Chicago soul, part two

(Ed. note: more of my favorite late ‘60s Chicago soul this week and a continuation of a very early Office Naps post – back when I wouldn’t let minutiae like research or facts stand in the way of posting.)

Like its Great Lakes counterpart Detroit, Chicago in the 1960s was a vast industrial landscape, a city with a substantial and concentrated African-American population, much of whom had migrated in earlier decades from the Mississippi Delta and other parts of the American South.

Though it had its Brunswick Records in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Chicago, unlike Detroit, never truly had its own Motown Records, that national tastemaker, that entity which so thoroughly dominated the local record industry. Chicago had its own homegrown economy of labels, though, a network that serviced and sustained itself through the African-American community. Successful independent record labels – United, Mercury, Vee-Jay and, perhaps most critically, Chess Records – registered both the vibrancy of Chicago’s post-War African-American demographic and north-by-south pedigree of its music scene. Its appeal would extend well beyond Lake Michigan, too, with millions of Chicago blues, R&B;, gospel and jazz records sold nationally in the post-War decades. And the ensuing infrastructure of A&R; men, distributors, studios, record stores, clubs, promoters, session musicians and entrepreneurs – the bedrock of a strong record industry – carried Chicago soul music well into the ‘70s, its record industry more formidable, diverse and ultimately more resilient than Detroit’s.

Chicago’s well-developed concentration of R&B-oriented; labels would be the foundation from which the soul-oriented labels could emerge after a gospel-infused number like Jerry Butler and the Impressions’ “For Your Precious Love” proved an early hit in 1958. Artists like Jerry Butler, the Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, Gene Chandler, the Sheppards and the Dells paved the way for soul’s organic evolution from R&B; established labels like Chess, Okeh and Vee-Jay – as well as new indies like Constellation and One-Derful – would be there to capture it. Soul music was ascendant, the hits rolled in, and many of Chicago’s own would be national stars by the mid-‘60s: Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Betty Everett, the Dells, Gene Chandler, the Artistics, the Vibrations, Fontella Bass, McKinley Mitchell.
Most soul groups and soloists truly were vocalists only, however, and their backing, as had long been tradition, was still primarily assembled from session musicians, their productions in turn orchestrated by studio arrangers and engineers. If the Chicago soul idiom had begun to coalesce in the mid-’60s, then behind-the-scenes names like Burgess Gardner, Calvin Carter, Carl Davis, Billy Davis, Johnny Pate, Bill Sheppard, Johnny Cameron, Willie Henderson would define that style every bit as much as the performers themselves. (Some, like Curtis Mayfield, Syl Johnson and Monk Higgins were immersed in both worlds.)

This week’s selections, all made in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, reflect a pattern common amongst all commercial recordings, the tendency, that is, to appropriate the sound and spirit of their popular contemporaries. Specifically, these selections reflect the sound of industry veteran Carl Davis’s Brunswick Records (and its sister label Dakar), a Chicago label then rising with hits like Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher” (1967), the Artistics’ “I’m Gonna Miss You” (1967), Barbara Acklin’s “Love Makes A Woman” (1968), Tyrone Davis’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time” (1970) and Gene Chandler’s “The Girl Don’t Care” (1967). Carl Davis was an A&R; man, vice-president and, importantly, a producer at Brunswick Records. His aesthetic was dramatic – strings, vibraphones and an abundance of the soaring, sophisticated, gospel-infused harmonies that have been so identified with Chicago soul since the early soul hits of the Dells and the Impressions. Davis’s productions also managed a rhythmic wallop, too – loud bottom end and clear drums – that resonated with the dancefloor.

Brunswick Records embodied both the sound and hit-making success of late ‘60s and early ’70s Chicago soul – according to that logic, these selections should’ve been hits. But then you wouldn’t be reading about them on Office Naps, of course.

1. The Roe-O-Tation, Old Love (Gerim)
Precious little is known of the Roe-O-Tation themselves, but the credits of their sole 45 reveal much: this record was the handiwork of Gerald Sims, a name ubiquitous in ‘60s Chicago soul.

