In its nearly 40-year history, the Chicago Blues Festival has frequently saluted the city’s vibrant soul-music legacy with all-star sets underscoring the connection between soul and blues. This year is no exception.
On Saturday, June 11, at Pritzker Pavilion, what’s billed as a Chicago Soul Tribute pays homage to three local legends: saxophonist-producer Gene “Daddy G” Barge, soul-blues singer Cicero Blake, and baritone sax man Willie Henderson. The latter’s Big Bad Blues Band will provide backing for a lineup of vocalists, including Samota Acklin, Theresa Davis, Joe Barr, and Willie White.
Headlining that lineup is soul singer Ruby Andrews, best known for the 1967 R&B smash “Casonova (Your Playing Days Are Over).” Released by Ric Williams’s Zodiac Records, that seductive platter poured her irresistible vocals over a majestic violin-enriched backdrop. Andrews recorded it in Detroit, rather than in her hometown, as she did several of her subsequent hits. None of Zodiac’s other signees ever approached her success, and she emerged as the label’s flagship artist.
Andrews has starred at the Blues Festival several times, and she and Henderson have often shared stages. “Willie and I go back—well, I ain’t gonna tell you how long ago,” she says, laughing. “Way, way back. He’s a good man. In fact, he’s the one that called me for the show.”
Born Ruby Stackhouse in 1947, Andrews began singing in her native Hollandale, Mississippi, when she was barely old enough to toddle. “I think I might have been maybe three years old,” she says. “Being from Mississippi, you went to church. I don’t care how young or how old you were. Either you’re going to sit in the audience and be bored, or you’re going to get in the choir.”
Andrews came to Chicago at age five. “The only thing I remember is the train ride,” she says.
Chicago Soul Tribute
Part of the Chicago Blues Festival, which runs from Thu 6/9 through Sun 6/12. This tribute to Gene Barge, Cicero Blake, and Willie Henderson features Willie Henderson’s Big Bad Blues Band with special guests Ruby Andrews, Samota Acklin, Theresa Davis, Joe Barr, and Willie White. Sat 6/11, 2:55 PM till 4:10 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Michigan and Columbus, free, all ages
Growing up in Hyde Park, Andrews became friends with another golden-voiced teenager. “I went to Hyde Park High School, and Minnie Riperton and I were in the same music class,” she says. When school let out for the day, the two friends would occasionally scope out the nightlife around the Sutherland Hotel at 47th and Drexel. “Minnie and I would sneak into Cadillac Bob’s joint in front of the hotel,” she says. “I met Walter Jackson. I guess he adopted me as his little sister. Curtis Mayfield and everybody used to hang up in there.
“At Hyde Park, I don’t know whether any other high schools did this, but we had a senior variety show,” she says. “I signed up one time. Then I had a band. I don’t know where they came from. But we rehearsed and we rehearsed. I did [Ted Taylor’s] ‘Be Ever Wonderful.’ And I did all the notes like he did, and they gave me a standing ovation. And while they were doing that, I said, ‘This is what I want to do!’”
In 1964, Andrews sang with the Vondells, then riding the local hit “Lenora.” In 1965, still using her birth name, she cut her debut single, “Wishing,” for Leon Singleton’s fledgling Kellmac label. “I was 17 going on 18,” she says. “I just went in there and did it.” At the end of that year, she also sang on Kellmac’s only major hit, “Michael” by the C.O.D.’s.
“That was me in the background with the high note back there,” Andrews says. “We all grew up in the same area, 47th and Drexel. We were on Drexel, and we used to play in the park all the time. They found the song ‘Michael (The Lover),’ and so we all went in the studio. It was like a big happy family back then.”
Andrews’s big break came not long after that. Her manager, Bob Morris, introduced her to another new label owner—and this one would help put her on the national map. “He said, ‘This is Ric Williams, and Ric Williams is looking for an artist. And I was telling him about you.’” Williams was about to launch Zodiac Records.
Prior to her first Zodiac release, Andrews had decided that “Stackhouse” wasn’t a name destined for stardom. “I got tired of them ribbing me,” she says. “I changed it to one of my best movie actresses. Her name is Julie Andrews.” The newly christened singer’s sizzling “Let’s Get a Groove Going On” launched Zodiac in 1967.
