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Legendary Chicago blues club ailing and wailing

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Checkerboard Lounge, the South Side of Chicago club that hosted the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters, is singing the business blues, hurt by its move to a swankier site and the decline of the influence of urban blues music.

In the city that calls itself the "Home of the Blues," the Checkerboard is among the most storied of the bars that have provided a place for young artists to shine in Chicago, which launched its 31st annual Blues Festival on Friday.

"If it wasn't for blues clubs, you wouldn't be talking to me now," said revered guitarist Buddy Guy, 77, who opened the Checkerboard in 1972 with current owner L.C. Thurman.

"I went in these blues clubs, somebody found out I could play a little bit, and they say, 'bring him back in here'...," Guy told Reuters. "I opened up the Checkerboard to help keep that alive."

Guy, who in 1981 jammed at the Checkerboard with the Rolling Stones along with Waters and Junior Wells, later parted ways with Thurman and in 1989 opened his own venue, where he still makes regular appearances.

In its heyday, the Checkerboard also saw the likes of Chuck Berry and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.

For most of its existence, the club sat on a tough stretch of 43rd Street. In 2005 it moved to the more upscale Hyde Park neighborhood, where President Barack Obama still has a home.

Some of the decor - including a beige leather couch where Mick Jagger reportedly sat - was moved to the new space, but attendance is down and traditional musicians are dying off, said Maloid Jones, Thurman's brother. Thurman was not available for interview.

"It could be a whole lot better," said Jones as he collected cover charges on a recent night when the club was about one-third full. "On 43rd Street, we stayed full every night."

The Checkerboard had six live acts on its May-June calendar, compared with daily live bands at other Chicago clubs like Buddy Guy's Legends, near downtown, and Kingston Mines, the city's oldest and largest venue.

Guy said blues music has taken a hit, in part because it is rarely played on the radio. No-smoking laws, drunk driving regulations and too many drugs on the street have all hurt small clubs that gave musicians a start, he added.

One problem for the Checkerboard is that some blues fans don't realize the club is still open and that it only changed locations, said spokeswoman Cyrius Estevez.

A big local construction project temporarily cut into parking at the club, but that project is now finished, Estevez said. The hard winter also had an impact on attendance.

Estevez said the blues are "never going away" and the Checkerboard isn't closing, but it needs to try new ideas, like offering Wi-Fi and making it a place to watch sports on TV.

But there won't be any room for hip-hop. Thurman wants a mature audience, she said.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Gunna Dickson)

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