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Hallways and Airwaves: Changing Neighborhoods and Emerging Media Inspire New Music
Sometime in early 1958, five singers and their manager navigated a stretch of Chicago's South Michigan Avenue known as Record Row. Confident, persistent, and with nothing to lose, they hoped that one of the equally undaunted companies lining the street would change their fortunes. Had they traveled the entire mile and a half of the street, they would have ambled from Roosevelt Road on the north to East Twenty-Fifth Street on the south. Collectively known as the Impressions, these vocalists, in their late teens and early twenties, were from the Cabrini-Green public housing project on the North Side. Curtis Mayfield was not yet sixteen. Decades later, he recalled snow up to their necks that Saturday morning. But it proved little hindrance as he carried his guitar and amplifier down the street. Eddie Thomas, the group's manager, came from the South Side. He was about ten years older, and his education in the music business combined street smarts with improvisation. They recalled that their first stop was a company called King, but its roster was full. Then they called on Chess Records — same response. Next they approached a record company named Vee-Jay on the other side of the street.
"We went over there, and I introduced myself to Calvin Carter, who was the A&R director at the time," Thomas recalled. "I told him I'd like to bring my group over. So we set up a date to bring them in. And we went back over to Vee-Jay Records; a cold winter night too. Snow on the ground. And we did a couple songs and he said, 'Man, your group is sounding good.' And I said to Curtis, 'Go and do "For Your Precious Love."' We did one take. Where's the contract? OK, they signed us up."
As Jerry Butler remembered it, their interests were to be heard and not to be cheated. Almost fifty years later he recalled, "We just wanted to see if someone would listen to our songs without a [hidden] tape recorder going in the drawer."
This sequence of events and its aftermath — a hit song, international fame for the group, and solo careers for Butler and Mayfield — plays out like the kind of life-defining moment confirmed through collective memories. Legends do tend to conflict with other published narratives, but several singers, instrumentalists, and producers who grew up in Chicago at that time experienced similar moments. Some of these artists and producers worked on or near Record Row, others worked throughout the city. Many of them lived through the circumstances that led to the recording of such songs as the Impressions' "For Your Precious Love." Major social shifts ran underneath that tune's four chords, Mayfield's lyrical guitar lead, and the group's incantatory harmonies.
Those harmonies convey understated power. No big vocal leaps or instrumental flourishes were needed to make "For Your Precious Love" a departure from the doo-wop that came before it. While only a few people were on hand for the recording, a community generated the circumstances for this song to be created — and for a larger audience to hear it. Not only had the Great Migration from the South dramatically boosted the black population of this midwestern city, but the Impressions' generation forged an identity through music. Diverse circumstances strengthened Chicago-area teen culture during the 1950s and 1960s. Songs frequently arose within the hallways of public housing projects or schools, places full of teens with plenty of ideas, and varying religious denominations informed young singers' vocal training and inflections. The process of recording "For Your Precious Love" also reflected bigger changes. This single was cut for an African American–owned company, Vee-Jay, that was a landmark operation but not the only one of its kind. Emerging radio personalities provided airtime for records like these and spoke the same dialect as their listeners. These media voices would promote new economic resources and political advances as eagerly as they broadcast R&B hits. The real financial beneficiaries of these developments would always be questioned — these were commercial enterprises, not social missions. But whether or not everyone acted in harmony, and even if a burgeoning movement did not yet have a name, this record announced a push forward.
On the eve of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, many Chicagoans had a great deal to push against. Schools in African American communities faced overcrowding and other entrenched difficulties. Barriers to equal employment were visible throughout the city; Butler remembers walking downtown and seeing signs that barred blacks from applying even for dishwashing jobs. His memoir describes the racism he encountered as a student at Washburne Technical High School, a vocational institution near Cabrini-Green. He knew that the program could take him only so far, since white-dominated unions ran apprentice programs specifically to keep blacks out of skilled trades. Butler, like other black musicians from his generation, remained steadfast.
Black musicians who came of age in Chicago from the 1950s through the 1970s usually were either part of or not far removed from the mass movement of hundreds of thousands of African Americans who left the South for the Midwest's largest city. As journalist Isabel Wilkerson noted in The Warmth of Other Suns, the Illinois Central Railroad "carried so many southern blacks north that Chicago would go from 1.8 percent black at the start of the twentieth century to one-third black by the time the flow of people finally began to slow in 1970." By the 1950s, moreover, these new Chicagoans would "arrive with higher levels of education than earlier waves of migrants and thus greater employment potential than both the blacks they left behind and the blacks they joined." They also tended to have more education than the city's white immigrant arrivals. Parents sought to pass this advantage on to their offspring, although they faced institutional barriers within a school system that was 90 percent segregated by 1957 (and remained so sixty years later, when the city's public school students were 47 percent Latino, 37 percent African American, and 10 percent white). As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reported, "In cost and quality of instruction, school time, districting and choice of sites, the Chicago Board of Education maintains in practice what amounts to a racially discriminatory policy." The fight against discrimination became as internal as it was organizational. Leon Forrest, who grew up on the South Side in the 1940s and 1950s, argued that his family and neighbors took on structural disadvantages through survival strategies and mutual support systems. In his essay collection Relocations of the Spirit he wrote, "More than anything else we believed that the individual had to find something within himself, some talent, moxie, intelligence, magical nerve, swiftly developed skill, education, knack, trade, or underground craft and energize it with the hustler's drive." Indeed, these are qualities that most musicians have needed. But black artists in Chicago who developed these attributes could also rely on some reinforcement.
