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Chicago Commodification Entrepreneurship Los Angeles Migrations Music industry Musician Songwriting Soul Music Urban cultures

Solar: How the Chicago RnB was Brought to L.A.

As I was searching for musical information concerning the growth of the Boogie Funk subgenre in the late 1970, I spent some time focusing on Leon Sylvers III. Sylvers, one of a large musical family (hence the band he founded with his siblings, The Sylvers) had a large influence on today’s music, most noticeably by way of New Jack Swing in the 1990s and later on every post-Soul subgenres.

There are multiple proofs that Chicago music played a role in the creation of Solar Records in L.A. in 1977 by Dick Griffey. In reality, it already existed as of 1975 as “Soul Train Records”, co-founded by Chicago native and Soul Train TV show Don Cornelius (1936-2012) and Griffey himself. Also, one has to remember that most of the independent labels declined in that era. What’s more, 1977 was the cornerstone for the Disco era: Solar provided a dancefloor alternative to the Disco wave, emphasizing on the second and fourth beat, known as Boogie Funk.

For the record, UCLA scholar Scot Brown drew a clear picture of the “Solar system”: a musical stable, with deep links with other US Black Music meccas. But his analysis also emphasizes on how quick was the venture’s decline. Indeed, Solar only survived a decade, mostly between 1977 and 1987, even if the last album released was in 1991.

Chicago artists that migrated to LA are legion: Maurice White and EWF, Jerry Butler, Jody Watley… just to name a few. As mentioned above, television host Don Cornelius, a key figure in the spread of black American soul, RnB and funk music, emigrated from Chicago to California.

L.A. based musician and producer Leon Sylvers III (a native of Memphis, Tennessee), who was a real sidekick at Solar, recorded himself his one and only LP in 1989 on Motown Records. To make a long story short, if it is what it takes (be it artistry or/and economy), a musician and entrepreneur will cross the United States of America. Consequently, the process of cross-fertilization between the various Black Music cradles was still at work, and we guess it is still the case today. We can assume that the Chicagoan musical entrepreneurship nurtured the L.A. Boogie scene (although it could be argued that feeding each other is a broader issue). Pressurized by a tough economic context of globalization, Black Entrupreneurs were seeking a path for renewed empowerment. Most of them, hungry and capable, offered their talents to big companies at the time of their full development. To quote Scot Brown (Brown, 2011), major companies had established “black music divisions” to conquer African American music consumer markets: Larkin Arnold (Capitol), LaBaron Taylor (CBS), and Tom Draper (Warner Bros.).

Also, it does not come as a surprise that Jerry Butler was behind the success of The Sylvers band, even before they were signed on Solar Records: as of 1972, Jerry Butler was their producer on MGM Records subsidiary Pride Records. In fact, Butler had collaborated with both Detroit based Motown Records and Philadephia fame Gamble & Huff.

To come back to the topic, Solar Records, we have to discuss how Leon Sylvers, which one can think about being the mastermind of siblings, he made up his mind at the end of the 1970s. In fact, he completely re-shaped his way to play and produce music. Modern funk acts such as The Brothers Johnson and the rising star Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) made a huge impression on him. He felt an emergency to stick to a more global musical concept, thus developed his producer skills. Even though he kept practicing his main instrument, the electric bass, he was searching for musical concepts and working out studio efforts. He is also known for his homemade drumkits. Escaping the old Sylvers’ heavily Detroit and Chicago influecend RnB, he developed what was to become the L.A. Boogie sound: driven by a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments, adding claps on the 2nd and 4th beats to give birth to many dancefloor anthems. Acts like Dynasty (which he led) and Shalamar (the most successful band, driven by a gifted vocal trio comprised of Jody Watley, Howard Hewitt and Jeffrey Daniel) remain symbolic of Leon Sylvers’ savoir-faire at the beginning of the 1980s. Not only he produced dancefloor hits at a large scale, but he also developed the template for New Jack Swing and contemporary RnB and Soul music.

In conclusion, without a doubt, Leon Sylvers took the best of Chicago classic Soul and incroparated it in a modern producing process. One of his most successful song, written with William Shelby and Stephen Shockley, is symbolic of the hi-fi boogie sound: And the Beat Goes On, performed by the male vocal ensemble The Whispers. Extremely compressed chicken-picking guitar style, refined rhythm guitars, keyboards (the Prophet 5 analog synthetizers were a trademark of Solar hits) were mixed with a mixture of acoustic and electric drums, while the bass sounded fat and muffled (and actually a bit old-fashioned compared to the rest – even though it really did work, as Sylvers’ instrumental approach was quite unique). And, like icing on a cake, claps where ubiquitous.

In short, Sylvers has succeeded in combining the expressiveness of Chicago blues with a singular quest for sophisticated rhythm and blues (but not included in the Californian AOR wave).

So sophisticated and singular that you can recognize Leon Sylvers’ signature on a single track, like a hallmark.

