By David Whiteis
“Good mawnin’! Good mawnin’! Good mawnin’!”
It is morning, just barely, on a Sunday in October–but WVON deejay Pervis Spann is wide-awake.
“How ya doin’, baby doll? How ya feelin’, puddin’ pie? Yo’ blues man is workin’ on yo’ case this mornin’! Whatever you want by Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Koko Taylor–the whole bunch–get on the phone and call me. It’s, uh, kinda, y’know, it’s, uh, well anyway, it’s all right far as I’m concerned! You can give me a call and we’ll get along and do whatever you wanna do. It doesn’t matter what you wanna do, we’ll do it anyway! It doesn’t matter to me! Ah-hah…”
The truth is, though, that Spann’s agenda is slightly more complicated than his patter suggests. He’s promoting a big blues concert next Saturday at the UIC Pavilion. The show is billed as a tribute to his own 40th year in show business, but in fact that number refers only to his long and sometimes controversial tenure as a Chicago-based blues and soul promoter–he’s been a deejay here since the late 50s. Tickets cost between $35 and $59, ten acts are being advertised, and as an added attraction Spann has promised to “crown” several of them royalty for the new millennium, including B.B. King as King (naturally), Koko Taylor as Queen, and Bobby “Blue” Bland as Crown Prince.
“Tell ya what I wanna do,” he crows. “I wanna give away some tickets. That’s what we gonna do, give away some tickets. Can y’all understand that I need to give the tickets away? I do! I do! If you tell me who’s singin’ this song I am going to give you two tickets for the big show next weekend. I want you to win the tickets–you, you, you, you, you! I need you to win these doggone tickets right here. Who’s singin’ this song? Who’s singin’ this song? Who’s singin’ this song? Who’s singin’ this song?”
By the time he finishes his spiel, about a third of the tune–a somewhat tepid cover of Otis Clay’s late-70s single “All Because of Your Love”–has played already. When it’s over Spann plays a promo for the show (“the biggest blues and awards concert in the world!”), then starts taking calls.
“Let’s go to the doggone phones! Uh…heh heh…Good mornin’, hello…hello? Hello? Who is this? What part of town you callin’ from?”
“This is your worst nightmare,” the caller responds. “Sunshine, from the west side!”
Sunshine sounds a little slurry and her radio is feeding back into the telephone.
“Okay, Sunshine, who d’ya think is singin’ that song?”
She misidentifies the obviously male vocalist as Denise LaSalle, then mutters a few incoherent words through the feedback. Spann lets her go and soldiers on.
“Yeah, Blues Man, 591-5990; 591-599-zeee-ro! M-m-m-m-m, baby, baby, baby, baby! Hello, who’s this?”
Some callers are away from the phone when Spann picks up; a few sound drunk. At one point Spann and his caller can’t hear each other at all. Their dialogue sounds like an old Burns and Schreiber routine:
No one identifies the mystery vocalist, but Spann is undeterred: “This is what I want you to know…uh…”
In the background, you can hear buttons being pushed.
“I want you to know this…”
Pause. More audible fumbling.
“Now here is a guy who is going to be there…uh…there’s no sense of me puttin’ this guy on as a mystery, ‘cuz I think you know this, doncha baby? Well let’s just play him…” He puts on Mel Waiters’s “Got My Whiskey” and continues over the opening bars. “Good mawnin’! Good mawnin’! This is a guy by the name of Mel Waiters, he’s on the show, you know. He’ll be there! Don’t miss out on this one, Mississippians! Don’t miss out on this one, folks from Tennessee! Arkansas, don’t miss out!”
After a few more records Spann gets back to the phone, but this time the callers can’t be heard on the air. He merrily carries on one-sided conversations with half a dozen of them. “How ya doin’? What’s your name? You think it’s who? No, it’s not him–thank ya, darlin’! Hello? Heh heh heh…heh heh heh…this woman is crazy!…OK…no it’s not him, I swear it’s not…OK, thank you darlin’…”
Spann talks and sings over more intros and outros; sometimes he even cuts in midsong to bark out responses to the lyrics. “You did what?” “You got what?” “You gon’ love who?” He plays records that hiss and pop or even skip all the way through. His mangled copy of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” according to longtime listeners, has been skipping since Spann first started playing it in the 70s.
When listeners phone in requests, he assures them: “Uh-huh, we got that, we’ll get that one on. Thanks for callin’, darlin’!” But if he does get around to playing it, it may not be until the following week or later. Or he may play a different song by the same artist. Sometimes he’ll play a few verses of a requested number, then segue into another one for a minute or two, and so on until he’s partially fulfilled half a dozen requests.
