Chicago: Second City Soul (July 4th 1970)

I first became aware of Major Lance in the Autumn of 1964. In that first wave of British Beat it was customary for the new groups to record their own versions of US R&B hits, As an 11 year old I knew the meaning of neither “cultural” nor “appropriation”, in fact these energetic Anglo attempts led me to the original versions which, in most instances I found that I preferred. This was certainly the case with the intriguingly titled “Um,Um, Um,Um,Um,Um”, a UK hit for Manchester’s Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, a US smash for Major Lance. “Um, Um,Um…” is a smart, melodic little story, a change from the “moon” & “June”, “baby”, “maybe” rhymes. On Wayne & the Mindbenders’ label it was credited to Curtis/Mayfield, a pair to keep an ear on. Turns out that it was just the one man, my introduction to The Man. Curtis & Major had met at Wells High School in North Chicago. Curtis was just 16 when his group the Impressions had a big hit with “For Your Precious Love”. He went to work at Okeh Records under the tutelage of producer Carl Davis & arranger Johnny Pate & this team created Major’s first record for the label, the charming “Delilah”, in 1962. A new entry at #42 on the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations for July 4th 1970 was “Stay Away From Me (I Love You Too Much)”, sung by Major Lance, written, arranged, produced & released through his new label by Curtis Mayfield.

 

 

 

Major Lance PageMajor Lance had been a featured dancer on “Time For Teens”, a local TV show so Mayfield wrote him a dance song.”The Monkey Time” was a breakthrough hit, the start of a run of success that by 1965 brought the release of a “Greatest Hits” album, 12 tracks all written by Curtis. Some were tailor-made for the singer, others were later recorded by the Impressions, all had a bright, danceable Latin tinge. It’s the  the sound of Chicago R&B becoming Chicago Soul. When Curtis started Curtom he brought his friend with him & “Stay Away From Me”, which rose to #13 on the R&B chart, is a great example of the innovation he was bringing to his music. The lively, dramatic interplay of strings & brass underpinned by the insistent percussion of “Master” Henry Gibson & Mayfield’s own guitar would be heard more on the release of Curtis’ solo debut in September of 1970.

 

With The Song Of Life: Major Lance - Everybody Loves A Good Time ...There was just one more 45 on Curtom & in 1972 Major Lance moved to the UK where a thriving Soul scene appreciated his records & his live performances, His 1973 album “Live at the Torch” in Stoke-on-Trent captures the energy of the music & audiences at these all-night clubs. On his return to the US he recorded with various labels before, in 1978 he served three years of a 10 year stretch for selling cocaine & his career stalled. Just as Lee Dorsey & Allen Toussaint were making significant, popular music characteristic of New Orleans so were Major Lance, Curtis & the Okeh team in Chicago. “Everybody Loves A Good Time” is a 40 track collection of his work at that label. It’s essential for those interested in the development of Curtis Mayfield & for fans of great Soul music. I have just found out that Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, so eloquent during the recent BLM protests, is Major Lance’s daughter. His legacy lives on.

 

 

Classic and Collectable: Gene Chandler - Duke of Earl by Gene ChandlerGene Chandler is another Chicago Soul legend. He made his mark before Major Lance when “Duke of Earl”, a song he recorded with his Doo-Wop group, the Dukays, & released under his name sold a million in 1962. Gene ran with it, adopting a cape, top hat, monocle & cane for live performances & releasing tracks under his new title. Any thoughts after a  couple of less successful follow-ups that he could be a one-hit wonder were dispelled when a strong ballad “Rainbow” written by (this is Chicago…you guessed it) Curtis Mayfield put him back in the R&B Top 20. Gene did write his own songs but it was Mayfield’s which brought him the biggest success. I’m sure that Carl Davis & Jerry Pate were already involved. From 1964 their names & others from a team of talented arrangers appeared on the record sleeves. I have to mention the swinging, consummate “Nothing Can Stop Me”, a US Pop 20 hit in 1966 & so popular in UK Soul clubs that a 1968 re-release almost made the Top 40 over here.

 

Gene Chandler - "Groovy Situation" | Songs | Crownnote“Groovy Situation”, a new entry at #41 on this week’s chart, was to become Gene’s biggest Pop hit since “Duke of Earl”. His established team had dispersed to pursue their own things & Chandler had not only signed a new contract with Mercury Records but was confident enough to start his own Bamboo label. “The Gene Chandler Situation” (1970), his first self-produced LP, effectively matches his strong, smooth voice to an updated sound for new songs rather than the cover of standards & recent hits that had filled earlier records. The fine single (“Can you dig it?”) & the less successful but, to my ears just as good, “Simply Call It Love” are great examples of an artist responding to changing times. In 1970 Gene was awarded “Producer of the Year” by the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers (against Norman Whitfield & Gamble & Huff). It was not only his work on his own album that had earned him this accolade.

 

 

Mel & Tim | Discography | DiscogsMel Hardin & Tim McPherson were cousins from Holly Springs Mississippi. Discovered by Gene they were signed to Bamboo (an operation that also involved Mel’s mother) & began work on their debut LP, produced by Gene with the assistance of experienced Chicago hands. It was the track “Backfield In Motion” that caught the record-buying public’s ear & the new act found themselves with a R&B Top 3, Pop Top 10 hit with a gold record for a million copies sold. “Mail Call Time”, rising to #38 in this week’s listings, was the third selection from the album to chart after the title track “Good Guys Only Win In The Movies” had made the R&B Top 20. I’m sure this song about letters from home resonated with those serving in South East Asia & those at home writing the letters. Mel & Tim were no dynamic Sam & Dave, their record, which rather individually includes two covers of British Prog-Rockers Spooky Tooth, still packs a punch & is very pleasant. In 1972 the duo recorded another album, this time at Muscle Shoals, & repeated the million-selling success of “Backfield…” with “Starting All Over Again”.

