Category Archives: Chicago Cultural History

Michael Abramson: Pulse of the Night.

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all photos by Michael L. Abramson

What goes on at small clubs is ephemeral by nature: society created and dismantled night after night. A delicate hierarchy composed of drifters, dreamers, and those simply longing to escape. In the mid 1970s, a young white student, Michael Abramson, worked his way into the world of largely black South Side Chicago clubs. He brought his camera along for the ride, capturing images that otherwise would’ve vanished like smoke from a languishing cigarette.

The photos were taken at famous spots, such as Perv’s House (owned by Pervis Staples of the Staple Singers fame), the Patio Lounge, and Pepper’s Hideout. These clubs hosted live music that was a heady mix of blues, funk, and soul by artists like Bobby Rush, Hi-Fi White, Little Mac Simmons, and much more. The current South Side Chicago club scene (in terms of live, homegrown entertainment) is a shell of its former self. That fact makes these photos that much more valuable.

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Currently, dozens of Abramson’s photos from this period are on display through Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography. According to the Museum, “this work earned Abramson a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and launched his successful career as a portraiture photographer and photojournalist. Abramson’s photographs can be found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago History Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and the California Museum of Photography.”

These photos of grit and gold lamé, born amidst midnight debauchery, are displayed between reference materials at the Columbia College Library. The juxtaposition is not lost on me. Despite their stoic surroundings, they simply hum with electricity.

LadyFanPervs10776The Michael L. Abramson: Pulse of the Night exhibition is located on the second floor of the Columbia College Chicago Library, 624 S. Michigan Avenue. It is on display until December 19th, 2014.

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An Evening at the Forum: Jive and Jitterbug on!

evening at the forum event flyer

I’ll be spinning a very special set on Wednesday, September 24th in Chicago’s Bronzeville Community. All 1920s through 1950s music (with a few copacetic newer tracks sprinkled in). All vinyl. Actually, I’m trying to figure out if I’m bringing my Victrola. Then it’d be vinyl and shellac.

Lil Green Chicago

The event is titled “An Evening at the Forum”, and I am very excited that this building, and all the culture it represents, will be celebrated. That’s especially true because, not long ago, The Forum building nearly perished.

The Forum was built around 1900, and was slated for demolition in 2011. That’s when Bernard Loyd’s final bid for the property was accepted. That’s also when the work to restore the building (that’s suffered from decades of neglect) really began. Chicagopatterns.com did a really though job documenting some of the history, imagery, and narratives surrounding the space. I highly recommend that you check out their work here.

from the organizers of the event:

“On September 24, The Forum will pay homage to the Golden Age of Bronzeville with An Evening at The Forum, a retro-themed block party. The evening will revive key elements of the era – notably music and dance – while drawing the attention of locals and visitors to major redevelopment projects slated for historic 43rd Street.

The event will feature sounds from the 20’s through the 50’s by DJ Ayana Contreras, dance lessons by Big City Blues, historical tours by Chicago Patterns, classic children’s tales by Jason Driver, old fashioned games for children & adults, prohibition-era “mocktails” and hors d’oeuvres, and a preview of CRib Productions‘ “Juke Joint” a short which was recently filmed at Forum Hall, the iconic centerpiece of The Forum.

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the particulars:

An Evening at the Forum

Wednesday, September 24th

6-9pm

The Forum

318-328 E 43rd St, Chicago, Illinois 60653

UPDATE! Here’s a couple of images from the event, courtesy of Urban Juncture.

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Reclaimed Soul: Blues + Soul in Chicago, The 4 Brothers Story

Chicago is known worldwide for its electrified Delta Blues. Chicago’s also known for its sweet Soul Music. And during the 1960s, those musical traditions combined at Four Brothers, a tiny record label based at a famous West Side Chicago record shop called Barney’s One-Stop. This podcast features  some of the hip, soul-flavored blues from the Four Brothers label. Plus, we hear soulful blues from all corners of the city.

