I heard the voice of a pork chop sing…Blues Musician Jim Jackson ( 1884-1937)
Maxwell Street Chicago, 1948
Fried onions. Great mountainous heaps of fried onions. The smell, pungent and sweet, was borne on every breeze and functioned like olfactory white noise to mask not only the competing aromas of hamburgers, boiling hot dogs, Polish sausage and grilled pork chops, but the fetid stench of garbage rotting in the alleys, burning trash, spilled beer and dried urine. The streets were clogged with people: Jews, Blacks, Mexicans, Italians, Indians, Irish, Germans, Gypsies, Greeks, Russians and Poles. Men in caps, fedoras, turbans, sombreros, yarmulkes and even war bonnets jabbered at one another in every language under the sun. The Maxwell Street Market, on Chicago’s near west side, was unlike any place in the country.
The area had long been home to recent immigrants – first the Irish, in the wake of the great potato famine and then the Germans who, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, were subsequently displaced by a huge wave of eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms of the Czar. Bordered on the north by Roosevelt Road and bisected by Halsted Street, Maxwell Street Market occupied nearly a full square mile and was an open-air old world bazaar where anything and everything was for sale. Maxwell Street itself lay two blocks south of Roosevelt, and the corner of Maxwell and Halsted was the center of the galaxy.
Sunday was the big day. Besides the Chicago residents, people from all over the mid-west would stream into town looking for bargains. Practically anything imaginable – new, used or broken – could be found and haggled for: clothing, auto parts, musical instruments, tools, rugs, toys, dishes, cosmetics, furniture, plants, records, jewelry, tires, shoes, cooking utensils, love potions – you name it. The merchants who owned standing businesses would put their merchandise out on wooden stands or card tables in the street in front of their stores while other independent entrepreneurs would cart in their goods and grab any available spot to set up and hawk their wares.
The storefront operators often had “pullers” who stood outside. Their job was to cajole and, if that didn’t work, to literally pull, passing foot traffic into the store. There, despite a poor man’s protestations, a double-breasted chartreuse suit might be thrown over him anyway. If he complained or inquired as to why one pantsleg seemed to be shorter than the other, the salesman might respond, “Hey, that’s the new style - where’ve you been?” If that tack didn’t work, they’d haul something else out and keep up the pressure to buy something, anything. They hated to see anyone walk out with the same amount of money he came in with. The price would drop more and more the closer he got to the door, and if he was somehow able to successfully resist the full sales arsenal of flattery, solicitude, intimidation or scorn and make his escape, a stream of invective might accompany his exit.
There were also lone wolves prowling the streets who might whisper in your ear and flash a coat-full of watches or “diamonds.” Gypsy women sat on the stoops in their billowing satin skirts offering to tell your fortune or help you make one, improve your love life, bring down your enemies. There were hustlers sacred and profane: malefactors and do-gooders – most vying for attention, some trying to avoid it. Street preachers selling salvation, tap dancers, trained monkeys, performing chickens, cardsharps throwing three card monte, gospel singers, blues singers, tambourine shakers, guitar pickers, harmonica blowers, pickpockets and prostitutes. I was five years old and I loved it.
My father owned a rug and flooring store in the heart of it all, at 630 Maxwell Street. Later he moved a few doors down to 658. "Max Portnoy & Son, King of Carpets.” Max was his father’s name but he was an owner in name only. He had been a blacksmith in the old country and, even as an old man, he retained the brawn and build of his former profession. Short but solid as they come and strong as a bull, he came from a small shtetl near Kiev in the Ukraine where my father was born. To read about our family's road to America, please click here: The Road to America
Lyon's Deli and My Introduction to the Blues
By the time I was five I would look forward to Sunday when my father would take me with him to open his store on Maxwell Street. We would get up very early and take the el train to Roosevelt Road and walk down to Halsted and Maxwell where we’d stop in at Lyon’s Delicatessen for my father’s coffee before we headed for the store a block farther down Maxwell Street.
Around noontime my father would send me down to Lyon’s to pick up corned beef sandwiches for everyone. Lyon’s was at #807, on the south side of Maxwell just past the alley west of Halsted. It was almost opposite the famous Jimmy’s Hot Dog Stand, which stood on the northwest corner of Maxwell and Halsted, never closed, and was the source of the heady aroma of fried onions. Lyon’s was equally famous for being the best Jewish deli in town. It was slightly below street level. You took three steps down to find yourself in a tiny room with a tin roof, three small tables pressed against the wall, a counter with a slicing machine for the hot corned beef and pastrami, and a couple of display cases for tongue, brisket, cheese, coleslaw and other items. A barrel of sour pickles stood on the floor and the walls were adorned with hanging salamis. They made their own pickles, pickled herring, schmaltz herring and their meats were juicy and succulent. Kaiser rolls, rye and pumpernickel bread rested in a bin near the slicing machine to make the sandwiches. Almost all their business was take-out since there was hardly any room to eat inside.
Going in or coming out of Lyon’s, you couldn’t help but hear the blues. Directly opposite their front window, at the entrance to the alley on the other side of Maxwell, musicians would set up the new-fangled amplifiers which were just beginning to make their appearance after the war, and which allowed the music to be easily heard above the din of the market. It was a prime spot, barely half a block from the hub corner of Maxwell and Halsted, a few feet down from Jimmy’s and right across the street from Lyon’s. Paying a quarter or fifty cents for the privilege, they would run long extension cords from their amps into someone’s apartment in the building abutting the west side of the alley. With the boost in volume and the added novelty of the, then-new sounds of electric guitar and amplified harmonica, they could draw a big crowd and make a better payday from the contributions of the passersby than they could with most of the club gigs that were available. This is was my introduction to the blues.
Music abounded all around the market area, with gospel groups and singers and other bluesmen on other corners. But the spot opposite Lyon’s was where I spent the most time. It was also Little Walter’s preferred location. Walter was then an eighteen-year-old budding harmonica virtuoso, just a couple of years up from the south, who was still playing in the style of John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson, the popular Bluebird recording artist who had been slain the previous year - the victim of an ice pick-wielding mugger. In his time, Sonny Boy had revolutionized the approach to the harmonica and was emulated by almost everyone who came in his wake. Walter would soon do the same, trading in Sonny Boy’s chord-heavy, on-the-beat approach, for a more flexible horn-like style that mimicked the sax-led jump bands that dominated the airwaves and jukeboxes in the late forties.
Walter had cut his first recording, Just Keep Loving Her, the previous year for the tiny Ora-Nelle label which was operated out of Maxwell Radio and Records at 831 Maxwell, just a few doors down from Lyon’s. They only released one other record: Johnny Young’s Money Taking Woman. Today they are considered historic recordings, highly prized by collectors, with original copies fetching astronomical prices.
Both Little Walter and Johnny Young would play a significant role in my life. The blues were all around me. At the time, though, they seemed just part of the incidental soundtrack to my childhood. But they had taken hold. When I heard the blues again twenty years later, it was a siren song calling me home - and it was irresistible.
To read more about my family's life before coming to America, please click here: