When soul music aficionados get together and start talking music, the inevitable question of preference between ‘Detroit vs Memphis’ almost always seems to arise, to which my response is ‘YES, both please! But don’t forget about Chicago’. The well of Chicago soul 45’€²s is practically bottomless, and the majority of the hundreds of records recorded in the windy city during the golden age of soul are at least very good, with many veering into the exceptional category, and very few falling into the ‘unsatisfying listening’ bin.
The axis of Chicago soul centers around several key players and record labels, as well as those who followed their influence and cut their own records under their shadow. Chicago was also a key record distribution hub, with S. Michigan Avenue housing what is known as ‘Record Row’. I’ll tell a version of their story based on what’s in the grooves of a few of my favorite (lesser known) gems from this mighty, hard working city.
Sadly, Gene Chandler is thought to be a one hit wonder (“Duke Of Earl”) to those with scant knowledge of rock and soul history. Gene Chandler had MANY excellent R&B hits that are cherished by soul fanatics, though relatively unknown to the rest of the world, even though this man not only performed, but also wrote, produced and acted as an A&R liason/ talent scout. “Mr. Big Shot” (1966) is by far one of his most hard hitting soul records, and it sank without a trace, no thanks in part to Constellation Records (a label in which Gene co-founded) was on the verge of bankruptcy, making any type of distribution nearly impossible. A pity, as it is a superb record.
The Dells, the epitome of the male Chicago group sound, were formed while the group was still in high school (1952) during the early doo-wop years. Their first single was released as The El-Rays in 1954 (featuring the lineup of Marvin Junior, Mickey McGill, Lucius McGill, Verne Allison, Chuck Barksdale, and Johnny Funches), and by 1955 they had renamed themselves the Dells and became a quintet after the departure of Lucius McGill. The group cut the exquisite “Oh What A Night” for Vee Jay Records in 1956 which became a million seller, and one of the most loved doo-wop songs in the history of the genre.
Follow-up singles didn’t hit, and the group was derailed temporarily after a serious 1958 car accident which involved Mickey McGill. The group put their career on hold until 1960, when Mickey recovered, but Johnny Funches had left (to be replaced with Johnny Carter). This lineup remained stable for FIFTY years until Johnny Carter passed away in 2009.
The Dells spent the early part of the ’60’s as studio singers (most notably singing the backups on Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger”; a performance which I rank as one of the all-time greats, both from Barbara Lewis and The Dells). The group cut several unsuccessful (but usually quite good) singles for Vee Jay during these years, but their career renaissance began when they were signed to Chess records and began working under the production and writing talent of Bobby Miller. The singles released by the group between ’66-’68 are some of the greatest ever, and the LP There Is, which collects some of these 45s and adds in a few more stellar tracks, is simply one of the greatest soul LP’s ever released.
“Wear It On Our Face” (1968) is one of my favorites from the mighty Dells; with its freaky but great steel drum/piano intro forward into the extraordinary lead vocal from Marvin Junior, the group harmonies and the power of the musicians take us to a place where time stops and the transcendence of music is all that matters.
“Fool, Fool, Fool” was Barbara Acklin’s debut 45 under her own name (an earlier release credited her as Barbara Allen on a tiny label), released on the Chicago soul powerhouse label Brunswick Records in 1967. Ms Acklin was born in Oakland, CA in 1943, and her family moved to Chicago in 1957. Her clear, soaring soprano was just the type of voice that was favored by the record makers of Chicago, yet Barbara also displayed a wide depth of range in her voice which is heard brilliantly here. The record is super cool, with a very appealing echo on the drums and fantastic call and response vocals. Super catchy, but it barely made a dent commercially, making for a very hard to find 45.
Quite unusually, The Vontastics lead vocalist (Bobby Newsome) was also the chief songwriter for this groups’ excellent handful of 45’s. This stomper of a side from 1967 is one that has resonated deeply with me from the first time I’ve heard it, and it’s one that is ALWAYS in my DJ box. There may be moments where the group harmonies waver a bit out of tune, but to my ears it only adds to the power and soul of this righteous track.
Previously: Wax Wonders :: Chicago Soul, Part One
(Derek See is a Bay area based musician who plays guitar with The Bang Girl Group Revue, Joel Gion & Primary Colours, and occasionally makes records on his own with The Gentle Cycle.)