Phil and Leonard Chess in front of Chess Records at 320 E. 21st in March 1968. The building is now Chess Lofts. Credit: ST-40001688; Chicago Sun-Times collection; Chicago History Museum. © Sun-Times Media; LLC. All rights reserved.

You can take a walk down Michigan Avenue from Roosevelt Road to Cermak on the sunniest afternoon of the summer, but no matter how bright the light, it won’t illuminate the full history of the street. New condos, bars, and restaurants abound, but only a couple signs remain to hint at this neighborhood’s lasting impact as an incubator of Black popular music from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.

Back in those years, a different kind of energy flowed down the stretch of Michigan just south of the Loop. Though the street was dingier, some of its buildings—as well as more than a few of its inhabitants—surely overawed the young hopefuls who roamed its sidewalks. Once known as Record Row, this neighborhood indelibly shaped a wide range of Chicago’s diverse musical idioms—soul music especially thrived in this neighborhood. But with the exception of the heralded former site of Chess Records, near Michigan and 21st, this story is largely invisible.

No doubt Chess did play a pivotal role in this history: its roster brought together youthful talent and virtuosic veterans in musical combinations that still command global audiences generations later. But a litany of other record labels lined these blocks, and some influenced soul music as much as Chess did. Record Row was also home to distributors that made Chicago a hub for the networks that carried these songs around the world. Some of the companies with outposts on the street, such as Cincinnati-based King Records, were established national operations; others were fly-by-night outfits.

Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power

Aaron Cohen will speak about Record Row as part of a discussion of his new book, Move On Up, published by University of Chicago Press. Thu 10/24, 7 PM, Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2665, free, all ages

Record Row also offered the kind of community that makes music happen, nurtured by a mix of driven individuals and mutually supportive collectives. Colleagues could woodshed ideas and sculpt them into hits. Songwriters congregated in a workshop sponsored by singer Jerry Butler, while musicians, producers, radio personalities, and managers hung out together at beloved diners. Widespread success and acclaim may have always been long shots, but almost everyone on Record Row felt they had little to lose by aiming high. Ironically, when Ebony magazine decried the lack of Black entrepreneurs in 1961, this street lined with small-scale businessmen and -women was also home to the office of its publisher.

Sixty years ago, real estate south of the South Loop wasn’t in hot demand the way it is today, so music-industry upstarts without much capital or credit could find room there—it’d been home to a string of car dealerships, earning it the nickname Motor Row, and a couple maps posted curbside detail this history. But the location proved ideal. It was a short drive, bus ride, or walk from where many Black singers and musicians lived, and several key radio stations weren’t far either. In particular, Chess-owned Black-oriented WVON was about five miles from Record Row.

  • To accompany his new book, Move On Up, Aaron Cohen compiled this soul-music playlist. Most of the artists represented worked with businesses on Record Row.

The situation turned out to be too good to last, though. Some businesses folded because of their own blunders, while a changing landscape felled others. Distributors moved to the suburbs, and toward the end of the 1970s major labels consolidated their operations more fully on the east and west coasts. Those big companies abandoned the midwest, where many of their top artists developed their ideas, but Chicagoans shouldn’t neglect that history too.

Of course, exciting soul and R&B were being made elsewhere in Chicago as well—a flood of eager singers, talented musicians, would-be entrepreneurs, and more than a few hucksters churned out 45s throughout the city in the 1960s and ’70s. Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records set up shop at 8543 S. Stony Island in 1968 and later moved northwest to 5915 N. Lincoln. (Both buildings’ exteriors look the same now, which can’t be said of most sites on Record Row.) Some of Chicago’s best recording studios, including Universal Recording (46 E. Walton), were north of the Loop. But that said, few streets in America, let alone in Chicago, played host to a concentration of artistic talent and entrepreneurship as dense as that on the ten blocks of Michigan Avenue between Roosevelt and Cermak.

  • This map plots the eight Record Row locations described below.

More official City of Chicago plaques commemorating these sites would help elevate Record Row’s legacy, especially because there’s so little left to see of the buildings themselves. But for the time being, the Reader has put together a brief tour that will help you recognize the pieces of music history you may be passing by every day without knowing it. These eight locations deserve immediate attention:

The Chess Records offices at 2120 S. Michigan, immortalized in the title of a Rolling Stones song, are now home to the Blues Heaven Foundation. The label was based here from 1956 till 1965.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader

Chess Records

2120 S. Michigan

Currently the site of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, this is perhaps the preeminent address on Record Row. Chess called it home from 1956 to 1965, recording such great soul artists as Jackie Ross, Mitty Collier, and Fontella Bass. The building provided more than a studio where they could put their songs on wax: Collier, now a pastor, recalls that Chess songwriters took an interest in her life because they wanted to learn about teenagers for their lyrics. Raynard Miner, who wrote Bass’s hit “Rescue Me,” remembers the encouragement he got from such in-house musicians as bassist Louis Satterfield. Though Chess wasn’t always equitable about how it ran its business side, the music conceived under its roof remains universally loved.

