It sat in the shadow of the El, giving no hint that this was the place to go if you wanted to hear legendary Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters, J.B. Hutto, and Hound Dog Taylor. And yet for a time in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Alice’s Revisited was a talisman for teenagers on the North Side who wanted to touch the magic of South Side blues.
When the club opened, it was called Alice’s Restaurant. Threatened legal action from Arlo Guthrie forced the owners to rename it, people said, but the name hardly mattered––we all called it Alice’s––nor did the décor. The outside was little more than a brick wall with a door at 950 W. Wrightwood and the inside was pretty much four walls with a low platform at the back serving as a stage for the performers. The only art on the walls was a tapestry behind the stage.
We sat knee to knee on the soft, wide planks of the old wooden floor––we being mostly high school and college kids allowed in because no liquor was served and enticed to come by a cover price that ranged around $2.50. For refreshments, sandwiches and nonalcoholic drinks were sold from the deli counter of the narrow storefront next door.
The Siegel-Schwall Band
I first heard about Alice’s in the summer of 1970 at a Siegel-Schwall Band concert in Grant Park. At the end of the set, pianist-harp player-lead singer Corky Siegel told the audience if they wanted more, they could find the group over at Alice’s Revisited. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, but my friend Becker did, so he, our friend Baker, and I headed down from the northern suburbs.
Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall started out playing clubs on the South Side in ’65. That’s where they encountered the “fathers” of Chicago blues like Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf. By 1970, the blues scene on the North Side was not yet well established—a few clubs had come and gone—so Alice’s was something of a groundbreaker. I originally went to hear Siegel-Schwall there, but soon discovered that I could also hear the fathers, who didn’t seem to mind playing for young white audiences at the small venue.
The Night I Saw Muddy
The night I saw Muddy, my friends and I arrived a little early. In a moment of frat-boy exuberance, Becker called out “Muddy” when we walked into the main room. The man himself was on the stage adjusting his microphone, and he glanced up.
During Muddy’s set I made my way to the front of the stage mid-song. I had brought along my sister’s Yashica twin-lens reflex, a camera with a good lens but no flash gun. It wasn’t the best choice for the club’s low lighting, and it was more awkward to use than a camera held at eye level. Only six feet away, Muddy was unfazed by my presence. Behind him the band was rock solid. Looking down into the vertical camera, I focused quickly. Click. Nobody was telling me to sit down, so I shifted my position and framed another shot. Click. And then I hurried back to my seat.
I started out 1971 with a Siegel-Schwall concert at Alice’s on New Year’s Eve, and returned to see acoustic bluesman Blind Jim Brewer and slide player Hound Dog Taylor with his cheap electric guitar that produced beautiful distortion. This was around the time that Bruce Iglauer started Alligator Records and gave Taylor his first album.
Alice’s had a deep-voiced announcer who reminded me of the guy who did the stage announcements at Woodstock. “Who here went to Niles East High School?” he began one night. Cheers from the audience. “Please welcome Niles East graduate Mr. Harvey Mandel.” The former Canned Heat guitarist was too electric for my taste and too loud for the small club but, as always, I liked being there so any night at Alice’s was a good night. It was as close as I would come to having a Cavern Club in high school.
That year one of my assignments for English class was to create a multimedia project. I chose the blues as my topic and wrote out a short essay. For sound I recorded a rudimentary 12-bar blues jam with a friend––we took turns playing rhythm and lead guitar––and for visuals, I submitted the pictures I’d taken at Alice’s.
A Memory Out the Window
On my occasional trips into the city on the El today, I like to sit on the right side of the car so I can look down and pay my respects as the train passes 950 W. Wrightwood. The traces that remain of Alice’s are slight: a 1972 recording, Howlin’ Wolf’s Live and Cookin’ at Alice’s Revisited; a web page with a history of the clubs that have occupied the building over the years, including a few paragraphs about the short-lived Alice’s; and two 1971 ads for Alice’s in the archives of The Chicago Reader.
For years I looked for the pictures I took of Muddy. The negatives were long lost, but I was sure I had saved a few prints. I could see them in my mind. I just couldn’t bring them back to life. I found black-and-white pictures I had shot and developed of Siegel-Schwall and Jim Brewer but no Muddy. Then one day when I was going through some old papers I opened a folder and the pictures were there, right where I had put them years ago for safekeeping. They’re underexposed and grainy, but clearly that’s him, Muddy Waters, the greatest of the Chicago blues singers, on a Saturday night at Alice’s.