SOUTH LOOP — The former home of Chess Records is playing host to a photography exhibit on Chicago music of the past.
But it's not focused on the heyday of Chess Records in the '50s and '60s. No, fast forward a couple of decades, to the early '80s, when the small venue Tuts, at 959 W. Belmont Ave., was the Metro before the Metro was the Metro.
"Tuts Chicago Iconic Moments" is an exhibit of 22 works taken by Tuts house photographer Howard Greenblatt. It includes shots of classic Chicago blues artists like Buddy Guy and Otis Clay, as well as local acts like Heavy Manners, Missing Persons and Phil 'n' the Blanks and touring big names of the era like Sun Ra, Richie Havens, Loudon Wainwright III and the Romantics.
"For me, the coolest part of this show is that it's taking place here," Greenblatt said Friday at Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation, in the old Chess Studios building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave., an address made famous by the Rolling Stones, who recorded an instrumental of that title there in the mid-'60s at the home of the blues artists they worshiped.
Greenblatt got the Tuts job on the strength of a 1972 shot he'd taken of John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the recording console at the Record Plant, the renowned New York City studio. He turned that into a side job in which he shot dozens of bands over the handful of years Tuts was a going concern in an intimate performance space that had been the Quiet Knight in the '70s — welcoming Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley and, yes, the Stones, sitting in on a performance with Muddy Waters.
The spot later would be known as the Avalon, where the Smashing Pumpkins played a nascent gig, and host old-school hip-hop rappers like De La Soul, Arrested Development and A Tribe Called Quest, and solo acts like former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd.
"I was a fan of music, and that was really the place for up-and-coming bands, the hottest artists," Greenblatt said of Tuts.
The exhibit prompts memories for Greenblatt and the people who saw shows there. It includes a particularly sharp image of Richard and Linda Thompson, as the former Fairport Convention folk-rockers were in the midst of their "Shoot Out the Lights" tour, behind an album documenting the deterioration of their marriage.
"You could sense the tension between those two," Greenblatt recalled. "She was hoping there could be a reconciliation, and it just wasn't happening."
It was just one of many sidelines Greenblatt had as a photographer in Chicago in the '70s and '80s.
"I would do anything with a camera to make money," he said, including monitoring a police scanner to take pictures of crime scenes for the daily papers, as well as shooting weddings and yearbook photos.
Yet over the years, even as he never got around to selling prints of the rock shots, he kept the prints and negatives in good storage, so they were there and ready when he met Phillip Solomonson through a Tuts Facebook fan page. Solomonson's Philamonjaro Studio has booked the Dixon photo space, including a recent exhibit on The Who.
Solomonson said he was struck by the quality of Greenblatt's work, which hadn't been seen in years.
"It's shocking how many thousands of photos are locked away in shoeboxes," Solomonson said.
He'll actually bring The Who exhibit back next month, augmented with previously unseen photos, and then perhaps return to Greenblatt's Tuts pictures in November, again likely enhanced with new shots.
"That gives Howard some time to knuckle down and get more pictures," Solomonson said.
The Tuts exhibit runs through Sept. 19 and is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and noon-3 p.m. Saturdays, closed Sundays, with a suggested donation of $5, which of course goes to Willie Dixon's Blues Foundation.
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