February 2018 marks the 34th anniversary of the opening of Rosa’s Lounge (3420 W. Armitage Ave.), a blues club staple in Logan Square.
Tony Mangiullo, founder and owner of Rosa’s Lounge, grew up in Milan, Italy and came to Chicago at a young age to learn more about the blues experience after meeting Junior Wells and Buddy Guy in his hometown. Mangiullo, who named his blues lounge after his mother Rosa, spent some time talking to LoganSquarist about his experience coming to Chicago, his view on blues music, and what it’s like to have a business in Logan Square for more than three decades.
You met Junior Wells and Buddy Guy in Milan, where you grew up. What inspired you to come to Chicago?
Tony Mangiullo: Back in Italy, I was in a blues band with other members. We were young musicians and we became totally attached to blues because of what it represented to us as musicians. We felt that the blues gave us a way to express ourselves that give us that sense of liberation. The message of the blues—black music born to resist, born to evolve, to expand, to stay alive—that’s what we got from the [it]. Once we learned about Chicago blues, it seemed quite different from any other styles.
That’s why I came to Chicago, rather than Memphis or St. Louis or Kansas City. I came specifically to Chicago because to me, when I was learning about the blues of the ‘60s, it kind of gave me that rebellious type of message.
[When I met Buddy Guy and Junior Wells], Junior was the one who was interested in me. He was the one who said, ‘You want to play the blues, you come to Chicago, and here’s my address.’ He gave me two addresses—one for his own house, and one for Teresa’s Lounge, which was the mother blues club in Chicago, on the south side. Teresa’s was the home of Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells.
What was your experience like coming to Chicago?
When I came here, I went straight to Junior’s house after a nightmare trip. I took a train from Milano to England—they almost didn’t let me on because Italians are not necessarily welcomed everywhere. I almost got rejected at the border. I bought a standby fare ticket to come to America. It’s a very cheap ticket, but you have to wait for somebody not to show up and then you get on the plane. I ended up wasting all my time and money in England staying there. When I arrived in New York, I took a bus from New York to Chicago—that was a nightmare. It was a 24-hour trip, and felt like it was stopping every hour.
I arrived to Chicago, and the first thing I do is ask for a cab. I give him the address for Junior’s house, and ask how much it was and he says $10. It was too much, so I took the bus for $.50. And it took me close enough but then I had to walk. I finally get to the house, and Junior wasn’t there. His mother says to try Teresa’s. To get to the club, I had to take another bus. I didn’t speak English. I had a dictionary, and some people [look at me and] think I’m a missionary—some six foot tall guy with long hair—they probably think I’m Jesus Christ’s son or something. Finally it’s getting dark now and I’m getting to the club to Teresa’s, and as soon as I go there, they knew I was waiting for Junior Wells.
The plan was to stay a week, maybe two weeks, max. Basically, I wanted to buy some records and take them home, and experience the blues in the club and play as much as I could.
That was the plan. As soon as I got to Teresa’s, that was a turning point. It was the only place I knew, so I was going down every night for the first few months. Teresa’s is where I decided that I wanted to stay in Chicago as long as possible.
What does blues mean to you and how has it evolved at Rosa’s over the years?
When you say blues, the definition of blues doesn’t necessarily mean that you saw one band and now you just know about the blues. That’s what I’ve been trying to establish for the last 34 years.
This is my goal: to create the atmosphere where the music actually evolves because there is an environment that promotes that. That is what I [wanted] to create from the very beginning. Every move, every decision, it was made keeping that in mind—that’s the reason why I’m here.
When I first came to America, I had my own image of what the blues was. But … I was not [hearing] what I learned from records. It sounded different. So I went to one of the older blues man and I said very naively, ‘You don’t play the blues.’ I almost got killed. That was not a very smart way to put that. I had to learn quick that things evolve.
What we do here is discover how big of a spectrum we have in the blues. This is in comparison to established clubs like Kingston Mines, even Buddy Guy’s Legends, where they go for whatever is safe and has an easy commercial impact. Blues Chicago has this thing about women—whatever band they have has to have a woman in front. The tourists want to see a big woman singing ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ so that reconfirms the stereotype idea of what blues is for tourists. If they come [to Rosa’s] with that perception of what the blues is, they’re gonna be disappointed. That’s not what we do. It doesn’t mean we won’t have a woman or play ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ but it means that we don’t base our resources on that.
How has Logan Square evolved over the years since Rosa’s opened?
Rosa’s is a pioneer of Logan Square; we opened while Logan Square was nothing but a jungle. There was no political representation when we opened; people would do whatever they wanted. It was a lawless land. And we were able to fight for it mainly because we respected it and other people and the music. And we made it true.
LoganSquarist’s February Meetup is at Rosa’s Lounge today, Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. Learn more here.