This holiday season, my first book (which deals with many of the ideas and themes in this blog), will be published through University of Illinois Press. I’m over the moon to get this collection of uplifting narratives about the city I adore out into the world. Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago outlines the undefeatable culture of Black Chicago, past and present.
ABOUT THE BOOK
From Afro Sheen to Theaster Gates and from Soul Train to Chance the Rapper, Black Chicago draws sustenance from a culture rooted in self-determination, aspiration, and hustle. Ayana Contreras embarks on a journey to share the implausible success stories and breathtaking achievements of Black Chicago’s artists and entrepreneurs. Past and present generations speak with one another, maintaining a vital connection to a beautiful narrative of Black triumph and empowerment that still inspires creativity and pride. Contreras weaves a hidden history from these true stories and the magic released by undervalued cultural artifacts. As she does, the idea that the improbable is always possible emerges as an indestructible Afro-Optimism that binds a people together.
Passionate and enlightening, Energy Never Dies uses the power of storytelling to show how optimism and courage fuel the dreams of Black Chicago.
“Contreras puts virtually every aspect of Black Chicago culture, music, business breakthroughs, and more on the table, then shows exactly how they are all interconnected. She writes the book as the Black experience is actually lived–this guy knows that guy, but the other guy used to work for the two of them. And none of it would’ve happened were it not for a certain audacious manner of hope and optimism found in Black Chicago.”–Lee Bey, author of Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side
“In Energy Never Dies, Ayana Contreras crafts an intensely intimate and loving portrait of Black Chicago that that will illuminate, even to lifelong South and West Siders, the distinctiveness of our cultural history and worldview. This book offers urgently needed blueprints for extending the work and actualizing the dreams of the Great Migrants.”–Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, coeditor of L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema
(originally published in the December 2020 installment of the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s JazzGram)
Chicago saxophonist Eddie Harris is perhaps best remembered as an unabashed experimentalist, famously playing the Varitone electronic saxophone on albums like Plug Me In (1968). He also utilized an early tape looping mechanism (now so en vogue) on 1969’s Silver Cycles. So, Eddie Harris Sings The Blues (1972) stands less as an outlier than as a further testament to his legacy of sonic risk tasking.
Sings The Blues opens with the track “Please Let Me Go”. AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams employs an RMI Electra-piano, all flickers of chunky, reverb-drenched notes. This unusual fanfare sets the scene for Eddie Harris to serenade us, very literally singing to us though the mouthpiece of his electric horn, which he further muddled through a wah wah pedal. Naysayers and purists might be tempted to stop reading here, but the truth of the matter is that Eddie achieved an absolutely spellbinding effect on this album with indefinite vocalizations that defy casual listening. After Eddie sings a few plaintive bars on “Please Let Me Go”, a gorgeous swell of strings blooms on the otherwise sparse track (rounded out by Rufus Reid’s upright bass), enveloping his vocalizations flawlessly. The strings come courtesy of E. Zlatoff Mirsky, Sol Bobrov and the rest of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strings that played on countless Chicago Soul music recordings in the 1960s and 70s (from Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me” to Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and beyond), so you know they can swing.
This album may not be an outlier in Eddie Harris’ catalogue in terms of sheer novelty, but it reflects the cross-pollination found on the Chicago music scene circa 1972. For further proof, the horn section on “Walk With Me” included Willie Henderson & Burgess Gardner, record producers and players responsible for hits by artists like Tyrone Davis (“Turn Back The Hands Of Time”) and Barbara Acklin (“Am I The Same Girl”) at Brunswick Records.
Andre Fischer (of the rock band The American Breed [“Bend Me, Shape Me”], and later of the funk band Rufus featuring Chaka Khan) played drums on that track, as well. Marshall Thompson (a member of The Chi-Lites) even contributed percussion accompaniment on a handful of tracks. And the strings, horns and vocals on the album were arranged by Richard Evans (of Chess/ Cadet Records fame) who had proven at that label to be as deft at working in soulful modes as he was with jazz and blues.