A bit about 4 Brothers:

The label existed from 1965 through 1967. Its sister label was Bright Star.
Willie Barney, Jack Daniels (A&R / Production), Granville White were the principal “brothers”. The fourth “brother” might have been Harold Burrage (or maybe someone with business interests that preferred not to be named dot-dot-dot.)

In the late 1960s, Jack Daniels, along with Johnny Moore (another 4 Brothers/Bright Star associated artist and writer) cut a number of hard hitting soul records. In fact, Jack Daniels co-wrote Tyrone Davis’ blockbuster soul record “Turn Back the Hands of Time”. Tyrone Davis had recorded for 4 Brothers under the name Tyrone the Wonder Boy.

For fresh episodes of Reclaimed Soul, listen in Thursdays at 8pm CST on vocalo.org, or tune in to 89.5fm (NW Indy) and 90.7fm (CHI)


The House That Jive Built.

house that jive builtI collect records. All sorts of records. That includes eighty year old records that I play on my Victrola. Often, I am just as interested in the physical state of the record as I am in the music itself. For instance, the label affixed to this label is interesting. First off, it lets me know this 78rpm was bought during World War II (1942) in the heart of Bronzeville (4712 S. Parkway) at the Groove Record Shop (“The House that Jive Built”). Awesome. Interestingly enough 4712 S. Parkway was (and is) the location of an actual house. To be more precise, it’s the location of a Greystone two-flat.

Pretty cool. Also, Griff Williams played at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, so there’s a rock solid Chicago connection.

The Groove Record Shop was located directly across the street from the original Regal Theater, a legendary venue that featured movies as well as marquee talent. The theater opened in 1928. Artists from Louis Armstrong to Jackie Wilson performed there. Today, another theater in Chicago bears the name “Regal”. Sadly, the original was demolished in 1970.

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Photo of Regal Theater: “Movie theater, Southside, Chicago, Illinois” (1941, Library of Congress)

The African-American Cultural Center (AACC) at UIC is currently presenting a Chicago Blues Museum exhibit “The Soul of Bronzeville.” See more images of the “Black Metropolis” and learn about how the Regal Theater played a significant role in the neighborhood development.

Now through August 2014
Time: Monday – Friday 10am to 5pm
Saturday and Sunday by appointment only
Where: UIC African-American Cultural Center,
Addams Hall, room 207
830 S. Halsted
Chicago, IL 60607


The Parishioner: St. Laurence’s Last Days.

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This Summer, on the South Side of Chicago, St. Laurence’s is finally coming down.  The grounds, which included a rectory and a school, already suffered through a devastating fire and neglect. the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the church in 2002.

The former parishioner in the above photo came to pay his respects, fittingly, on a honeyed Sunday evening. He attended St. Laurence’s School next door as a child.

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It’s hard to express the stunning beauty of this building, even as it crumbled before our eyes. According to Preservation Chicago, the building dates back to 1911. The complex was listed as one of Chicago’s 7 most threatened buildings by Preservation Chicago in 2011, the building’s 100th anniversary. Landmarks Illinois, an organization dedicated to  historic preservation, stated that “this collection of buildings is one of Chicago’s most intact and impressive early-20th century religious complexes.” And yet, it’s being demolished. Brick by Chicago brick.

Here’s some more recent pictures of the complex from danxoneil’s Flickr page:

There’s a metaphor here, somewhere. Perhaps it’s like watching a sleeping giant. Or a fallen warrior. Watching this building decay slowly has been surreal. Now that slow decay has been quickened.

I had a student a couple of years ago who didn’t really talk a lot. I asked her one day to sum up the toll an abandoned building puts on a block, on a community.

Her words still haunt me: “They are a black hole in the community”. Of course. Everything dark circulates around them: drugs, crime, strife. Darkness itself is housed within it. Yet, St. Laurence’s still shone bright, especially on sunny, cloudless days. A passerby might almost forget that time was ravaging the building from the inside out. Still, if a building could be proud, despite decay, that building was.

