An illustration of soul vocal group the Independents embedded in the title card for the Secret History of Chicago Music
The Independents 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.

All forms of art speak of their time, and during events of historical significance, art reliably reflects those changes, whether overtly or subtly. Often the artists themselves respond by creating new aesthetics or philosophies. Righteous Chicago soul group the Independents didn’t catalyze a musical revolution of their own, but they still prove the point: they formed in part as a consequence of key developments during the last years of the civil rights movement.

The Independents were formed by the songwriting pair of singer Chuck Jackson and pianist Marvin Yancy (covered by the Secret History of Chicago Music a couple years ago). Jackson was born March 22, 1945, in Greenville, North Carolina. His mother sang in church, and Jackson learned gospel fundamentals in school and church choirs. Yancy was born in Chicago on May 31, 1950, the son of a Baptist minister, and he began playing in his dad’s church at age 13. 

Yancy attended the Moody Bible Institute, and Jackson studied commercial art and music at Furman University in South Carolina. After Jackson left school in 1964, he joined an R&B band, and in 1968 he moved to Chicago to work as an art director for Playboy

Music still had a powerful hold on Jackson, though. When he heard from a friend about a songwriting workshop sponsored by soul singer Jerry “Iceman” Butler, he quit that Playboy job to join it. Butler had launched the workshop in 1970 because he’d lost the services of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Mercury, and he needed songs to fulfill his recording contract. The writers who networked there generated material for Butler and many other artists—including dozens of charting singles—before it dissolved in 1976.

Butler was impressed by a few of Jackson’s tunes. “If It’s Real What I Feel” and “Walk Easy My Son” became Butler singles in 1971, with the former also featuring Jackson’s church friend Brenda Lee Eager on vocals.

That same year, Jackson met Yancy at a Black Expo in Chicago, presented by Operation Breadbasket under the leadership of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, half brother to Chuck Jackson. Yancy was at the trade fair to play piano with gospel group the Caravans, and Jackson invited him to Butler’s workshop as a writing partner—Jackson was stronger as a lyricist, and he thought he could benefit from some help with tunes.

Operation Breadbasket was launched in 1962 in Atlanta by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its founding president, Martin Luther King Jr. “The fundamental premise of Breadbasket is a simple one,” King said in 1967. “Negroes need not patronize a business which denies them jobs, or advancement [or] plain courtesy.” 

If businesses that served the Black community weren’t giving Black people good jobs, ministers would encourage their congregations to boycott or picket. Operation Breadbasket expanded to Chicago in 1966, led by Jesse Jackson, then a Chicago Theological Seminary student. He led successful campaigns targeting the dairy industry, supermarket chains, and even bottlers of Pepsi and Coca-Cola—and in the program’s first 15 months he secured an estimated 2,000 new jobs for Black people, worth about $15 million.

Jesse Jackson had founded the annual Black Expo in 1969, and in ’71 he would break from the SCLC to form Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). In 1996, Operation PUSH merged with Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition to form the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. 

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The first Independents song, “Just As Long As You Need Me,” was also the group’s first hit.

Yancy and Chuck Jackson began working on songs to potentially pitch to Aretha Franklin. They ended up writing eight together, and though the Aretha plan didn’t pan out, the duo did decide to form a new group. Former Impressions manager Eddie Thomas, impressed by their demo “Just As Long As You Need Me,” pitched it to Scepter Records subsidiary Wand in New York. Soaked in gorgeous string arrangements, with a softly spoken intro and bulletproof vocal harmonies, the song exemplified the Chicago sweet soul sound (with a touch of that smooth Philly vibe a la Gamble & Huff). In spring 1972, it hit the top ten on the R&B chart. 

The two young songwriters and musicians had put the group name “Independents” on the hub label for “Just As Long As You Need Me,” so now they needed to actually assemble a band. They began to scout talent from the local scene, and in 1972 they found two new members: Maurice Jackson (no relation) had been playing and recording in the local R&B scene since the early 60s without much recognition, and Helen Curry from Clarksdale, Mississippi, had recorded a clutch of singles too, including the 1969 release “A Prayer for My Soldier” b/w “Sad and Blue” (which addressed the war in Vietnam). 

