CHICAGO: Blues Here Today and Gone Tomorrow

Posted on 7/01/2009 by Monica Yasher

Recently I received an email from a photographer that I have not seen in years. His name is Jim Quattrocki. He sent me a couple of photos of Smiling Bobby holding different style guitars. One was a Gibson ES335 pale blue Guitar. He said he only had that in black and white. The other is a picture of Bob holding a yellow Ibanez.
I know the Es335 guitar is blue, because I sold it to Bob about 25years ago. Here is how the story goes.

Bob picked up Ladybird, his main girlfriend, and drove out to my house. It was winter, late November or early December. Chicago's weather is very unpredictable. We have a saying here “If you don’t like the weather stick around it will change.” How true that is. Yesterday June 28th the temperature was hovering around 90. Right now (5:00Pm) it is in the low 70’s and tonight it will be about 58.

Bobby came to Chicago from Helena Arkansans in 1950. He was 11. His mother and father, like so many other poor Americans, came to Chicago seeking a better life for themselves and their family. Bob’s dad found a decent paying job in a packing house. Chicago had one of the largest meat packing industries in the nation that employed 25,000. They worked in the Stock yards and lived in an area they called “Back of the yards.” Chicago is situated just about halfway from the east and half way from the west coasts. This made it an ideal place to ship livestock, process them and reship them to each coast. This industry was a main economic engine in Chicago. Wilson and Company, a major meatpacking organization, stopped operations in the summer of 1955. Twenty years later the Chicago's Union Stock Yards were no more.

1955 was also the year that Bob picked up a guitar. He was greatly influenced by his uncle who was a blues harmonica player. The first time Bob heard him play, he knew had to play “The Blues”. His first guitar was purchased at a pawn shop right out of the back property room for $8.00. All blues artists got their first guitar at the same pawn shop and it is the one at the crossroads of 54th and Vine.

According to Bob, his uncle could wail on harp. That uncle helped Bob get his first professional gig at “When’s Lounge”. Bob was 19 and he earned a whopping $12.00. Back then that was big money. A 1960 census shows the average annual salary $5,600. That breaks down to$2.74 an hour. He made $4.00 an hour. Not bad for a kid right out of the backwoods of Helena Arkansas.

Over the past 50 some odd years Bob has played with some of the greats including; Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor, Tail Dragger, Bobby Rush, Carey Bell, Steve Bell, Buddy Guy, Jr. Wells, Magic Sam, Magic Slim, Little Walter and it goes on and on. He has played just about every club in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. Bob has gone overseas half a dozen times to Paris, Stockholm, Venice, Madrid, Italy and Holland. He told me that Holland had the biggest blues fans and that the crowds were huge. The largest crowd he ever played for contained an estimated 20-30,000 screaming Dutch blues fans. He said it was crazy, but he loved it.

Bob told me that there is no other high like the high you get on stage. He loves the fact that people love his guitar playing. What he can't understand is the adoration that fans have for him. "I'm just a regular guy that loves what I does." said Bob.

Bob’s favorite kind of blues is Chicago Blues, particularly Chicago West Side Blues. Chicago’s west side pickers have a tendency to play very little notes. They do not “shred” as a lot of the young guys do today, but rather utilize a bending technique that makes the guitar talk. These west side men manipulate six steel strings across pieces of wire hammered into a plank of wood. These manipulations create vibrations that are picked up by a couple of hunks of steel wound with a bunch of wires and they are then sent to an amplifier. It is Bob’s guitar manipulations and fluid artistry that has landed him a recording contract with Wolf Records. Watch for the release of “I’ve Gotta Leave That Woman” in late July or early August. Keep up with my posts. I will announce the exact date here first.

Bob was supposed to come about six that blustery, pitch dark, winter evening. I live out in the country and we do not have street lights. As a matter of fact we are lucky to have electricity. If it rains, snows, fogs, hails or a coyote howls, out go the lights. When it’s dark, it is dark as the Mississippi black backwaters at 2:00 AM in the middle of a hurricane dark. You cannot see your hand in front of your face kind of dark. You really have to know your way around in these parts. The roads are exactly one mile long and they intersect at, where else, but the crossroad.

When we give directions it’s something like this. Take the first right then the next left. At the second stop sign turn left than look for the first driveway facing the east, it’s in the southwest spot of the crossroad.

Bobby followed my directions to the letter and called me from some farm stand 5 miles away. That’s Anker’s farm and I knew it well. They have a ship’s anchor in the front yard. I hopped in my truck and floored it over. I thanked Mike Anker for Bob's use of his phone. His phone was in the kitchen and it was the, hanging on the wall, stands up while you are talking, type phone.

I escorted Bob and Mattie back to my house. We pulled in the driveway turned out the lights and bingo pitch black. I had to illuminate the driveway so Mattie could make her way to the front door. The first thing Mattie said to me was, “Terry I don’t like it out here. It’s too dark and quiet.”

Bobby liked the guitar and I sold it to him for $500. He had it for less than a year. He finished a gig in a dubious part of Chicago, packed up his gear and left. Someone tailed him after that gig. Bob had a green van that worked out perfectly for hauling gear and other undercover operations.

He stopped at a stoplight and before he knew what was happening, someone broke the glass on the rear van window. They reached in and snatched the guitar, gone in less than sixty seconds.

Bob now uses a yellow Ibanez guitar style strat.That van is long gone and he now puts his guitar in the trunk of his Black Cadillac.

Writers Note- I go on record here and state that if I had not met Bob when I did I would have put the guitar away a long time ago. Bob is my blues mentor and my blues brother. Thank you Bobby.

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