Chess Records’ final location, at 320 E. 21st, is now Chess Lofts.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader
The lobby of Chess Lofts at 320 E. 21st displays the covers of albums released by Chess Records, which occupied the building from 1966 till 1975.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader

Chess Records

320 E. 21st

Chess moved here in 1966 and remained till its end in 1975. After General Recorded Tape bought the label in 1969, its business declined. This address hasn’t been exalted by a Rolling Stones song (“2120 South Michigan Avenue”), but Chess continued to release excellent records in the late 60s and early 70s, including albums from Terry Callier (Occasional Rain), the Dells (Freedom Means), and Rotary Connection (Peace). In-house arranger and producer Charles Stepney gave much of that music a sound far ahead of its time. The building has been converted to loft apartments, and Chess LP covers adorn the lobby walls.

Leonard Chess holds a single from Chess imprint Cadet Concept in March 1968.Credit: ST-40001688; Chicago Sun-Times collection; Chicago History Museum. © Sun-Times Media; LLC. All rights reserved.

Garmisa Distributing Company used to operate out of what’s now an early learning center at 1455 S. Michigan.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader

Garmisa Distributing Company

1455 S. Michigan

Once the records were cut and pressed, they needed to be sent to retailers near and far, and distribution companies were key to this process. Of the dozens of operations on Record Row, M.S. Distributing was the biggest, but Garmisa likely had the most long-term influence. In the early 1960s it provided an entree into the business for teenage Ron Alexenburg, who moved to New York in 1965 and later rose into the executive ranks at Columbia Records, where he signed such midwestern heroes as the Jacksons. He also fought against segregation in national media, which initially stymied Michael Jackson’s crossover dreams. “I used to have a statement: If you came from Chicago, you had an open door with me,” Alexenburg says. “This is my hometown.”

Vee-Jay Records and later Brunswick Records occupied 1449 S. Michigan, which is now a mixed-use building on the market for $1.65 million.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader

Vee-Jay Records and Brunswick Records

1449 S. Michigan

Vivian Carter and her husband, James Bracken, set up Vee-Jay in 1953. Over the next decade, this Black-owned label became one of the country’s premier record companies—even though segregation remained legal in most areas of American life. Its thriving roster included blues (Jimmy Reed), gospel (the Staple Singers, the Swan Silvertones), jazz (Wayne Shorter), and R&B (the Impressions, Betty Everett, Gene Chandler). In February 1963, Vee-Jay became the first U.S. label to release music by the Beatles.

Shirley Wahls recorded with Vee-Jay gospel group the Argo Singers as a young woman. “Black people didn’t own things, as I saw it at that age,” she recalls. “They had restaurants, maybe a few grocery stores and clothing stores, but these were two humble people who had gotten lucky and had a recording company. You saw some of everybody while you were recording.” A series of mistakes and financial problems ended that luck, though, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1966.

The demise of Vee-Jay didn’t mean that its former home at 1449 S. Michigan exited the history Chicago music making, however. Before the end of 1966, Brunswick Records had established an outpost here, and after influential producer Carl Davis rose to an executive position, a wave of classic soul records came out of these doors in the late 60s and early 70s. The Chi-Lites, Barbara Acklin, Jackie Wilson, Tyrone Davis, and many others released hits under the Brunswick banner or on Davis’s own Dakar imprint. The label also hired musicians and arrangers such as Willie Henderson, Thomas “Tom Tom” Washington, and Sonny Sanders to craft distinctive instrumental ensembles around these performers.

In the mid-70s a federal payola investigation embroiled Brunswick’s New York office in years of costly legal battles, but though the company was ultimately cleared, in its weakened state it didn’t survive the music industry’s early-80s downturn. The Brunswick name was revived in the mid-90s, and the label now exists largely as a reissue operation.

