Beyond the Blues

As the undisputed birthplace of urban blues and a onetime home to greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter, Chicago would have to bend over backward not to make an industry of the blues. But keeping things simple for the tourism trade–Chicago equals blues–has resulted in the neglect of the city’s other great traditions, particularly R & B and soul. Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues, an exceptionally well-done hour-long documentary produced by WTTW, Chicago’s PBS affiliate, should blow some of the dust off that branch of Chicago’s musical history.

The program focuses on a 12-block stretch of South Michigan Avenue that from the 50s to the mid-70s was so packed with record labels and distributors, most of which targeted black artists and consumers, it was known as Record Row. By concentrating on this thriving segment of Chicago’s music industry, producer Michael McAlpin makes bigger statements, not only about the richness and diversity of black music in Chicago and its profound legacy but also about black entrepreneurship in a segregated era.

Record Row begins with the familiar story of how a pair of Polish Jews started the Chess label to capitalize on the popularity of a new strain of local blues among blacks, who were ignored at the time by major labels. But it goes beyond the usual tack of demonstrating the impact the blues would have on rock. For instance, it examines how Chess expanded from a blues haven into an important soul outlet–with artists like the Dells, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, and Etta James, who colorfully narrates the documentary. And the most fascinating chapter of Record Row isn’t about Chess at all; it’s about Vee Jay Records, a multimillion-dollar black-owned operation that preceded Motown by nearly a decade. Vee Jay was started in 1953 by husband and wife Jimmy Bracken and Vivian Carter with a $500 loan. Hit records by the Spaniels and Jimmy Reed gave the label a taste of success, but it was the 1955 hiring of Ewart Abner Jr., a shrewd black record executive, that catapulted it into the big leagues. Rather than cater exclusively to blacks, Abner aimed to make Vee Jay a “full line” label.

In 1940 blacks made up 8.2 percent of Chicago’s population; 20 years later that figure had shot up to 22.9 percent. Like the Negro baseball league and race-film industry before it, the black record industry arose to satisfy and profit from the desires of a growing population that was shut out of existing forums. But it’s harder to segregate radio waves than locker rooms, and by the 60s hits like Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” and Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” had crossed the color line and black music was becoming big business. Thanks to the success of its R & B acts, Vee Jay was able to release gospel (the Staple Singers), jazz (Eddie Harris), and eventually rock (it was the Beatles’ first American label).

Vee Jay’s tragic collapse in 1965–precipitated by a battle Bracken and Carter fought with Abner over expansion, Abner’s subsequent departure, an ill-fated move to the west coast, and mounting debts–foreshadowed the end of Record Row. Leonard Chess died in 1969, and as soul music caught on the majors either swallowed up the independents or poached their best-selling acts. By the mid-70s it was all over.

One of the few authoritative accounts of this era is Robert Pruter’s Chicago Soul (University of Illinois, 1991). While researching a British documentary on Chess, McAlpin came across the newly published book, which spends part of its first chapter on Record Row. “At the time almost all of the power in the music industry was in the hands of whites, so to see blacks holding the reins was striking for me,” says McAlpin. “How come we didn’t know more about these guys?” By early 1992 he had set about the tasks of fund-raising and convincing the powers at WTTW that he had a worthwhile subject; two years later McAlpin began what would be 18 months of production. Remarkable performance footage is interspersed with interviews with the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Bo Diddley, Phil Chess, deejay Herb Kent, Dick Clark, Don Cornelius, and historian Portia Maultsby. The story they tell is obviously complex, and McAlpin says he’s sorry he couldn’t include more labels and artists in the program or delve deeper into Record Row’s business failings.

“It’s a snapshot in a whole photograph album,” says Jerry Butler, who kicked off his first career in 1958 with Vee Jay, singing “For Your Precious Love” with the Impressions (he’s now in his third term as a Cook County commissioner). “But what he got, he got good.”

“Given the fact that he had only an hour to tell the story I think he did a spectacular job,” says Pruter, who served as a historical consultant. “It wasn’t always easy sailing. On early drafts [higher-ups] took virtually all of the soul music out so that it was just another documentary on Chicago blues. They wanted the documentary to conform to what people already know.”

Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues will premiere locally on Channel 11 Thursday, February 20, at 9 PM. A concert to celebrate the program, with Gene Chandler and Detroit soul vets Enchantment, will be held the night before at House of Blues.


With their forthcoming Raw Deluxe the Jungle Brothers continue the revivification of New York’s Natives Tongues posse. Their Double Door appearance with Chicago’s own Gravity on Thursday, February 20, is being presented by Beat Parlor, a new record shop that’s in turn livening up the local hip-hop scene. The store, which occupies Wax Trax’s former Wicker Park digs, sells a spare but impressive collection of hip-hop, house, and drum ‘n’ bass and has recently hosted in-stores with Redman and rising soul star Erykah Badu.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael McAlpin photo by Katrina Wittkamp.