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.

My favorite way to find a subject for the Secret History of Chicago Music is to stumble across a single or LP I don’t know, fall in love with it, and then go down a rabbit hole looking for information about the artist. Sometimes I don’t even know it’s a Chicago recording at first.

In the case of soul and blues singer Bill Coday, I already owned his single “I Get High on Your Love,” but I’d never paid it much mind before (I have a lot of records, to put it mildly). One of the only positive things about quarantine has been exploring forgotten corners of my own collection, and I’m happy I gave myself a reason to look into Coday. He’s well remembered on the southern soul-blues circuit, but I figure he deserves more love in the city where he made his break.

Coday was born May 10, 1942, in Coldwater, Mississippi, and spent his early days in Blytheville, Arkansas. The second oldest of 12 children, Coday had a strong Southern Baptist upbringing, and sang gospel in church as a kid. By his teen years, though, Coday had found the blues, and he began performing in local juke joints with a band that featured a young Son Seals on guitar. Coday moved to Chicago in the early 60s, boldly adopting the stage name “Chicago Willie.” In 1969, soul goddess Denise LaSalle saw him at the Black Orchid Club at 69th and Racine, and she was blown away by his powerful singing.

LaSalle hooked Coday up with future legend Willie Mitchell, the producer and arranger who would become vice president of Hi Records in 1970 and lead it to its greatest success, adding his touch to albums by the likes of Al Green and Syl Johnson. At the time he met Coday, Mitchell was working with Detroit label Westbound (home to Funkadelic) and Chicago label Crajon, founded by LaSalle and her husband in 1969—its other acts included local soul vocal trio the Sequins, who recorded several LaSalle tunes, including “You Flunked Out” in 1973.

Mitchell and Coday (now under his real name) partnered on several singles for Crajon between ’69 and ’72, including the horn- and organ-stoked local hits “Sixty Minute Teaser” and “I Get High on Your Love,” which show off Coday’s raw, pure voice, which was nearly as elastic as James Brown’s. His third single with the label, “Get Your Lie Straight,” has a vibe like Sam & Dave’s “Hold On! I’m Comin’,” and it hit number 14 on the R&B charts in 1971 (helped along by a Galaxy Records reissue). Like many of the songs Coday recorded during this period, it was written by LaSalle, and longtime Reader contributor David Whiteis has called it “one of the unheralded masterpieces of the soul era.”

The Galaxy single “When You Find a Fool Bump His Head” (another LaSalle tune) reached number 48 on the same chart in summer 1971. The 1972 Crajon release “I’m Back to Collect” was another regional hit, and Coday signed with major label Epic, which reissued it in ’73 and then put out a few more singles, including the smoother ’75 release “A Man Can’t Be a Man” b/w “I Don’t Want to Play This Game.”

Coday’s singles (and some unreleased sessions) were compiled by Crajon for a rare 1978 LP, also issued in a slightly different form by Japanese label Vivid Sound that same year. He toured with LaSalle as a backup singer in the 80s, but released almost nothing new under his own name from the mid-70s till the mid-90s.

By the time Coday reemerged, he fit better into the contemporary soul-blues scene—which made him a natural for new Memphis label Ecko, now an institution with a catalog that includes records by LaSalle as well as the likes of Barbara Carr and O.B. Buchana. For Ecko, Coday recorded bluesier material, starting with 1995’s Sneakin’ Back, followed by Can’t Get Enough in ’97. The albums were well-received by blues critics and fans (especially on the chitlin’ circuit, which Coday has name-checked in song), and he was thriving artistically: in 1999 David Whiteis described the new Put Me in the Mood as “the most completely realized album of his career.”

Coday kept going strong with 2000’s Memories, 2002’s Love Gangsta, and 2003’s Take Me, all likewise on Ecko. He then started his own label, B&J Records, for what would be his final album release, 2005’s Jump Start. Coday died in Memphis from a massive stroke on June 7, 2008, just a few days before the next studio sessions he had booked. His widow, Anna, renamed the label Coday Records and continued to release popular soul-blues artists. Coday’s own work, especially his 60s and 70s material, has been celebrated internationally: his tunes have appeared on compilations by UK label Ace (All Night Long They Played the Blues in 1992 and Bad, Bad Whiskey in 1993) and stateside Sony division Legacy (as part of its Lost Soul series, first in 1982 and again in 1994), and in 2006 Japanese imprint P-Vine released an all-Coday collection called Right on Baby: The Crajon Recordings.  v

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.

  • The 1971 single “Get Your Lie Straight,” written by Denise LaSalle, was probably Bill Coday’s biggest hit.

  • This 2008 release compiles many of Coday’s late-60s and early-70s recordings.

  • This 1999 album was a highlight of Coday’s latter-day soul-blues output.