Tag Archives: Local Chicago Soul

Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Black Chicago


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.


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

You can preorder the book here: https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=84kcq6nx9780252044069

I’m a sucker for colored wax; but this is more than just a pretty face.


clear curtis mayfield 45

I just found this lovely promo record. As you can see, it’s Curtis Mayfield’s “We Got to Have Peace”. It’s from the album Roots that he released back in 1971. The album was released months before Superfly, and it is just as wonderful.

Released on Curtom Records (Curtis’ own label), this promo is pretty rare. Colored vinyl (especially on 45) from this period is quite rare, in fact. Rarer still is a vanity label (unique to the release). Generally speaking, colored vinyl promos were created to make people (DJs particularly) stop and take notice.

And notice I did, 40 some years later.

In the year following the epic 1970 album Curtis, Mayfield was mounting a campaign to fully express himself as a solo artist in ways he couldn’t as a member of the arguably more conservative Impressions.

In his initial solo outings, the songs were markedly longer, basslines were funkier, African percussion became prominent, and horns a bit jauntier. But Mayfield’s commitment to exploring the full spectrum of black experience (something very evident in Impressions records) never wavered. Curtis was particularly keen at expressing voices of Urban Black Men: those who struggled, scratched, loved, dreamed, and believed. His expressions are still relevant today, wrought with eloquent and earthy simplicity. As far as I’m concerned, “Move on Up” is a Black National Anthem.

Witness an artifact.

Jive on.

Reclaimed Soul Episode 037: Otis Clay’s Truth Is…

otisclayOn this installment of Reclaimed Soul (my radio show), we’re be graced by Chicago vocalist Otis Clay. We listen to some favorite deep records from his 50+ year career that spans Gospel, Soul, and Blues.

We also hear about the father figures in Otis Clay’s career, and about why he decided to start his own record label. He even talks about how it felt to find out that he’s “big in Japan” (among other places).

Plus, we’ll sample his newest album, “Truth Is” which was produced and arranged by Chicago Soul heavyweight Tom Tom Washington (Tom Tom also contributed to this interview).

for more on Reclaimed Soul, visit: vocaloreclaimedsoul.tumblr.com


Terry Callier: You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman.

We lost Terry Callier on Sunday. He was an artist who melded Soul, Folk, and Jazz seamlessly. My first experience with his music is detailed below.

This portion of the post was originally posted on Darkjive on October 17th, 2009:

I remember where I was when I first heard [“Dancing Girl” by Terry Callier]: the local round-the-way record store [back when  I was in high school].  The carpet was checkered with the maytag logo in bittersweet on brown (harkening back to the store’s past life).  There we stood in a communal experience that began with the shop owner saying, “You’ve got to hear this record”. We stood waiting.  Waiting melted away to awe.  Nine minutes later we knew life was a bit different…just wait for the progression of the track.  It blossoms and eventually bursts.

“Dancing Girl” is from the album, “What Color is Love” (Cadet, 1973).  A great record for a chilled autumn day.

Terry Callier was a childhood friend of Curtis Mayfield and co-wrote numerous Chicago Records for artists as diverse as the Soulful Strings, The Dells, and Garland Green.  He spent much of the eighties and nineties as a single father, raising his daughter, Sundiata, and working at the University of Chicago.

He returned to recording in the late nineties to critical acclaim, and released “Hidden Conversations” (his fifth album in 10 years) this year[2009].  It features Massive Attack.

Jive on…. Jive on.

2009 was to be his last appearance on record. Since I first discovered him, I’ve fallen in love with a number of his compositions,

such as: “Ordinary Girl”, “You Don’t Care”, “You Goin Miss Your Candyman”, and others.

I’ve also realized that he co-wrote a few of my old Chicago favorites, including: “You Can’t Get Away that Easy” (as performed by Lee Charles and, later, by Garland Green), “The Love We Had Stays on My Mind” (as performed by The Dells), “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love” (as Performed by Billy Butler & Infinity), and “I’d Rather Be With You [performed by the Dells].

