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.

The Secret History of Chicago Music has produced plenty of offshoots over the 18 years that it’s run, and I’m pretty proud of some of them. I published the book My Kind of Sound: The Secret History of Chicago Music Compendium in 2016; I’ve facilitated reissues and archival releases of music by artists I’ve covered (see last month’s piece on Apocalypse for an example); I’ve booked a SHoCM-themed concert series, which starts up again in July at the Hideout; and most recently, I’ve held down a residency, also at at the Hideout (which as you might suspect is my fave club in the city).

That residency, which began during a dark phase of the pandemic in 2021, was an honor for me and a lot of fun—and it could run on a skeleton crew, thankfully, to avoid putting too many staffers at risk. It alternated low-key outdoor Hideout gigs with a live series on Vans Channel 66 that combined a DJ set and a talk show. I could pay my guests (and myself, to help me cover rent despite COVID challenges), and the channel’s closed sets made for a pretty safe situation.

My guests would spin tunes from genres I cover in SHoCM, and I loved hearing record collectors talk about the music they brought in to play. I learned a lot, and I even had a few epiphanies—including one when author, critic, gallery owner, and all-around music impresario John Corbett introduced me to jazz group the Three Souls. John has the passion and expertise to put anything he shares in proper historical context, fleshed out with minutiae from his deep store of knowledge. He immediately put me on a path to look more closely at the Three Souls.

The focal point of the Three Souls is Landon “Sonny” Cox, born in Cincinnati, Ohio, mostly likely in 1938 (though he was reluctant to confirm this in interviews). His mother, Helen Harris, sang with the Erskine Hawkins band, and his father ran a liquor store. 

“My parents were Baptists and they raised us right,” Cox told the Reader‘s Ben Joravsky in 1989. (He later converted to Catholicism.) “They always tried to get us to learn as much as they could because they wanted us to go to college so we could be productive citizens. They figured right. So many of the guys I grew up with are dead now. They died from drinking or drugs or they got shot. At least 30 or 40 of them are dead. It seemed for a while like every week someone was getting killed. But I’ve never even smoked a joint.”

Cox picked up the alto saxophone as a kid and fell in love with jazz early. As a high school student in Cincinnati, he also played football, basketball, and baseball. The Cincinnati Reds drafted Cox out of Kentucky State University, where his first major was physical education and recreation, and he played shortstop for an affiliated minor-league team till a bad knee ended his brief career. He went back to college, where he kept playing sports and studied jazz. 

In the 1950s, Cox joined a Cincinnati group that backed R&B heavies such as Jackie Wilson, Solomon Burke, Jerry Butler, and LaVern Baker. He also says he came to Chicago early in his musical career with future tenor-sax star Joe Henderson. A 2001 Sun-Times story says the two of them took their trip after Cox graduated from Kentucky State, but other evidence suggests it might’ve happened earlier, in summer 1955, after Henderson spent a year at Kentucky State himself (and before he enrolled at Wayne State). 

The uncertainty about Cox’s birth year makes it hard to pin any of this down—if he was really born in 1938, he would’ve been no older than 17 at the time—but 1955 is also when some sources say Cox met organist Ken Prince, a Kentucky native who would later play in the Three Souls.

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“Astronaut” appears on the Three Souls’ second album, released in 1965.

As the story goes, Cox and Henderson stopped in the Windy City on what Cox thought would be a sojourn to California to make it as professional players. So many jazz gigs were happening along Cottage Grove Avenue, though, that the two men ended up playing here seven nights a week all summer, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. 

When Cox settled in Chicago—whether it was on his trip with Henderson or later, after finishing college—he took up residence on the south side. He’d been nicknamed “Sonny” because folks thought he sounded like Sonny Stitt, and when the famous tenor saxophonist came to town, the two of them played together. According to Jazz Showcase proprietor Joe Segal, Cox was also influenced by legends such as Charlie Parker and Earl Bostic.

Cox and Prince started the Three Souls in the early 60s with soon-to-be-famous drummer Robert Shy, also a Kentuckian. The Three Souls held down a residency at the Hungry Eye in Old Town, which served as a base of operations for them, and their gritty, groovy, no-frills style epitomized what Corbett calls the “tavern jazz” sound.

The hard-working unit landed a recording contract with Chess Records subsidiary Argo (soon to become the Cadet imprint), whose catalog also included Stitt and fellow jazzers Ahmad Jamal, Art Farmer, Gene Ammons, and Lou Donaldson, as well as R&B goddess Etta James and popular crossover pianist Ramsey Lewis. The Three Souls fit in well with this who’s who of soulful artists.

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The 1964 single version of “Hi-Heel Sneakers” by the Three Souls

The band released their first LP, Dangerous Dan Express, on Argo in 1964 (if you’re not from Chicago, you probably won’t get the highway reference). The LP grooves hard right out of the gate: on the title track, Prince’s passionate keys recall Jimmy Smith at his best, and on “Our Day Will Come,” Cox’s workingman sax moves shine. (Killer session guitarists George Eskridge and Gerald Sims fill out the arrangements.) The album’s version of “Hi-Heel Sneakers” became a minor hit, and Prince’s danceable shuffle endeared the cracking cut to the UK’s mod and Northern Soul crowds in the 70s and beyond.

