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.
As I’ve complained here before, women often get left out of music history—a problem that seems especially bad in soul music. I’ll never understand why Loleatta Holloway, Holle Thee Maxwell, and the Fascinations aren’t as widely known as the Dells, Major Lance, and Curtis Mayfield. All-woman Chicago group the Opals had ties to all those men, but by comparison they’re downright obscure.
To be fair, the Opals probably would’ve been more famous if they’d released more music—their discography, once you exclude recordings unissued in their day and retrospective compilation appearances, consists of just a handful of singles. But if you’ll permit me the term “girl group” (despite the fact that they were women for much of their career), the Opals are still one of the greatest girl groups Chicago ever produced.
The Opals hailed from East Chicago, Indiana, where founder Rosie “Tootsie” Addison won a local talent contest in 1962, singing Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say.” Inspired by her success, she started a group by bringing aboard friends Myra Tillotson, Betty Blackmon, and Rose E. Kelly. An East Chicago producer dubbed them the Opals, and as a gimmick they took to wearing opals around their necks (until Addison learned that the gemstones were reputed to bring bad luck). The Opals released their first single, “Hop, Skip & Jump,” later that same year on the tiny Beltone label.
This catchy slice of soulful doo-wop, which sounds a lot like the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” became something of a local favorite. The Opals recorded it with Addison as lead singer, but Kelly soon took over that role. “I knew I wouldn’t always be lead singer,” Addison recalled for a 2006 Chicago Sun-Times feature. “My gift was my ear. I could hear if we were flat or sharp, if we were rushing it.”
While playing at Steve’s Chicken Shack in Gary, Indiana, in 1962, the Opals were “discovered” by Mickey McGill of famed pop-soul outfit the Dells. In the same Sun-Times story, Addison remembered him saying, “We got to get you out of this roadhouse.”
McGill began coming to the house where the group rehearsed to help them along. “They sounded pretty good so we started teaching them,” he explained in Robert Pruter’s indispensable book Chicago Soul. “We didn’t manage the group, but we took them as little kids and showed them how to sing and everything.”
McGill also introduced the Opals to Vee-Jay Records. They started off as backup singers for the label’s other artists, lending their voices to recordings by Otis Leavill and, most famously, Betty Everett—they’re on her iconic 1964 version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss).” This instantly recognizable tune, written by Rudy Clark, had failed to chart when Merry Clayton released it as a single in 1963, but Everett took it to number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Cashbox R&B charts. It’s since appeared in many movies and become a hit a few more times—including after Cher covered it for the Mermaids soundtrack in 1990.
The Secret History of Chicago Music live at the Hideout
This installment of Steve Krakow’s in-person talk show focuses on Chicago blues, with guest DJs Scott Wilkinson and Jose Bernal. Proof of vaccination required. Tue 10/26, 6 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, $5, 21+
Blackmon left the group during this time, so that when McGill helped the Opals get work with producer and A&R man Carl Davis at Okeh Records, they were slimmed down to a trio. Davis had just enjoyed major successes with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” and Major Lance’s “Monkey Time,” and the Opals’ first gig for Okeh was an uncredited spot backing Major Lance on “Crying in the Rain,” the B side of his R&B smash “Hey Little Girl.” Davis then signed the Opals to a recording contract and had them sing for his saxophonist brother, Clifford, on the 1963 single “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers,” cowritten by Phil Upchurch (and they got a credit for their vocals this time).
Soon Davis began functioning as the Opals’ manager, polishing their image and providing them with chaperones on the road (a common practice with especially young artists). He made sure the group had fancy human-hair wigs from Chicago Hair Goods, to keep them looking sharp onstage. “We’d sweat like crazy while performing,” Addison explained to the Sun-Times. “Our [real] hair would get all messy.”
In January 1964, the Opals finally cut a single for Okeh under their own name, the rockin’ Billy Butler song “Does It Matter” b/w “Tender Lover.” Produced by Davis with classy arrangements by Johnny Pate, it’s become a collector’s favorite—the cheapest copy currently on Discogs is $200.
The Opals’ next Okeh single also came out in ’64 and also featured Pate’s arrangements and Davis’s production. What set it apart was that both its songs were by none other than Curtis Mayfield, who was still with the Impressions and had begun moonlighting for Okeh as a producer and songwriter. “You’re Gonna Be Sorry” is a classic dance-floor groover, and the flip, “You Can’t Hurt Me No More,” is an angsty soul ballad. The single was a local hit, but the Opals released only one more, 1965’s “Restless Days” b/w “I’m So Afraid.”
The Dells had recorded “Restless Days” (cowritten by McGill) in the 1950s, but their version wasn’t released. With its doo-wop flavor, the tune does seem to belong to a different era from its B side: “I’m So Afraid,” also by Mayfield, has the kind of groovin’ midtempo Motown feel that the Northern Soul crowd loves, and it’s the main reason this rare 45 sometimes fetches three figures.
The Opals provided more uncredited backing for Major Lance on his 1965 single “Everybody Loves a Good Time” (written by Van McCoy), but Lance had passed his peak and the song only reached number 109 on the Billboard charts. By this time, Kelly had left the group and Juanita Tucker had joined. But the Opals were essentially finished.
Addison became a backup singer for Ernie Terrell & the Heavyweights, a band fronted by the fighter who won a disputed heavyweight title in 1965 after one of the boxing world’s major organizations (but not the other) stripped Muhammad Ali of his championship. Coincidentally Terrell was also the older brother of Jean Terrell from the Supremes, probably the most famous “girl group” of all time.
At the time of that 2006 Sun-Times story, Addison was still singing gospel at the Lighthouse Church of All Nations in Alsip, Illinois. Other former Opals were living in Atlanta, Georgia; Union Springs, Alabama; Frankfort, Illinois; and Hammond, Indiana.
Over the years the Opals’ music has appeared on a multitude of soul compilations, and new material is still turning up. This year Kent Records in the UK released a 45 of two vintage Opals tracks, which label consultant Tony Rounce had identified as coming from the group after discovering them on a master-tape transfer of Billy Butler recordings for Okeh. One of these lost-and-found tunes is called “Can’t Give It Up,” which sums up the attitude of soul-music collectors toward the group. The Opals are arguably more widely known today than they ever were in the mid-60s.
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.