Below, Terry singing You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman. Because I do.


Pat and Pam: sisters in soul.

Pat and Pam Cordell were twin singers who followed in the great tradition of Chicago Kiddie (or in their case, Teen) Soul in the early 1970s. They also happened to be original WVON Good Guy Lucky Cordell‘s daughters. Lucky Cordell (pictured at left) was a disc jockey turned General Manager at one of the most influential Soul Radio Stations in the country. That had to have helped in getting some airplay in the day. What also helped was having some of the best songwriters, arrangers, and session musicians in the game working on their cuts.

Word on the street says that though they were young, they were quite adamant about recording more adult fare than most young recording artists were at the time (no talk of school books-and-stolen-looks here).

They only released two singles, but both are lovely and worth seeking out. Below, enjoy “I Love You, Yes I Do”, a rollicking Chicago stepper that never fails to impress at my gigs around town.

More and More: Little Milton’s plea for more as the cost of living was skyrocketing.

Whew. That was a long blogpost title, huh? I know. But, let me explain:

In late 1967, Chess Records’ Checker subsidiary released this record entitled “More and More” by Little Milton, where the chorus sings and growls:

“More and More… all the time!”

Ironically, the flip is a meandering soulful blues cut called “The Cost of Living”. So, maybe the editorial statement of the release was:

“The Cost of Living” is “More and More”!

Or, maybe, on a more hopeful note:

With “The Cost of Living” growing “More and More”… find More with Less!

Either way, it’s a beautifully grooving little record by Little Milton in the vein of all his grooving blues-soul hybrids cut here in Chicago in the late 1960s (my favorites being “Drifting Drifter”, “Blind Man”, “Don’t Leave Her”, “Poor Man”, and more). It also just happens to make me pretty happy.

James (“Little”) Milton Campbell, Jr. recorded most of his best known material here in Chicago, but he hailed from St. Louis. In addition to growling soulful vocals, he also played blues guitar. Oh yes, and he wasn’t particularly little.

Fontella Bass: sassy soulful siren in the first degree.

Fontella Bass is an amazing lady. Not only is the trajectory of her career fascinating, but she’s arguably the archetype for what Aretha Franklin was to become: a sassy, soulful siren in the first degree.

Ms. Bass comes from the St. Louis, and is a part of a group of St. Louis native vocalists that made their way in Chicago (this includes Chuck Bernard, Little Milton, and Bobby McClure). Her voice can be described as a salt-sweet contralto that is absolutely gorgeous, in my opinion.

She is best known for the HUGE hit “Rescue Me”, which is a Chicago-written, recorded,and produced slice of 60s Soul. Her greatest hit (which she also co-wrote), “Rescue Me” has been featured in movies, commercials, and TV shows galore; but it is also too often mistakenly attributed to Aretha Franklin. Ironically, at the time of its release, Aretha Franklin was singing jazzy pop standards, a’la young Dinah Washington. 

In fact, “Rescue Me” predates Aretha Franklin’s soulful breakthrough release “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” by a couple of years.

“Rescue Me” was released on Chess Records’ Checker imprint, after which Fontella continued to release soulful gems for the label (my favorites being “I Can’t Rest” and “Lucky in Love”) until 1968 or so.

By 1970, in a plot twist worthy of an arthouse movie, Fontella Bass was married to musician Lester Bowie and had joined him as an expatriate in France in The Art Ensemble of Chicago. There, she served as the vocalist in the group: a seminal, Chicago-based free-jazz combo… I suspect that’s her in the white face paint in the far right corner of the album pictured below.

In 1990, she heard her own voice singing “Rescue Me” on an American Express commercial and was inspired to look into her rights, and wound up suing American Express and its ad agency. She won over $50,000 plus damages in a settlement. Awesome.

Enjoy Fontella Bass singing “Rescue Me” (while looking quite Chicago Mod in a houndstooth cap and jacket) on Shindig! in 1965.