Categories
Commodification Interview Music industry Soul Music Urban cultures

Tracing the History of Vee-Jay Records and Record Row in Chicago (1953-1966)

While there is plenty of facts and official historiographies on Southern Soul records (Stax, Hi, Muscle Shoals), Northern Soul records, be it Detroit (the Motown/Tamla and their subsidiaries fame), or even partly New York City (with Atlantic Records and their subsidiary ATCO): the fruitful (from a cultural perspective, not an economic one, definitely) Vee-Jay Records label has been left aside for decades.

However, it played a major role in helping develop what stood as a unique avenue in Chicago, South Michigan Avenue, nicknamed “Record Row”.

Vee-Jay was a venture launched by an Afro-American couple named Vivian Carter (herself a performer and a disc jockey) and James Bracken (himself a writer and composer) in 1953. But they did not start from zero, as the label was intended to be a branch of the existing record label and store founded several years before in Gary, Indiana.

In 2007, Daily Herald music critic Mark Guarino expressed his regrets to realize that Vee-Jay Records, as far as influencing was concerned, didn’t get the credit it deserved. The main difference outlined is that of the stylistic association between one label and its productions: Motown was clearly a pop/rhythm and blues venture, while Stax Records was fostering a Southern rough-sounding approach. Vee-Jay was none of them: starting with doo-wop-like bands (their first pressing was a band called The Spaniels, but they also recorded Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs Stay, which found success again 27 years later, thanks to the Dirty Dancing movie soundtrack in 1987), they embraced rhythm and blues (recording the first Curtis Mayfield’s The Impressions records), jazz (Paul Chambers and Wayne Shorter were amongst them).

Sadly, entrepreneur Ewart Abner was expecting considerable growth for Vee-Jay as he came on board back in 1955. Though his work propelled the Venture into the high spheres, hazardous investments and a missed Capitol Licensing contract got them into debt.

A documentary explored recently the story of Record Row, entitled Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues, was broadcasted initially in February 1997.

Categories
Commodification Lectures Music industry Songwriting Soul Music Urban cultures

A Framework for a Daily Press Corpus Analysis

By chance, times are doing us a favor: the Sorbonne Nouvelle University library has just subscribed to the Chicago Defender archive, provided by ProQuest.

To summarize, here are the titles with granted access:

Historical Newspapers: The Chicago Defender 1909-1975
Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973)
Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973)
The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1905-1966)
Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1973-1975)
Chicago Defender (Daily Edition) (1973-1975)
The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967)
Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960)

Indeed, this is likely to be helpful to bring some useful primary sources to highlight trends in Black Music venues and in a broader sense, musical activity (mainly related to the nightlife) in Chicago.

It is now possible to build up a newspaper corpus, based on criteria such as place, name of a person. In this respect, club names appeared meaningful to find knowledgeable articles. A selection of Chicago 1960-1990 era witnesses’ interviews brought us several club names to dig in for more information.

Our first statement is that there was a concomitant moving scene (Motown pop acts from Detroit, MI), which was taking place alongside the traditional inner Chicago blues scene. This might be another question that we did not really think about. Though this has not been measured concretely, the first impression is that the amount of live venues coming from other states is noteworthy. The hypothesis of Detroit “pop acts” influencing or (maybe) softening the Chicago Soul music could be as a consequence considered.

Now is the time to adopt a framework analysis, so that the corpus will bring real value and materiality to our hypothesis. To begin with, Charaudeau’s guidelines for corpus analysis (in a discourse perspective) should be helpful.

 

Categories
Commodification Lectures Migrations Soul Music Urban cultures

Urbanity as a Paradigm

Chicago Theater, 2019. Free license.

Taking into account the effects of the Great Migration in our analysis seems mandatory, as well as more recent urban transformations (onwards North to South as well as East to West, sometimes conversely). The Chicago School, more precisely Louis Wirth’s sociology, provide also a relevant framework, to consider the urban environment as a fostering factor for Urban Black Music.

The musical category “urban music” has been longly debated, considering its remaining segregationist dimension. We will not discuss the acceptability of such an expression for the moment: our agenda consists more in drawing parallels between urban moves, exchanges, communicating vessels, and musical developments. Our hypothesis is that no one can put music – as a cultural practice and expression – aside, in the margins. On the contrary, its own corporeity is crossed by the movements finding their source in the industries employing workers, most noticeably the motorcars industry (Detroit, Chicago).

While it appears a nowadays concern, the adjective urban is rejected here in its commercial consistency (see, for instance, this relevant article published on the NPR: “Is this the end for Urban Music?”). We should instead question a sensible link, a relationship between human migrations and how does it affects the musical production seen as culturally meaningful.