After 45 minutes, no one has guessed Spann’s mystery singer, but he doesn’t reveal the man’s identity. He puts on another obscure record and starts the process all over again.
A week or so earlier I’d met Spann at WVON’s offices, at 3350 S. Kedzie. He sat behind his cluttered desk, fingering a shiny golden crown wrapped in plastic, and explained his plans for the big show.
“What’s going to happen,” he said in a soft drawl less countrified than his on-air voice, “is Mel Waiters will do one song, Artie ‘Blues Boy’ White will do maybe one song, Floyd Taylor will do one song…everybody do their thing. Then I tell you what I want to do: I don’t want this to be like a regular show, a tribute thing, come on and do that. At some stage of this, I want to legitimatize this show by stopping, just before B.B. King come on, and play the national anthem–‘The Star-Spangled Banner’–then, then put the crown on his head.”
The show was coming up fast and advertising had already been distributed, but Spann was still wheeling and dealing to get more celebrities on the bill. “Buddy Guy say he gonna be there! Now usually, musicians, we got a long history together. They like me, respect me enough, I can trust ’em to do what they say they gonna do. Hey! I’m from Mississippi–a man say he gonna do something, he gonna do it! I gotta call him today–he’s in Texas today–I know [his manager] Scott Cameron real well, I gotta call him to make sure he’ll be there.”
Spann pulled another crown from behind his desk. “This is actually B.B. King’s crown. We’ve been gettin’ all kinds together and lookin’ at ’em, you know? This was made–I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t know where. It was sent off, a lady ordered it, and I was having reservations about it because some people said it looks feminine.” The crown did, in fact, look suspiciously like a beauty queen’s tiara. “But since I ain’t never crowned nobody no way, I says, ‘OK–don’t know!'”
He broke into a wide, almost boyish grin, and it was hard not to wish the best for this well-meaning fellow who seemed to have bitten off a little more than he could chew. But Spann’s more skeptical colleagues say that’s just what he wants.
“That’s his hustle,” says one longtime associate. “He’ll sit across from you, smile, doin’ that old ‘Uh, uh, I’m jes’ from Mississippi…’ And all the while he’s sizing you up, getting ready to deal! Now don’t get me wrong–he’s done a lot of good, no question. But he’s a hustler from way back, and he’ll come out on top more often than not.”
Few people will speak negatively about Spann for the record; some won’t speak about him at all. Most who agreed to be interviewed for this article, even if they were guaranteed anonymity, chose their words carefully. No doubt there’s an element of “keep it in the family” in this guardedness: “He talk about me like I have a tail, I talk about him like he have a tail; we both know what’s goin’ on,” says another associate. But some people also seem to fear how Spann might wield his power if he were to take umbrage at their comments. He’s not just a jock at WVON–he owns the joint. He cohosts Blues & More, the city’s only blues talk show and music-video program, with actor-comedian Carl Wright on Channel 25. He also claims to have catalyzed the mid-60s resurrection of B.B. King’s career, to have helped launch Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin, and to have discovered the Jackson 5.
To hear Spann tell it, his success is a testament to puritan values: hard work, decency, and sobriety. He was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in 1932. “We were in the city part of Itta Bena, not the suburb part,” he chuckles. “Before I left there, they had 500. When I left they had 499! I knew B.B. King, B.B. King’s sister, mother. He had a half brother, I knew him very well.”
Spann is chary about revealing the details of his early life: “Some of the things I won’t tell you that was going on then, because sometime later on in life someone might want to do a story on it, or a book on it, or stuff of that nature.” He will say that he shouldered the burden of supporting his mother at a young age. “The family was kinda scattered; as they grew up, either they went in the army or they began to leave….After a while, it was just me, the one, left there with Mama. And Mama had had a stroke, and I had to take care of Mama and go out and do my work, I had to do whatever things I could do.”
In Mississippi in those days, a black man’s fate was likely to hinge on his ability to make himself valuable to wealthy or powerful whites. B.B. King, who was born on a cotton plantation near Itta Bena in 1925, remembers in his autobiography that “The owners would tell their hands–the black folks who worked the land–that not even the law could touch them if they did their work.” In a 1946 interview with folklorist Alan Lomax, bluesman Memphis Slim recalled that a black hitchhiker in the Delta who was unlucky enough to encounter a white driver often “got a whipping, or went to jail or to the levee, went to the [penal] farm”; but if he could prove he worked for “Mister Charlie,” the man who picked him up would take him back to his boss unharmed, maybe even pass him a nip of whiskey along the way.