…and, below, listen for some of her vocals on a righteous jazz workout from The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Jive on!

Tomorrow, we groove.

Below, one of the grooves I’ll spin: “Love so Strong” from the Lovelites (pictured, left). Fronted by Patti Hamilton, the group of ladies from Chicago’s South Side  recorded a gaggle of groovin’ steppers (including one of their biggest hits, “My Conscience”).

The Lovelites are, in my humble opinion, one of the most consistent female groups in all of Chicago Soul, thanks to a string of sassy-sweet records mainly composed by Hamilton and produced by Clarence Johnson. Enjoy and jive on!

Al-teen Records: Bill Meeks’ little ships of soul

Bill Meeks was, in the late sixties, a jingle writer here in Chicago who started a record label called Al-teen. The label was based at 82nd and Stony Island, and put out records by Sunday (Williams), Drake and the En-Solids, Earl Duff, The Supurbs (sic), and Johnny McCall. Many of the tunes were composed by D. McGilberry. None of them were hits in their day.

Many small labels existed in this town, and most of them were born out of someone’s dream. They sent out little ships into the murky waters of the Industry hoping to reach that unknown shore of stardom. So many of those ships, those records, are still floating out there (testaments to those dreams).

Below, a couple of my favorite cuts from the label. Both are now worth a pretty penny. “Ain’t Got No Problems/Where Did He Come From” by Sunday was a hot enough platter here in Chicago that it got picked up for national distribution by Chess (which makes it Alteen’s most successful production).  To my ears, “Where Did He Come From” (the original B-Side) is the star of the story.

“I Need You” By Johnny McGill is a bit of a grittier record with sparser production, but has that particular leanness of a “little ship” sort-of-record that I love. You can feel that the record is a love child: created of of passion rather than obligation.

Female background on all of the Al-Teen cuts was by a group called The Voices. This is them singing along to Sunday’s “Ain’t Got No Problems” in 2009 (forty years after the fact) on a local radio show called “Sitting in the Park”. Wow. All of the talents of a whole bunch of people (and a whole bunch of hopes) rode on these little ships. I respect that. Jive on.

Jo Armstead: a giant among men.

Jo Armstead is a Mississippi-bred firecracker vocalist who is also a dynamite songwriter (a field dominated by men). She told SoulMotion.co.uk:

“By the time I was in my teens, I was sneaking out to cafes, juke joints, and dances on Saturday nights. Blues man Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland gave me my first opportunity to sing with a band…”

“The amplified sound of the guitar, bass, drums and piano with the horn section blasting away made the tiny nightclub atmosphere infectious. I remember a hot sticky night and my body dripped with sweat. I gave it my all and it was an intimate, hypnotic and totally exhausting experience”.

She joined the Ikettes in 1961, and wound up in New York a few years later, working in a songwriting trio with Nick Ashford and Valarie Simpson. The team split up in the mid-sixties, with Nick and Val going to Motown and Jo arriving in Chicago.

Her first songwriting success in Chicago was “Casanova (Your Playing Days are Over)” for Ruby Andrews in 1967 (a HUGE record here in Chicago that year). By then married to Mel Collins, the two ventured into a record label that almost exclusively featured her compositions, Giant Records, as well as the offshoots Gamma and Globe.

A number of releases on Giant also featured Jo Armstead’s sassy soprano vocals, including “I’ve Been Turned On” and “There’s Not Too Many More Left Like Him” [below].

Many of her compositions were recorded featuring a trademark rollicking, melodic, string-laden stepper groove that has aged quite well. Most arrangements were collaborative efforts between Armstead and Detroit’s own Mike Terry.

During her time in Chicago, she also wrote or co-wrote hits for Carl Carlton (“Drop By my Place”, and “Two Timer [above]), Garland Green (“Jealous Kinda Fella” [click here for more on Mr. Green]), and herself (“Stone Cold Lover”).  But, by 1969, her marriage was on the skids and she was bound for New York again. But, during her time in Chicago, she was indeed a giant among men. Jive on…