Incredible Chicago was definitely my kind of town

Stephen Foster chicago

A 30 year old Foz in downtown Chicago - Credit: Gill Powell

In his latest On Air in Suffolk column, broadcaster Stephen Foster recalls a memorable trip to cover the Chicago Blues Festival.

1990 was a key year in my radio career. After eight very happy years at Radio Orwell and Saxon Radio I suddenly found myself at a crossroads and I’m not talking about the junction where Crown Street meets Museum Street and High Street.

The new owners of Suffolk’s two commercial stations were understandably keen to freshen up the output and I soon realised my face and voice didn’t really fit anymore. As far as I knew I wasn’t about to lose my job but I was told that if I was planning to hang around then I’d be moved down the schedule. 

One of my final tasks for Orwell and Saxon before my departure for the BBC was to cover the Chicago Blues Festival. I’ll be honest, I gave myself the assignment, enabling me to make my first trip to the United States.

My partner at the time, Gill Powell, joined me. She worked for the BBC in Birmingham so I was able to use her portable cassette recorder for the various interviews I’d lined up for my Sunday night blues show. That was certainly a blessing as it meant I hadn’t got to negotiate my way through customs with one of Orwell’s very heavy reel to reel machines and lots of tape to got with it.

America’s second city took my breath away. Its impressive architecture and stunning music have stayed with me ever since. As we got into a taxi at the airport and made our way to our motel on the outskirts of Windy City I could not believe what I was seeing.

With the Hancock building, Sears Tower and the rest of the Chicago skyline easily visible from afar it was like we’d entered another world. It was just like we’d seen on television!

We were based on the west side of The Big Onion where a whole host of famous blues clubs were and still are situated. On the first night we saw Magic Slim and The Teardrops at a bar called Blues Etcetera and for the next fortnight visited as many blues joints as we could, seeing dozens of U.S. blues stars up very close indeed.

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The main purpose of the trip was to cover the annual Chicago Blues Festival on Grant Park. It’s a free event running over the second weekend in June and my media pass allowed me full backstage access.

Stephen Foster Willie Dixon

Chicago music legend Willie Dixon deep in conversation with Foz - Credit: Gill Powell

I really thought I’d died and gone to heaven when on the first day I got to meet blues great Willie Dixon. On the plane over I’d been reading his autobiography and had it with me. Unfortunately he declined to sign it for me and refused a request for an interview but it was still a big thrill meeting an absolute legend, albeit a slightly grumpy one.

Aside from all the wonderful music, including a set by John Lee Hooker, Chicago had a whole lot more than world class blues music to offer. A visit to the Art Institute heightened my awareness of 20th century art, in particular the work of Edward Hopper and England’s very own Sir Stanley Spencer. Such is my love of Spencer’s work that I always make a point of visiting his birthplace, Cookham, whenever I’m anywhere near it.

The piece de resistance in the awesome Art Institute Of Chicago was Hopper’s masterpiece Nighthawks. I was so impressed with it, I bought a print and as soon as I returned home I got it framed by my good friend Tony Coe who for decades ran the excellent John Russell Gallery on the Ipswich waterfront. Seeing the original picture was a real life changer for me and I’ve since been able to admire much of Hopper’s work on display in New York and Boston.

I loved travelling on the overground rail system known as The Loop and rather bizarrely played a lot of the board game Scrabble. Every teatime without fail Gill and I wandered down to the Lake Michigan shoreline where we’d lock horns in the Scrabble sense. She won every single time but my latest defeat was soon forgotten as we made our way to the next club to experience the blues at its very best.

During my fortnight in Chicago I did so many interviews that I had far too much material for the special programme I had planned. My suitcase was full of books, CDs and T-shirts while my head was still spinning from spending two weeks in the city of my dreams. As the song says Chicago is my kind of town.

I’d have quite happily stayed there a lot longer but a new chapter in my radio career was about to start. It didn’t take me long to sort out another Stateside trip - this time to Memphis, Tennessee. More on that next week.

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