Grand Crossing’s Patron Saint of Building Redemption, artist Theaster Gates, told me not long ago that he had looked into saving it, but it was beyond repair by then. Its days were numbered.

I can’t help but feel as though if this building had been on the North Side (Roscoe Village, perhaps) and not nestled in Grand Crossing, its fate might have been different.


100 Saxophones for Sun Ra

100 Saxophones for Sun Ra

Chicago Free Jazz composer and saxophonist David Boykin invites you to participate in 100 Saxophones for Sun Ra. David is currently a Resident Artist at the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life/Center for the Study of Race Politics and Culture.

David has put out an open call for 100 saxophonists to participate in a musical tribute to Sun Ra in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. 100 saxophonists will convene and perform “Happy Birthday” at 12 noon in Washington Park (on Chicago’s South Side) on Thursday May 22, 2014, his 100th birthday.

According to the open call:

“This is a historic opportunity to share our collective energy in honor of this musician whose musical, political and spiritual philosophy has been impactful and transformative to so many. His legacy continues because of the ways in which his musical innovation has been central to the free jazz movement in Chicago and beyond.

[David] chose this space and place because of its significance to [Sun Ra]. Along with other musicians, artists and activists he gathered in the park to play and to teach. In celebration of this work we invite you to participate in this gathering of saxophonists of all ages.”
RSVPs should be sent by email to info@sonichealingministries.com

Free bus transportation is available for student groups that wish to participate. Please contact Dominique L. Boyd for bus arrangements at dominiquelboyd@uchicago.edu

Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993) was a prolific jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his “cosmic philosophy,” musical compositions and performances. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a 1979 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

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Dreaming of Summer with Phil Cohran.

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Swooooon. Phil Cohran. Chicago. Those credits (including session all-star Master Henry Gibson) are as lovely as the cover (shot at 63rd Street Beach). I’d love to have been among the crush of lovely brown flesh, on the cusp of the Lake, trying to catch strains of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble back around 1968. He has a whole slide show of photos like these. They are amazing.

Master Henry Gibson played congas on Curtis Mayfield’s “Curtis”, “Superfly”, and scores of other records. Pete Cosey played on dozens of records with artists ranging from Muddy Waters to Miles Davis. Louis Satterfield and Don Myrick were later a part of Earth, Wind, & Fire… and that’s just getting started. Phil is of course, the genius/lynchpin that holds so much of Chicago’s musical legacy together.

Chicago has an amazing tradition of soul stirring music, including soulful, spiritual jazz…This record included.

Dreaming of Summer.


A bit about Black Rock Bands out of Detroit.

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This weekend at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I caught a documentary about Death, a 1970s all-black proto-punk band out of Detroit. The documentary, titled “A Band Called Death” chronicled the group’s forming, brush with success, and descent into obscurity. The master tapes of their sole album, recorded under Don Davis’ Groovesville productions languished in an attic for over thirty years. That is until a perfect storm of record collectors resurrected the work, resulting in a New York Times article, a reissue, and a tour.

It was interesting that one refrain in particular was repeated throughout the documentary:

black people in Detroit just weren’t doing rock.

Sure, it wasn’t the norm; but I think that the idea that black people weren’t doing rock is an over-generalization. I would argue that early Funkadelic (especially the album “Maggot Brain“) is as much Rock as it is Funk. The wailing guitars melded seamlessly with gospel-tinged organs and sizzling drums into something quite some distance from Motown. Oh yes, and Eddie Hazel is a totally under-appreciated face-melting guitarist.

Besides, it’s worth noting that most classic “rock” idioms come from some sort of “black” music (from the earliest Rock and Roll to the Blues).

The other refrain heard in the documentary “A Band Called Death” was that the name “Death” was a huge stumbling block in the way of their success.