Pervis Spann learned to navigate this harsh social order early on. “I’ve been a workaholic all my life,” he says. “Truthfully, I don’t remember when I didn’t work. If it was there to be done, and someone had promised to pay me–I used to pick 500 pounds of cotton a day when I was 14, 15 years old. And that’s almost unheard of. I didn’t have no girlfriends; I’m the only black guy I know who didn’t have no girlfriends. I didn’t experience a woman until I was 20 years old!
“In Mississippi I used to be the manager of the Dixie Theater, the only black theater in the town. I used to run the projector, do whatever it was that needed to be done. A person owned it by the name of Miss Gibbs. When I was 14, she made me manager. She’d go out of town, she’d come back, all the money was right there. She couldn’t account for one penny out of place.
“But then I’d always have another job on the side. I used to work for the gas company, puttin’ in gas lines. When they started building that college there”–he means Mississippi Vocational College, now Mississippi Valley State University–“a guy, tall good-lookin’ white guy, came into town. There was a restaurant, one side for whites and one side for blacks, but when you go outside you can stand anywhere you want. So I was standing out there, he says, ‘Your name is Pervis Spann.’ That’s what he told me. Somebody had told him I was managing that theater, so he knew I had some kind of responsibility. I said, ‘Well, whatcha want me to do?’ He said, ‘I want you to hire me six able-bodied men to do some work on the college.’
“I said, ‘How much you gonna pay?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m going to pay 75 cents an hour, but with you I’ll give a dollar.’ Now, I’d been workin’ all this time for these folks, $3 a day, he’s gonna give me a dollar an hour? So I got six men took out there–I’m 15, 16, OK?–lotta the men, they don’t want to work for me on this deal because I’m just a little ol’ skinny guy still goin’ to school. So one guy says, ‘Well, I don’t know about workin’ with him tellin’ me what to do.’ ‘Either work for him, or get outta here!’ He got that spade and got in that hole!
“I was paintin’, decoratin’. I did a house for a guy down there, a white guy by the name of Mister Heard. And I got a bunch of black guys together and we went out there and I charged him $350 for doing his house. I guess I was paying them $4 a day. And we painted it in one week. And boy! When I took that money to the bank, that’s when I started thinking, ‘Hey, Pervis! You doin’ all right here!’
“Funniest thing happened before I left Itta Bena. I was working, had no girlfriend, puttin’ money in the bank. I went to the bank one time, this one big white guy was standin’ there, and the little girl told me, said, ‘Pervis, you have $750 in the bank!’ And I always remember this–he looked at me, looked at her, he looked at me, and he said, ‘You mean this lil’ nigger got more money in the bank than me?’ She just says, ‘Uh, uh, Mister Mahoney, I don’t know how much money you got, I didn’t check your account, but he’s one of our good customers!'”
Working so hard, Spann had little time to listen to music. Sometimes at night he’d hear Hoss Allen’s blues show, on Nashville’s powerful WLAC AM; during the day Memphis’s WDIA AM, the first black-formatted station in the country, would program some blues. But Spann never developed a taste for the juke-joint lifestyle of Delta blues lore. “Never had a drink in my life, of anything. I never smoked a cigarette in my life, never drank one beer, or any alcohol. No, wait a second–I’m lying. I’m lying! I took a swallow out of a beer when I was 17. I was in a place I shouldn’t have been, and the bartender set us up, and I took it, and I left the beer on the counter, and my older brother said, ‘You gotta drink that!’ ‘No, I’m not gonna drink that!’ Now I’ve owned nightclubs and lounges and stuff, but never had a drink.”
In 1949, Spann escorted his mother to Battle Creek, Michigan, to live with his sister, then moved to Gary, Indiana. “My daddy was in Gary,” he explains, “so I came to Gary and he got me a job working in the steel mill.” He didn’t say how long, though; he says he was “young and restless, looking for the right spot to try to grow.” He took off for San Francisco, where he briefly attended a junior college before returning to the midwest, this time to Chicago. Toward the end of the Korean War, he enlisted in the army; after being mustered out, he came back to Chicago. He got one job at Inland in Gary and another driving a Yellow Cab in the city, and enrolled at the Midway Television Institute on the GI Bill.
