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Really The Blues

An American Original, This Music Born of Heartbreak But Full of Joy Is Ultimately Simple Yet Hard to Define
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 4)

A devotee of the late Chicago vocalist-guitarist Jimmy Rodgers, for whom he was a pall-bearer last fall, Wilson laments the changing of the guard. "All the 'A'-team guys, the guys that originated the Chicago style, are either gone or too old to play, except for a very few. "

Three men who have successfully walked the fine line on which love of the blues and business acumen coexist are Isaac Tigrett, Bruce Iglauer and Barry Dolins.

Isaac Tigrett, the 48-year-old founder of the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues, is a Southern Baptist turned Hindu, who was born in Chicago but raised in Jackson, Tennessee. "They're down there prayin' for me in Jackson right now," says Tigrett. "I come from a long line of Southern Baptist ministers, preachers and lawyers who think I'll burn in hell for the rest of eternity. I didn't live beneath the bible belt, I lived underneath the buckle. That's where I come from."

Suffocating at 16, he split. "Why do you think I got outta town? The place was driving me crazy," he says. Tigrett went to London to live with his father, where, he says, he "got plugged into the raging, wonderful London of the Sixties. All of a sudden there was a revolution going on and I became a Hendrix fanatic and followed him all over the place."

In 1971, Tigrett, 22 at the time, and partner Peter Morton opened the first of the now ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafes, in London's Hyde Park section. Named for the era's electronic music, it honors heroes of Tigrett, like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.

In 1992, Tigrett started the House of Blues in a small building in Cambridge's Harvard Square, just outside of Boston. With sister clubs in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Orlando, Florida, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and a new club set to open in March in Las Vegas, this highest of concept music venues has survived. Isaac says, "I knew I wanted to get into the live music business and I knew I wanted to elevate [public] consciousness of the great men and women of the blues who are not mainstream or known for their contributions. "

Located in Marina City, the Chicago House of Blues, with its 12 private boxes in a 2,000-seat concert hall, 300-seat restaurant, and hundreds of pieces of American folk art, has to be the grandest megastore-blues club. "That's my juke joint opera house for the blues," Tigrett says. "It was very exciting to build because blues is the original American opera. Chicago is probably the greatest living home of the blues."

More than 5,000 pieces of art are spread among all of the House of Blues venues. The collection, considered to be one of the largest of its kind, is described by Tigrett as "visual blues." "I primarily collect portraits of African-American artists from Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana. Most of these gentlemen are a dying breed; these people don't have galleries or agents," Tigrett notes. "They create because God put that gene in them that says, 'Express yourself.'"

Tigrett is not overly worried about the future of the art, however. "Every kid who is plays the guitar today anywhere in the world, or is learning the guitar, is playing 12-bar blues," Tigrett says. "That's how you learn to play the guitar. So the musicians pay great homage to the blues and its influence on [other] music."

Bruce Iglauer, the 51-year-old president and chief executive officer of Chicago's Alligator Records, has his own passionate perspective on the blues. Iglauer left his mailroom gig in 1971 to start Alligator, which has become the industry's largest independent blues label, with 10 to 12 albums released a year and a catalogue of more than 160 albums.

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