The title of this album is reminiscent of the Billie Holiday standard titled “Lady Sings The Blues”, and Eddie’s hazy, blurred out voice on “Please Let Me Go” and “Eddie Sings The Blues” bears more than a passing resemblance to Ms. Holiday’s (particularly in regards to his phrasing). And on “Please Let Me Go” in particular, arranger Richard Evans dials up an arrangement befitting a gardenia-adorned torch singer. However, this album was not recorded as a cash-in response after the release of the popular Diana Ross film Lady Sings The Blues (a fictionalized account of the life and death of Billie Holiday). Eddie Sings The Blues was recorded months before the film’s release, and contains no material that was previously recorded by Holiday. But Eddie definitely had a sense of humor (even releasing an infamous album of comedy monologues in 1976), so it very well may have been recorded anticipating the film’s ultimate success. Besides, any level of confusion related to the album’s title would likely have pleased him.
But, ultimately, the album’s ambiguous connections to a Billie Holiday biopic are not what makes this album notable. Eddie Harris Sings the Blues is a fairly lean album (weighing in at 6 tracks, soaking wet) that somehow delivers the sort of blues that begs for a Formica bar stool and a stiff gimlet on “Eddies Sings The Blues”, moody, big band jazz on “Please Let Me Go”, the sort of soulful jazz you might find on a Young-Holt Unlimited album on “Walk With Me”, and even a playful, positively angular, Latin-tinged romp through “Giant Steps”. In short, it’s a deeply soulful album flecked with avant touches and a flair for the dramatic that never teeters into schmaltziness.
A tribute to classic Chicago radio station WJPC (Ebony/Jet’s radio station) hosted by Reclaimed Soul host Ayana Contreras with former WJPC program director Richard Steele, an interview with Chicago disco/soul legend Linda Clifford (“Runaway Love”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now”).
We hear vintage WJPC audio including Richard Steele back in 1974 and Linda Clifford’s interview with Wali Muhammad from 1978. We also hear classic music and deep cuts from Ms. Clifford as well as her own story.
Below, Linda and Richard pictured in 2018 and in 1978, respectively.
Catch fresh installments of Reclaimed Soul Thursdays at 8pm and Sundays at 8am (CST) on vocalo.org/player or over the air on 91.1fm (CHI)
Donny Hathaway was born in Chicago and raised in St. Louis. Early in his career, he returned to Chicago. During that time period, roughly from 1968 until about 1971, Donny was very prolific. In this hour of Reclaimed Soul, Ayana Contreras explores Donny Hathaway’s early work arranging and writing for other artists in Chicago: from Albertina Walker, Syl Johnson, and Curtis Mayfield, to The Five Stairsteps and Little Milton. We’ll also hear some of his classics, compositions, and some of his very first recordings.
Darkjive, dear readers, is strictly a labor of love: simply put, if I love a song from Chicago (or am enamored by a story) I’ll share it.
This is no different.
“This is Our Love Story” (by the Harvey Allison Experience featuring The Whole Truth) is a luscious soul record that lacks a lot of info on the label. A man and a woman serenade one another, voices intertwined like ivy.
Printed on the Truth Is Records release, the year listed is 1980. No city. I suspected that it was at least from the Midwest. No smoking gun collaborators, though. No usual Chicago suspects. No Willie Henderson. No Carl Davis. Not even a Jim Porter.
But one day, hopping around YouTube, I found the following early ’80s music video recorded at the CopHerbox II, which was pronounced “Copper Box” located in….wait for it… Chicago! 117th and Halsted to be exact. The club had a local variety TV show called the Chicago Party.
And so, I present to you: Mr. Ken Allison and Diane Harvey (Harvey Allison Experience, get it?) with “This is Our Love Story”. Watching them perform makes me love the song more. And, dig that scene! In case you want more: local label Numero Group has apparently put out a compilation featuring the music and the visuals of The Chicago Party.
