Man relaunching a South Side blues venue aims to keep the music — and the charm — the same

Lee’s Unleaded Blues in Grand Crossing is a finalist for the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant.

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Warren Berger, 73, of Lincoln Park, poses for a portrait outside Lee’s Unleaded Blues at 7401 S. South Chicago Ave. in Grand Crossing, which closed in 2015, Thursday afternoon, July 16, 2020. Berger, owner of Club Escape, purchased the building in 2018 and plans to reopen the popular blues bar in April 2021.

Warren Berger, 73, of Lincoln Park, poses for a portrait last week outside Lee’s Unleaded Blues at 7401 S. South Chicago Ave. in Grand Crossing,

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

When a well-known nightclub reboots under new management, the temptation to operate differently from the previous regime looms large.

Warren Berger, who in 2018 took over ownership of Lee’s Unleaded Blues, a popular blues bar located in Grand Crossing (7401 S. South Chicago Ave.), heard similar refrains regarding the area surrounding the venue.

He wants Lee’s to stay the same — or least retain some semblance of the charm that led so many blues aficionados to its doors over the years.

“At a point, we were discussing what we were going to do here with some people from the city, and a recommendation was made we should move the bar to another local area of greater concentration of development, but I felt very strongly that I wanted to keep it here; I think it’s an institution,” said Berger. “I can think of an example of where someone on the North Side took a really vintage, neat bar, and they bought it — a neighborhood institution — and they changed it.

“They upgraded it; it destroyed the charm of it — and people didn’t come there. They lost their crowd even though it was this fancy place now. You didn’t have the character. And that’s why this bar will continue to have the interior character that it has.”

Lee’s, which closed in 2015, was the go-to place for many of the city’s blues artists. Yvonne Davis took over the venue after the death of her husband, Stan Davis, a retired police officer, in 2010. Ray and Leola “Lee” Grey, Lee’s original owners, purchased the bar in 1983.

“When she [Yvonne Davis] took it over, business was still really good, but understand that in the bar business it takes a certain kind of an individual,” said Berger. “... You know that’s the life you live; you’re out there. A person who is used to getting up at 6 in the morning and going to work or something; you know that’s not their thing.”

Berger, who also owns Club Escape (1530 E. 75th St.), one of the few South Side-based bars that caters to an LGBT clientele, aims for an April relaunch for Lee’s.

As a finalist for the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant, where $5.4 million is being shelled out to 32 local businesses, Berger is in line to receive $136,000 to rehab the club. His business is one of the first chosen by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration for cash from the four-year-old program that draws money from downtown developers to help neglected South and West Side neighborhoods.

And Berger also received an assist from 5th Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston, who sought him out to relaunch the venue.

“Lee’s was one of the last blues clubs in Chicago; it was the last on the South Side,” said Hairston, who was a frequent patron of Lee’s; she saw performances from artists such as Shorty Mack. “Warren currently runs a club, has run a club for decades. Here in the ward, he has been a good business owner and has been a good neighbor.

“[Lee’s] was a staple in the neighborhood. People came from all around the world; it was packed. We should be able to enjoy the same amenities in our neighborhoods that we have in the past that other neighborhoods get to enjoy.”

Berger is also known for being the proprietor of the now-shuttered, popular neighborhood eatery named South Chicago Seafood, which garnered Berger the nickname “the live catfish king of Chicago” due to him wearing tuxedos while diving into a makeshift pool of catfish. Live catfish were turned into steaks or filets by being butchered on the spot for customers.

While Berger aims to retain the “charm” of Lee’s, he keeps in mind the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on would-be blues consumers; some folks may not want to jump back into the mix yet.

“I want people to be able to come here and remember that it’s not that much different than what it was,” said Berger. “I mean, the bar itself will be. Here’s the thing: Being in business you have to upgrade some things so that you can service people in a better way. So the bar may be more compact and more efficient. But it still has to stay pretty much the way it is.”

With that being said, former customers are excited about Lee’s relaunch, Berger says.

“I have people now calling me,” said Berger. “[Hairston] had a community forum, and she introduced me. … So, yeah, there’s a strong interest.”

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