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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
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
Urban cultures

Black Chicago and Musical Venues

To begin with, The DuSable Museum, named after the city’s founder back in circa 1780:

https://www.dusablemuseum.org/

A tribute website to celebrate the life and the action of writer and artist Margaret Burroughs (1915-2010), founder of the DuSable Museum, first known as the Ebony Museum:

http://www.margaretburroughs.com

A list of past Chicago clubs, available on the Encyclopedia of Chicago website:

http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/861.html

Historical outlines on the Savoy Ballroom:

On the Chicago Detours website, “Forgotten Chicago Nightlife History”, for those who aim to reconstruct a disappeared landscape. Indeed, many clubs vanished and it is sometimes painful to collect club names.

Introduction to researching Chicago jazz venues by Cathrine Uecker, head of the Special Collections Readers Services, Uchicago :

https://guides.lib.uchicago.edu/c.php?g=297184&p=1983832

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.

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