As a result, we would rather put it this way: apart from commercial labels, can we prove and circumscribe the effects of migrations and their potential benefits and their consequences on the African-American music development ? For Caroline Rolland-Diamond, the construction of a Black mass culture (deeply rooted in urban areas), representing more noticeably women, is concomitant of the visibiltiy of the African American elites:

 

[…] si les élites avant-gardistes new-yorkaises jouèrent un rôle important dans
l’émergence d’une identité noire fière d’elle-même et de ses racines africaines,
au même moment l’invention d’une culture de masse urbaine permit à la classe
ouvrière noire, et en particulier aux femmes, d’exprimer leur nouvelle attitude
militante.1

1 Rolland-Diamond, Caroline. Black America: une histoire des luttes pour l’égalité et la justice, XIXe-XXIe siècle. La Découverte, 2019, p.22.

Categories
Commodification Music industry Songwriting Soul Music Text analysis

The Wonderful Insights of Oliver Wang on Donny Hathaway’s Everything is Everything

This article by scholar and DJ Oliver Wang (actually an excerpt from a special VMP 2020 pressing liner’s note) is seminal in several ways1. Retracing the whole genesis of what is in fact only the very first solo album ever recorded by Donny Hathaway, it highlights the Chicago encounters, most noticeably the one with musicians Curtis Mayfield and drummer Ric Powell. Moreover, it deciphers the importance of setting the scene for Black culture, sharing a universal message of love and joy, helped by the consistancy of the perfomances. However, the record is mainly composed of only three original songs penned by Hathaway. Nevertheless, Hathaway kept his promise by completly rewriting and rearranging covers.

Cutting ties with Curtis Mayfield and Curtom

The counsciousness of his own musical abilities and genius seemingly played a considerable role in the break-up with Curtom (Mayfield’s label and trademark). Incidently, through Mayfield, Hathaway had connected with Chicago native guitarist/bassist Phil Upchurch, who had to become his teaming partner throughout his short career.

Never to be done again… that is genius

Coming straight from Howard University, Mayfield’s musical skills were so advanced that he taught music at an early age. Wang shares his hypothesis that wouldn’t he had taken back his freedom, he could have achieved a Motown-like success with Curtom, turning it into a musical industry capable of producing massive hits. But was he too reluctant to become a Holland/Dozier kind or an Isaac Hayes type of writer/composer ? No doubt he minded being a piece – even the brightest – in a record company’s assembly line. Maybe the voices inside were telling him to do so.

Social views : joy and love as weapons in the troubled nixonian era

It is nearly impossible not to underline the impressive soulfulness and joy spreading in this record. This is almost an alternative to Marvin Gaye’s introspective and somewhat melancholic What’s Going On. It surely contains its own somaesthetics (or holistic somatics)1, and while there is soul, the body is in an emergency to express itself without ties, it carries its own expression and esthetic energy (Rudinow, 2010)2. As Wang puts it, there is a certain religiosity, a unique relationship between Hathaway and God, on the other hand, tracks such as The Ghetto and Sugar Lee sound as high times of celebration, embodied in a joyful jam session (in which one could hear claps, shoutings, spanish words, laughs, a baby crying – Hathaway’s own daughter…).

And the Voices Inside song keeps resonating as a timeless anthem. The voices of young, gifted and black people, shouting, clapping their hands, living in the city, enjoying themselves. The cover photograph is kind of a fantasy : Donny is smiling, hand in hand with black children in a round in front of a ghetto brick wall. What a contrast ! We have to value the exquisite sociological and musicological work, as well as the memory traces left by this studio work. Definitely an audacious bet for this first record at ATCO.

Everything is Everything : a popular culture motto

Last but not least, Oliver Wang reveals the origin of the motto Everything is Everything : chicagoan radio DJ Herb Kent used this expression throughout his 7:30/11 pm aired program on the AM 1450 WVON station. None other than Leonard and Phil Chess, founders of Chess Record, acquired the station in 1963. Since, “the voice of the negro” is no more used, for the more politically-correct “the voice of the nation”. The radio broadcasted from the Chicago tower.

1 “One Transcendent Performance That Illustrates Donny Hathaway’s Musical Genius.” NPR.Org, https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2016/10/17/498265985/one-transcendent-performance-that-illustrates-donny-hathaways-musical-genius. Accessed 23 Apr. 2021.

2 Formis, Barbara. « Richard Shusterman, Conscience du corps. Pour une soma-esthétique [1] », Mouvements, vol. 57, no. 1, 2009, pp. 155-157.

3 Rudinow, Joel. Soul Music: Tracking the Spiritual Roots of Pop from Plato to Motown. University of Michigan Press, 2010, pp. 110-111.

Categories
Commodification Music industry Songwriting

The Commodification of Music

It has been a very discussed issue, especially since the vinyl era revival, starting in the mid 2000s. This video proposes a synthetic outline of records (be it material or digital) as a medium to replicate music copies.

How come so many people believe in vinyl acetate superiority ? Is fetishism built only against “soulless digital” ? As Walter Benjamin would say, does illimited reproductibility makes the music lose its soul ? (Walter Benjamin. (2008). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction / Walter Benjamin ; translated by J.A. Underwood. Penguin.)

Can one lose the sense of listening while focusing on the ultimate and best technology ? How come purists want to go back to the master tapes ?

Let’s go for a quick insight !

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