A new exhibition at the Chicago History Museum looks at the history and legacy of the blues through the lens of a Chicago photographer.
Raeburn “Ray” Flerlage worked in the music industry as a record distributor, and he was a tireless fan of music, especially the blues. Although he had a relatively short career (roughly 1959-1970), his photographs captured a key moment in the emergence of the Chicago blues.
Flerlage ventured into clubs and studios, and he was welcomed into homes, where he documented the community of musicians who came to define the sound of amplified Chicago blues. His photos reveal a personal side of the working men and women whose electrified music inspired fans and influenced generations of musicians who arrived in their wake.
Most of these musicians were black Southerners who arrived during the Great Migration. “It’s the reason we have blues in Chicago,” Chicago History Museum curator Joy Bivins told Chicago Tonight. “Black southern people had been coming to Chicago since the 19-teens and really establishing these strong black community enclaves, and so there were people here who took musicians under their wing and there were places for them to play and see if they had the chops for making the music.”
And they transformed the music in Chicago by amplifying the rural blues.
“The city itself is kind of a character in the exhibition,” Bivins said. “Part of the story of electrifying and amplifying the music itself is really: how do you compete with all this noise and all this cacophony that’s happening in this place? Or how do you, in some way, mirror that sound?”
Flerlage (1915-2002) was born in Cincinnati and worked in publicity for radio stations. After World War II he was named the Midwest executive secretary for People’s Songs, the New York-based folk music company founded by Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax and others. That job didn’t last, and he left Chicago soon after, only to return in 1955 to work for Folkways Records.
Flerlage took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Institute of Design and studied with the esteemed Harry Callahan. His first professional photography job was photographing Memphis Slim for an album cover. This launched his career and he continued to photograph prominent blues and folk artists.
He shot memorable photos of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, and Mississippi John Hurt in their prime. He also photographed John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Coltrane and took youthful pictures of Buddy Guy, James Brown and Koko Taylor.
His photographs are known for both capturing the intimacy of performance and the social bond that existed among the musicians. He was a trusted chronicler of the musicians, the patrons of the clubs and the clubs themselves.
His photographic work is collected in the books “Blues Legends” (1995 – written Chuck Cowdery), “Chicago Blues: As Seen from the Inside” (2000) and “Chicago Folk: Images of the Sixties Music Scene” (2009).
“We acquired this collection only two years ago,” Bivins told Chicago Tonight, “and we wanted to share it with our visitors.”
The temporary exhibition “Amplified: Chicago Blues” open on Saturday at the Chicago History Museum. It is on display through Aug. 10.