Chicago police officer Edward “Skipper” Keyes has worked in law enforcement since 1978, so he’s had plenty of practice helping people in need. He’s been a huge fan of soul music and R & B for even longer, though, and because of that devotion many of the artists he met as a wide-eyed teenager in the 60s are coming to him now looking for a different kind of assistance. “A lot of them seek me out to get advice on how to deal with these various labels that approach them, how to deal with contracts, how to get some of their royalties,” Keyes says. “I just try and put them in the right direction. It’s a joy for me to be able to help people whose music I grew up loving.”
In his free time Keyes, now 56, works as an archivist and consultant for Grapevine, a UK reissue label specializing in R & B–most notably he’s helped it establish a Chicago soul series that’s yielded comprehensive anthologies on nearly forgotten stars like Johnny Moore, Ruby Andrews, Cicero Blake, and Jackie Ross. But even before he hooked up with Grapevine in 2002, Keyes was a one-man clearinghouse for info on Chicago’s neglected R & B heroes, providing contact details, photos, studio logs, and the like to record collectors, journalists, and labels from around the world–including Chicago-based writer Robert Pruter, who consulted Keyes while researching his authoritative books on soul and doo-wop. “He’s the exceedingly rare case of someone who was truly on the scene back in the day who’s still a collector and a fan,” says Rob Sevier of the local reissue label the Numero Group. “He’s still in touch with all the artists–he never ever lost the love.”
When Keyes was growing up, music was a constant in his family’s Bronzeville home–his father, a former jazz trumpeter, played big-band 78s, and he got tons of hand-me-down doo-wop 45s from his older brother. His neighbors included family soul band the Five Stairsteps, and he was a regular at the Tivoli and Regal theaters, which hosted big R & B revues. “I remember seeing the Miracles, Marvelettes, Temptations, Major Lance, Impressions,” he says. “All on one show and for $2.50.”
After 16 years with the Cook County sheriff’s office, working as a courtroom deputy during a series of high-profile trials (John Wayne Gacy, the Pontiac 17), Keyes joined the CPD as a patrolman in 1994. After an on-duty car crash in 1998 he was restricted to office jobs–currently he’s head AV technician at CPD headquarters, handling PA systems at press conferences and multimedia at meetings. “But I’ve always loved and been involved in music,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve had some singing groups, tried writing songs, and done little production things.”
His second career began in earnest in the late 90s, when he encouraged Clarence Johnson, an original member of the Chi-Lites, to release a compilation of songs by the Lovelites, a late-60s girl group he’d produced. Then in 2002 Johnny Moore asked Keyes to help with a disc of his music that Grapevine was assembling; Keyes has worked for the label ever since, and its Chicago series is still going strong. “The love that people in Europe have for soul, R & B, and black music is incredibly deep–they know these different genres and artists better than the folks here in America,” says Keyes. “That’s kind of sad to say, but it’s the truth.”
Keyes is currently finishing up another comp of music Johnson produced–he’s tracked down and digitized the master tapes, and now he’s getting liner notes written. The disc includes songs from Deniece Williams and Brighter Side of Darkness and will be released on Grapevine in December. He’s also working freelance on a few comps that collect material produced a bit later than the northern soul favored in Europe; he hopes to find labels for them in 2007. “There are some Chicago groove, funk, and sweet soul things that are not being documented,” he says. “I want to get some of that stuff out there for people to hear. It’s a part of history that needs to be saved.”
After his retirement from the force–still seven years away–Keyes hopes to keep working in music. “I would like to stretch out and do some consulting work for the majors, especially things that have originated out of Chicago,” he says. “I’ve spent my life learning about this stuff and I have the expertise, so why not use it?”
Rock: Still Not Dead
Miss Alex White, local garage-rock spitfire, has just finished the follow-up to her self-titled 2005 debut on In the Red. The Red Orchestra, her band since 2004, recorded and mixed the new disc in four days flat at the Distillery in Costa Mesa, California, with studio owner and engineer Mike McHugh, who’s worked with past and present In the Red acts like the Black Lips and the Hunches. The 12-song CD, titled Space & Time, will be released in Europe in the spring and come out in the States early in the summer–but one new track, “In the Snow,” is already posted at the band’s MySpace page.
Earlier this year In the Red put out a vinyl-only live album of White’s last show with the late Chris Saathoff, aka Chris Playboy. And the perpetually in-the-works live album from the Hot Machines–White’s intermittent supergroup with singer-guitarist Jered Gummere of the Ponys and drummer Matt Williams of LiveFastDie–is allegedly due in 2007 on Milwaukee’s Dusty Medical label. It documents their second show ever, in 2002 at the Beat Kitchen.
White is also starting a new band, tentatively called Forestbride, with her younger brother, Francis, on drums. “We’re both redheads. It’s a redhead-only band,” she says. “That’ll get kick-started pretty soon playing out in town.” Francis is only 19, and White, who’s finishing an entrepreneurial studies degree at DePaul, hit drinking age in April. She’d planned to graduate last spring, after three years, but after winning an $18,000 William G. McGowan scholarship in June she decided to stick around for a full four and “pick up another major in economics.” She’ll take the LSAT in early 2007, graduate in late June, and with any luck head to law school next fall–right after an extended tour of Europe and the States.
Meanwhile Gummere and the Ponys, who left In the Red to sign with Matador in July, are nearly finished with a new album of their own–their third, and the first since the departure of guitarist and singer Ian Adams after 2005’s Celebration Castle. Working with engineer and producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth), they recorded 14 tracks in a week at Electrical Audio, then mixed at Headgear studio in Brooklyn.
Though Adams’s replacement, Brian Case of the 90 Day Men, contributes to the songwriting process, none of the tunes is clearly his–for the first time Gummere sings lead on every track. “There’s almost a really cool shoegazer sound, that kind of vibe to the record,” says Agnello. “It’s more atmospheric, ethereal–there’s more melody in the guitars, really. There’s a lot more stuff going on. Brian is really amazing and he does do great things with reverb and delay, so it adds a new dimension to their sound.” The album isn’t mastered yet and doesn’t have a title, but the Ponys have settled on the 12 songs they’ll be using (the others will probably end up as European B sides). The record is due in March.
Real, Real Gone
This is my final column for the Reader. After almost three years in Chicago, I’m moving to Memphis, where starting in November I’ll be the music critic for the daily Commercial Appeal. Peter Margasak will fill in until my successor, Miles Raymer, launches his new column. My heartfelt thanks go out to the Reader for its support of all my efforts here. Anyone who wants to stay in touch can reach me at email@example.com. Thank you and good night.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.