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The Three Souls cover Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins con Carne on the 1965 LP Soul Sounds.

The group’s second LP, released in 1965, was billed to the Three Souls Featuring Sonny Cox and titled Soul Sounds. It might be their strongest effort, with assistance again from Sims and also from future Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Louis Satterfield. Their version of Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins con Carne” is impossibly tight, and lead track “You’re No Good” (written by Clint Ballard Jr.) is instrumental sax soul at its finest—it also came out as a single that’s beloved by DJs to this day. The LP shows off the band’s versatility with a strange mix of covers, including material by mainstream songwriters (Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach) and by fellow jazz artists (Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz). It was also the Three Souls’ swan song.

Cox released the LP The Wailer on Cadet in 1966, with Ken Prince on keys—meaning two of the Three Souls were present, not to mention another future Earth, Wind & Fire star, Maurice White, playing drums. Thanks in part to the contributions of famed producer Richard Evans (who formed the Soulful Strings from members of Cadet’s house band and also worked with the likes of Ramsey Lewis, Marlena Shaw, and Dorothy Ashby), it’s a rich-sounding album full of taut, jazzy dance-floor fillers. In 1969, Cox worked with the Bell label to release a dark, reverbed-out version of the Soulful Strings cut “Chocolate Candy” (written by guitar god Phil Upchurch), again with Evans producing. 

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Sonny Cox’s 1969 cover of the Phil Upchurch tune “Chocolate Candy.”

Robert Shy went on to have a celebrated career after the Three Souls dissolved, drumming for years with the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk (known for playing multiple saxes at once) and backing beloved Chicago figures such as Von Freeman, Willie Pickens, Eddie Higgins, and Jodie Christian

On a remembrance page posted by Chicago Jazz Magazine after Shy died in 2018, vocalist Solitaire Miles paid tribute to this classy gentleman of jazz: “I will miss Robert for his wonderful ears and his playing, but I will also miss Robert as my friend even more,” Miles wrote. “I would call him on the phone to discuss a recording project or a gig and he always took a lot of time with me . . . and at the end of every conversation we had he would always remind me, ‘Be cool Solitaire, be cool. . . . ’ Robert was cool, all of the time, under any circumstances, and Chicago jazz will never be the same without him.”

Prince continued in music too, playing with Chicago champions such as Von Freeman, Famoudou Don Moye (of the Art Ensemble of Chicago), and Ari Brown.

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The title track of Sonny Cox’s 1966 LP The Wailer

Cox likewise kept playing jazz, but he also took a left turn into an entirely different line of work. When his friend Howard Amos applied for a job as a teacher, he invited Cox to come along. Cox didn’t particularly want to teach, but he realized it could make him extra money by day while he continued to gig at night. He intended to work as a sub, maybe just for a few days, and he ended up teaching at John Foster Dulles Elementary for around a decade.

Once Cox finally gave up music, he called on his youthful love of sports and began coaching the sixth-grade basketball team at Dulles—a short hop, since he’d already been teaching gym. He eventually moved on to Wendell Smith Elementary, and in 1974 he took an after-school position as a baseball coach at Robeson High School (then Parker High), staying for eight seasons. Robeson eventually hired him as a counselor and as the coach of a frosh-soph basketball team. 

A few years later, Cox got the break he’d been hoping for. When the head basketball coach at King College Prep High School quit, Cox got the job in time for the 1981-’82 season. (He’d later become an assistant principal at King as well.)

In that 1989 Reader piece, Joravsky called Cox “the greatest high school basketball coach in the state of Illinois.” But that success was tainted by scandal, or at least by frequent allegations of scandal: Cox was accused of illegally recruiting players for King, and he’s cited in the infamous 1990 book Raw Recruits. A Sun-Times investigation provided evidence that all-stater Efrem Winters had his grades altered to allow him to qualify for a University of Illinois scholarship, though Cox told Joravsky that it happened before he was hired. When another all-stater, Johnny Selvie, was indicted twice for drugs, Cox hired him a lawyer and helped him get acquitted in 1990. (Selvie later played at New Mexico State and became head coach at Lindblom in Chicago.) 

In his two decades at King, Cox won more than 85 percent of his games and three state titles. His program produced 15 all-state players and seven All-Americans. “I’ve been to the top of the mountain,” the larger-than-life Cox told the Sun-Times when he retired in 2001. “I don’t know if anyone will do all the things I have done in so short a time.” 

Landon “Sonny” Cox passed away on May 5, 2020, leaving behind a trove of still-beloved music and a legacy of star athletes who thrived under his mentorship. How many people can claim that?

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.


Sonny Cox Must Be Doing Something Right

In a city where high-school basketball stars are recruited, not made, King High’s coach plays the game so well that some rivals complain he must be doing something wrong.