The soul of Chicago

Defining music is always a difficult task. For instance, what many consider rock and roll music is merely pop music. To me, true rock and roll means Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

The definition of soul music can be difficult as well. When I was growing up, I considered anything performed by a black artist as soul music, and I think a lot of people, especially in the small towns of the Midwest, felt the same way. As I have grown older and gained more of a musical appreciation, I have discovered that soul music is probably my favorite music, but I don’t break it down by artist or era…I break it down geographically.

Many folks say that soul music was born in the south, a mixture of church music, Negro spirituals and work songs that workers would sing in the fields. However, many of these black musicians would travel to major cities to escape the fields and make more money in factories. As these workers gravitated to these cities, they brought their musical heritage with them. Soon the blues of the delta was being smoothed out into rhythm and blues in Memphis (home of Stax Records and recording studio), pop music in Detroit (home of Motown Records) and eventually groovy soul in Philadelphia (produced by smooth soul producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for their Philadelphia International label).

However, many music historians agree that the very first soul record was recorded in Chicago, and I have to agree. That song gave birth to a era of Windy City Soul that remains my favorite genre.

Black music in Chicago primarily got its start the same way as most other areas…workers coming from the south to find better jobs for a better life. And like most cities where blacks settled, the music scene reflected the music of these workers. They were playing in clubs all over the South Side of Chicago, and were gaining more and more popularity. So two brothers, whose father ran a junkyard across from a black church, decided first to get into the nightclub business, then the record business.  

Leonard and Phil Chess started Chess Records to record many of the artists that were playing in black clubs around the city. However, they concentrated mostly on blues, R&B and doo-wop music. Artists like Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon were their bread and butter until Chuck Berry came to town from St. Louis to kick-start rock and roll.

In 1953, another record label was started in Chicago by a brother and sister from Gary, Indiana. Vivian Carter-Bracken was the “V” and her husband, Jimmy Bracken, was the “J” in VeeJay Records. They were recording much of the same doo-wop and R&B that Chess Records was releasing. Then one Saturday morning in 1958, a Chicago group called The Impressions went down to Chess Records to audition. A major snowstorm had crippled the city the night before, and they found no one at the Chess offices. So they walked across the street to VeeJay, and auditioned for A&R man Calvin Carter, Vivian’s brother. He signed them on the spot. The song that they sang for the audition was “For Your Precious Love”…the song that many consider the very first soul song.

Why does this song hold that distinction? According to the writer of the song (and the lead vocalist) Jerry Butler, it’s been described as the perfect combination of the secular and the spiritual. The song has a haunting sound, but sweet lyrics that make it one of the greatest love songs of all time.

Chicago soon became a Mecca for soul artists coming up from the south…Walter Jackson, Major Lance, Betty Everett, Fontella Bass, Billy Butler (Jerry’s younger brother) and Tyrone Davis consistently had songs on the soul and R&B charts throughout the 1960’s. Many of these tunes were written and produced by the lead singer and leader of the Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, who eventually began a solo career and started his own publishing company and record label.

In my opinion, soul music is appropriately named because it resonates in my soul…especially this song. I don’t know if I’ve heard anything so beautiful and so moving, yet so simple. I give you…the very first soul record.


About groovyrick

I live in a small town in Illinois with my wife and three kids. I am a part-time musician, part-time writer, and full-time dreamer.
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