While Forrest illustrates how such performers had to build such qualities from within, some institutional support also existed for the kind of education he mentioned, and many times that came down to committed faculty. Families of young musicians in Chicago sought out the high schools in African American neighborhoods that had solid music programs and teachers who were more than adept. Saxophonist Willie Henderson and trombonist Willie Woods still credit the discipline they learned from band teacher Louis Whitworth at Wendell Phillips High School in Bronzeville. Captain Walter Dyett, who taught at Wendell Phillips and DuSable high schools from 1935 into the 1960s, became one of the most admired teachers. A graduate of VanderCook College of Music with a master's degree from Chicago Musical College, Dyett's students included Nat King Cole, saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman (also an arranger at Vee-Jay), and many other jazz heroes. Dyett also taught future R&B musicians like violinist-turned-guitarist Bo Diddley and Morris Jennings, later a Chess Records session drummer. Many of these artists have commented on their teacher's musical expertise, tough methods, and warm heart. His professional background and a supportive community embodied the qualities that later scholars of education would describe as essential. Another drummer, Marshall Thompson, who would switch to singing, added that Dyett's pedagogy might seem unorthodox to some: "Capt. Walter Dyett started me off," Thompson said. "He was one of the greatest musicians in the world. He'd throw that stick at you if you played the wrong note. He'd throw that stick right at your face. It was amazing, we had a thirty-piece orchestra and he could tell who was playing wrong."
Budding musicians also honed their skills through higher education. Between 1941 and 1964, the proportion of blacks who completed college rose from less than 2 percent to greater than 5 percent. As part of this trend, in 1950s Chicago more college and postgraduate educational opportunities became available to African Americans. Roosevelt University was founded in 1945 as faculty left the city's YMCA College to protest that institution's quotas on black and Jewish students. By September 1954, Roosevelt could boast of a fall enrollment of 3,500 students in its schools of arts, sciences, commerce, and music. This was part of a local wave of 90,000 college students, including 11,600 in the city's three junior colleges. Alabama-born James Mack was one such student. His classical music education included bachelor's and master's degrees from Roosevelt in the 1950s. During the next decade he would mentor a host of future R&B stars at Crane Junior College before becoming in demand as an arranger. Another arranger, Charles Stepney, attended Wilson Junior College and Roosevelt. In the late 1960s he would apply experimental compositional theories to R&B, blues, and rock.
Religious Foundations Reflect Multiple Sources
Migrants and their children also heard or participated in older traditions, from blues to singing in the many churches on the West and South Sides. Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler had abundant experience with church music (Mayfield also expressed his admiration for blues musicians). Mayfield was born in Chicago in 1942, and a few months later Butler, at age three, arrived from Mississippi with his mother and father. As teens, both performed in Mayfield's grandmother's Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church. But while soul music is rooted in gospel, a common depiction of "the black church" as a single entity is misleading. The influence of Sanctified and Baptist shouts and rhythms on gospel and R&B has been described frequently, including in my previous book. But denominations in black Chicago represented a cosmopolitan mixture, as did the music that resulted from this diversity. These churches and their differences reflecting class, theology, and missions had expanded since the beginning of the Great Migration. Eugene Dixon, who would become known as Gene Chandler, sang in a Baptist choir. Marshall Thompson said that the Chi-Lites used Catholic liturgical singing as their model. The Flamingos, who formed on the South Side in 1952, belonged to the Church of God and Saints of Christ, which incorporated Jewish theological and musical influences in its services, and the group retained these minor-key refrains in its R&B ballads. Maybe these cries also reverberate in the eerily beautiful a cappella opening of the group's "Golden Teardrops."
Dells singer Chuck Barksdale imitated the bass voices he heard in his church, but he also insisted that his group's vibrant harmonies derived from a denominational crosspollination. "I was raised Methodist, I became a Muslim," Barksdale said. "Mickey McGill was a Seventh-Day Adventist, Marvin Junior was a Jehovah's Witness, and Johnny Carter was Hebrew. So we had five different situations going on, but we never had an argument about our religions. Everything that God puts together is going to be right. Mathematics is exact."
