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.
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.
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.
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.
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…).
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.
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.