Moses Lucky Cordell was born July 28, 1928 in Mississippi. His mother died when Lucky was three, and his family moved to Chicago. Cordell graduated from Dunbar High School in 1946. He went on to a long career in Chicago Radio, initially as a disc jockey (known as the “Baron of Bounce”) and by 1970, he became General Manager at the storied WVON. He also produced records by local artists such as Heaven and Earth, as well as a lesser-known soul group called New Image (1977).
He even released a number of spoken-word records under his own name, which all dealt with themes of love, upliftment, spirituality, and building positive character. The songs had titles like “Happiness”, “You Made a Man out of Me”, “Good Morning Lord”, “A Great Day”, and “This is the Woman I Love” (1969). “This is the Woman I Love” was written and produced by fellow radio disc jockey Richard Pegue. Initially released on Pegue’s Nickel label, the record was picked up for national distribution by Cotillion Records.
Lucky Cordell’s two daughters were also recording artists, releasing two very good records under the name “Pat & Pam” in the early 1970s (click here for more on that).
Cordell was socially engaged and politically minded. He left full-time radio in the 1980s to pursue work with the Chicago Urban League and Operation PUSH.
Cordell died tragically on July 7th of this year at the age of 86 from injuries sustained in a fire at his South Shore home.
According to sources close to the family, he put himself in harm’s way attempting to save his daughter, Pat, who became trapped. The fire began in her bedroom, according to her sister Pamela. The fire was reportedly started by smoking materials.
Under Lucky Cordell’s leadership, WVON became “one of the biggest radio stations in Chicago”, as well as “one of the most influential R&B stations in the country”, according to chicagoradioandmedia.com. Here’s a recording of Lucky Cordell in rare form:
Do the Camel Walk! Last week on Reclaimed Soul, host Ayana Contreras played this rare local Chicago Blues/Soul record by Bobby Rush (not the former Black Panther turned Politician) from about 1968.
In case you were wondering how to do the then-popular dance, here’s a clip of James Brown asking Sammy Davis, Jr. if he “remembers” how to do it. And he does it. And it’s pretty great.
…But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. James Brown at the time was known for integrating the Camel Walk into his stage show. But the dance had its roots way back in the 1920s as a ragtime dance… So, it was retro even in the 1960s. Good things come back around. Or, so they say. Jive on.
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 Natural Four, Natural Four This was released here in Chicago on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1974. The Natural Four was a group that came here from San Francisco to record because Chicago was a soul-music center. Unfortunately, aside from scoring a Top 40 hit with this album’s classic lead track, “Can This Be Real,” the group was unable to break through. Natural Four brims with loping strings, aggressive horns, and slinky harmonies.
Andrew Hill, Lift Every Voice I collect old Blue Note albums, and I’m often initially attracted to their covers. This 1970 release features Hill’s face superimposed over stars and violet nebulas, and the record itself is softly stratospheric in its energy. Hill leads a crowd of vocalists and an instrumental quintet that includes Richard Davis on bass and Carlos Garnett on tenor sax. With song titles such as “Love Chant,” “Ghetto Lights,” and “Hey Hey,” the record gently envelops you with a sense of perpetual motion—sometimes it feels like you’re swinging in a hammock, and sometimes it’s like you’re running electrically in the streets.
Sunday Williams, “Where Did He Come From“ Sunday Williams recorded this single in Chicago around 1969 for Bill Meeks’s Alteen label, based on Stony Island Avenue. It did OK locally, mainly thanks to the cheery flip side, “Ain’t Got No Problems” (which features the hook “Know what to do with my man, yeah!”). Really, both songs are stellar. But “Where Did He Come From” has a hauntingly beautiful staccato horn intro, coupled with dreamy vibes and a rock-solid bass line.
Proof positive that I do listen to stuff that’s not from Chicago, sometimes. For the rest of the article, click here.
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 with Phil Cohran.
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