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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
Chicago Interview Media history Music industry Musician Soul Music Urban cultures

A Portrait of “Your Old Swingmaster” Al Benson

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.

Categories
Music industry Musician Soul Music

Aaron Dodd (1948-2010)

The music industry is ruthless. Even when it comes to veteran tuba player Aaron Dodd, who passed away twelve years ago in his hometown Chicago.

Wilh. Altenburg: “Der neue Riesenbaß (Subkontrabaß-Tuba) in Graslitz”, Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau 32, 1912, p. 1285–1288; p. 1286; online: digitale-sammlungen.de

For the record, he played the boucing bass line, dubbing in unison Louis Satterfield’s Fender Bass line on Donny Hathaway’s cover of the classic track originally written and performed by Ray Charles, I Believe to My Soul.

It is noteworthy that Hathaway turned the sorrowful soul tune, composed in a minor mode, into a catchy and hopeful major mode song. In so doing, he transfigured a painful downtempo lament into a blustering plea.

And yet, the big and whopping horn is still seen as boring and ungrateful, and not that much highlighted, left apart symphonic orchestras and marching bands (the tuba was the very first Jazz bass component, before the “string bass”).

Aaron Dodd died broken and ill. Still, even in aching pain, he would not withdraw and kept playing under a pouring rain or in a freezing cold.

Let’s briefly retrace his history.

His sister Linda tried briefly to learn the cornet in highschool, then she let the instrument gathering dust.

Instantly, Aaron took it and learn to play it naturally, proving a remarkable ability. In the highschool band, Aaron Dodd played multiple horn instruments, to the point that his sister Linda told “he could play any instrument”. The tuba winned his favors, eventually: luckily he met Chicago Symphony’s tuba player Arnold Jacobs, who taught him free courses.

Moreover, Jacobs got him a scholarshop at the Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Though, his favorite genre was Jazz. In 1968, he joined the Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. Together they recorded Malcolm X Memorial (A Tribute In Music).

In 1970, as he just cut tracks for Everything is Everything with Donny Hathaway, Chicago tuba player Richard Armandi praised his way of giving the instrument a new role in a musical genre rather that seemed unsual for such a big horn instrument, making its singularity necessary to the whole musical ensemble.

He then joined The Pharaohs, a R&B band. Together they recorded two albums, The Awakening (1971), and In the Basement (1972).

The band’s lineup was comprised of Charles Handy (trumpet), Louis Satterfield (trombone), Don Myrick (alto saxophone), Big Willie Woods (trombone), Oye Bisi et Shango Njoko Adefumi (African drums), Yehudah Ben Israel (guitar and vocals), Maurice White (drums), Alious Watkins (drums), Derf Reklaw-Raheem (percussions and flute), and of course Aaron Dodd on tuba. The short-lived group disbanded in 1973.

In 1975, Aaron Dodd records with New Jersey native R&B singer Leroy Hutson. Hutson was a previous member of The Impressions, together with Curtis Mayfield. Aaron Dodd was a respected Jazz musician in Chicago, who travelled all over the world. Mwata Bowden, both a saxophonist and an orchestra conductor in Chicago remembers the man in fond terms: “He was a respected musician… Aaron was really
rewriting the book on the capacity of the tuba.”

Afterwards came personal issues, leading him to perform in the streets. Following a tumultous period of time, he kept busking. His last official participation to a recording session was in 1985, when he joined 8 Bold Souls, under the supervision of Edward Wilkinson. The latter was his last contribution to commercial recordings: together they recorded 4 albums, from 1985 to 1999.

In 1998, Dodd is devastated by Arnold Jacobs’ death. He wanders, playing to whoever wants to hear him the opening of Wagner’s Meistersinger before the Chicago Symphony Center.

Not later than 2008, Colleen Mastony, in the columns of The Chicago Tribune, wrote that the Chicago Symphony’s tuba section undertook a charity initiative to help Dodd. Knowing and deploring that Dodd’s tuba was in bad shape, they raised fund to buy him a whole new instrument, with the help of master crafstman Wayne Tanabe.

At that point, one could see him busking in a wheelchair, through the streets of Chicago. Whoever met him testifies that he breathed music and never gave up against the throes of life, be it for his health or to survive.

When Dodd passed away June 17, 2010, his family was saddled with debts: the medical fees and the funeral were a financiel burden. Consequently, the Chicago Symphonic Orchestra played benefit concerts to help the Dodd family through these hard times.


* Previously published in French in 2019: https://www.dispatchbox.net/index.php/2019/09/19/aaron-dodd-1948-2010/


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