Gerald Sims, born in 1940 and a participant on the city’s music scene since his arrival from Kalamazoo, Michigan at age nineteen, was absorbed early on into the Daylighters, a vocal group then recently transplanted from Alabama. His considerable musical gifts – singing, writing, guitar playing – found Sims assuming lead vocal and songwriting duties for the Daylighters, and he would oversee the group’s transition from R&B; to soul with solid regional hits like 1962’s “Cool Breeze” and “I Can’t Stop Crying.” Sims himself would release two obscure soul singles under his own name on Okeh Records. His performing career, however, would be exchanged for expanded behind-the-scenes duties as a session guitarist, songwriter and producer with Okeh, Constellation and Chess Records, easily three of the city’s most vital soul labels in the mid-‘60s. Later that decade, Sims procured work as a songwriter and orchestra leader at Brunswick Records, but – before finally landing a producer role at Jerry Butler’s Fountain Productions in the early ‘70s – Sims worked in some time to release one record, this selection, on his own independent label, Gerim. Likely produced in 1969 or ’70, “Old Love” (and its flipside, “Special Category”) would be a one-off trial run for Sims’ label aspirations.

The sublime “Old Love” is a production in every sense of the word, a stunning bit of theater with wild tempo changes and an almost psychedelic vibes-and-guitar breakdown – great for making the whole dancefloor list to one side. “Old Love” makes you wonder what was happening in 1970. These soul guys were always running into old girlfriends on the street.

Gerim Records operations would be revived in the early ‘80s – the Chicago scene a pale shadow of the powerhouse it had been a decade earlier – for a brief flurry of contemporary soul releases from local groups like MC², Encore and 7 Miles High.

2. The Esquires, Reach Out (Capitol)
The Esquires, a group best known for 1967’s harmony-soul hit “Get On Up,” were originally formed at Milwaukee’s North Division High School in the late ‘50s by siblings Gilbert, Alvis and Betty Moorer and a series of neighborhood acquaintances.

Though popular in their native city, the Esquires did not record until relocating to Chicago in 1966, where the young group caught the attention of Bill “Bunky” Sheppard. Former A&R; man at the recently bankrupt Vee-Jay Records, independent promoter and manager, owner and vice-president of Constellation Records: Sheppard was an entrepreneur completely immersed in the city’s music industry.

Following the collapse of Constellation Records, Sheppard was shopping for talent for his new label, Bunky Records, and the Esquires impressed Sheppard enough to record a Gilbert Moorer original, “Get On Up.” Released in the summer of 1967, “Get On Up,” characteristic of their sleek, falsetto-led sound, was a huge pop and R&B; hit, and it unequivocally put both Bunky Records and the Esquires on the map. It would be their biggest hit, too, though the Esquires, suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, would continue to work closely with Sheppard, charting with late ‘60s singles like “And Get Away,” “You’ve Got the Power” and “Girls in the City.”

1969’s “Reach Out” was released on Capitol Records, based in Los Angeles, but don’t let that fool you. This embodies Windy City soul in all of its brassy, thumping glory; one doesn’t mistake Chicago soul like one doesn’t mistake an oncoming freight train. Produced and written by Bill Sheppard and Tom “Tom Tom” Washington (a Chicago-based arranger closely aligned with Sheppared), “Reach Out” was recorded by an incarnation of the group comprised of Gilbert and Alvis Moorer, Millard Evans and Sam Pace (part of the group from their Milwaukee days). It is silly-energetic, a 45 single flinging itself at the pop charts through exuberance alone, and a lesson in why that rarely works. Too bad. The Esquires’ star had begun to plateau a bit, but it wasn’t reflected on this gem.

Their last chart hit was their 1976 disco remake “Get On Up ’76.” As of ten years ago at least, the Esquires were still singing together in some capacity.

3. Judson Moore, Everybody Push and Pull (Capri)
“Everybody Push and Pull”: obscure soul dance, you-got-your-thing-I-got-mine party anthem. Push. Pull. Or not. Just be yourself, baby.

Research returns nothing on Judson Moore, and little more about either Capri Records – a label with a few other obscure 1970-era releases by Fred Johnson (“I Need Love”) the Scott Brothers (“Gotta Get Away From You”) and Reggie Soul and the Soul Swingers
(“My World of Ecstasy”) – or this selection’s principal producer Al Altog, who had a hand in releasing a few singles by the Soul Majestics on his own Al-Tog label in the early ‘70s.

This was speculatively recorded in 1970, the year that Rufus Thomas recorded his “(Do The) Push and Pull” on Stax Records.

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