2120 South Michigan Avenue

2120 South Michigan Avenue
Boston’s Connection  To The Chess Performer’s Legacy

By Brian D. Holland
September 2006

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The name “2120 South Michigan Avenue” is an interesting yet curious one for a blues band hailing from the Boston area.

However, as harmonica player Charlie Sawyer puts it, the name describes what the band and its music is all about. At one time, the address was home to Chicago’s Chess Records, a place Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once referred to as “Mecca,” because of the talented performers who set their music to vinyl there. Within its studio walls, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, and Howlin’ Wolf, to name just a few, recorded the gems that beckoned to the ears of listeners young and old.

It was a timeless sound that would eventually be of enormous inspiration to future musicians and devoted blues fans for many years to come. (Interestingly enough, the widow of blues great Willie Dixon recently purchased the building at 2120 South Michigan Ave. Her group’s goal is to reclaim royalties owed to aging blues artists, along with other worthwhile activities and causes.)

2120 South Michigan Avenue

A good portion of the musical repertoire this exciting local blues band gets into pays homage to those musicians and the music that was produced at Chess Records.

From the remnants of the bands “‘Down Home Blues’” from Massachusetts and “The Jaywalkers” from New Hampshire, as well as several subsequent personnel changes, 2120 South Michigan Avenue has grown into a seasoned American blues band, diverse in style and heavy on tradition.

Though Chicago-style blues is the basis of the music of 2120, it doesn’t stop there. Their live sets cover a wide variety of traditional music. They deflect from the Windy City material and delve into Texas, New Orleans, and Memphis blues, and slip into party mode with R&B classics and ballads. You’ll hear festive and lively versions of timeless material, such as the music of Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry, as well as the contemporary songs of The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Bonnie Raitt.

Along with the fine vocals of their singer, Sunny Crownover, harmonizing is an important part of the act. The sets are lively, uplifting and fun. You can dance to a great deal of the music, or just sit, relax, and get into the groove. Either way, it’s club blues at its finest, and the band always aims to entertain. They have as much fun as the audience does.

Below is my conversation with 2120 South Michigan Avenue’s blues harpist, background singer, and keyboard player, Charlie Sawyer. In it he talks in depth about his love for the blues, the magic and importance of the music of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and of the late Mae Cramer, Boston’s own queen of the blues. He also touches on his inspirations, and, of course, the band.

Brian D. Holland, for Boston Blues Society: 2120 South Michigan Avenue is an interesting band name. How’d that transpire?

Charlie Sawyer: That’s the address of Chess Records in Chicago, for a period of about eight or ten years. I saw it as the title of an instrumental on the Rolling Stones second album, 12 X 5. They consider Chess Records to be like Mecca, the ultimate place. After their first album became a big hit they said that they wanted to record at Chess. As it turned out, the second album was recorded there. The address is The Blues Heaven Foundation today. It’s a museum maintained by the widow of Willie Dixon, the great songwriter and A&R man for Chess Records for many years.

BBS: Where does the band actually hail from?

CS: Well, most of us actually live in Massachusetts, north of Boston. I’m in Boxford. Our bassist, Aldo, lives in Watertown. Our singer, Sunny, is in Westford. Peter “HiFi,” the guitarist, lives in Stoneham. Our drummer is the exception; he lives in Concord, New Hampshire. I’ve known him a longtime. We played our first gig together forty-two years ago.

BBS: I recently saw Peter’s brother, Michael (known as “Mudcat” Ward), playing with the Monster Mike Welch band.

CS: Oh, yeah. Once in a while we get Mudcat to sub for us, and then we have the Ward brothers.

BBS: Describe the style of music the band gets into.

CS: We are blues-centric. The core of our material is Chicago blues, in the style of the Chess artists. We mix in a bit of New Orleans music. I play the accordion on a couple of those songs. We add in a bit of Texas style, some early Thunderbirds. We do a bit of Bonnie Raitt. But I think almost everything we do, if you had just heard it in isolation, you’d quickly call it blues. I think the variety of our repertoire distinguishes us, and reflects the fact that we’ve been doing it a very long time. We’ve come together with kind of a common set of tastes, but certainly not identical. So, starting from this core of the 2120, the Chess artists, we branch out.

BBS: Discuss your love of the blues.

CS: I’m from a generation who learned about the blues from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I’m just at the age range to have been ideally overwhelmed by this music - a music that was so novel, alien, and exotic at the time. We think of these things now as very commonplace. Just take a simple tune like the Allman Brothers’ “Statesboro Blues”. If you hear it on the radio now, or hear someone playing it, it sounds very familiar. The impact of the Butterfield Blues Band on American music is hard to grasp now. It’s so underestimated, and I would say it’s impossible to overestimate it. It was important, in a way, like, say, Bob Dylan is important to popular music. And there is a connection there actually. The Butterfield Band made their first real outing at that famous Newport Folk Festival when Dylan plugged in for the first time. The band that backed him up when he plugged in was the Butterfield band, minus Butterfield. I was already steeped in rock and roll, all of the classic artists from the mid fifties. I was born in 1941, so the arrival of these people, like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, was right in the middle of my adolescence and high school years. I was not a casual listener, and I had played in some rock and roll bands. But I had never heard the names B.B. King or Robert Johnson, or anything now recognized as being blues. The Butterfield Blues Band came along and not only introduced the recordings and received a lot of airplay, but toured the country as well.

