RIP Dion Payton

Last Saturday, as we got ready to see Joanna Connor perform at Rosa’s on Chicago’s West Side, I couldn’t get an up-tempo version of Albert King’s song "Cadillac Assembly Line" out of my head.


But the voice wasn’t King’s.


Instead I heard Dion Payton, the cowboy-hat-clad leader of Chicago’s 43rd Street Blues Band. I could envision him way back in 1985 or 1986, standing relaxed and confident under the dangling light bulb at the Checkerboard Lounge. At that time, Joanna Connor played guitar in the band.

That recollection is especially poignant today, because I just saw the news that Dion Payton passed away earlier this month at the age of 70.


You had to see them perform live …

Good luck raiding the vinyl bins for an old Dion Payton album, with or without the 43rd Street Blues Band. Ditto for the streaming services. The only song you’ll find from Payton, a native of Mississippi, is “All Your Affection Is Gone” which appeared on the 1986 Alligator Records album The New Bluebloods. As Alligator Records founder and CEO Bruce Iglauer told me in an interview that appears in my book Blues Flashbacks:


“There are many many good blues artists out there. Robert Cray, whom I think the world of, is only one of a generation. I’ve released now something called The New Bluebloods. It’s a compilation album of 10 of the better, young Chicago blues artists. And any one of them, I could have done a whole album on.”


Iglauer mentioned Payton by name as one of the 10. But that full album never materialized, neither on the Alligator label nor anywhere else.


What did that mean? If you wanted to enjoy Payton and his band, your only option was to see them perform live. Back in the 1980’s that was easy to do. As I wrote in the introduction to Blues Flashbacks, “[m]y friends and I would also make a special effort to see Dion Payton and the 43rdStreet Blues Band.” As far as I can recall, he always began his sets at the Checkerboard Lounge with “Cadillac Assembly Line.”


Before he retired, Payton and his band became a staple act at Kingston Mines in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.


Except for that one song on Alligator, Dion Payton will only live on in memories. I’m happy that mine are good and vivid ones.


What’s so special about 43rdStreet?

43rdStreet in Chicago was one of the cradles of blues as we know it today. So it is no surprise that Payton named his band after the legendary street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.


Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin recently introduced a bill to have Bronzeville named a National Heritage Area, but that is only one of many efforts to revitalize the community, especially along the 43rdStreet corridor. Urban Juncture, founded by Bernard Loyd, is working hard to restore the Forum Theater on 43rdStreet, which was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. At the eastern end of 43rdStreet – also known as Muddy Waters Drive – stands Muddy Waters’ old house, itself the object of a new and exciting restoration effort.


What about Joanna Connor?

She was supposed to be the topic of today’s post, because her show at Rosa’s on Saturday was a pleasure in so many ways. She recently released the album 4801 South Indiana Avenue, which I highly recommend. That title is an homage to another famous Chicago blues address, the home of the club Theresa’s.


So I will recap that show shortly and also give kudos to the team at Rosa’s for a superb job of re-introducing live music to our lives.


Frank Luby worked for many years as a music reviewer in Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston. His most recent story on Chicago blues appeared in the 35th anniversary issue of NewCity in February.

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