“Just As Long As You Need Me” appears on the Independents’ 1972 debut full-length, The First Time We Met, also on Wand. They recorded at Paul Serrano’s famous P.S. Studios, with arrangements by the legendary “Tom Tom” Washington. Soft ballads dominated the album, with Jackson and Curry usually trading lead vocals in traditional gospel style.

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The Independents’ biggest success, “Leaving Me,” appears on their first album.

The album also produced “Leaving Me,” which would become the band’s signature tune. Upbeat, melancholy, and brilliantly supple, the tune became a certified gold hit in early 1973, well after the release of the album, staying on the Billboard R&B chart for more than three months and peaking at number one. 

The First Time We Met features top-shelf Chess Records session musicians, as well as Yancy’s piano—but Yancy, who preferred to stay behind the scenes, didn’t appear on the album’s cover with the other three members. For the Independents’ second album, Yancy worked mainly as a songwriter and producer. For live shows he was replaced by Chicago native Eric Thomas, who’d met Chuck Jackson through Operation PUSH; Thomas had been part of the group’s choir, which Yancy directed for a 1973 album.

That second album, also released by Wand, dropped in 1973 with the title Chuck, Helen, Eric, Maurice. It yielded a single hit, “It’s All Over,” which reached number 12 on the soul charts. The lush, gospel-informed weeper, fleshed out with weedy organ, percussive guitar, and epic string arrangements, might’ve been the first Independents song I heard. 

Serrano recorded this album too, and despite its shortage of chart material, it has some standout tunes, including “No Wind, No Rain” (with glorious wah-wah guitar) and “I Found Love on a Rainy Day” (with an up-tempo dance groove). 

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“No Wind, No Rain” is on the Independents’ second and final LP.

After a couple more singles in 1974—including the disco-infused boogie “Arise and Shine (Let’s Get It On)” and the classic ballad “Let This Be a Lesson to You”—the Independents dissolved amid record-company squabbles. 

Even today I’m pained by that outcome, because the band seemed on track to become the next Impressions, Dramatics, or even Gladys Knight & the Pips. But Yancy and Jackson went on to great success as a songwriting team. In late 1974 they began working with emerging singer Natalie Cole, who’d just signed to Capitol Records. They wrote her first hit song in 1975, “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” and their partnership with her would produce four gold and two platinum albums. 

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“Arise and Shine (Let’s Get It On)” was one of the Independents’ final singles, released in 1974.

Yancy married Cole in 1976, and he and Jackson moved to Los Angeles in 1977 to make working with her easier. After Yancy’s father died later that year, though, Yancy took over his church in Chicago, and his separation from Cole led to their divorce in 1980. 

Yancy and Jackson also wrote for artists on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label, including the Notations, and for stars such as Ronnie Dyson. They rapidly became heavyweights in the business, and both had solo careers as performers.  In 1978, Jackson released the solo album Passionate Breezes, which included six tunes written with Yancy. In 1979, Yancy dropped a gospel single, then followed it in 1985 with the album Heavy Load. It reached number four on the gospel chart, but he didn’t get to enjoy its success—he died tragically young from a heart attack that same year. In the early 1980s, his partnership with Jackson had ended after a falling-out between them.

In 1976, Maurice Jackson formed the group Silk, whose members included Eric Thomas and fellow Operation PUSH choir alum Arthur Reid. In 1977, they released a self-titled LP on New York label Prelude, which produced the successful single “Party.” Maurice Jackson also put together a latter-day version of the Independents in the 2010s, which in 2018 reunited with Chuck Jackson and Eric Thomas for a daylong south-side concert copresented by the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Helen Curry continued recording too, and her excellent 1979 single “Such a Thrill I Feel (When You Hold My Hand)” seems especially ripe for rediscovery by crate diggers. It’s a bona fide burner, combining disco-flavored funk with diva-style gospel vocals.

Maybe if the Independents had had a longer career, they’d be internationally beloved the way they deserve. But let’s at least remember to celebrate the incredible Independents recordings we do have. And we should also bear in mind how they formed, with members connected by a righteous program by and for the Black community—something else we can never have too many of.

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.


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