Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
When I learned in March that the newest single from Chicago singer-songwriter RJ Griffith would be a cover of his uncle’s old R&B band the Fabulous Turks, my ears pricked up—I hadn’t heard the group’s name before. After making some inquiries, I quickly convinced myself I’d found an untold story. Griffith and his manager, Tom Segal, kindly initiated the slow process of relaying my questions to the band and passing answers back to me. As a result, the Secret History of Chicago Music can bring you the tale of the Turks, as remembered by Griffith’s uncle, singer Thomas Williams, and his songwriting collaborator Willie Weems.
Thomas Williams was born November 11, 1943, in Tallahassee, Florida, and moved to Chicago at age three. “At 13 years old, I saw a performance from a R&B group at a social club, and I saw how they were dressed and professional,” he says. “From that moment on I wanted to be an entertainer.” Tragic R&B boy soprano Frankie Lymon (of the Teenagers fame) was also a huge childhood influence. Williams was a teenager himself when he joined his first vocal group, the Fascinators, with friends from his neighborhood—and they had a brush with success thanks to a south-side Chicago label.
“Bombay Records sold us a dream and gave the red-carpet treatment with limousines and five-star restaurants,” he recalls. “We recorded a song for them, and it was never released due to tax purposes.” Bombay, owned by soul songwriter and producer Bob Catron, did in fact put out a Fascinators single in 1964 (“Gonna Miss Me” b/w “In Other Words”), but few seem to have been pressed—it’s now rare enough that a fairly clean copy fetched $1,900 in 2019.
Williams joined the Fabulous Turks in the mid-60s, when they were already well-established and gigging around Chicagoland. According to Williams, the group recorded at the Columbia Records studio in 1961 and at the One-derful label’s Tone Recordings in ’64, but he doesn’t remember any resulting releases (and I can’t find any evidence either). The Turks went through many lineup changes, but by the late 60s the roster had stabilized with Williams, Willie Gladney, Willie Crowley, and Andy Herron.
In 1967 the Fabulous Turks met songwriter and guitarist Willie Weems—they’d been booked on a show produced by Chicago band the Dontells, with whom Weems was working. The backing band Weems led with the Dontells began playing with the Turks, and they forged a lasting relationship.
In a perfect world I’d do a whole Secret History on Weems. He seems to have had his fingers in a lot of pies (sometimes credited as “Weams”), but he’s not even mentioned in Robert Pruter’s authoritative Chicago Soul. Weems was born August 2, 1941, in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and moved to west suburban Maywood at three years old. He remembers hearing Louis Jordan back in Mississippi, and after the move he was inspired by blues and R&B artists such as Muddy Waters and Ray Charles.
In high school Weems had a band called the Downbeats, and in the early 60s (after a stint in the army in Germany) he started writing and performing with the Dontells, who released their first Weems song, “The Old Man,” in 1963 via Witch Records. The group continued issuing singles till the early 70s, on labels such as Beltone and Vee-Jay, and in 1970 they appeared on Soul Train. Weems formed a songwriting team with Dontells bandmate Leroy Dandridge, who owned the Ambassador and Dan-dy labels—they wrote for Weems, for singer Edith Brown, and for Dandridge (who recorded as Singing Sam and in the duo Sam & Kitty with Weems’s ex-girlfriend Kitty Grove). Weems also wrote the bangin’ 1968 tune “Girl You Lit My Fire” for blues harmonica master Junior Wells.
The Fabulous Turks released only two 45s, both in 1969, and all four songs were Weems compositions. Billed simply to the Turks, they were released by tiny south-side label DJO, a division of the Daran Recording Company—an early home of the group that became the Chi-Lites. The second single, “Let It Flame” b/w “The Bad Brought Out the Good” (misprinted as “The Bad Brought the Good” on the hub label), is now considered a smooth soul classic by collectors, and often sells for $200 or more.
The B side of the first single, “You Turn Me On” b/w “Generation Gap,” features a jumping full-band groove that echoes the Motown sound of the day. The A side is a slow, sublime weeper—and that’s the track RJ Griffith chose to remake. Williams says “You Turn Me On” was a local favorite that got requested a lot on WVON and on radio stations in Gary—and Griffith’s press materials for the remake claim it was picked up by 35 radio stations nationally. This success didn’t translate to money, though. “We signed a contract with DJO Records that stated four guys were to split a penny and a half per record that sold,” Williams says. Weems adds, “The Turks were released from their contract with DJO Records in 1969 due to lack of promotion.”
The Fabulous Turks performed at Chicago’s very first Black Expo, organized by Operation PUSH in 1969, sharing the bill with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, the Supremes, and many more. (The event was held here annually till 1976, and the Turks also played in 1970.) Most of the band’s gigs weren’t nearly so glamorous, of course—they often toured the chitlin’ circuit, which could be a grind. Thomas recalls having to change his clothes on top of beer cases, and Weems remembers a chaotic gig at a club called the Bucket of Blood: “A big fight broke out and bottles and tables were being thrown, and we continued to play and dodged objects at the same time.”
The band petered out in or around 1970. “The Turks broke up due to family and personal problems, fatigued of pursuing a dream for so long and it never amounting to stardom,” Williams says. He carried on with a reconfigured group called the Four Shades, who released “Something Special” b/w “My World” in 1972 and split up in the mid-70s.
Weems stayed in the biz till the 80s—he mentions the group Table of Contents, who have a 1985 single listed on Discogs—and he continues to write music today. He’s happy about Griffith’s reinterpretation of his tune. “I was amazed at the remake of the song that I wrote, because it was about a woman I liked, and I was a little nervous,” he says. “But RJ really delivered and brought the song to life!” Williams is similarly pleased: “I think it’s amazing that someone could take something that was made 50 years ago and bring it up to date. I’m excited for the world to hear the remake.” v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.