"Doc" Pellegrino has been promoting the blues since 1968, and his North Side blues bar, Kingston Mines, is easily one of the most recognizable in the country. With its orange facade, faux jump joint feel, soul food and "two stages of blues, seven days a week," "Doc" Pellegrino has been bringing Chicago the blues for almost half a century.
Though he's not a young as he used to be, and doesn't hear as well as he'd like, "Doc" Pellegrino still loves a good show. He loves what he sees as the two kinds of blues: urban and rural. For him, both brands feed into what is known as the Chicago blues. "With urban blues you'll hear performers sing about jobs in factories, jobs in mills, rental problems, unemployment and prejudice. It's a big city blues." The other side of this binary come from humbler settings: "With rural blues, things are more about farming, driving a mule, problems with the bossman, the small town existence." The intermingling of the two is what makes Chicago distinctive. "Rural blues with a large overlay of urban blues still hanging on. This is Chicago blues."
"Doc" Pellegrino loves the fact that Bo Diddley is named after the Diddley Bow, "which was a homemade fiddle, attached to the wall with one or two strings." He wants to be certain "people remember Lefty Dizz: the Clown Prince of The Blues. From the '60s to the 90s, 'Walter Williams was greatest showman in Chicago." And he's never liked the drinking that destroys so many performers: "If they were alkies, they would never get this far. They die of cirrhosis. It's why I make my performers pay for their drinks. Plus I can pay them more that way. Still, today most of them just stay sober."
"Doc" Pellegrino is proud of his efforts to further civil rights, mentioning how "he marched with Dr. King. And fought to get rid of the Jim Crow system in the South, "with its crooked sheriffs and "Separate But Equal" segregated society. He's proud of his wife and children who have all worked for him. But, most importantly, he loves his blues club.
Kingston Mines is open until 4 a.m., and is filled with rough-hewn wood tables and torn leather chairs. It's washed in orange, and both rooms have a stage. Bands swap sets, playing on the Main Stage and the North Stage, and "Doc" Pellegrino features a staple of performers from the Chicago area, rarely stepping beyond the area for his talent. He rewards loyalty, and has been working with many of the same performers for years.
On a given night you might see a five-foot tall Red Head with an acoustic, wailing about how they call her Red, or a 250-pound drummer who waxes poetic about how he fills the space behind his kit. You can hear "Sweet Home Chicago," but you'll also hear originals you've never heard before. But it should be known that "the blues is all about change. As Mark Twain said upon his return from Europe, 'Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.' Well, the same thing goes for the blues. We don't do rock and roll at Kingston Mines."
Pellegrino has an earring, and slicks his black hair back. He owns a hound dog named Sadie, and loves the Chicago Blues Festival, "because it's a great exercise. People get see lots of bands, become familiar with musicians, and a lot of the people who come would not have seen the blues if not for the festival." But of course, he'd prefer it if you learned a little bit at Kingston Mines first. "I've had so many great performers over the years. Magic Slim, Duke Tomato, Larry McCray, who will be playing at Kingston Mines during Blues Fest."
For the good Doctor, everything about the blues depends on embracing the changes. "We're going to get one of those large screens to wrap around the front of the bar, and it will run graphics, filmed performances, list dates and times. Things change, and if you don't embrace that, you kill the blues. Things only get better with age, and I'm not stone deaf yet. I can still hear the blues."
Kingston Mines holds court at 2548 N. Halsted; (773) 477-4646. Read on at Kingstonmines.com, and catch the blues nightly, 8 p.m.-4 a.m. Sunday-Friday; 8 p.m.- 5 a.m. Saturday.