I was driving one night during the spring vacation. They said on the radio that the Butterfield Band would be playing at the Unicorn Coffee House on Boylston Street in Boston. That was about fifty miles away. I turned the car around, and an hour later I was sitting in the club. You could get the impact of this music live, in small clubs. I tell you, it knocked us over like bowling pins. And there were a lot of us. I find there is kind of a subculture of people who have had this experience. I find this again and again when in simple places, maybe when in a bar having a beer and talking music.

This actually happened one time: I was in a bar talking on this subject. A guy was reaching over to get his beer, and as I spoke, he said that he saw Butterfield a month before he died. He went on to say that Butterfield had changed his life and that there was no one like him. That guy was gone in a moment. [Laughing]. The beer went bye, and he was gone.

There’s a book about Mike Bloomfield. The forward was written by Carlos Santana. He said in it that he had seen the Butterfield Band with Mike Bloomfield at Fillmore West when he was a high school kid. I think he said that he had to crawl in through a window because he was underage, something like that. He saw Mike Bloomfield and he knew in an instant what he wanted to do with his whole life. I came across a recording in a compilation of stuff. If you didn’t know who it was, and if you knew Bloomfield’s playing, you’d have been certain it was Bloomfield. Not only him, but him putting on display his entire toolkit. Every gesture, every mannerism, they seemed to all be there. You look at the CD case and see that it says it’s the Carlos Santana Blues Band in 1965.

Bloomfield is almost forgotten now, except for people like you and I, and if you’re interested in the blues. If you find serious blues guitarists these days, surely they’ll know who he was, but even among some people who like the blues but don’t really study it, his name is fading. The importance of these few people is just extraordinary. We have B. B. King because of Paul Butterfield, in my opinion. Butterfield and Bloomfield told everyone that if you want to hear the real deal just go find B. B. King’s records. We all did. So, that’s how I got interested in the blues. I was swept away. I was playing with some people, and we were playing Rolling Stones kind of rock and roll. We all had the same experience. We just chucked our repertoire and worked like maniacs to learn this stuff, and then we were a blues band.

BBS: Talk about Slim Gaillard.

CS: That’s from my childhood. My father had an album called Opera en Vout. It was Slim and Slam, with Slam Stewart, the great jazz bassist. They played as a duo, believe it or not. This particular recording, it was an album but it was only two 78rpm records, which meant four sides. It was in front of a live audience in 1946, which was very unusual. It’s full of R&B, and it’s very lighthearted. Long after my father had died I went through his records and found this. The hole in the middle was no longer round; it was a big oval from being played so much. He was one of my favorites. He was so versatile, and he was a very funny man. He did songs named “Serenade To A Poodle” and things like that. You know, there’s an Internet radio station that’s Slim Gaillard twenty-four/ seven. He did a lot of recordings so there’s a lot of material. It’s lighthearted and really great stuff.

BBS: I know you had already mentioned the accordion. Do you play any other instruments besides that and the blues harp?

CS: I play keyboards. We use an electric piano and the accordion in part of our repertoire. For any ordinary gig I bring along an electric piano. If it’s a short gig or a very small venue I don’t always bring it, but I usually do. I play it in certain tunes where it’s more useful than the harp. I sing, too. I don’t think you’ll hear it on our Web site. There’s one cut where we do duets, but we do several other duets when playing live, and we do some things that are purely duets and other things like “Mystery Train,” where we harmonize on the theme. We have a lot of multi-voice things, and we do Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” with three-part harmony. I think harmony is so effective in entertainment that if we played without the duets we’d lose about a third of our punch. It goes over so well; people love the sound of harmonizing voices. And it shows the personality of the band as a whole, and that it’s not just one or two of us standing around a bunch of sidemen.

BBS: Will there be a CD release from the band?

CS: We have a demo that we do sell. There are seven tunes on it. There’s also mp3s of those tunes on our Web site. We have aspirations because we have enough material. We may just have to rehearse them. But we all have day jobs, and some of us have families. Then you try to get studio time. We’ve had a few recording sessions, but it has been about a year since we’ve been back. So, we do have aspirations but no time booked.

BBS: I noticed that you use different bass players.

CS: We’re pretty much set on a bass player now. He’s Allyn Dorr, also known as “Aldo.”  He has played with us for most of our gigs since the beginning of the year. We have a pretty consistent lineup now.

