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Chicago Music History and Playlist

Updated on June 2, 2013

"I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitterling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.” -- H.L. Mencken


Jazz, Big Band, Gospel, Country, Blues, Rock and Roll, House, and Hip-Hop: Chicago Invented or Perfected Much of Modern Popular Music


On August 9, 1922, 21-year old Louis Armstrong stepped off a train from New Orleans at Chicago’s Illinois Central Station to join his mentor King Oliver for an extended gig at a South Side Chicago Jazz club. Within a few years, the 1920s would be branded as “The Jazz Age,” as Armstrong and others brought what had been a local New Orleans style of music to a much wider audience. Young Chicagoans like Benny Goodman, Nat “King” Cole, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, and Anita O’Day became transfixed by the music and spread it in popular, integrated circles.

Later in the decade, Chicago radio station WLS would start a weekly Saturday night program called “The WLS Barn Dance,” which brought country music to a larger audience in the north central part of the US. The Barn Dance introduced performers like Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, and Pat Buttram to a national audience. A few years after the program was established, a WLS radio producer started a copycat show in Nashville that spawned The Grand Ole Opry.

In the 1930s Thomas A. Dorsey-- the musical director of Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd Street and Indiana Avenue-- wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord," “Peace in the Valley," "Today" and "Search Me, Lord," thus creating modern gospel music. The virtuosity of Chicago’s Mahalia Jackson singing these songs made gospel a cherished and enduring genre of American and International music that ultimately affected many other styles of popular music.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra -- Gustav Holst, The Planets -- Jupiter

Mahalia Jackson -- How I Got Over

Iconic Chicago Songs

"Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)" Frank Sinatra (1957)

Originally written in 1922 by Tin Pan Alley composer Fred Fisher, performed by numerous artists but probably most definitively by Frank Sinatra in the film The Joker is Wild.

"Going to Chicago Blues" Joe Williams (1961)

Written by Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing in 1939, and perhaps best performed by Joe Williams on the album Best of the Blues Singers, Vol. 1 CD.

"My Kind of Town" by Frank Sinatra (1964)

Composed by Jimmy Van Heusen and Chicago native Sammy Cahn for the 1964 Rat Pack film, Robin and the 7 Hoods.

"Sweet Home Chicago" by Magic Sam (1967)

Written by blues legend Robert Johnson in 1937 and performed to perfection on Magic Sam's 1967 electric blues album, West Side Soul.

"Lake Shore Drive" by Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah (1971)

The definitive tribute to Chicago's most famous road by a folk-rock trio from the early 1970s.

"Bad Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce (1973)

Number one song from July 1973 by the late Jim Croce, nominated for Record of the Year Grammy.

"Jesus Just Left Chicago" by ZZ Top (1973)

Texas Rock and Roll trio lays out the Chicago electric blues ethos from their 1973 album, Tres Hombres.

Jazz Band plays at Savoy Ballroom on the South Side of Chicago, April 1941.
Jazz Band plays at Savoy Ballroom on the South Side of Chicago, April 1941. | Source

"Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch [Chicago], you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." -- Nelson Algren

Electric Blues and Chess Records

When the amplified electric guitar was invented in the 1940s, Southern émigrés to Chicago began playing amplified Southern blues music on the streets of Chicago. The crowds at the Maxwell Street Market served as a ready-made audience for this raw, evocative style that caught on nationally—thanks to the savvy marketing instincts of Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess, who ran a South Side club and small record label. By the middle of the 1950s, Chess Records was recording many of the artists that birthed Rock and Roll—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

“Chicago is a quintessentially American town, but it is also a hub of our transatlantic community. It has grown into one of the great cities of the world in no small measure because of the hard work and sacrifices of generations of immigrants, including many from NATO countries. Even now, roughly one in three Chicagoans trace their roots to NATO countries in Europe.” -- President Barack Obama, May 16, 2012


The 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s, Chicago was home to The Beatles’ first American record label—VeeJay—an African-American owned and operated label that also produced product by The Four Seasons, several gospel groups, and many soul and R&B artists. The Rolling Stones made a pilgrimage to Chicago to Chess Records studios at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue to record some of their first American hits—“It’s All Over Now,” “Time Is On My Side,” and the original version of “Satisfaction.” Many Chicago and international artists not on the Chess label also used Chess Records studios in the 1960s because of their legendary status and sound refined by loyal professionals, including The Buckinghams, Barbara Lewis, and Fleetwood Mac.

As music recording became concentrated in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and 1970s, many Chicago groups moved to the West Coast or recorded there. The influential TV show “Soul Train,” started in Chicago by a former Chicago cop turned DJ Don Cornelius, moved to Los Angeles when it was picked up as a nationally-syndicated show. Nevertheless, Chicago has maintained a significant role in American music as the industry centralized in Los Angeles.

The 1980s and Beyond

In the 1980s, the phenomenon of House music began in Chicago and thrived internationally. Chicago-based Wax Trax records was responsible for much of the industrial dance music craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s, while Chicago-based Alligator Records promoted blues and roots music. And Chicago-based Delmark records produced ground-breaking jazz-- much of it by Chicago-based artists.

Since 2000, Chicago has become known for a number of newer artists in diverse genres—Kanye West and Common in Rap and Hip Hop; R Kelley in R&B; Wilco and Smashing Pumpkins in Rock; Sufjan Stevens and Neko Case in Folk-Rock; and many more.

If you’re a Chicagoan-- or if you’re planning a visit to Chicago-- here is a playlist of some of the greatest and most evocative local music to enrich and inform your experience:

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