 

Another track on the record was “Groovy Situation”, obviously a very good call for Gene Chandler to take it for himself. Gene recorded an album with Mercury’s other Chicago Soul star, Jerry Butler, before the hits got smaller. In 1977 he was sentenced to a year in prison when he sold a pound of heroin to undercover federal agents. While still on probation he came straight back to music & the R&B Top 10 with the Discofied “Get Down”. Jeez, these Chicago Soul guys lived some kind of lives.

It’s Okeh Because It’s Alright. (More Curtis)

In 1920 a New York independent record label had a surprise super solid smash hit with “Crazy Blues” by Marnie Smith. Here was a new little-tapped market for discs by African-American artists & Okeh Records hired musical directors in N.Y. & in Chicago to supervise the 8000 series of “Race” records released between 1921 & 1934. This all-star catalogue is now legendary & in 1926 Columbia bought a controlling interest in the company. Okeh’s light flickered intermittently over the years & in 1953 it became exclusively an R&B outlet. Then, in 1962 Carl Davis (that’s the “legendary”…), a Chicago producer, was employed as the head of the label. Davis was a talented & successful man himself. He assembled a group of singers, musicians & writers who, until 1965, made Okeh a creative & commercial hub for Chicagoan soul music.

OH-OH ! What’s that sound ? That’s “Rhythm” by Major Lance. “The Monkey Time” was a simple R&B dance record (in 1963 just everyone was Twisting the night away) which gave Okeh its first hit record for 10 years. Major had 4 Top 20 hits with this sweet soul which took that Brazilian baion rhythm off of the Drifters  & added a little cha-cha shuffle. The good Major, a former boxer & dancer, had the moves & was able to sell the crap out of these songs when he appeared on”Shindig”, “Bandstand” or whatever the black & white TV pop show of the day was called. I could have chosen any one of 5 clips of these hits.”Rhythm” gets the shout because I get to pick & I love this track. The “Best Of” is a cracking, dance around the house thing. The expanded 40 track, 2 CD collection maintains the quality. “The Monkey Time” was created by the team of Davis, Johnny Pate & Curtis Mayfield. “That was my introduction with working with Carl Davis” Pate said, ” We had a ball, making some very great music.” And so they did.

Image result for major lance curtis mayfieldAll but one of Lance’s 45s were written by his friend Curtis Mayfield. Curtis’ own group, the Impressions, were signed to ABC but it was at Okeh where he served his apprenticeship. With his school friends the Butler brothers, Jerry & Billy, he worked out how the simple gospel tunes from their church worked just fine when transposed to idealized teen romance or imagined dances. From the more experienced Davis & Pate he learned stuff, music stuff & business stuff. He was provided with an environment where he did not have to tout his songs around, where he got paid & where he had to sell some records. The glorious “Rhythm” was Okeh 7203 & here is #7204.

Now I don’t want to overstate my case here but Walter Jackson has never failed to hit the spot since that first Okeh selection I bought in the olden days. In the 60s alone there were so many outstanding voices, those obvious ones you take for granted like Otis, Marvin, Aretha & Al Green. Walter Jackson’s smooth, dramatic & powerful vocals are distinctive &, in these golden Okeh years, were of a quality to match the greats. Walter was a Image result for walter jacksoncrooner with soul. When I first heard his version of “My Ship Is Comin’ In” (a hit for the Walker Brothers) it was like…so that’s how that song goes…perfect. His later work does drift to the middle of the road but the Okeh team ensured that his ballads had balls & while the songs were not hits they are classics. “Welcome Home”, a best of collection from these years will make your life better.

I did not know that Walter had suffered polio as a child & had to use crutches. The only Y-Tube clip is from the late-70s & has no sound. At a time when Chicago soul was young & quite wonderfully gauche he brought a polish & authority to songs like “It’s All Over” while the budding “Iceman”, Jerry Butler, was watching carefully & taking notes.

Image result for billy butler and the enchantersBilly Butler & the Enchanters were the Junior Impressions of the label. Billy was signed as a teenager. While his older brother was over at Vee Jay Records, recording a mix of Mayfield & standards, he was happy to go with the sweet harmonies, the uptempo, punchy Latin touches that were coming to be recognised as the trademarks of Chicago soul. “I Can’t Work No Longer” was the biggest of a number of releases that were almost trial runs for Curtis, checking out what worked & what didn’t. However successful you can dance to every second of every one of them.

Okeh was never going to be a true rival to Motown or Stax because the major players were on contract & had an eye on their futures. In 1965 Carl Davis, who had continued to work with Gene Chandler, another Chicago great, joined Brunswick where he orchestrated the comeback of Jackie Wilson (Davis produced “Higher & Higher”) & had other hits. Curtis & Pate were now confident that the Impressions were ready for prime time. They concentrated on & succeeded in making the band one of the most influential African American acts of the decade. Later both Davis & Mayfield ran their own labels out of their home city.

Okeh survived for a couple of more years. Walter Jackson hung around & there was a new infusion of energy from rock and roller Larry Williams. Williams, writer of some classic songs brought old hand Little Richard along with young gun Johnny Guitar Watson. The Williams/Watson collaborations are fine examples of energetic soul. It was though, impossible to emulate that short, special period when young men with music on their minds created the soul sound we now associate with their sweet home Chicago.