The University of Chicago and the Hyde Park neighborhood are the cornerstones at the north end of Stony Island Avenue to a bastion of intellectual wealth and ferment. Our modern world has been deeply affected by the work done and the discoveries made there. This is where Enrico Fermi split the atom and the atomic age was born. The Argonne National and Fermi Research Laboratories grew out of the University of Chicago. Here Milton Freidman and Leo Straus's work became the basis of the Neoconservative movement and modern free market ideology. Paul Wolfowitz and George Shultz all had been there, as had Carl Sagan and Saul Bello. There were Nobel Prize winning breakthroughs in science, literature and economics made here.
This is also where Sol Alinsky went to school to become the great community organizer, followed by President Barak Obama who later became a U of C law school professor. Obama met his wife in Chicago; Michelle Obama is from the South Shore neighborhood just east of Stony Island. The First Lady worked at the University of Chicago Hospitals. In fact, Michele's father worked in the cribs off 79th Street for the city water department that treated the Lake Michigan water that we drank.
The neighborhoods around Stony Island are unique. On one side is the University, then South is this tough Rhythm & Blues, working-class musical bastion. The intersection of 63rd and Stony Island was the place where Louis Armstrong got off the Illinois Central's City of New Orleans. There were great clubs, where all kinds of people coming up from the South, including the likes of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry established themselves. The Chess Brothers, immigrants from Poland, had one such club on the Southside that became the birthplace of Chess Records.
Gene Krupa, Steve Allen, Mel Torme, Nat King Cole, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Chaka Khan, Maurice White, Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Common, Kanye West: all these people are from or have a history developed near Stony Island.
In 1977, when we shot STONY ISLAND, the Vietnam War had ended and there was disturbing change occurring in America. In the 1960s there was hope. Head Start programs were in full swing, kids were in school, and more blacks students were in college than ever before. Then, in the 1970s, things started to come apart. Jobs got sent overseas, oil lines appeared and prices spiked. My mother was a teacher at the local grammar school and witnessed terrible fear being spread amongst blacks and whites. Our southeast Chicago neighborhood had experienced race riots, many years before when a black family moved into a public housing project called Trumbull Park. There was always tension in Chicago over racial issues, but the music helped keep these kids together.
There were always white kids like Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield who were into the blues; young musicians invested in that Maxwell Street sound that eventually became the Electric Blues that Muddy Waters was such a part of. Willie Dixon was one of the greatest songwriters of the period, penning some of the biggest hits of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. There was a collision of culture consisting of immigrants from the South, from Eastern Europe and from England that came together and helped propel the Blues-Rock scene, which was really cultivated in Chicago.
The time also represented working class people from the steel mills, a combination of Slavs, Mexicans and Blacks, banging and blending together with an intellectual university community nearby. That struggle of people coming to make a better life, scrambling to get in a union, and fighting to achieve equality was really reflected in the Stony Island neighborhood's music.
Gene Barge- 60 years at the forefront of R&B - tells it like it was in this 2011 interview.