|CHICAGO, July 14 - The Lonely
Traveller came to the end of he road on a blue Saturday, a derringer at his side and
abullet wound in his head.
He was Jimmie Lee Robinson, a Chicago-born-and-bred
bluesman. His signature was his turquoise lizard-skin
cowboy boots, with silver spurs that chimed like castanets
as he sang and twanged on his acoustic guitar, especially
out on gritty Maxwell Street, with his down-home blues
blowing in the breeze.
They found him a week ago, a day after a daughter reported him missing, slumped in the front passenger side of his red1990 Jeep in a parking lot of the Dan Ryan Woods at the
edge of the city. Mr. Robinson, also known as J. L. Latif Aliomar, his Muslim name, was 71.
It was the bullet that killed him, the coroner said, but he
had bone cancer and was dying anyway.
Some here say the same about Maxwell Street, the historic
and once-colorful strip of merchants and musicians on the
city's Near West Side, where Mr. Robinson spent his whole
life, playing the blues and, in the end, fighting to stop
urban redevelopment and its wrecking crews. In the end, his
efforts were futile.
People here call it death by gentrification.
In a song herecorded in 1998, Mr. Robinson called it the "Maxwell
Street Teardown Blues":
"I'm talking about Maxwell Street
A place of many lives and many dreams
Since you started with that wrecking ball
Our lives, our dreams
Have all begun to fall
You took our houses and our homes
And now there's nothing left for us to do but roam"
Mr. Robinson was not a household name. He was a fixture in
blues, however, a sideman who played bass or rhythm guitar
for many legendary artists, including Howlin' Wolf, Little
Walter and Elmore James. Though he recorded six albums in
the last eight years, his most recent still to be released
on APO Records, he was content to perform in relative
obscurity, dreaming of a big payday but holding down day
jobs while making the melodies of life and love.
Mr. Robinson grew up on Maxwell Street in the 1940's. A
throaty tenor with a Pentecostal preacher's cadence, he
played the blues club circuit at small neighborhood joints
where a guy played all night long for a few bucks and free
Blues was a common man's music back then, transplanted from
the Mississippi Delta. Today, many old-time blues artists
and aficionados contend that the blues are more commercial,
more yuppie, less folksy than back in the day.
A Chicago harmonica player, Little Arthur Duncan, 68, said
a lot of the new blues are without the "lump." It used to
be that you acquired the lumps with a hardscrabble life,
that you perfected the craft at the feet of your elders,
tapped into their vibe while searching deep inside your
soul. That is being lost now, said Scott Barretta, editor
of Living Blues magazine.
"It's just a product of the decade and time passing that
the people that remember the genesis of the electric
Chicago blues or that participated in the late 40's or
early 50's are dying every year," Mr. Barretta said. "It's
very sad for a lot of people that blues has become
increasingly more commodified and gone away from the roots.
At least when there were Jimmie Lee Robinsons around, they
can remind people of where it all came from."
Scott Dirks, a friend and fellow musician, said: "Jimmie
was one of the last guys whose music is still rooted in a
time when this music was still a vital creative thing and
not just people who were trying to recreate that music.
"He was playing music in Chicago before Muddy Waters got
here. Jimmie's one of the last of the breed."
Mr. Robinson's violent end would not have been a shock in
the heyday of the blues. It might almost have been
expected. "The way blues guys died in the old days, you got
shot in the back," said Bob Koester, the founder and owner
of Chicago-based Delmark Records, which produced one of Mr.
Robinson's albums. "Guys can live longer now because the
employment can take place in places where guys are not
likely to get stabbed or a broken bottle in the neck."
As a younger man, Mr. Robinson played some of those
dangerous places. In the 70's he took a hiatus, as did many
bluesmen forced to work for a living. Among other things,
he drove a jitney cab, and for a while even ran a candy
store, his friends said. Gradually, he returned to playing
in the late 1980's. In 1994, he cut his first solo album,
"Lonely Traveller," and his blues career revived.
Two years ago, when gentrification, as part of the
expansion and redevelopment of the University of Illinois,
threatened to bring an end to an era on Maxwell Street, Mr.
Robinson fasted for 81 days. He also played his guitar and
sang on Maxwell, working with the Maxwell Street Historic
Preservation Coalition in hopes that city officials would
change their minds. His blues fell on deaf ears.
With many buildings in disrepair and this part of town
laced with pickpockets, potholes, muggers and thieves, the
area was a prime candidate for a makeover. Buildings were
bulldozed. Eventually, so was the makeshift blues stage at
Maxwell and Halsted Streets. The bluesmen moved on.
The thrill was gone.
Last week, near Maxwell Street,
there was the beep-beep-beep of a backing bulldozer,
leveling a lot, even as construction workers milled about
atop a building of picturesque, pricey condominiums under
construction, a sunny slowly gentrifying landscape of
steel, fresh brick and dust.
A block away, business boomed outside Jim's Original Polish
Sausage, a stand that since 1939 had anchored Maxwell
Street, where its fried Polish sausages smothered with
grilled onions were legendary. The stand has been
temporarily relocated to O'Brien and Union Streets, about
two blocks northeast of its old spot, until construction is
completed. When the stand moves into its posh new digs, it
probably will no longer be open 24 hours, and many around
here suspect that something about it will be lost. Joe
Ligon, 46, a street vendor, says it already has been.
"Since they done closed down, there is nobody down here,"
Mr. Ligon said of the businesses that used to operate on
As patrons, some wearing crisp white shirts and ties,
devoured sausages and pork chop sandwiches inside their
cars or standing at the curb, Mr. Ligon looked on this
week. "If they don't sit in their cars and just reminisce
how it used to be," he said, "they just grab a sandwich and
"Those good days are gone," said Mr. Ligon, who has been
hawking his white tube socks, washcloths and other wares
for 20 years. "With all these schools and dorms and
condominiums coming up, it's a whole new life coming up in
A tattered old sign on a wooden post that has outlived its
purpose reads, "Save Maxwell Street and help keep the blues
"They want to sanctify the neighborhood according to their
standards," said Dahlia van Gelder, who described herself a
resident of the neighborhood. "A lot of people say it's
It is perhaps difficult to argue against her, given the
still-transforming but already luxurious feel of the
Maxwell Street corridor and a nearby sign that promises in
big bold letters, "Chicago's Next Great Neighborhood."
Twice married and twice divorced, and the father of six
children, Mr. Robinson made his home on the city's South
Side, where neighbors this week expressed shock over the
death of the man they called "the bluesman."
In recent months, they had seen an ambulance outside his
blue frame house. Many around here, like Veronica Ballard,
32, knew of Mr. Robinson's bone cancer diagnosis earlier
this year. Ms. Ballard said she last saw him on July 5,
climbing into his red truck. He looked better than he had
looked in months.
After an autopsy, the Cook County medical examiner's office
ruled Mr. Robinson's death a suicide.
Family and close friends say Mr. Robinson had surgery in
recent months and learned that the cancer had spread. They
say he had grown more despondent about his medical
condition, but was unwilling to undergo chemotherapy.
"I felt he couldn't cope," said longtime friend and bass
player, Robert Stroger, echoing the sentiments of friends
and family. "But I never dreamed he would do this."
Already in the neighborhood, conspiracy theorists are
"I wonder, did he kill his self?" one of Mr. Robinson's
neighbors mused with Ms. Ballard, who stood on her porch
"I don't know," Ms. Ballard answered.
"It's a mystery, ain't it?" the other woman asked.
"Uh-huh," Ms. Ballard answered.
No mystery, the police say. For all intents and purposes,
the case is closed.
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