An illustration of R&B vocal group Brighter Side of Darkness embedded in the title card for the Secret History of Chicago Music
Credit: Steve Krakow for Chicago Reader

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.

I’ve never liked the term “one-hit wonder.” This is partly because it’s often misused; I’ve seen Americans describe T. Rex as a one-hit wonder because “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” was Marc Bolan’s only stateside smash, but in the UK he had 11 top-ten hits in three years. 

I also find “one-hit wonder” a bit degrading, tying an artist’s worth to their lone chart success and implying that it’s a “wonder” that they even got that far. The Velvet Underground never scored a hit, and John Coltrane didn’t have an album on the Billboard 200 till a “lost” 1963 studio session was released in 2018. Chart position has little to do with influence or importance, especially since payola and other forms of market manipulation can distort those numbers. And it’s why I don’t like to call 1970s R&B band Brighter Side of Darkness one-hit wonders, even though the odds are good you’ve only heard a single song of theirs.

Brighter Side of Darkness formed in 1971 at Calumet High School in the south-side neighborhood of Auburn Gresham. The original trio included Ralph Eskridge and Larry Washington, both 17, and 18-year-old Randolph Murph. While gigging locally, they attracted the notice of Anna Preston, described by Robert Pruter as a “local R&B maven” in his canonical book Chicago Soul

Preston became their manager and music director and devised the name “Brighter Side of Darkness.” She’d also been cultivating the talent of a 12-year-old singer named Darryl Lamont, and she brought him into the group. His high tenor gave the group an appeal reminiscent of the Jackson Five or Five Stairsteps.

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My favorite Brighter Side of Darkness song is probably “Just a Little Bit,” which appeared in vocal and instrumental versions on the group’s 1973 debut album and was later released as a single.

Brighter Side of Darkness promptly won a local talent contest, impressing soul-music entrepreneur Clarence Johnson. As a young man, Johnson had performed in vocal groups, most notably the Chanteurs, who’d evolved into the Chi-Lites in 1964 (though Johnson left that same year). He shifted his focus to production work, and in the 1970s he owned or co-owned several record labels, including Lock and Star-Vue, the latter of which operated for a time out of Chess Records’ former home at 320 E. 21st Street. He helped release hit records by girl group the Lovelites, a past Secret History subject. 

Johnson signed Brighter Side of Darkness to his label and production operation GEC, aka General Entertainment Company, which he owned with former WVON personality Lucky Cordell. Music exec Russ Regan, who’d just left his job as president of MCA subsidiary Uni to run 20th Century Records in Los Angeles, met with Johnson when he visited Chicago to look for acts. (In his early days as a songwriter, Regan had his first hit in 1959 with “The Happy Reindeer,” billed to Dancer, Prancer, and Nervous, who sang with chipmunk-style sped-up voices. I couldn’t make this up.)

Johnson played recordings by several artists for Regan, but the exec didn’t prick up his ears till he heard a cut Murph and Eskridge had written with Johnson. The song in question became Brighter Side of Darkness’s 1972 smash hit “Love Jones.” Murph speaks the verses, then joins the group on the chorus hook—which sails into the stratosphere thanks to Lamont’s falsetto. The arrangement, by the great Tom Tom Washington, soaks this divine soul number in strings and horns, echoing the harmonious epics of the Delfonics and the Stylistics.

The song went gold in February 1973, and it’s had a long musical life. “Love Jones” was covered by Chicago group the Imaginations in 1975 (more on that later) and then again in 1989 by Brooklyn rapper Doctor Ice (with vocals by Cheryl Pepsii Riley and Full Force). “Love Jones” also lent its name to a Black rom-com in 1997, and according to it’s been covered or sampled at least 21 times (including on a 1998 track called “Love Jones” by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan). 

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Cheech & Chong’s “Love Jones” parody, “Basketball Jones Featuring Tyrone Shoelaces”

Perhaps the strangest incarnation of “Love Jones” arrived in the form of a Cheech & Chong parody on the stoner-comedy legends’ 1973 album Los Cochinos. Initially released as a single, “Basketball Jones Featuring Tyrone Shoelaces” mimicked the original’s extended spoken-word passages and angelic group vocals, and it charted at number 15, one spot above the Brighter Side of Darkness version. Because George Harrison of the Beatles was working with a big group in an adjacent studio, the recording has a staggering cast: Harrison felt like joining the fun, and along with him came Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann, Carole King, Michelle Phillips, Jim Keltner, Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, and others.

Love Jones became the title of the first and only Brighter Side of Darkness LP in 1973. A subsequent single off the album, “I Owe You Love” b/w “Summer Ride,” underperformed “Love Jones,” despite a similarly excellent soulful sound. The supremely funky “Just a Little Bit” (released later in ’73 as a single with “Something to Remember You By”) might be my favorite track by the band, but it didn’t take off either.

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Brighter Side of Darkness present “Love Jones” on Soul Train.

The band made a TV appearance on Soul Train, wearing fly yellow outfits, and the dancing crowd really seemed to be into “Love Jones.” The song appears on a 1973 compilation I found at a thrift store, Soul Train Hits That Made It Happen, alongside the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green. But the show didn’t help their prospects, and it seems to have led to disaster. 

At this remove, it’s hard to substantiate much about the demise of Brighter Side of Darkness, but from what I can tell, 20th Century Records ordered Johnson to fire two or even three members of the group (everyone but Lamont) for acting up on the trip to LA for the Soul Train taping. According to one version of the story, a remade version of the band released the single “Because I Love You” b/w “Oh Baby” in 1974 on Johnson’s Star-Vue label—and after Lamont left and was replaced, that lineup returned to 20th Century as the Imaginations.

The 1974 single “Because I Love You,” reissued on the 2016 Numero Group comp Afterschool Special: 123s of Kid Soul

The 20th Century label had won a court battle for rights to the name “Brighter Side of Darkness,” but after “Because I Love You” sank without a trace, it seems to have lost interest in litigating that point. Murph and Lamont reclaimed the name and re-formed Brighter Side of Darkness, releasing a final single in 1978: the dance-floor filler “Disco Ball,” which hopped on the titular trend with popping bass and spacey keyboard effects, and the flip side “He Made You Mine,” which retained the group’s classic formula of pleading speech over a supple groove. Lamont cowrote both tracks.

Louisiana transplant Lennie LaCour, a producer and songwriter also known as “King Creole,” released the single on his Magic Touch label. The Numero Group reissued it in 2022, and according to Rob Sevier of Numero, this late lineup included Ron White from funk-rock band Hellstorm.

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The 2022 Numero reissue of “Disco Ball” b/w “He Made You Mine”

Sevier says Lamont has passed away, and I haven’t been able to find any details about what became of the other members of Brighter Side of Darkness. Even if you already know and love their huge hit, I’d urge you to listen to their entire catalog. This talented group’s legacy should be bigger than just one song, and it’s in our ears and hearts that it’ll stay alive.

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.