits and Cookouts where we sold records while the blues men and women of Chicago came to the rescue with performances to help the cause.

LB’s cause was propelled in part by the disparity between the fame and fortune enjoyed by rock bands covering the blues and the relative lack of recognition and reward accorded the originators of those songs. Even though some of us had been turned on to the blues through rock, we thought it was time to advocate for the blues artists and tell their stories. Newsweek magazine heralded the “Rebirth of the Blues” in 1969 with a photo of Janis Joplin on the cover. We realized that the blues wasn’t being reborn; in the taverns of Chicago or the juke joints of Mississippi, it had never died, despite some proclamations to the contrary. In our own modest way, we hoped we could change one little (but influential) corner of the world. To friends and family who hadn’t caught the blues bug, we were a strange lot, for sure. Others suspected we up to something more. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but years later I heard that there were undercover operatives in our circle of blues aficionados. Whether that was true or not, I suppose that as a pro-black young group who frequented the territory of the Blackstone Rangers and Black Panthers, associated with the counterculture and the underground press, we could have aroused suspicion. Paul Garon was a member of the Chicago Surrealist Group which espoused anarchy and surrealist subversion, but primarily in its literature and art, not on the streets. In college Bruce had been on the editorial board of a newspaper sponsored by the radical Students for a Democratic Society (a fact I just now learned from a newspaper search). Tim Zorn and I both were conscientious objectors. I was a long-haired kid up from Alabama, fondly viewed by one of my professors as “a reconstructed Southerner,” but I hadn’t written anything more radical than a silly high school scandal sheet called the Junky Journal. Andre Souffront, I only later discovered upon reading his 2003 obituary, at some point became a Chicago police officer, so that may have started the undercover rumors. But at the time his interest in blues was genuine and a few years later he and I started making a film on Houston Stackhouse, the least likely criminal suspect I could imagine. (I wonder whatever happened to the footage Andre shot.) If we were suspected of drug dealing, it wouldn’t haven’t taken a spy long to dispel that idea. To satisfy my curiosity, a few weeks ago I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for any FBI files on myself and Living Blues. I was quickly notified that the FBI had no dossiers on me or LB.

The most openly suspicious people we met were those we met in the blues clubs, and the white police patrols who stopped us to ask what we were doing in such neighborhoods. If we weren’t with the FBI, CIA, IRS or the narcotics division, or if we weren’t trolling for drugs or sex, why were we there? But more often we found warm receptions in the clubs and among the musicians, and seemed to be accepted as fanatics off into our own blues zone and grateful to be there. If we were ever at police stations, it was to bail out musicians, and my only experience in court with bluesmen was to testify for them as a character witness.

Over the years LB took on a multitude of functions in Chicago. Bruce, of course, built Alligator into the world’s leading blues label. Paul authored several blues books. I married Amy and we eventually assumed production duties, sometimes tasking ourselves with everything from interviewing and photographing an artist to transcribing the tapes, printing photos, writing, proofreading, editing and typesetting the text, laying out the pages, taking the layout to the printer and picking up bundles of magazines a couple of weeks later, addressing and mailing copies to subscribers, while trying to pay the bills and do our own tax accounting. The LB office in our home became a mini-hub for visitors, collectors and musicians, some of whom became house guests. We acted as tour guides, assisted television and film crews, served as intermediaries between musicians and producers and promoters, traveled with blues artists to Mexico, Canada and Europe, and chauffeured them locally. At Otis Rush’s insistence, I did my best to act as his manager for a couple of years. We conducted college classes on the blues and assisted with funerals, passport applications, festivals, royalty collection, recording sessions, and the W.C Handy Blues Awards and Blues Hall of Fame balloting. I made trips to research and report on the blues everywhere from Compton and Watts to Gary and East St. Louis to Helena and Clarksdale (where I later lived for ten years). Amy kept her radio show going on WNIB and WXFM. We earned money from freelance writing and typesetting and held other jobs at times. When I was drafted, I did two years of alternative service as a mental health technician at a Chicago hospital. All the while we were collecting, archiving and selling records and memorabilia, and in 1979 we recorded Eddy Clearwater for the first album on Rooster Blues, the record label we started with Mick and Cilla Huggins of England.

We could hardly have done all this alone—we always had the support of a dedicated corps of contributors (too many to name here, but I tried to acknowledge as many as I could on pages x to xiv of the Routledge book The Voice of the Blues: Classic Interviews From Living Blues Magazine). Still, it all became too much for us to handle, even after we able to hire some assistants. A new opportunity came along when we started talking with Bill Ferris, an LB contributor who had become director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. In 1983 we transferred the rights to Living Blues to the Center, concurrent with donating a big part of our record collection and other material to help start the Blues Archive at Ole Miss. Bruce Iglauer had sold LB to us in the 1970s for a dollar. We received no cash from Ole Miss but were promised a share of the university’s profits from publishing the magazine while we remained as editors in Chicago. However, LB operated in the red at Ole Miss and we had to make other arrangements, including moving to Oxford in 1986 to work more closely with the Center, while continuing to run Rooster Blues and opening a store, Back Forty Records, on the Square in Oxford. (Ironically, the building that briefly housed the store and Rooster Blues is now occupied by a club called Rooster’s Blues House—no relation.) In 1987 I finally felt I had done what I could as editor and resigned; Amy and I remained founding editors but parted ways. I moved to the Delta and then to Kansas City with my new family while Amy’s journey took her to Memphis, Alaska, and finally Maine, where she died in 2016. LB has somewhat miraculously survived as a self-supporting entity at Ole Miss, thanks to the commitment of Brett Bonner and the preceding editors (Scott Barretta, David Nelson and Peter Lee) and publications managers including Melanie Young and Mark Camarigg. Brett continues to steadily steer the ship in waters where most other blues magazines have sunk from sight.        

I’ve been through cancer, debt and divorce, wavering in and out of the record label business, while doing mail order, researching and writing for LB, the Mississippi Blues Trail, the Blues Hall of Fame and various magazines, liner notes and book projects, hoping to make a dent in the mountain of vinyl inventory and archival material that overruns the house where Brenda Haskins and I live. Although I’m not as active in working with musicians now, in other ways it feels like not much has changed when I wonder how to manage everything. (Anyone want to volunteer or intern? E-mail me at The landscape of the blues isn’t what it was when LB began, and while much more information on blues artists is available today through books, periodicals and internet sources, it may take some digging to find it.  More importantly, it often requires a conduit or some contemporary connection to attract new followers to even want to learn about it, especially amidst the proliferation of music in genres listeners now hear.  Almost all the legendary blues artists whose songs were such influential classics are gone, and popular music is far less connected to blues today than in 1970, when Rolling Stone included blues in its coverage and put in a word to recommend LB to its readers. Would they even take note of a new blues magazine today? If blues was at the bottom of the economic scale of the music industry back then, it is probably even more so now. It is a tribute to the essence of the blues that new generations of performers still emerge to embrace it in spite of the battles they face. Living Blues can’t remedy the situation by itself, but imagine where we would be without it. Here’s to many more anniversaries.

(From an essay in the April 2020 issue of Living Blues with a few additions.)