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Dion Payton, legendary Chicago underground blues guitarist, dead at 70

His style, talent and personality inspired many musicians; his 43rd Street Blues Band was a regular at the Kingston Mines.

Renowned Chicago blues guitarist Dion Payton performs live.
Renowned Chicago blues guitarist Dion Payton once had a regular gig at the Kingston Mines club with his 43rd Street Blues Band.
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Dion Payton made a name for himself in the Chicago blues scene in the 1980s.

Local musicians and blues fans would flock to the Kingston Mines nightclub to see Payton’s 43rd Street Blues Band perform. At one point or another, Mr. Payton and his band played there three or four nights a week.

His wife, Jean Payton, and their friend Maria Mavraganes came to every show, where Mr. Payton always wore a cowboy hat.

“It wasn’t Dion without the hat,” Mrs. Payton said.

Mr. Payton, known by musicians and fans as brutally honest, incredibly kind and exceptionally talented, died March 12 after years of struggling with multiple health issues.

Blues guitarist Dion Payton in his trademark cowboy hat.
Dion Payton in his trademark cowboy hat.
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Mr. Payton was born Oct. 21, 1950, in Greenwood, Mississippi, and was already playing guitar by the time he moved to Chicago at age 5.

At age 4, his father taught him to play “Under The Coconut Tree.” As a teen, he was taken under the wing of a local blues musician and began performing on the road.

Before he was a full-time musician, Mr. Payton had worked at a Frito-Lay factory and on the Chicago docks. He never wanted anyone to tell him what to do, so he left those jobs for music — to “be his own boss” — and went on to an extensive career of performing and recording with other artists.

Mr. Payton’s favorite possession was his ebony black Gibson Les Paul 25/50 Anniversary Edition Special. That guitar, he used to say, would “play itself” — and he bought an extra plane ticket for it whenever he flew.

Mr. Payton played with several local gospel groups and recorded with the Violinaires on Chess Records.

He played rhythm guitar on Lonnie Brooks’ 1983 album “Hot Shot,” and for a while, he toured with musicians Millie Jackson, O.V. Wright and Albert King, whom he considered his hero.

In 1985, Mr. Payton formed the 43rd Street Blues Band, leading to regular gigs at the Kingston Mines as well as the Checkerboard Lounge.

Mr. Payton also played in two other bands: People of Truth and Five the Hard Way.

A cautious man, Mr. Payton didn’t trust record companies to treat him fairly as a Black musician. He is known to have recorded only one song with his 43rd Street Blues Band — “All Your Affection Is Gone,” with Alligator Records for “The New Bluebloods,” an anthology album that showcased up-and-coming blues artists. According to his wife, he wrote the song in 30 minutes.

Mr. Payton stopped performing about 10 years ago as health problems made it too difficult to play.

Jean Payton met her future husband in 1980, and though they didn’t marry until 2002, they considered each other spouses. They just hadn’t cared to make it official.

“He was very kind, especially to the underdogs,” Mrs. Payton said. “He didn’t like anyone to be treated badly.”

He called her “Little Jean Jean” — Mavraganes said every time Mr. Payton played “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” he would look deeply at Mrs. Payton.

She recalled that he used to tell her: “I hope I die before you, because I know you can make it. I would never make it without you.”

And she would respond: “Oh, be quiet.”

Along with his love of music and his wife, friends also recalled Mr. Payton’s love of dogs. When Mr. Payton was younger, he often rescued dogs off the street.

“He would bring them to the house, I would put them out, and he would bring them back in again,” said his sister Jessie Sanders.

Once, Sanders said, the house they were living in burned down, and he ran into the flames to save a puppy.

Mr. Payton often shared cheese with Boris, a schnauzer-Staffordshire terrier mix, who survives.

Dion Payton performs on his favorite guitar, a Gibson Les Paul 25/50 Anniversary Edition.
Dion Payton performs on his favorite guitar, a Gibson Les Paul 25/50 Anniversary Edition. He would buy an extra ticket so the Gibson would have its own seat when he flew, his wife recalled.
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Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix and Zak Starkey all came to see Mr. Payton and his band play at different points at the Kingston Mines. Mr. Payton also performed live with Bono.

John Christy, who played keyboards in the 43rd Street Blues Band, said musicians called Mr. Payton the “urban cowboy.”

Other members of the 43rd Street Blues Band included Lafayette Evans on bass and Joanna Connor on guitar.

“He was ahead of his time,” said Connor, who considered Mr. Payton her mentor.

“He was a tough coach,” she added. “He didn’t sugarcoat anything.”

Besides his wife and sister, Mr. Payton’s survivors include his son, Antoine Payton; two nieces; one nephew; and four grandchildren.

Mrs. Payton is making arrangements for a memorial service and raising money to cover funeral expenses.