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From The VN Archives: Stars like Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt polished their talents at Chessmate coffeehouse blocks from campus

By CODY GRANT
On March 2, 2011

In chess, the depth of calculation rests on the ability of the player. For Morrie Widenbaum, calculations often led to success.Before his death in 1973, Widenbaum had been crowned Michigan chess champion (1963) and become owner of the Chessmate coffeehouse, once located near the university campus.

While the former title lives on in chess history - representing times when Widenbaum played speed chess against legendary players such as Stephan Poplar and Bobby Fischer - it is the latter that places him in music history.

The Chessmate had originally been created as a place for serious chess players. But to capitalize on the vibrant, acoustic-folk music scene of Detroit, Widenbaum began scheduling live entertainment in 1963.

Located along Livernois near 6 Mile Road, the Chessmate was sprouting at the same time as an active small-venue/coffeehouse scene.

Like such clubs as the Living End, Wisdom Tooth and Poison Apple, the Chessmate was showcasing folk and blues talent in Detroit.

"There were so many memorable nights at the Chessmate," said Wayne Helfrich, a regular at the club. "It was very neat to see lots of folks in their early days that went on to larger fame."

Linda Ronstadt, Tom Rush and Chuck and Joni Mitchell were just a handful of artists that Helfrich saw perform at the Chessmate. Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell would go on to international commercial success.

"(One time) Tom Rush taught me a song while we were both sitting on the curb on 6 Mile, outside of the club," Helfrich added.

During those years, Helfrich was a photographic wholesaler, taking photographs of the artists and usually finding ways to end up hanging out with the bands.

The Chessmate was home to a number of performances featuring both Chuck and Joni Mitchell, artists that Helfrich photographed numerous times.

Prior to the couple's divorce in 1967, they put their collective stamp on Detroit folk and coffeehouse culture.

"The Chessmate was acoustic folkie's heaven," said Chuck Mitchell, recalling the differences between other clubs and the Chessmate. Inside it was "dark, but high-ceilinged and cavernous," which led to the wonderful sound it provided.

Back in the Chessmate days, Chuck and Joni Mitchell performed together under the moniker of The Chuck & Joni Show.

"At the Chessmate we were a duo," he said. "(But) by the time we started working the Living End, we were doing separate sets."

According to Sheila Weller, author of "Girls Like Us," which explored the lives of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon, the couple moved into a Detroit apartment on Ferry Street in 1965. But in less than three years their marriage would dissolve.

All things must evolve and as Chuck and Joni changed as a couple, the Chessmate began to change as a club.

By 1968, the club was featuring less folk music and began to spotlight rock and electric blues.

"(Widenbaum) came up with the idea," said Chuck Mitchell. And it "brought in the bar crowd after the bars closed."

The Chessmate only stayed around for as long as Widenbaum, but its spirit lives on.

 

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