“I had some time left on the GI Bill when I finished my course at the school, so I enrolled in the broadcasting school, Midwestern Broadcasting, down on Wabash Avenue. I wasn’t very cultured, diction was bad, but I’d listen to Al Benson”–widely acknowledged as the godfather of black radio in Chicago–“and he was on the air, his diction wasn’t no better than mine! Ric Ricardo, he was more smooth, with good grammar and good diction. Sam Evans, he was smooth, and Sid McCoy, extremely smooth. I get my tape recorder and I listen to me, and then I listen to them, and I brushed up on my lil’ diction here, brushed up on my lil’ diction there, and then I finally discovered that the GI Bill wasn’t going to pay for the broadcasting school. But I was makin’ money, so I just went on and paid for it.”
Spann graduated last in his class, but he was undaunted. The R & B industry was booming, especially in Chicago, and African-American deejays like Benson, Evans, and Big Bill Hill were attaining positions of unprecedented influence and power. Many hosted shows at lounges and auditoriums around town, and some were owners or part owners of record labels. They could make a young artist’s career, and record companies routinely paid them healthy sums to ensure that they did just that–a practice that eventually erupted into the payola scandal of the early 1960s.
In the 50s, a deejay, promoter, and club owner named McKie Fitzhugh had a popular program on WOPA called McKie’s All Night Roundup, which was broadcast live from various south- and west-side nightspots. The format was flexible enough to give airtime to another host if that host could hustle some advertising revenue. Spann smelled an opportunity, but first he had to get past the station’s brass.
“It was a Jewish manager out there,” Spann remembers, “by the name of Mister Michel. I went in there one day, I think it was a Friday, and I told him I was graduating from broadcasting school. I said, ‘I want a job.’ ‘We don’t need you–we don’t got no job now. Come back later!’ That was Friday. Saturday, I was back at the station. ‘Wasn’t you up here yesterday!?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ ‘What’d I tell you then?’ ‘You told me to come back later–you didn’t tell me how late.’ He says, ‘Well, check with me one day next week.’ Monday morning, right back there–Monday is one day of the week! He said, ‘Man, listen! I never heard you before!’ I said, ‘Well, you must have something going somewhere–why don’t you look at McKie’s All Night Roundup?’ He says, ‘You got a sponsor?’ I said, ‘No, I got nothin’ right now…'” His voice takes a pitiful tone. “‘I don’t even have a job.’ ‘Well, do you think you can get a sponsor?’ ‘I think I can do as good as anybody else on that program.’
“McKie’s All Night Roundup ran from midnight until 4 in the morning. He had one slot, from 12:15 to 12:30, so he cut me in on that one program. So I went and got a few sponsors and I was brokering the time, and after the first week I paid for the airtime and made myself $75 for a 15-minute program–not bad! Evidently they saw that my face looked innocent to ’em, and they trusted me with the money. So I paid for my airtime.”
Spann says he wasn’t above taking money out of his own pocket to stay on the air if that’s what it took. “I got money! I didn’t do nothing, never did any kind of drugs or anything. All during the day I’m on the street, hustling, driving a Yellow Cab. I was repairing televisions because I had finished school too, so I had a TV shop, driving a Yellow Cab, working as an announcer for WOPA–all my life I’ve been working!
“If I got you in the cab, ‘Listen, how’s your TV working?’ If you tell me, ‘Ah, that damn thing give me so much trouble,’ ‘Say, listen–I repair televisions; why don’t you let me come over to your house and fix the television?’ I go repair the television, make some money on that. Then come to the radio station and work at night. By 11:00 during the day I’m out of the bed and goin’ to repair some of them televisions that the folks done told me about. During that time they must’ve been making bad televisions–half of the folks I talked to had problems with their television! That’s the way I made a living during that early time on the radio.
“One day the station manager got extremely mad with McKie Fitzhugh–I don’t know why. He called me in, he says, ‘Hey boy!’ ‘Yes, Mister Michel?’ He said, ‘You think you can do that whole program?’ I says, ‘Yeah, why not?’ He said, ‘You start here Monday, and you gon’ work from 12 midnight until 4 in the morning–that’s your program! Now here’s what I want you to do’–he done peeped my hole card!–he says, ‘I’m gonna pay you $75 a week, and I’m gon’ give you 20 percent of [everything you bring in over] a hundred dollars.’ Well, shucks! First thing you know I was makin’ $200 a week on that program, and he was as happy as he could be!”
