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The Sound of Chicago Soul

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Stop.
Listen.
Get off your bicycle. Take off your headphones. Stretch out on a sidewalk and close your eyes.
Get down with your inner ooh child.

The muscular pulse of Chicago is at the root of its timeless soul music.

"When I was a kid, the rag man, the vegetable man, the ice man, they were pulling their stuff with the horses and wagons," Chicago trumpet player-historian Melvin Williams recalled during a conversation last week at Soundmines Studio in the 8000 block of South Stony Island in Chicago. "We used horses and wagons in Chicago up until 1955."

Saxophone player Gene Barge left the warmth of Norfolk, Va. in 1964 to become producer-arranger-session musician at Chess Records.
"Chicago was home of the labor people," he said......


......."Railroad guys. People working and singing in the streets. You would get the rhythms from the railroads and you would be dancing in your head. It was a culmination of nature and industry. Look at (the rhythm of ) Sam Cooke's 'Chain Gang'."

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Gene Barge (Sun-Times photo by Brian Jackson)

Chicago soul legend Otis Clay recalled, "When I was growing up the neighborhood bars didn't have air conditioning. Friday night, Saturday night, you would be walking through the community. You could hear everything. One bar might be blues. Another jazz. Then rhythm and blues down the street. But we didn't think of the names of the music at the time.
"It was all music."

Finally, here's what Chicago poet-songwriter-activist Oscar Brown, Jr. told me in April, 2005, six weeks before his death at age 78:
"I remember 'The Watermelon Man; cry. That was a song to me. There were a lot of cries like that going on," -- and then Brown sang, "'Sheeecago Deeefender!' That's how the paper boys would sell the paper. The ice man had a cry: '... Ice, Ice Man!' Each one had its own personality. During the summer they came every day.
"It was embedded in you. As I grew up I was socially conscious of wanting to reflect my culture, the way I saw singers reflecting cultures in other parts of the world. I thought the cries of the vendors in Chicago were every bit as exotic as the ones from the Caribbean that were being done by Belafonte."

Last week we were gathered in one room to reminisce about soul and Chicago's majestic influence on the popular "Soul Train" television show which celebrates its 40th anniversary this summer. The show was founded by Don Cornelius, a native of Chicago's south side who has declined past interview requests.
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He is an independent soul.
Chicago's 1960s soul scene sparkled with a constellation of independent labels such as Brunswick, Brainstorm (Betty Everett, Cicero Blake), One-derful (Otis Clay, Harold Burrage) and even Cincinnati's King Records (Syl Johnson) who had an office in the now-razed Lexington Hotel , 2131 S. Michigan where Al Capone kept his stash.
On the flip side Chess and Mercury Records had large offices in Chicago.
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Tom Tom Washington (Sun-Times photo by Brian Jackson)

"(Iconic Chicago arranger) Tom Tom Washington worked with all the labels," Barge said. "He was a free agent. I was a staff musician. We were in direct competition with Motown. Chess Records is the origin of Motown. Berry Gordy (Motown founder) got his start by having a small label that he couldn't get off the ground floor. He had a song from a guy who was living in Chicago at the time: Barrett Strong.
The song was "Money (That's What I Want)." It was produced by Gordy and Billy Davis for Anna Records, named after Strong's sister.

Barge continued, "Leonard Chess distributed the record. The story was Leonard paid him so poorly that Berry framed the check and put it behind his desk. That inspired him to start Motown. He felt he got robbed. Meanwhile over in Chicago Harvey Fuqua had his group (the Moonglows, who recorded for Chess). Smokey came over for a while." As did Marvin Gaye (who joined the Moonglows in 1959)."
"Even the Hitsville studio in Detroit, our engineer Ron Malo built that for Berry. They had (bassist) James Jamerson and Dennis Coffey (the guitarist who had his own 1971 hit with "Scorpio" )in their rhythm section. We had Maurice White (on drums, future Earth Wind and Fire co-founder), Gerald Sims (guitar), Louis Satterfield (bass) and Bryce Robinson (guitar). We were battling them tooth and nail. In the meantime Rick Hall comes up with Roger Hood an those guys in Muscle Shoals, and then Memphis with the Bar Kays.

"But Chicago was always more diverse. You could call these guys (arrangers) to come in and write the tops. We would do the rhythm. They would put the horns and strings on. That's what Berry Gordy did with (songwriters) Ashford and Simpson and Holland Dozier Holland. There was definitely competition with Chess and Motown. Its tough to see what is going on with the Chess studio now. Youngsters today aren't too interested in history. Down the road somebody is going to say, 'I wish I had a chance to see the Chess records studio'."
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Washington has arranged for the Dells, Phil Collins and Earth, Wind and Fire. I asked him to deconstruct three of his best known arrangements, which all cracked Billboard's top 40:

* "Groovy Situation," Gene Chandler, August, 1970.
"We did the first arrangement (in 1969) on Mel and Tim for Bamboo Records," said Washington, 67. "Gene produced it for Mel and Tim. But for Gene we hired Richard Evans (London House-era Eddie Higgins, Phil Upchurch) to play the bass. That's why it had more of a (lucid) jazz influence. It became a hit for Gene. We had the (1969) hit 'Backfield in Motion' for Mel and Tim and that was some of Gene's production. He evolved from Carl Davis (at Brunswick) as an artist into a producer. The jazz influence changed the face of a lot of music we were doing."

* Get On Up," The Esquires, September, 1967
"That was a deal through Bunky Sheppard," Washington said. Sheppard operated the Constellation label which included Gene Chandler. In 1966 the Esquires migraged from Milwaukee to Chicago to work with Curtis Mayfield. While doing odd jobs behind the scenes, they met Sheppard. "The Esquires sometimes sang background behind Betty Everett," Washington said. "Claude Morris was on piano, Bob Crowley on bass. They were all jazz musicians."


"Turn Back the Hands of Time," Tyrone Davis, April 1970.
"(Arranger-producer) Willie Henderson called me on all the Tyrone Davis things and we were very successful," he said. "I was independent. The main ingredient in that was always (guitarist) Wayne Bennett."


Bennett may be the best guitar player you've never heard of.
Best known as the sideman for Bobby "Blue" Bland, Bennett died in December, 1992 while waiting for a heart transplant in Nashville. He was 58. Those are Bennett's elevated tones on the Bland smash "Stormy Monday."
Bennett lived in Chicago between 1946 and 1981 where he played with Buddy Guy and Magic Sam at Cobra Records and Jimmy Reed at Vee-Jay. His jazz runs were appealing to the Chicago soul arrangers. His liberal use of big chords and sweeping bends were a major influence on Duane Allman in shaping the Allman Brothers sound.

Washington arranged such beautiful music in a 1960s time period where talent always didn't have its choice of colors, to quote a Curtis Mayfield line. "We would always get calls from the advertising agencies to do black commercials," he said. "Satterfield and some of the guys said, 'Wait a minute, call us for all the stuff or don't call us at all.' Charles Stepney (The Dells) was good in all these genre's and (Mayfield's arranger) Johnny Pate as well.

"We had so much music happening in Chicago there was no need to go anywhere else."


For more on the connection with Chicago Soul and Soul Train, see my story in the Sept. 1 issue of the Sun-Times.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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