Other musical influences from churches were not so straightforward. In north suburban Evanston, Patti Drew grew up singing in Mount Carmel Baptist and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal congregations. In the 1960s her jazz-inflected delivery shone on such hits as "Tell Him" and "Working on a Groovy Thing." Drew claimed that since her style did not come unadulterated from a purely Baptist or Sanctified Gospel tradition of ecstatic spirituality, her work was not easy to market as hard soul. She said her approach also derived from the "very plain, very straight" style of her main childhood church, but she also said she admired jazz stylist Nancy Wilson.
Religious roots involved more than just singing or transforming the rhythms and phrasings of a traditional repertoire. Churches back then, and today, provided either a rudimentary musical education or a gateway to alternative music schooling. This offered a rich reservoir from which African American youths could claim more music as their own. As a child, Barbara Acklin sang in the New Zion Baptist Church choir and studied classical music there too, although she later mentioned preferring "soulful pop." Singer-songwriter Lowrell Simon's experience in church furthered his education: his hearing another performer in the church prompted him to ask his grandmother, a housekeeper, to pay for voice lessons.
Neighborhood Bonds and Collisions
Even as young people, some migrants brought southern traditions with them, which became enhanced with urban sounds. Mississippi-born McKinley Mitchell sang gospel before he relocated to Chicago in 1958 and wrote "The Town That I Live In," which a Record Row company, One-derful, released in 1962. His elongated vocal lines and call-and-response delivery reflected his gospel background, yet the accompaniment from a horn section featuring saxophonist-arranger Willie Henderson and jazz trumpeter King Kolax represented different musical strains that also thrived in Chicago. The song's lyrics — which depict loneliness and dislocation — could have derived from migration and resonated among Latino immigrants in Southern California.
For the generation that grew up in and around Chicago, the South and its attitudes often seemed not far away. Singer Eddie Perrell attended the city's McCosh Elementary School with Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder in Mississippi helped instigate the civil rights movement. Within Chicago, white resistance to African American migration and relocation took many forms. Lorraine Hansberry's classic 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun drew on her family's thwarted attempts to move into a white neighborhood in the 1930s. In Englewood on the South Side, crowds of angry whites vented their anger in 1949 when they only suspected a black family was moving into a home at Fifty-Sixth and Peoria. White mobs continued to use arson and other acts of terrorism in trying to block integration of other South Side neighborhoods such as Park Manor. Unscrupulous land speculators bought properties cheaply from white owners and sold them to black purchasers at inflated prices. In 1948 the United States Supreme Court struck down the practice of white property owners' using restrictive covenants to prevent blacks from buying homes: Tovey v. Levy centered on the purchase of a residential-building in Englewood. But judicial fiat could not halt ongoing housing discrimination or white flight. As 50,000 whites left that neighborhood, its black population rose from 11 percent to 70 percent over the 1950s.
Yet some African American artists who grew up in Englewood convey benign reflections. Speaking with them evoked not nostalgia, but a candid account of how they made connections within this time and place. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell said that at Englewood High School he was mentored on his instrument by the slightly older Don Myrick, years before they made their names in jazz and R&B. Another singer, Jackie Ross, moved to Chicago with her mother, a gospel radio disc jockey in St. Louis, on the advice of family friend Sam Cooke. For her, Englewood was a step up from worse poverty, and white flight appeared not so burdensome. After a disastrous stay in the South Side's Washington Park area, the two of them rented an Englewood apartment from a Jewish family that vacated but left furniture behind. Still, Ross envisioned marriage as offering no relief from financial struggles when she wrote the witty "Hard Times," which she recorded in 1962 for Cooke's SAR label.
Gene Chandler recalled that prejudice in and around Englewood was visible then, but it seemed more a vestige than an inhibiting force. He had other concerns.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Move On Up"
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Table of Contents
1 Hallways and Airwaves: Changing Neighborhoods and Emerging Media Inspire New Music 5
2 I'm a-Telling You: Artists and Entrepreneurs Step Up in a New Decade 22
3 We're a Winner: Musicians, Activists, and Educators Build an Expanding Industry 42
4 Psychedelic Soul: Chicago's 1960s Counterculture Redirects Social and Musical Cues 64
5 A New Day: Aftocentric Philosophy and Sharp Statements Answer 1960s Challenges 86
6 Rhythm Ain't All We Got: Organizational Drive Shapes 1970s Black Music, Commerce, and Politics 110
7 Sound Power: Funk and Disco Highlight Connections, Divisions, and Aspirations 143
8 Future Telling: Reissues, Sampling, and Young Artists Reconsider Soul History 165
Appendix: Interviews 177
Selected Discography 209
Selected Bibliography 215