South Michigan Avenue between Cermak and the Stevenson Expressway. It's quiet here now. But not too long ago this was the home of the blues, and the pioneering artists of rock and roll.
"When I came here 54 years ago, this city, everybody who thought they could play blues was headed here," said Buddy Guy.
Mecca was this studio run by Chicagoan Phil Chess and his brother Leonard. Chess Records was where it all began for Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, and Etta James, to name a few.
"I was sent here by a letter from a disc jockey in Baton Rouge to go to Chess with this demo tape I had," Guy said. "It was special to me because all those great guys was there. and in good health, in their prime."
Those greats inspired some of the most popular artists of rock and roll, including the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger, who named his group after an early Muddy Waters song called "Rolling Stone." The Stones would make a pilgrimage to Chess in 1964.
"I had never seen a white person with their hair this long, and Leonard brought the Stones and they lined up in the studio where I'm at and I'm like, I don't want nobody in the studio, cause I didn't know who the hell they were," Guy said.
The Rolling Stones recorded most of their "12 By 5" album at Chess, including an instrumental they wrote as a tribute to the studio's address called "2120."
The South Michigan Avenue building was designated a city landmark in 1990. After Chess artist, writer, and producer Willie Dixon died in 1992, his widow Marie bought the building, made it part of her late husband's non-profit "Blues Heaven Foundation" and began a $400,000 renovation. But the legendary studio's recording equipment is long gone, historic artifacts are displayed haphazardly, and visitors -- mostly from out of town -- are left wanting more.
"It seems like it's one of the best-kept secrets in the city," said Ron Winn, a blues fan from Toronto. "I asked several folks if they could direct me to Chess Studios and there was mostly puzzled looks."
And that's something a lot of people would like to change.
"I would love to see entertainment, a great nightlife, a recognition of our history as the place where blues occurred and blues was founded," said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).
Fioretti is pushing to transform these three blocks of South Michigan Avenue. He's already rezoned it to prevent further residential development.
"I think it will become the bright spot between the South Loop, Bronzeville, and Chinatown. where activity is happening all the time.
Some of today's top recording artists would love to see Chess become a full-time, fully equipped, functional studio again. Performers who come here to record today are so anxious to make music in the old building, they climb the famous backstairs bringing in their own recording equipment. U2 has done that. So has John Mellencamp. A year ago it was the Rolling Stones' Ron Wood who dropped in for a session.
"We just embraced each other," said Marie Dixon.
Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra has written extensively about the efforts to recognize Chicago's own musical landmark. He went down there during Blues Festival in June.
"I just jumped in a cab on a Saturday afternoon, a beautiful day and I just wanted to see how many people were checking out the studio. I was just curious how many people would be there," Hoekstra said. "[There were] maybe four people, all out of town tourists."
More money and more planning are needed to create a Chicago entertainment district, but things seem to be heating up. One Arizona developer has announced plans to redevelop six properties in the area, which would be called "Record Row," named after not only Chess, but two other historic record companies once based on South Michigan Avenue: Vee Jay and Brunswick.
Rockford's Cheap Trick are among the many admirers of Chicago's rich musical history who want to lend their support. Their manager told me the band is excited about curating "Cheap Trick Chicago," a one-of-a-kind eatery, unique musical instrument museum, radio station, and performance space in the future music row in Chicago. "It would mean so much to me during my lifetime, is to get this studio up and running, and get all young potential musicians and writers to understand the business," said Marie Dixon. "Then I can rest in peace, when my day come."