Interestingly, an all-black rock group called  Black Merda came out of Detroit and recorded an album here in Chicago for Chess Records in 1970. They worked with another Detroit-based rock artist called Fugi (who also released some singles on Chess). It was by no accident that these folks found their way to Chess.

By 1969, Chess had released some unbelievable psychedelic Blues records featuring the label’s biggest stars, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. The backing bands were, for the most part, black (featuring Chicago session artists Morris Jennings, Pete Cosey, and more).

Below is a picture of Anthony Hawkins of Black Merda (with “Mary”) circa 1969. They are proudly holding copies of the two psychedelic blues records by Muddy Waters: After the Rain (1969) and Electric Mud (1968). More on those albums can be found here.

Mary, Anthony 1968 Photos from Black Merda

Black Merda’s album was released; but didn’t sell many copies. But, I’d credit their obscurity to the subsequent sale and implosion of Chess Records, rather than their death-related name.

Jive on.


Merri Dee: Media Legend On Chicago Radio Again.

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Many Chicagoans know Merri Dee as a personality on WGN-TV; but her roots on Chicago Radio are undeniable. She hosted a popular program in the late 60s and early 70s on WBEE (a station out of Harvey). The above ad for her show, “The Merri Dee Magic Sound” ran in the Woodlawn Booster back in 1970.

About a year after this ad was published,  A stalker shot Ms. Dee multiple times and left her for dead. She ultimately recovered, and went on to spend nearly 4 decades at WGN.

Merri Dee is an amazing woman who has overcome the odds (including abuse and attempted murder) to be a beacon of light, a trailblazer, and a role model for women of color… especially those (like me) who work in media here in Chicago.

Ms. Dee will be the featured guest on Vocalo‘s Barber Shop Show (which airs live from Carter’s Barber Shop  in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood). She will talk about her life, and her newly published memoir, titled “Merri Dee, Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace”.

The Barber Shop Show is hosted by WBEZ’s Richard Steele, and streams on http://vocalo.org Fridays at Noon. On-air, Chicago listeners can tune into 89.5fm or 90.7fm. Tune in tomorrow (June 28th) at Noon for her riveting story.

UPDATE: In case you missed the show, you can hear the archived version here:


Join Ayana Contreras: Monkey Hustlin’ in Chicago.

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I will be hosting a film screening of 1976’s Monkey Hustle at the Black Cinema House on Sunday, June 9th at 6pm. We will watch the film (which was shot mere blocks from where we’ll be watching it), and then discuss it.

Monkey Hustle – hosted by Ayana Contreras

Black Cinema House
6901 S. Dorchester Ave., Chicago

Sunday, June 9th at 6pm

Seating is limited, so please RSVP by emailing blackcinemahouse@rebuild-foundation.org to reserve your seats.

For more on the film, see my review below.

Monkey Hustle is a black film shot in Chicago in the 1970s (a rarity, in that regard), around the same time as Cooley High.  Mainly shot around 63rd Street, East of the Dan Ryan (the Woodlawn Neighborhood), and various West Side locations, the city figures prominently in the overall vibe of the film.  Starring in Monkey Hustle are (among others): Yaphet Kotto as a small-time hustler/love interest of the lovely Rosalind Cash, and a very young Debbi Morgan as Cash’s daughter.

Cash runs the local teenage hangout.  As the neighborhood hero/big-time hustler, we have Rudy Ray Moore (who is also Cash’s alternate love interest).  The other major character is Win, Debbi Morgan’s love interest who, despite showing promise for bigger things, dips deeper and deeper into the “Monkey Hustle” with Kotto.

The overlying plot is fairly pointed:  The city government is pushing ahead on plans to construct an expressway on land currently occupied by the neighborhood (which was actually happening in real-life Chicago… remember the plans for that “Crosstown Expressway“?).  Ultimately, the set-up becomes ‘the hustle must go on to save the community (by any means necessary)’.  Overall, a message movie with too many competing angles.  But fun for the shots of Chicago (and the girl fight).