Spann insists that even when it was common practice, he never took money to play records: “I was playin’ these guys’ records, and they sounded good to me. Either I liked it, I played it, or I liked the person, I played it.” But there were other ways of generating extra income in the entertainment industry. “When I was in Mississippi I used to run that theater,” Spann says. “Puttin’ on a concert was basically the same thing. The first concert I put on was in 1960, at the Ashland Auditorium, Ashland and Van Buren. They had a great big old German guy running it. The night we had the show, B.B. King and Little Junior Parker, we had about 3,500 folks trying to get into the Ashland Auditorium–$3 a head. Sometimes they just threw five dollars in the window and wouldn’t wait for the $2 change, they were just so happy to get in and see that show. We had the bar, too, people buyin’ drinks and all kinds of things.” Big Bill Hill, who also deejayed at WOPA, ran the bar.
“I had so much money in these small bills, the girls just couldn’t count it–they just put it on the floor in a basket. They stayed at my house until 11 the next day tryin’ to count that money. If my life depended on it now, I couldn’t tell you how much damn money we took in, but it was well over $20,000. The next show, which was Christmas, we brought Junior Parker back, and the show didn’t go so well. Bill Hill left with the monies that night. I paid Junior Parker all the money that he had coming, and Bill Hill left with the bar money. That’s what broke our friendship up, our partnership. So I started doing things on my own.”
Spann began to book blues shows at venues like the Emerald Ballroom on 69th Street, the Trianon Ballroom at 62nd and Cottage Grove, and the prestigious Pershing Hotel ballroom at 64th and Cottage Grove, among others. “I always had a show in town,” he says with a chuckle. “Y’all don’t work for the Internal Revenue, do you? Everybody during that time was trying to become sophisticated, because they thought the blues was the pit of the music and they didn’t want to be bothered down in the pit. I just came and got in the pit!”
In 1963 Leonard Chess, proprietor of Chess Records, purchased WHFC, a 1,000-watt radio station at 3350 S. Kedzie. After changing the call letters to WVON–which stood for “Voice of the Negro”–Chess set about hiring a staff of deejays, who’d eventually be dubbed the WVON Good Guys. Spann claims he was among the first to get an offer, which Chess delivered in his usual profane style.
“Leonard was very–original,” Spann says. “Leonard called me one day, ‘Hey, motherfucker!’ ‘Yes, Leonard?’ ‘I got to talk with you!’ ‘Yes, Leonard.’ ‘I’m buying this radio station, WHFC, and would you like to work for me?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, Leonard, sheesh! I’m doin’ all right like I’m doin’!’ He says, ‘I’ll let you sell commercials, and I’ll give you 15 percent,’ whatever it was. He paid me more than anybody else was gettin’, because I was making that much on WOPA with all my little interests and things they was givin’ me over there.
“Mister Michel really hated for me to leave; I was bringing in more money than a whole buncha folks working daylight hours. They kept runnin’ my taped shows over there for about a month or so, so I was on over here and over there at the same identical time!”
Once ensconced at WVON, Spann and his fellow Good Guys took Chicago radio by storm. By 1964 the station had between 44 and 48 percent of Chicago’s daytime black listenership; in distant second place was WYN-R, with between 14 and 17 percent. Citywide, WVON was “almost unbelievably” second to powerhouse WLS in the evenings, according to a 1964 Billboard article, and at no time during the 24-hour day was it lower than sixth in the ratings. Spann’s radio persona–an ingratiating blend of down-home rube and big-city hipster that probably reflected the way a lot of his southern-born listeners saw themselves–was firmly established by this time. He extolled the virtues of “hog maws, grits, collards, and potato pie” on the air, and he revved up crowds at his shows by shrieking “Sooo-eeee!” But he also admonished men to work hard at their jobs, take their paychecks home to their families, and avoid profanity in front of children. A year or so after joining WVON, he stayed up 87 hours straight in an on-air “sleepless sit-in” marathon to raise money for Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaign.
“So the gift they gave me for winning it is to go to Jackson, Mississippi, and march with Dr. King!” he says, laughing. “This is a lil’ rough–I get the money for you, and then I got to go march with you!”
Spann maintained a good relationship with Chess. “I wanted to borrow some money from Leonard Chess. I says, ‘Leonard, I need $10,000.’ ‘Do you know how much money that is?’ ‘Uh, yeah, that’s what I need.’ He said, ‘I’m gon’ tell you: you the only motherfucker in the world I’d let have $10,000 at one time! Come by the office tomorrow and pick it up.’ So he wrote the check, gave me the money. Next Saturday I took it back, said, ‘Want some interest?’ ‘I don’t want no interest–you my man!’ So Leonard Chess was always my backbone.”
