Reclaimed Soul’s Ayana Contreras spoke with Jazz vocalist Maggie Brown, daughter of Oscar Brown, Jr. Maggie is passionate about preserving the legacy of her father’s community-engaged artistry.
The Opportunity Please Knock Chorus (a creative collaboration between singer/writer/playwright Oscar Brown Jr. and the notorious Blackstone Rangers street gang) premiered 50 years ago. Mr. Brown stated in 1967, “They’re not too disillusioned to work hard-if they ever had and illusions at all. It is up to us to give them a better picture of reality.”
As we look for solutions to quell today’s violence in our communities and to get kids off the streets, this is a notable model of artist intervention from Chicago’s past.
This was recorded at a live event at Thalia Hall in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
click here for more on the Opportunity Please Knock Chorus.
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In 1967, members of the Blackstone Rangers, a notorious Gang in Chicago, collaborated with singer/composer/playwright/activist Oscar Brown Jr. to create a Musical Revue called “Opportunity Please Knock”. About eight thousand people went to the show during the first weeks of performance (at Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church). Photos in this post are from that first run. The show gave exposure to various teens that had ample talent, but little opportunity.
Oscar Brown Jr., said in a 1996 interview with Rick Wojcik:
I made contact with the Blackstone Rangers, and we began talkin’ to them about some alternative activity to what they were doin’, which was basically gang-bangin’ and terrorizing the neighborhood… The fact that there was this gang presence was bad for business and that’s one of the reasons that I contacted gangs- could we do something for them that would stop them from steppin’ on my hustle! I said we’d do a show for ’em, but they said, “well, we got some talent, can we be in the show?” We wound up doin’ a show called Opportunity, Please Knock, which really changed my life, basically, because it let me see that there was this enormous talent in the black community. This is where all the dances came from; this is where all the popular music comes from; so I began to really concentrate on that. Opportunity Please Knock ran for a little while, with those kids being on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
The gang’s involvement seems to counter the completely negative impact that most people assume gangs have on communities. The contradiction was fleshed out in a 1969 article published in “The Alantic”:
Since the emergence of the Ranger Nation, individual members have been charged with murder, robbery, rape, knifings, extortion of South Side merchants, traffic in narcotics, extortion and intimidation of young children, forced gang membership, and a general history of outright violence, especially against the Disciples who never joined the Rangers. On the other hand, the Ranger Nation has been credited with keeping the South Side of Chicago “cool” during the summer of 1967 and the spring of 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It has been said that they have kept drugs, alcoholics, prostitutes, and whites hunting for prostitutes out of their neighborhoods. They have also been credited with making genuine attempts to form lasting peace treaties between themselves and the Disciples in order to decrease the level of gang fighting on the South Side. They have been alternately praised and condemned by the national press, their community, the United States Senate, the local police, and Chicago youth organizations to such an extent that, if one depends on the news media for information, it is almost impossible to maintain a consistent opinion of the Blackstone Rangers.
According to an August 1967 Ebony Magazine article about the Revue, Oscar Brown Jr. further stated:
These kids are angry because they’re being shot through the same grease their parents were shot through, and they understand that it’s impossible for a bootless man to pull himself up by his bootstraps. But they’re not too disillusioned to work hard-if they ever had and illusions at all. It is up to us to give them a better picture of reality.
Below is a record I found, released on Ramsey Lewis’ record label, called “All this Talk About Freedom” by the Opportunity Please Knock Chorus. It’s what led me to this story in the first place. It’s also the only audio documentation of this slice of Chicago History. It’s also pretty groovin’. Image below is of the Opportunity Please Knock Chorus.
I love the breadth and depth of Oscar Brown Jr.’s work. A prolific singer, songwriter, playwright, and activist, he was also a born and bred Chicagoan. The cut below “Work Song”, is from his first LP, 1960’s “Sin and Soul” which he recorded in his mid-thirties. He was a father of five at the time of his debut. I love how simple the arrangement is on the track, and yet, it still SWINGS…..jive on.
Brown wrote at least 1,000 songs (only 125 have been published), twelve albums, and over a dozen musical plays.