Constellation Records was at 1421 S. Michigan, where nothing remains but a parking lot.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader

Constellation Records

1421 S. Michigan

After Vee-Jay Records fired president Ewart Abner (partly because of his gambling addiction), he set up shop at Constellation in 1963. Though it lasted just three years, the company had a big impact on the people involved. Gene Chandler joined the label’s roster, and after a few failed singles, in 1964 he recorded the Curtis Mayfield number “Just Be True,” which hit number 19 on the pop charts. As Chandler remembers it, Abner had bet him a steak dinner that the song would also tank—one bet that Abner was undoubtedly happy to lose. Still, the company folded two years later. Constellation producer Carl Davis went on to considerable success at Brunswick, and Abner rehabilitated his reputation in Detroit, where he became an executive at Motown and managed Stevie Wonder.

Chicago soul artists Harold Burrage (left) and Otis Clay at One-derful Records in the mid-1960s. Both men recorded for the label, though Burrage appeared on its M-Pac! imprint.Credit: Courtesy Secret Stash Records / From the collection of Robert Pruter

One-derful Records

1827 S. Michigan

Alongside Vee-Jay, One-derful was one of the key Black-owned record companies on the strip. George Leaner and his brother Ernie ran the label, whose imprints included Mar-V-Lus and the gospel-focused Halo. Great Chicagoans such as Alvin Cash and Otis Clay recorded here, and the Five Du-Tones made “Shake a Tail Feather” a national R&B hit (though Ray Charles’s version in The Blues Brothers is better known). As Jake Austen reported for the Reader in 2009, in 1967 One-derful became the first company to record the Jackson 5. The label folded in 1968.

“George Leaner was like a father to me,” Clay said in an interview for Move On Up in 2012 (he passed away in 2016). “These are the kinds of guys we’re talking about as real characters in this business. They’re sorely missed now. If you could use the term ‘movers and shakers’—they knew everybody and would bug everybody until they got something done.”

The former site of One-derful Records at 1827 S. Michigan is now home to a dental clinic.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader
The same building in the 1960s, when it was home to One-derful and United Record DistributorsCredit: Courtesy Secret Stash Records

Jerry Butler’s Songwriters Workshop used to meet at 1402 S. Michigan, a spot now occupied by Chicago Waffles.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader

Jerry Butler’s Songwriters Workshop

1402 S. Michigan

Soul singer Jerry Butler began his songwriters workshop out of personal necessity, but it swiftly grew into a fountain of creativity that issued a string of brilliant songs for a host of artists. Butler signed to Mercury Records in 1966, where he was backed by the songwriting and production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but in 1970 they left the label to seek their own fortunes. Butler needed help, and fast, to fulfill his recording contract. Fortunately, Chicago had no shortage of talent, and songwriters gathered at 1402 S. Michigan to work on material not just for Butler but also for many others. The workshop provided the composers with the space and the salaries they needed to develop ideas, and also taught musicians about publishing and copyrights. Terry Callier and Larry Wade wrote songs for Callier’s own records as well as for the Dells, most famously 1971’s “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind).” Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy teamed up to form the Independents (“Leaving Me,” 1973) before becoming heavyweight producers themselves, especially for Yancy’s wife Natalie Cole. By 1976, the workshop had dissolved, but Butler believed it had more than served its purpose.

“Most of the participants in the workshop by that time had grown out of it and moved on,” Butler says. “Chicago had talent, and the workshop made it possible for those participants to go and set up their own production companies. And that’s what the workshop was designed to do—to develop producers and songwriters and to talk about the music behind the scenes.”

A condo building now stands at 112 E. Cermak, where Mama Batt’s Restaurant used to take up part of the ground floor of the long-gone New Michigan Hotel.Credit: Pat Nabong for Chicago Reader

Mama Batt’s Restaurant

112 E. Cermak

Radio host Richard Steele has said that a defining characteristic of Chicago’s musical crews was that the artists and media personalities enjoyed hanging out together even if they weren’t exactly teammates. As he tells it, competition was more amiable than cutthroat, and Mama Batt’s Restaurant, in the long-gone New Michigan Hotel, was where they would eat and hatch their plans. Marshall Chess, who ran the Cadet Concept imprint of the label run by his father, Leonard Chess, agrees—and adds that this spot was the heart of an environment that seemed at odds with the city as a whole, where staff from Black-owned labels would hang out with staff from white-owned labels even when the city was wracked by racist violence.

“I’d see the Vee-Jay people all the time at Batt’s Restaurant,” he says. “Everybody ate lunch there: Vee-Jay people, Chess people. It was friendly, everybody knew each other. Someone would have a session at Vee-Jay, walk down and work at Chess—a very loose, friendly atmosphere. It was a tough, segregated city, but Record Row was its own domain.”  v