With that kind of help, Spann soon became a major figure in promotions as well as on radio. “There was a guy at the Regal–Jewish individual–and he told me, ‘Pervis, I don’t know what you doin’, but you ’bout to put the Regal out of business!’ So he invited me to come on over to the Regal. I’d built up a certain amount of respect from the entertainers, so the first show, I think I took B.B. King in there, did good–not great, good–then [eventually] I went in with Aretha, Stevie Wonder, the whole package of Motown. I had all the entertainment, black-wise, in my hand. The white folks wouldn’t fool with no black entertainment–there just wasn’t enough money for ’em or something–so they just left it to me!”
He also expanded into club ownership, sometimes in partnership with other deejays like fellow Good Guy E. Rodney Jones. Spann’s best-known and most influential nightclub was the Burning Spear, at 55th and State. Along with revues that featured both local and nationally known performers, he instituted talent shows, which propelled him into the business of artist representation.
“After we got started at VON, so many things began coming to me from all kinda ways,” he says. “One day a lady working for me by the name of Miz Blackburn came to me and said, ‘There’s a little ol’ group out there in Gary, named the Jackson 5–why don’t you listen to ’em?’ I’m listening to groups, I got my talent shows, I’m listening to groups all the time. They came in my club–huge club! I listened to ’em. ‘Huh!’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ All that crap about Diana Ross discovered ’em? She didn’t have nothing to do with it! I started puttin’ ’em on my shows, pairin’ ’em up with another group I discovered by the name of the Five Stairsteps. I got Chaka Khan off my talent shows, so many artists. I was the booking agency for 25 artists. I had the Jacksons, Tyrone Davis, Johnnie Taylor, B.B. King, Chuck Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and a whole bunch of folks.
“But see, on some of ’em I wasn’t the signed booking agency. Queen in New York would sign a lot of folks, and then I would talk with the lady that owned Queen, and she would tell me, ‘OK, you can go ahead and book ’em too.’ Handshake deal, more or less. I’m from Mississippi anyway, and the way we used to do it in Mississippi is, hey, your word was your contract. And if I told you I was gonna do something, I’d do it. I came up with that philosophy.
“B.B. King came in, he wasn’t doing so well, he said, ‘Pervis, I need some help.’ This was ’66, he was in trouble with Internal Revenue. So I managed him. His fee during that time was $800, $1,000, something of this nature. He moved from $1,000 overnight, up to $1,700, up to $2,800, that’s how B.B. King got his real start. I got a bunch of stories–got a lot of ’em! I was very friendly with a guy at ABC, name was Joe Glaser. Joe Glaser was the man as far as booking artists. Joe Glaser, whenever he say ‘Jump,’ you start jumpin’! Because he was the man that used to book a lot of things in Al Capone’s time up here. One day we’ll sit down and I’ll tell you about that; that’s a whole different story.”
Jim O’Neal, who was deeply involved in the Chicago scene in the 1970s as the editor and publisher of Living Blues magazine, believes Spann did some artist management during that period. His recollection is similar to Spann’s: that these were handshake deals with artists who were officially signed to someone else’s roster but knew Spann from playing on his bills. Musician Johnny Drummer, who’s known Spann since the WOPA days, also says Spann “had a few guys” in his stable in the 60s and 70s, though the ones he remembers were mostly Chicago-based artists like Chuck Jackson and McKinley Mitchell. Blues historian Bill Dahl, who is currently researching a book on Motown, is skeptical of Spann’s claims that he managed big-name artists, but says some of his sources do remember encountering the Jacksons for the first time at the Regal.
But in his 1996 autobiography, Blues All Around Me, King credits Sidney Seidenberg, the manager he began working with circa 1968, with introducing him to Glaser, hooking him up with Glaser’s Associated Booking Corp., and helping him get his financial affairs in order. Spann isn’t mentioned anywhere in the book.
In 1975, several years after Leonard Chess’s death, WVON was sold to a conglomerate called Globetrotter Communications. Globetrotter moved the station up the dial to 1390, a more powerful frequency. This left 1450, the station’s original home on the dial, vacant. In 1979 Spann and a business syndicate that included commentator Vernon Jarrett and former VON talk show host Wesley South teamed up to secure the license. The station, rechristened WXOL, carried on with what was advertised as an all-blues format. Its deejays included several veterans from WVON, including E. Rodney Jones, Bill “Doc” Lee, and Spann himself.
