CHICAGO — Once, this old house overflowed with children, home cooking and the music that helped make Chicago world-famous.
Blues legend Muddy Waters owned the home and lived there for two decades beginning in 1954, several musicians who knew him remembered.
“It was the rocking house,” said harmonica star James Cotton, who used to play music in the basement “for days” with Waters and other blues greats.
But now, the home in the North Kenwood historic district is quiet, dark and, according to Chicago building inspectors, unsafe. The city sent a warning letter late last month, and the owner, with advice from the landmarks commission, is trying to fix the doors, windows, stairway and porch that inspectors deemed “dangerous,” officials said. The letter is the first step in the process of obtaining a court order that would allow demolition, but gave the owner 15 days to remedy the problems.
Documents filed with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds indicate that a bank filed a foreclosure notice in August. Chandra Cooper, identified in public records as the owner, declined to comment.
But in the old days, the blues gave this house a rosy glow.
Waters, whose given name was McKinley Morganfield, shared the home with his wife, Geneva, and, for years at a time, with blues musicians new to the city, according to historical accounts and interviews.
Cotton came to Chicago in 1954 from West Memphis, Ark., and stayed in the house for six years. He said Waters’ bed was directly over the basement, so he could learn the music even when band members practiced without him.
“He laid in the bed listening to us down there,” Cotton said.
Harmonica player Paul Oscher and blues pianist Otis Spann also lived for years in the basement, which Waters had divided into several rooms.
“I would practice in my room and Spann would be in the back,” Oscher said. “The piano was in the middle, and me and him would play together.”
Louise Smith first noticed her future husband at the house. Drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was playing in the basement, she recalled, when she and her sister were visiting Geneva Waters.
After Muddy Waters moved out, she said, she and her family lived there for several years. Their son, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, also a renowned drummer, said he got his education by spending hours in the basement with his father and Waters.
“There was so much love there, and so many musicians was in and out of there,” Louise Smith said.
In summer, Oscher said, the celebration would expand into the neighborhood. Spann would set up his electric organ in an alley, and residents would gather to sing.
“That neighborhood,” Oscher said. “You can’t tell there was a whole lot of things happening there by looking at it now. But it was great.”
Tim Samuelson, cultural historian with Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said many people had recognized the historical significance of the site and proposed that it be turned into a museum.
“The city of Liverpool would recognize the historic, cultural and tourism value of John Lennon’s house and never allow it to be torn down,” said Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of Alligator Records, a major blues label. “Muddy Waters was every bit as important to the blues and to Chicago as the Beatles were to rock ‘n’ roll and Liverpool.”
Even if you don't think you know his music, you know his music. Here's a taste:
"Got My Mojo Working"
"Baby Please Don't Go"
"Catfish Blues/Rollin' Stone" (which inspired the name of The Rolling Stones)
"I Just Want to Make Love to You"
"Hoochie Coochie Man"