Rock Legend Bo Diddley Calls for 
Maxwell Street Preservation.

November 24, 1997

In Chicago to perform at a benefit concert for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, rock legend Bo Diddley spoke out on the need to preserve what remains of Chicago's historic Maxwell Street, where he and other major artists began their careers. "Cats like me, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter Jacobs, all of us came to Maxwell Street," said Bo. "This is the backbone and the roots of what everyone is listening to today. It started right here."

Bo Diddley was born Ellas McDaniels in Mississippi in 1928. He came to Chicago during the Great Migration and played on Maxwell Street as a teenager, in 1943-44, with legendary blues guitarist Earl Hooker, a school chum. "[We] went to school in that area: Foster Vocational School, 720 O'Brien Street," recalled Bo in an interview before his November 13 concert at the Park West. "I lived at 47th and Langley. We went down there [to Maxwell Street] on Sunday mornings and picked us a place and played."

Bo hopes that the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), which plans to expand into the area, and the city of Chicago will take steps to preserve the unique heritage of Maxwell Street. "I say to Mayor Daley, and whoever else is making decisions here, please look and think about what you are doing," said Bo. "It's ridiculous. They want to destroy one of Chicago's masterpieces." UIC has already converted much of the area into sports fields and plans a mixed-use development for what remains of the old Maxwell Street neighborhood, renamed as Campus Town.

Maxwell Street is credited as the birthplace of the urban blues sound that Bo Diddley and other artists transformed into rock and roll. "I don't know any city that has anything like Maxwell Street," said Bo. "People come from all over the world to see Maxwell Street. When I am overseas, people ask me about Maxwell Street. What do I tell them now?" The major retail street of Chicago's poor beginning in the mid-19th century, Maxwell Street is important to the history of Chicago's Jews, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and many other groups. In the middle of the 20th century, Maxwell Street became a giant, outdoor audition stage for blues musicians who were newly arrived from the South. Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter Jacobs, Robert Nighthawk, Arthur Crudup and many others played on street corners around Maxwell for nickels and dimes, as they had in Memphis and in the small Delta towns where they were raised.

A victim of both progress and neglect, part of Maxwell Street was razed in the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway in the 1960s. More of the area was destroyed with the expansion of UIC. In 1994, the Maxwell Street Outdoor Market was moved and everything west of Newberry Street was bulldozed into sports fields. Much has been destroyed but much remains: eight blocks and 50 old buildings (about half still doing business), including a block and half of Maxwell Street itself (from Union to Newberry).

In preliminary plans unveiled last month, developers hired by UIC announced that the area will remain commercial, but did not say how many existing buildings will be restored and rehabilitated, or if the neighborhood's historic character will be preserved. So far, UIC has refused to apply for historic district status, as urged by the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition, a group fighting to save the Maxwell Street area from final annihilation.

Bo Diddley, one of the breakthrough artists of the early rock and roll era, had major hits in the 1950s with "Bo Diddley," "I'm a Man," and "Who Do You Love," all released on Chicago's Chess Records. His unique sound, a blend of Chicago electric blues and other styles, was a major influence on early English bands like the Animals, Yardbirds, Beatles and Rolling Stones. Today he lives in Florida, but returns to Chicago every Fall to appear at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless benefit. He was interviewed on November 13, 1997 by Coalition member Geof Rogers of Blues Chat, an internet blues site, at the Hotel Intercontinental in Chicago.


Return to the Maxwell St. News Update page.

Return to Chuck Cowdery's Maxwell St. page.

Return to Chuck Cowdery's home page.

Go to the Maxwell Street Foundation home page.