Media Burn – an independent video archive initiative based in Chicago, which focuses on “documentaries with a social justice lens” published a video, Al Benson, the Godfather of Chicago Black Radio, previously released in 1995. Al Benson (born Arthur Bernard Leaner) was a major actor in the Chicago music scene and a record owner of longevity as a radio disc-jockey on WGES radio. Although it does not feature filming, it is made of short testimonials (none other than respectable stakeholders: his nephew and partner Ernie Leaner, Sid McCoy, Al Raglin…).
In spite of its shortness, the 12-minutes documentary the film sheds light on the personality and life of Al Benson.
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.
This web show was hosted in 2020 by Jazz and Blues passionate Robert J. Carmack. This show gives a lot of room to a major actor of the Chicago scene, in the name of Ric Powell. We already addressed the importance of Ric Powell/Donny Hathaway concerning the release of the Everything is Everything 1970 album.
More noticeably, Ric Powell reveals the genesis of the song This Christmas (this sounds very apropos!), but also his relationship with master King Curtis Jr and the arrival of Curtis Mayfield in Washington DC (at the time they were students at Howard University), who noticed Donny Hathaway. He also discusses the importance of guitar and bass legend Phil Upchurch and Richard Evans. Curtis Mayfield, from the R&B group The Impressions, then hired Donny Hathaway to do sessions with him in Chicago for his upcoming Curtom label. Ric Powell assumes he got the job as a drummer thanks to his good sight-reading skills, a key fact to working as a session musician in the studios. Indeed, the music industry expects the musicians to read and learn quickly their respective parts of the musical sheet because time was money.
To make this thirty-minute show short, Ric Powell draws the lineage behind these exclusive Donny Hathaway solo records (Everything is Everything, Extension of a Man, and so on…).