When the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters jammed at Checkerboard
By DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporteremail@example.com November 26, 2012 7:35PM
Mick Jagger, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Keith Richards and Ron Wood play at Chicago's Checkerboard Lounge in 1981. | MICHAEL HALSBAND/LANDOV
Updated: December 28, 2012 6:09AM
The Checkerboard Lounge was never for squares.
During the 1970s and ’80s, the 125-seat juke joint at 423 E. 43rd St. was a major attraction for blues artists and fans. There was an organic vibe with regulars like the Black Lone Ranger and DJ King Tut with his companion Queen Tut.
Legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy and L.C. Thurman opened the Checkerboard in 1972, and Guy remained a partner until 1986. The blues legacy of 43rd Street is what drew rock stars like Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and Robert Plant to sit in at the Checkerboard over the years.
But one visit trumped them all: On Nov. 22, 1981, the Rolling Stones dropped in at the Checkerboard to jam with Muddy Waters and his band. Guy sat in along with his partner Junior Wells.
The Stones-Muddy gig was caught on film, and “Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones Live” will be shown at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday (with a repeat at 10) on WTTW-Channel 11. It is also available as a DVD-CD set (Eagle Rock Entertainment). The original footage has been restored and polished, and the acclaimed Bob Clearmountain remixed and mastered the sound.
Thurman, 75, still drives by the Checkerboard site on East 43rd (Muddy Waters Drive) twice a week. The city closed the Checkerboard in 2003 due to building code violations. In November 2005, the University of Chicago helped Thurman relocate into the New Checkerboard Lounge, 5201 S. Harper Ct.
He is struggling to keep the 200-seat club open, in part because of renovations to Harper Court. Parking is hard to find in Hyde Park. So is the club. Thurman is pushing forward with the Checkerboard Lounge’s 40th anniversary party at 8 p.m. Dec. 8. Vance “Guitar” Kelly is headliner.
If you go, be sure to sit in the beige leather booth along the east wall of the club. The Stones sat in that booth after their session with Muddy. It is the only original artifact Thurman was able to salvage from the club.
Although the documentary looks like the Stones just dropped in, Thurman said that was not the case.
“I had a birthday party planned for my barmaid Aretta that Sunday night,” Thurman said last week while sipping a soft drink at the bar of the New Checkerboard. “On Saturday the Stones sent somebody to check out the place. I said, ‘I got a big party, I can’t treat my barmaid like that.’ He offered me $500. At that time it was good money. They didn’t charge anyone to get in.”
The Stones, who were playing the Rosemont Horizon as part of their “Tattoo You” tour, announced Muddy Waters as the night’s headliner. He was not scheduled to play the club.
“The word got out,” Thurman said. “I had to take the phone off the hook. Buddy had been out of town, but he came back that Sunday. He got them all on stage together: Junior, Lefty [Dizz, a Checkerboard regular]. They had to block the streets off. The police told me not to let it get overcrowded.”
Thurman worked the door with the Stones security team. “To be honest, the Stones people told me to let black people in,” Thurman said. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll get as many as I can.’ I got about 10 black people.”
The Stones rushed into the small club unannounced. There was no VIP area, so they sat in front of the stage as Muddy kept playing. Drummer Charlie Watts sat out the Checkerboard trip, but Jagger, Richards, Ronnie Wood and keyboardist Ian Stewart were all willing participants. One of the highlights is “Mannish Boy,” with Waters standing up from his stool for the first time to jump up and down with Jagger as they wail “I’m a rolling stone.”
Richards swigged Jack Daniel’s straight out the bottle. Mick Jagger chewed lots of gum. “The Stones drank about five bottles of Jack in two hours,” said Thurman, who has not seen the documentary.
“ I called the police for help. I said, ‘The Rolling Stones are here.’ They said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ They did send a lieutenant, but he stayed outside.”
Before he opened the Checkerboard, Thurman — his given name is Lewis Clark Thurman — worked in South Side clubs during the night, and during the day he was a veterinary technician at Northwestern University. The vet gig helped him finance the club.
“I met Buddy Guy playing [the card game] big whist at lounges around 43rd and Vincennes,” he said. “He said we should get our own place.” Guy and Thurman remained partners until 1986, when they had falling out. Guy opened his first Legends club in 1989 at 754 S. Wabash. Guy did not respond to requests for comment.
Thurman remains set in his ways.
He still hosts whist games every Thursday night at the New Checkerboard.
“I feel sorry for myself,” he said. “I’m stuck. I signed a contract [to rent from the university]. President Obama was supposed to come by here election night. The place was packed. His mother-in-law has been here a few times. I made money on 43rd Street. All my credit cards are full. People tell me to hold on. It’s another six months when all the rebuilding is done. But its really rough on me right now. Really rough.”
Wild horses cannot drive him away.