"The old blues singer's sayin' no matter what the world is makin' out of you, how you allowing the world to twist your mind and break your spirits down, I'm gonna keep on pushin', I'm gonna get by somehow. A blues singer always sings about himself most of the time. The new breed now, or the soulful people instead of the blues people, which are still soulful, but I'm saying the new breed, they're talkin' about this togetherness because it's more united now. Years ago they were individuals and they had individualistic attitudes. Now they say we're rolling on, we're gonna keep on pushin', we're gonna make it. It's the togetherness. I guess it's a movement."
XXX. CHICAGO'S MUSICAL HERITAGE: SOUL
Soul music arose out of the larger genre of African American music called rhythm and blues, or r&b, in the early sixties. But where r&b of the fifties had a kind of rock 'n' roll approach to the blues, soul had more of a gospel feel, sound and quality.
During the soul era, which lasted until the eighties, Chicago was one of the major musical centers for the production of soul.
South Michigan Avenue, or Record Row, was the headquarters for Chicago's flourishing soul music industry. Dozens of prominent record companies and distributors were housed in a twelve-block area which stretched from 12th to 24th Streets. Amongst these were the famous All State Distributing Company which had thirty-six labels including Chicago's Chess and Checker as well as Motown, Stax and Smash. Across the street from All State were Vee Jay Records and Constellation Records; a few blocks down were two famous companies, Chess and the Chicago headquarters of Ohio-based King Records. The industry hang out on Record Row was Batts Restaurant, a deli where all the folks in the business went for lunch and dinner.
Both of Chicago's black neighborhoods, the South and West Sides, had a number of clubs serving up soul music. There were the Club and High Chaparral, the Algiers Lounge, Guys and Gals, the Bonanza and Budland on the South Side. The Peppermint Lounge, Sidewinder Club and Golden Peacock could be found on the West Side.
The soul era also saw the growth of the all-black programming radio station offering twenty-four hour music targeting teens. One of the first of these was WAMO in my home town of Pittsburgh. I remember it fondly. Especially the syndicated Porky Chedwick program with Porky who described himself as the "dadio of the radio, your platter-pushin' papa..."
Although Chicago was the capital of black radio in the 40s and 50s, it wasn't until the 60s soul era that the city got its first 24-hour station, WVON, owned by the Chess brothers. Chicago's first black-owned station was WMPP which came on the air in 1963.
Many of the great African American popular dance moves of the 60s originated in Chicago, including the Watusi, the Bird ("Shake a Tail Feather"), the Monkey, and the Barracuda as well as chart-breaking dance records by artists like Alvin Cash, Tom and Jerrio, the Five Du-Tones and Major Lance. Some of the basic black Chicago dance fashions of the soul era were the slow dance (or belly-rubbing), the bop (a kind of modified jitterbug) and the walk (partners hold each other side by side and stroll across the dance floor).
Chicago's black teens of the soul era also had well-defined fashions in dress. Middle-class, more "respectable" black males dressed in ivy league gear with v-neck sweaters, peg-leg trousers, and short hair cuts. Blue collar teens sported baggy pants, long key chains and coats and wore cone-shaped narrow-brimmed hats.
Some of the greatest names in black music came out of Chicago in the soul era: the Dells ("There Is"), Curtis Mayfield ("Superfly," "Roots," "Get Down"), Gene Chandler ("The Duke of Earl," "The Girl Don't Care," "To Be A Lover"), Jerry Butler ("Hey Western Union Man," "Only the Strong Survive"), Tyrone Davis ("Turn Back the Hands of Time," "Turning Point," "A Woman Needs To Be Loved"), The Chi-lites ("Give It Away," "Give More Power to the People"), and many more.
The gradual decline of the Chicago recording industry began with the sale of Chess in 1969 and the death of Leonard Chess. By 1970 the corporate offices were moved to NYC and Chicago became a branch office. In 1975 what remained of Chess was sold to Platinum in New Jersey. Platinum sold the Chess building on East Twenty-first and workers tore the place apart. Over a quarter of a million records from Chess' illustrious reign were discovered abandoned in a storeroom and tossed into a dumpster.
Many independent record labels died in the late sixties and early seventies, including black-oriented Chicago companies. The major labels like Capitol, RCA and Columbia had decided that black music was big business and began consolidating the industry eliminating many independent record companies and distributors. By 1974 Chicago had only four independent distributors left; in 1976 only one remained. The indie record companies didn't fare much better.
The last indie soul record label to be created in Chicago was Chi-Sound in 1976. Chi-Sound, through a number of alliances with major labels, managed to hang on until 1984 when it also shut its doors signaling the end of the Chicago soul music recording industry.
In the early 60s the popular music industry had many recording locals of importance throughout the country: New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and Memphis. Now the industry is headquartered in the three national recording centers of NYC, LA and Nashville.
But the end of Chicago's stature as a major recording center did not mean an end to Chicago's creative contribution to popular music. Indeed, the end of the soul era in early eighties Chicago marks the beginning of the development of Chicago house music.
In the next issue we will go back to the seventies where we last left Frankie Knuckles as he moved from NYC to Chicago to open the Warehouse and begin the tale of the birth of Chicago house music.
NEXT: THE BEGINNINGS OF CHICAGO HOUSE