When the relocated WVON changed its call letters to WGCI, in 1983, Spann and his associates changed theirs back to WVON. For a few years in the 80s Spann also owned WXSS, a 50,000-watt station in Memphis, but sold it before the decade was over. Today he is the majority owner of WVON, which shares the frequency with WCEV, which brokers time to various ethnic broadcasters between one in the afternoon and ten in the evening. Spann’s daughter, Melody Spann-Cooper, is VON’s president and general manager. It’s not as prestigious a gig as it used to be: Arbitron’s most recent ratings ranked VON 30th out of 43 Chicago stations, with an estimated 0.6 percent audience share.
Spann has probably put on more successful blues and soul productions than any other promoter in Chicago history–certainly more than any of his peers in the black community. But his reputation has suffered in recent years, even among the faithful.
In the early 90s, for instance, vocalist Willie Clayton threatened to sue Spann for using his name in advertisements for shows Clayton said he’d never agreed to appear on. Spann gave Clayton, who was born in the same part of Mississippi he was, a job at the Burning Spear when he moved to Chicago in the early 70s. He also managed him, taking him to Memphis, where he got to work with legendary Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell. But though Clayton, according to a close business associate, will still work for Spann now, he “won’t work ’til he gets the money up front.”
Emmett Garner, a longtime Chicago-based agent who now manages Stan Mosley, takes Spann’s side in the spat. “Yeah, Willie was right, legally,” he concedes, “but he gave Spann his word! And Spann raised that boy up [in music], the man raised that boy, treated him like a son. It’s like if I took you into my house, took care of you, then later on I ask you to do something for me and you say you’re gonna it for me as a favor–you do it! It ain’t about no contract! Now I like Willie Clayton; I work with Willie Clayton; Willie Clayton’s my friend. But Willie Clayton didn’t do right.”
And despite the apparent disingenuousness of Spann’s “I’m just from Mississippi” routine, his “handshake deal” methods were in fact quite common in the blues business when he was starting out, and–especially on the southern “chitlin’ circuit,” where many of the acts he deals with are still based–they’re not unheard of today. In that world, no-shows aren’t necessarily the big deal they might be in a more formal setting. In Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick recalls the first southern soul revue he saw, in the 60s: “I don’t think Rufus Thomas or Joe Tex even showed up…but that, I soon came to realize, was par for the course….Their absence was never even announced from the stage or remarked upon by the audience. It was the occasion that was of consequence as much as the show itself.”
Still, enough of Spann’s productions have gone far enough awry that some fans and fellow movers and shakers hold him at least partly responsible for the increasing difficulty of luring Chicago audiences to the sort of black-oriented blues shows that regularly draw well in Mississippi, Memphis, Saint Louis, and elsewhere along the Delta-Chicago blues trail.
Probably the nadir of Spann’s career as a promoter was his 1991 Chicago Music Festival at Soldier Field, which was supposed to feature Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Little Richard, Al Green, and the Winans, among others. The stadium holds 65,000, but fewer than 15,000 people showed up, and only four acts performed. Brown was the only star headliner among them. The debacle was followed by a flurry of lawsuits. Cook County state’s attorney Jack O’Malley hit Spann and his Delta Productions with a lawsuit that O’Malley claimed would prevent Spann from ever promoting another show in Illinois. A fan named Lonnie Myles weighed in with a class-action suit. For his part, Spann sued Aretha Franklin for breach of contract.
Spann still refuses to discuss the incident today. “Only thing I’ll tell you about Soldier Field, I was set up. I was set up to be destroyed–unsuccessfully. Some things go down that you just really can’t talk about at that moment, but the time will get right. James Brown did the show for me and the money was there for him, and he got paid. Every nickel he was promised, he got paid. But it wasn’t a matter of money. It wasn’t a matter of money for Aretha. As I told you, it was a setup. But we’ll get into that when the time is right. The time ain’t right today.”
According to his testimony in the suit against Franklin, she had personally agreed, in a telephone conversation in June, that she would be paid half of her fee before the show and half after. He claimed that he attempted to deliver the first payment (in cash, according to an interview I did with Spann in 1993) to her hotel room in Chicago on July 26, the day before the event, but she refused to deal with him, instead announcing “to persons presently unknown to the plaintiffs that she did not intend to perform,” which “drastically reduced ticket sales.”
The judge in the case ruled in favor of Franklin, and in fact, in the paperwork for the O’Malley and Myles suits, which were eventually consolidated, there is a copy of a contract, signed by both her and Spann, which clearly stipulated that she would be paid her entire fee of $100,000 before the show, in two deposits–the first due July 1, the second due on or before July 19.