BBS: What about upcoming gigs? Will there be any Massachusetts shows besides the New Hampshire ones listed?

CS: I believe we’ll be back at Jake’s in Waltham (Jake’s Dixie Roadhouse) in the fall. We played there about every four to six weeks earlier in the spring, but they’re not booking bands for the summer months. We hope to be back there in September or October. From time to time we get something opening up. 

BBS: What inspires you as a harmonica player? Is it the energy generated by the band as a whole?

CS: Well, there is the thrill of the sound of the instrument. The instrument’s voice is so distinctive. Whether me or someone else is making the sound, it’s kind of a siren sound, and it just captures my heart. To make that sound is always a thrill. The first time I saw Butterfield, during the break I walked up to see what extraordinary, exotic thing he was playing through. I was shocked to see that it was a Marine Band like the one I had at home. I said to myself, I don’t know what it’s going to take, but I’m going to learn to make that sound. It did take a long time, too, and I was in bands in which I was playing keyboards with a harmonica player already present. So there was no call for me to play. But eventually, I fell in with some folks who didn’t have a harp player. I started at it again after about a fifteen-year absence from playing the harp.

I got some instruction along the way by some great players, most notably Mike Turk, a Boston jazz harmonica player. He plays chromatic jazz. He hasn’t played out very much in the past few years but he’s legendary in harmonica circles. He’s originally from the Bronx. He got into it one hot summer night back when he was about seventeen. One night he was walking around the neighborhood when a dance in the high school gym was going on. He heard the band and went inside. The sound was just overwhelming. During the break he asked what it was he was playing. He told him it was the Butterfield repertoire, and then inquired, ‘Don’t you know about Butterfield?’ Mike then bought the first album and had the same experience. He was taken by storm, and became a fanatic at learning how to make that sound. He did very well and went on to jazz and chromatic stuff. I had lessons from him when I was getting back into it. I also had some impromptu lessons from Adam Gussow, who was half of an extraordinary duo called Satan and Adam. Satan was the guitar player, kind of a one-man band. Adam joined him on the streets of Harlem. They hit it off, became a traveling show, and recorded a couple of albums together. They were the most unlikely a combination as you could imagine. Here’s this grisly old black guy, a one-man band with hi-hat pedals and a guitar; and then comes along this young, white, redheaded, preppy looking kid, playing the harp. And he’s one of the most original and contemporary harp players I’ve heard. I took lessons from him and had a lot of discussions with him as well.

I also got a lesson from Mark Hummel. He’s a great blues harp player. I got that lesson in exchange for writing liner notes for a CD he did. Also from Kim Field, the great authority on the instrument. He wrote a book called “Harmonicas, Harps and Heavy Breathers.” He’s a great player as well as an author. I became friends with him when he lived in Massachusetts. I got a lot from him.

2120 South Michigan Avenue

But you asked what inspires me. Every time I play, there are times during the night when I sort of imagine myself being invisible. I look at the rest of the band and I listen to the way they’re playing, and I think to myself that I don’t know what I could’ve done to deserve to have this combination of musicians. The way in which this particular combinations fits together, the way in which they cooperate, is extraordinary. They’re all fantastic by themselves, but the combination is just extraordinary. It’s not just musical, and it’s not just musical taste or sensibility; it’s a matter of personalities, their age, temperament, and personality. We always have a ball, even on an off night, unless something dreadful goes wrong, you know, with the sound system going out or something. I also know that if everyone in this band shows up in a foul mood, not in any way ready to make music, we will give a good performance anyway. If we’re playing at our weakest we discharge the job very well. People are entertained and they like the music. When everyone’s in top form everything goes beautifully. It’s like what it must be like to really fly. I feel lighter than air, and I just float on the sound. I think, Oh, God, it can’t get any better than this. I’m very lucky.

I knew two of the people in the band, especially our drummer, John Hoik. I’ve known him for a very long time. We played in half a dozen bands together and kept in touch all those years. I knew Peter “Hifi” because he was the husband of Mae Cramer. I was a friend of Mae’s, so I also became friends with Peter, though I had never played with him. Peter did this extraordinary show for Mae in Arlington last spring, called “The Mae Cramer Memorial Blues Festival.” It was at the Regent Theater. 2120, our band, opened. Then it was Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, David Maxwell, Michelle Wilson, and Ronnie Earl. Weepin’ Willie sat in. It sold out a few days beforehand, and people paid full price to stand at the back. It was kind of a family affair. These people loved Mae. They were so emotionally affected by coming together to share an evening with others who loved her. There was a presentation at the beginning, photographs of her projected on a huge screen.

Charlie Sawyer teaches a course on the History of Blues at Harvard Extension School.

2120 South Michigan Avenue is:

Sunny Crownover: lead vocals

Charlie Sawyer: blues harp, keyboards

Peter “Hifi” Ward: guitar

John Hoik: drums

Allyn “Aldo” Dorr: bass

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