Andre Williams produced Andrews’s Zodiac encore, “I Just Can’t Get Enough,” a fine record spoiled by a mix that buried her voice so badly it was almost inaudible. “He said, ‘I’ve got these songs I want you to sing,’ so we went in and did them,” she says. “But they weren’t exactly what Ric was looking for.”
Andrews’s next release would be recorded in Detroit. Joshie Jo Armstead, a successful songwriter who’d worked with Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson before moving to Chicago from New York, supplied what would become Andrews’s eternal signature theme.
Andrews remembers the conversation Williams had with Armstead about coming up with a tune for her: “He said, ‘Let’s write a song about a player.’ So she said, ‘OK—Don Juan?’ He said, ‘No, that don’t work.’ She said a couple more names, and then she says, ‘How about Casanova?’ And he said, ‘Yeah! That’s the one!’ And she sat there, in five minutes she wrote that song, and the next week we were in Detroit recording it.”
Produced by Mike Terry (formerly of Motown’s house band, where he supplied the distinctive baritone sax solos on the Supremes’ early hits) and George McGregor, “Casonova” featured a cast of session musicians that included several rhythm players from the Funk Brothers, who were forbidden to moonlight but frequently did.
“When we were in the studio, Berry [Gordy] would send his point man around to see what [the musicians working for Motown] were doing,” says Andrews. “We knew they were coming, so we’d turn out the lights, and everybody would hide behind their instruments until the engineer said, ‘Well, he’s gone now!’ Then we’d turn on the lights and crank it up again. That was so fun!”
“Casonova” soared to number nine on Billboard’s R&B charts in late summer 1967, typo and all. The song made Andrews a star and sent her on tour—she performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater several times.
Andrews’s 1968 Zodiac single “You Can Run (But You Can’t Hide)” wasn’t a hit, but it was significant for another reason: it was the first to pair her with the Detroit production and songwriting triumvirate of Fred Bridges, Robert Eaton, and Richard Knight, collectively known as the Brothers of Soul. (They also recorded under that name, scoring a hit the same year with “I Guess That Don’t Make Me a Loser” on the Boo label.)
Bridges, Eaton, and Knight also wrote Andrews’s 1969 R&B hit “You Made a Believer (Out of Me),” cut after a long night of partying at Detroit’s 20 Grand entertainment complex.
“They came knocking on the door at six o’clock: ‘You got to come out of there, and we got to go to the studio!’” Andrews says. “We got to the studio, I guess about nine or ten o’clock in the morning, and I was mad, and that’s why the song sounds like that. It’s just forceful.” The name of the song was the product of an unlikely inspiration: “Remember the commercial that said, ‘Palmolive, you made a believer out of me?’” asks Andrews. “Robert took the title from the commercial!”
Andrews and Williams had developed a romantic relationship, and as the Brothers of Soul witnessed the personal and professional dynamic between the two of them, they based the songs they wrote for Andrews on her own life. “I would complain about him, and then while I’m complaining, Robert is over there on the piano. Before I knew it, he put a whole song together,” Andrews says. “They were writing about my love life with him.”
One exception to that formula was a ferocious, funk-permeated ’71 rendition of “Hound Dog,” cut in Chicago. This one was Williams’s idea. “He heard Big Mama Thornton sing that song,” says Andrews. “I said, ‘Well, OK, but no more songs like this, because it’s tearing my throat out!’ She used to sing really, really hard. And I got it down. I said, ‘No more! No more!’”
After Zodiac folded in the early 70s, Andrews eventually signed with the major label ABC. By then ABC no longer had a presence in Chicago, so that meant a return to Detroit to work with producers Ron Dunbar and George McGregor on the 1977 album Genuine Ruby. McGregor convinced her to record his song “Queen of the Disco,” in keeping with the times. “Disco came in, so he wanted to do a disco album,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m not a disco singer!’”
Since then, Andrews has made a handful of additional albums. Her 1993 Goldwax CD Ruby features a ribald version of “Footprints on the Ceiling” that showed she could masterfully belt a swaggering blues shuffle. In the past two decades, she’s done little if any recording and not much gigging, at least not in clubs.
After Williams’s passing, though, Andrews secured the rights to Zodiac’s catalog, so now she can reissue her classic recordings however she sees fit. She also plans to use the label to release new music by younger artists. Happily, entering the business side of the industry hasn’t stopped her from singing.
“I decided I’m going to incorporate the two,” Andrews says, “because I can’t leave one and stay away from the other.”