“There is something extremely poignant about these pictures: there comes a point where the transience of the laughter and the music, the booze and the cigarettes and the drugs, pushes us into a contemplation of the mortality of the participants, and then on to our own. And life has always been shorter for the inhabitants of the South Side, too—at the time these pictures were taken, the average black male would just about see his sixtieth birthday, but not much beyond that. Carpe diem means that little bit more when the dies are in shorter supply. This is a special book, about one tiny corner of the world over a handful of evenings a long time ago; but that tiny corner of the world has, for decades now, meant a great deal to an awful lot of people scattered all over the world.”
-- Nick Hornby
Between 1975 and '77, Chicago’s southside nightclubs were experiencing dark times. The after-hours routine may have been on the up, but the sound of urban blues was on its way down, getting funkier, heavier, picking up a Zeppelin echo from the British rock scene that had raided its larder. Thankfully, lightening came by way of a lanky white guy skulking from club to club with a camera and strobe light. Chicago photographer Michael Abramson hit Perv’s House, Pepper’s Hideout, The High Chaparral, The Patio Lounge, and The Showcase Lounge nightly, not to capture the artists on stage but instead popping off a half-dozen rolls every night exclusively on the seldom photographed crowd.
This Grammy nominated box set, Light: On The South Side gathers more than 100 beautiful black and white Abramson images, as Numero shines its own light on yet another dark corner of the musical past. The 132-page hardback book features not just these photos, but an extended and wildly colorful ephemera section, plus an essay by British novelist and Numero fan Nick Hornby. Housed in a gorgeous slipcase with the 12X12 monograph is the 2LP set Pepper’s Jukebox, a 17-track compilation of Chicago blues in transition, as heard from both the stage and the Wurlitzer. The deluxe 2LP set, featuring tracks by Little Mac Simmons, Arlean Brown, Bobby Rush, Lady Margo, Little Ed, and a dozen other soulful blues artists, is packaged in a sharp gatefold jacket with two inner sleeves crammed with label scans and stories.
“It was a living self-contained theater.” That’s how Michael Abramson described his years photographing Peppers Hideout, Perv’s House, the High Chaparral, the Patio Lounge, and the Showcase Lounge on Chicago’s South Side in the 1970s.
Bump contests and blues. Love goddesses and shake dancers. The Sexy Mamas and Their Mack. Funky. Sexy. Music and voodoo. Every night like New Year’s Eve.
This was the scene that Abramson recorded. Wrote British novelist Nick Hornby, an admirer of Abramson’s work: “One tiny corner of the world over a handful of evenings a long time ago; but that tiny corner of the world has, for decades now, meant a great deal to an awful lot of people scattered all over the world.”
Enter Patricia Smith, a poet who grew up not far from these South Side clubs. She took a look at Abramson’s photos nearly four decades later and brought his night world back to life. “These fiercely breathing visuals are a last link,” she says, “to the unpredictable, blade-edged and relentlessly funky city I once knew.” Her words and his pictures open the doors and give us a front-row (or a back-row . . . even better) seat to a time and place long gone.
So: Watch. Listen.