If blues is a people’s music, then the best blues clubs are often located in neighborhoods. The Checkerboard Lounge, originally located at 423 E. 43rd St, definitely qualified on that count.
From 1972, when it was opened by Buddy Guy, until its closing in 2003, the Checkerboard maintained a welcoming vibe, with a host of regulars, performers, and larger-than-life characters. Anyone who had the good fortune to have set foot in the Checkerboard can marvel at to how many legendary musicians were jammed onto that tiny stage—as well as what the experience must have been for the audience.
Part of what made the Checkerboard unique was its location in the heart of the Bronzeville, an African-American neighborhood steeped in rich cultural history. Many of the 500,000 blacks who came to Chicago as part of the Great Migration settled in Bronzeville, making 43rd St. the center of a vibrant scene. Muddy Waters’ home on 4339 S. Lake Park Ave., where he lived from 1954 to 1974, was less than a mile from the Checkerboard Lounge.
The event that put the Checkerboard Lounge on the international map for the blues was a visit by the Rolling Stones in 1981 after a concert in Chicago. The evening, captured on “Live from the Checkerboard,” features Muddy Waters and his band running through a generous set list of hits with the help of his adoring Brit acolytes.
Although Buddy Guy sold his interest in the club in 1985, the Checkerboard continued to host a steady slate of blues stalwarts such as Lefty Dizz. Leading blues musicians, including Buddy’s late brother Phil Guy, would regularly sit in, treating the assembled crowd to an endless string of blues standards. In the 1990s, Vance Kelly held down the regular Thursday night slot, and in any given week, the room would be packed with an audience that mixed neighborhood regulars, University of Chicago students who benefited from the liberal entry policy, and blues enthusiasts from across the city. Frequently, the front door would swing open to reveal a group of tourists from Europe or Asia who had made the pilgrimage to witness the world-famous Checkerboard for themselves.
More important, the Checkerboard functioned as a proving ground for young musicians intent on breaking into the blues scene. There they could see masters up close and, on a good night, have a chance to sit in for a few tunes. Far beyond the Stones’ visit, that is the legacy of the Checkerboard Lounge: a launching pad for a new generation of blues musicians who are currently carrying the banner and torching Chicago blues clubs on a nightly basis.
The Checkerboard would reopen in Hyde Park in 2005, but it couldn’t recreate the same vibe in a more upscale neighborhood and closed for good in September 2015. The club was one of a kind and is sorely missed.