Griff’s indelible images of Chicago, in pencil

By Dave Hoekstra

CHICAGO – The leadoff track on Magic Sam’s 1967 classic “West Side Soul” is “That’s All I Need.” Sam Maghett pleads, “Just give me love/that’s all I need” as his carburetor vocals take listeners on a fast ride down Madison Street.

In spirit, Steve Griff was in the front seat – windows rolled down.

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The Chicago artist died of an apparent heart attack Aug. 7 in his North Side home. He was 51.

He loved the blues, particularly the plugged-in nature of West Side blues. This is clear in “The Gig,” one of his hallmark pencil drawings, where more than a dozen characters gather in the lively shadows of a West Side street corner circa 1950s. A neon Schlitz sign twinkles in the window of the 3 Deuces Bar. Beautiful young women have junk in their trunk. A Cadillac is parked in front of a fire hydrant, and nowhere is there a cop on a bicycle. The 2008 work is gritty, yet tonally beautiful.

Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick mentored Griff.

Griff had worked in Fitzpatrick’s Big Cat Press since 1995.

The “Gig” drawing sat on a workstand at Fitzpatrick’s studio until he donated the drawing to the DePaul University Art Museum, calling it “a slice of urban blues very few white people took the time to look at.”

Griff was a baker at a Nabisco plant when he met Fitzpatrick in 1995. The entire Griff family mixed and baked cookies and crackers at the plant: mother, Helen; late father, Anthony; and four brothers. The work was hard and long.

“Because Steve was a working guy he didn’t have the opportunity to express himself as an artist all the time,” said his older brother Tony Griff. “He had to have a job and couldn’t work speculatively. But he always drew, whether it was airbrushing T-shirts or cartoons.”

“Tony Fitzpatrick showed Steve that you didn’t have to be a classically trained artist to be an artist,” said Tony Griff, 59.

In 1995 Steve Griff wanted to purchase some of Fitzpatrick’s etchings. He had saved money from his Nabisco gig and sweet-talked his way into Fitzpatick’s studio. “He wore this little black leather hat and longish hair,” Fitzpatrick said. “He had a beatnik-jazzy way of speaking. I thought, ‘Who is this?’ We got to talking, and I got to like him. At the time, he was married and his wife had a cleaning business, and on the weekends, he cleaned places. So I hired him to be my cleaning guy.

“He loved Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King, Albert King. He had a ferocious knowledge of blues of all stripes,” Fitzpatrick said.

But Fitzpatrick was unaware that Griff made his own drawings until they had worked together well over a year. At the time of his death Griff was one of Fitzpatrick’s studio assistants. “In the last couple of years his drawings began taking on such definition and shape,” Fitzpatrick said. “There was an authentic soulfulness. He battled addiction. He cleaned up five years ago and got very focused. He had been at Nabisco for 30 years and decided to take retirement – and take his chances as an artist. Everything he brought in here we sold.”

Longtime Chicago rocker Johnny Moe bought a drawing. Chicago photographer Marc Hauser was a Griff collector. Chicago filmmaker John McNaughton was a fan.

“It reminds me of the underground comic style of the ’60s, but he elevated it,” said McNaughton, who directed “Wild Things” and “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” “The guy could really draw, and he had the South Side subject matter of chicks, bikes and music.”