BRONZEVILLE — The Ray’s Music Exchange mural in Bronzeville that celebrated Black musicians and drew “Blues Brothers” fans from around the world for the past 40 years is no more, demolished with the building it was painted on after vandals set fires last month.
There never was an actual store called Ray’s Music Exchange. The mural on the Prairie Avenue side of the building at 300 E. 47th St. was painted during the production of “The Blues Brothers” in 1979 and remained until last week, when May 31 fire damage to the building forced the city to demolish the empty store and two others attached to it.
In a famous scene, the Blues Brothers visit Ray’s Music Exchange and talk to Ray Charles about an electric piano, prompting him to come out from behind the counter to play “Shake A Tail Feather” while people dance on the street in front of the mural.
The building with the mural was actually home to pawnshop Shelly’s Loan & Jewelry from 1946 until about 18 months ago. The shop consolidated with its sister shop at 224 E. 51st St. That location is closed because of looting, but it should reopen next week, employees said. There are framed photos of the mural inside that store.
Although the interior scenes of Ray’s Music Exchange were shot on a set, the mural was featured prominently in the film when neighbors came out to dance to “Shake A Tailfeather.”
The dancers were all people from the neighborhood, the Shelly’s employees said. Ever since the movie was released, people from around the world would visit, some even “shaking their tailfeather” on 47th Street in front of the store, employees said.
The mural was refurbished in 2000 but had faded by the demolition. It was the focus of a proposal by community groups looking to revamp it and use it as the anchor to include it in the 2020 Year of Chicago Music that was started earlier this year by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
Bernard Loyd, founder and president of Urban Juncture, a Bronzeville business incubator, said the demolition signals more than just the loss of a building.
“It’s a huge loss in respect to what the mural represented. Unfortunately, it is also a marker of how we are not invested in this culture that is so rich and has such a big place in this community,” Loyd said, noting 50 years ago there were at least a dozen blues clubs along nearby 43rd Street.
“We were working with Chicago Blues Revival and other partners to restore that mural and really celebrate blues across Bronzeville.”
Among the artists depicted in the mural were Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder.
The mural may be gone now, but important work related to keeping the music alive will go on, said Jeff Pinzino, of Chicago Blues Revival, a group focused on supporting blues on the South and West sides.
“Considering current circumstances, there are other ways we can do blues programming in that area that don’t involve the mural. Our commitment to the neighborhood is ongoing, and this isn’t going to stop our work,” Pinzino said.
City historian Tim Samuelson said with the 40th anniversary of the movie this year, there were talks with star Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi, brother of deceased star John Belushi, to come to Chicago to celebrate the movie and visit the mural site. That led to the realization no one is sure who the original artist is.
“They were going to come in, they were going to do different things around Chicago and were interested in visiting some of the movie sites,” Samuelson said. “They contacted me about it and the big question that came up was, ‘Who actually created the mural?’ It was a product of the movie studio’s art department, but there had to be an artist behind it.
“We came up with some possibilities, but most were dead and one who might have been involved was in poor health and couldn’t communicate. There could have been multiple players involved.”
Rich Moskal, who retired after nearly 23 years as the head of the Chicago Film Office in 2018, said the scenes shot on 47th Street and others in the movie were a fun way to showcase Chicago.
“It drew attention to Chicago as a home for music, comedy and politics — there were certainly swipes at the city in many ways, but it was all so much fun,” Moskal said. “I don’t think the city had ever been depicted in that way on film before. And certainly as an event happening out on city streets, there was nothing quite like it at the time. It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience.”
The owner of the building that was at 300 E. Prairie St., John Seung, said on Monday the city demolished the building after vandals set part of it on fire May 31. All that remains now is a dirt field surrounded by a chain link fence. Seung plans to rebuild but hasn’t considered restoring the mural.
“We are already talking about putting a new building there,” Seung said. “As for the mural, I don’t know. It will take time. Getting a construction permit takes about three to four months, and then constructing a new building will take time. I haven’t thought about it yet.”
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