In November 2021, news broke that filled the Chicago house-music community with pride. Hometown house legends Ten City were nominated for a Grammy for Best Dance/Electronica Album for Judgement, their first full-length studio recording since 1994. Many Chicago fans remembered that around the time of the group’s formation in the mid-1980s, their producer, house pioneer Marshall Jefferson, had taken the nation by storm with his 1986 Trax single “The House Music Anthem” (aka “Move Your Body”).
Jefferson is among the Chicago artists who founded house music as a genre in the early 1980s; the others include Jesse Saunders, who famously released the first house single, “On & On,” in 1984. The origins of house music and its associated culture date back to the early-to-mid 1970s, when a group of young gay Black men began hosting house parties in the city’s South Shore neighborhood. This was even before the opening of the Warehouse—the club that gave the genre its name—in 1975. When remembering the earliest days of house music, people who witnessed that period instantly mention the Warehouse and its resident DJ, Frankie Knuckles, who’s known as the Godfather of House. They also recall the Muzic Box and DJ Ron Hardy, who’s affectionately called the King of the Underground.
But Generation X fans born between 1970 and 1974, who were too young to get into the Warehouse or similar spaces—or who didn’t have the savvy, connections, or fake IDs to sneak into them—got their introduction to the music and its culture through an unlikely source: the Catholic school system.
Mendel High School, a 40-acre campus located on 111th and King Drive, became a euphoric, joyful space of belonging for young fans. Its big gymnasium, with a stadium-size sound system, filled with thousands of teens from all over the city. They came to experience musical journeys with some of the hottest DJs from the burgeoning house-music scene, who weaved together disco, Italo, electronica, alternative, and more.
Mendel’s connection to house music began in 1975, when the school’s activities director, Father O’Grady, gave 14-year-old sophomore Kirk Townsend a shot at DJing the annual school dance to benefit Catholic missions overseas. Within a year, Mendel began hosting dances weekly, with an average attendance of about 1,000 Catholic school students.
“[The administrators] had the gumption to listen to a 16-year-old tell them how to market, how to promote, how we can stage these dances,” said Townsend at a 2019 panel discussion conducted for the Chicago Black Social Map—an initiative designed to preserve the “social cultural lineage” of Black Chicago. With Townsend at the helm, Mendel provided a platform for thousands of teenagers to see and hear the DJs and producers—Knuckles, Saunders, Jefferson, Hardy, and many more—who established house music, as well as up-and-coming DJs such as DJ Pharris and Gene Hunt. Townsend recalled that these events generated a combined $15 million in revenue, which helped the school survive as it began to suffer an enrollment crisis in the mid-70s.
The troubles came to Mendel as its student body shrank due to white flight from Roseland. When Kirk Townsend started at the school, its student population was about 60 percent white and averaged about 1,200 per class. Soon that number plummeted to about 500 students, and in 1978, Townsend graduated from the school’s first all-Black class. The Augustinian priests who ran the school could no longer operate such a large campus with a fraction of its previous enrollment, so while Townsend’s dances helped keep the doors open from 1979 till 1988, at that point they decided to close it down.
A similar situation unfolded on Chicago’s far west side at Resurrection Elementary School, then located at 5058 W. Jackson. In 1979, school officials gave 14-year-old Rick Lenoir an opportunity to DJ student parties after basketball games. Because their team had a victorious year, the parties rapidly grew in popularity. They became weekly events, but eventually the sisters who ran the school felt overwhelmed by the demand and opted to end the series.
By then, Lenoir was 16 and attending St. Ignatius High School. He struck a deal with Resurrection’s administrators that allowed him to take over the parties and staff them with his own people—including his mom, who worked the door. Like Townsend, he also brought in DJs and talent from all over the city. Attendance grew to nearly 2,000 teenagers at every event. As a result, Lenoir became an in-demand DJ and promoter beyond Resurrection, throwing parties in various spaces, including his alma mater St. Ignatius.
The dances at Mendel and Resurrection proved inspirational. By the mid-80s, almost every Chicago-area Catholic high school from the far south side to the western suburbs—Hales Franciscan, Our Lady of Sorrow, Provident St. Mel, Cathedral, Leo—was throwing similar events. But as much as the parties benefited the schools financially, they were even more beneficial to their communities at large. They became breeding grounds for new generations of house-music fans while providing safe spaces for thousands of teenagers to gather, create, and experience emotional release on a weekly basis.
Lenoir became a house-music trailblazer, producing classics such as “Can’t Stop the House” and “Work It to the Bone,” as well as songs for Ten City. He’s still actively producing. Several of his songs have made it to Traxsource Top 100 lists, including Cortney LaFloy’s “Forever” and “Zenora” by the Terranova Experience. Kirk Townsend went on to receive multiple awards and recognitions for his work, starting in 1977, when Mayor Bilandic presented him with a plaque for being the city’s youngest DJ. He’s since been inducted into Mendel High School’s Hall of Fame, and in 2011 the Chosen Few DJs declared him a member of the Frankie Knuckles DJ Hall of Fame.
Many of those who attended the school parties also became DJs, producers, record label owners, distributors, and entrepreneurs at early ages. DJ and producer Gene Hunt, for example, played Mendel and Resurrection as young as 13 years old. By age 15, he had held residencies at some of Chicago’s premier house venues, including the Pleasure Dome. DJ Pharris Thomas became a favorite at Mendel at age 16 and began a major radio career at 20, when he began DJing house music on WBMX. For the past 25 years, he’s also been a force on the hip-hop scene, and in 2016 he coproduced Kanye West’s hit dance single “Fade,” which samples a few Chicago house classics, including “Mystery of Love” by Fingers Inc.
Dance crews and dance-floor culture provided some of the biggest contributions to house music that came out of these events. “In 1977, one of the biggest parts of Mendel’s popularity were the dance groups,” said Townsend. “The parties would virtually stop themselves, just people gathering around watching these guys do these calculated dances . . . and they would battle. That was the gang fight. You battled dancing on the dance floor.” House dance battles are still a global entertainment phenomenon today.
For those who have spent decades in the music industry as DJs, promoters, and dancers, the influence of people such as Townsend and Lenoir has been essential—they paved the way and created the spaces that fed the culture. Their work blurred the lines of segregation, encouraging kids to get out of their neighborhoods and experience the city in all its diversity. As young people, they traveled as far as possible by CTA bus and train with Supertransfers—a precursor to the CTA’s weekend pass—in search of this music and its culture. At Catholic school dances, the house-music community found an early home.