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.

If some sort of god or higher power exists, it clearly has a dark sense of humor—otherwise why send us plagues, floods, and fires, till even nonbelievers start to worry about the end times? And only a divine being with a cruel streak would’ve taken the Reverend Marvin Yancy from this earthly plane so young, after the gospel musician and pastor had devoted his life to a higher calling.

Marvin Jerome Yancy was born in Chicago on May 31, 1950. His father was a respected minister, and his mother was an excellent singer who would play an important role in Chicago’s  gospel community for many decades. Yancy had seven brothers and four sisters, and in the late 60s he attended Edwin Gilbert Cooley Vocational High School near Cabrini-Green. Immortalized in the groundbreaking 1975 film Cooley High, the school appears in lyrics by Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan, and Boyz II Men named an album after it. The school closed in 1979 and was soon demolished; famous alumni include soul singer and future Cook County commissioner Jerry “Iceman” Butler as well as, er, John Wayne Gacy.

Yancy went on to study at the Moody Bible Institute, and when his father, the Reverend Robert Yancy Sr., died in 1977, Yancy inherited his position leading the congregation at the Fountain of Life Baptist Church. Preaching was Yancy’s main priority, but he was also a skilled piano player—when gospel greats such as James Cleveland and Jessy Dixon performed in Chicago, he would often accompany them. 

At the turn of the 1970s, Yancy backed famed gospel group the Caravans at a Black Expo presented by the Reverend Jesse Jackson under the auspices of Operation Breadbasket. (The annual Black Expo had launched in 1969, and in ’71 Jackson would break from Operation Breadbasket’s parent organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to form Operation PUSH.) Songwriter and vocalist Chuck Jackson, brother of Jesse, was in the crowd when the Caravans performed, and he was impressed enough to ask Yancy to cowrite eight songs for soul goddess Aretha Franklin. Nothing happened with those songs, but the two of them did launch a musical partnership—Jackson took Yancy to Jerry Butler’s famous songwriting workshop, which had just partnered with music publisher Chappell, and the duo secured a writing deal with the company.

In 1971, Jackson and Yancy founded soul vocal group the Independents, who recorded two albums for Scepter Records subsidiary Wand in the early 70s. They scored their first R&B hit with the smooth, harmony-soaked 1972 single “Just as Long as You Need Me,” and in 1973 the wistful but danceable ballad “Leaving Me” hit number one on that same chart, earning a gold record. 

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The Independents’ biggest hit, “Leaving Me”

Yancy also wrote a funky tune called “I’m a Child of the King,” released as a single from the 1973 album The People’s Choir of Operation PUSH on Stax imprint Gospel Truth Records. After record-company squabbles broke up the Independents in 1974, Yancy and Jackson continued to write and produce together. New York manager Kevin Hunter, who’d been referred by the duo’s own manager, Bob Schwaid, approached them about working with an emerging singer he’d just signed named Natalie Cole.

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“I’m a Child of the King,” with the Reverend Marvin Yancy on lead vocals

Natalie is of course the daughter of famous crooner Nat King Cole. In late 1974, she began working with Yancy and Jackson at Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom studios in Chicago, and after rejections from a long list of labels, Cole was signed to Capitol in 1975 by Larkin Arnold. Arnold commissioned demos, and a Yancy/Jackson tune from the very end of the sessions caught Arnold’s ear: the jaunty, gospel-flavored “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love).” It rose to number one on the R&B charts and number six on the Billboard Hot 100.

Cole would go on to have several more smashes written by Yancy and Jackson: “Inseparable,” “Sophisticated Lady (She’s a Different Lady),” “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” and “Our Love.” (“This Will Be” and “Sophisticated Lady” earned her Grammys for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1976 and ’77, ending Aretha Franklin’s eight-year streak.) Yancy and Jackson also wrote songs for Ronnie Dyson, including the hits “The More You Do It” and “Don’t Be Afraid.”

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Yancy wrote Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be” with Chuck Jackson.

During their collaboration, Cole and Yancy fell in love, and on July 31, 1976, they married. Their son, Robert Adam Yancy, was born October 14, 1977, but they divorced in 1980. Yancy remarried in 1983 to Saundra Renaire Mays, who sang in the choir at his church. They had a daughter, Brandy Raquel, bringing the number of Yancy’s children to three—he also had a son, Marvin Jerome Jr., from a previous relationship.

While all this was happening, Yancy had launched a solo gospel career. In 1979 he released the funky gospel single “Thank You” b/w “Sign Me Up” via the Gospel Roots label. In 1985 he followed it with what would sadly be his only solo album, Heavy Load, on Nashboro Records.

Yancy’s 1979 single “Thank You” b/w “Sign Me Up”

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The title track of Yancy’s lone solo album

The catchy, groovin’ LP reached number four on the Billboard Gospel Albums chart, but Yancy didn’t have much chance to enjoy its success. He died of a heart attack in his Chicago home on March 22, 1985, a month after suffering a minor stroke. (His mother, Ann Yancy, passed away in 2018 at age 87.) Jesse Jackson officiated Yancy’s funeral at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. There’s not much of a silver lining to be found in the loss of a major talent at age 34, but we can at least hope he’s now in a better place.

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.