It’s also clear that there were serious problems with the entire event almost from the beginning. The Soldier Field show was supposed to be the second of two blockbuster revues featuring many of the same headliners; the first was to occur at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta on July 20, but ended up being canceled. Court records show that on May 16, 1991, Spann wrote a letter to Triad Artists, the agency representing Al Green and the Winans, “to confirm our conversation…whereby we had agreed to tenure an offer of $22,500 for both Al Green and the Winans” to perform on the Atlanta bill. Triad agent Marshall Reznick responded with a letter requesting a binder of 10 percent, a good-faith gesture they requested from all “new buyers.”
This seems to be the point at which things began to go sour. Spann fired a letter back to Triad, calling their characterization of him as a new buyer “somewhat offensive to me.” He added: “After all, I’ve only been promoting shows for thirty-three years in Chicago and across the country….I suggest you talk with Al Green in reference to my credentials. I may be a new promoter to you and perhaps you haven’t dealt too much in this arena.”
Triad never received the binder, but Spann proceeded to advertise both shows. Triad sent him at least two cease-and-desist letters, which said things like, “As you are aware, the . . . artists will not now, nor at any time in the future, be performing for your organization,” and on July 23 an agency representative called him to convey the same message personally. But according to the suit, he continued to advertise the artists. A representative of the William Morris Agency told the Sun-Times on July 30 that Little Richard’s contract for Soldier Field had also stipulated he be paid in advance, and he refused to come to Chicago until this occurred. In the same article the Dells’ Chuck Barksdale asserted he didn’t want to get into a “mudslinging contest,” but did say that “Delta Productions owes the Dells a considerable amount of money.”
The resolution of the lawsuits was somewhat anticlimactic. Spann was ordered to refund 75 percent of the ticket price–between $24 and $27–to ticket holders. But despite O’Malley’s threats, the court merely enjoined him from advertising any future show or selling tickets “without first securing contractual agreements with the performers.”
It’s difficult to gauge whether Spann was chastened by the affair. Asked what it takes for a show to be successful, he pantomimes blowing on dice and rolling them: “Takin’ your chances! If you’re dealing with hot artists, or very stable artists, you can just about make it work anytime, but it’s all more or less rollin’ the dice when you put on a show.”
It’s nearly midnight on October 14, and the 10,000-seat UIC Pavilion looks half full at best. But so far every act that’s been advertised–except for Koko Taylor and B.B. King, who are scheduled to join Bobby “Blue” Bland onstage for the coronation at the show’s climax–has performed, to tumultuous applause.
Earlier in the evening, Spann invited veteran deejay Herb Kent to the stage and placed a crown on his head, declaring him King of the Radio Personalities and Disc Jockeys in Chicago. Kent, whose velvety baritone seems undiminished by age, called Spann “my mentor” and spun anecdotes from the days when Spann was fixing television sets by day and spinning blues records by night. Spann reminisced about the Regal, reiterated his claim that he’d launched the careers of the Jacksons, and got in another dig at Diana Ross: “She discovered the Jacksons like I discovered the moon–looked up, and it was there!”
Since then Spann has alternated between emceeing the show, dealing privately with artists and agents in his room backstage, and sauntering around the backstage area, regally accepting hugs from female admirers and hearty handshakes from longtime buddies and new acquaintances alike. If he’s bothered by the low turnout, it doesn’t show.
Bland, looking fit and strong after several years of serious health problems, has eased through most of his set of well-worn hits from his 40-plus-year career. Spann ambles onto the stage carrying three white boxes. He invites Koko Taylor out, and the band breaks into the opening bars of “Wang Dang Doodle.” She sings a verse or two.
But Spann has an announcement to make. “We are here for the crowning of the Queen, the Crown Prince, and the King of the Blues–Koko Taylor, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, and B.B. King.” At the mention of King’s name the audience, which had grown a bit quiet after sitting through the nearly five-hour show, rises to its feet, screaming and applauding. Spann continues: “B.B. King, as I speak to you, is in a hospital in California. He cannot be here tonight.” The crowd quiets down, but no one boos or jeers.
As Spann lifts the crowns from their boxes, the noise picks up. He places one on Bland’s head and one on Taylor’s. Bland’s is too small for him, but he holds it in his hand for most of the rest of the festivities. Spann offers to let Bland wear King’s crown “until we can get to the hospital and give it to B.B.” But King’s crown ends up, for the time being at least, on the head of Johnnie Taylor Jr., who performed earlier with his brother Floyd in a tribute to their late father. Bland, Spann, and Koko banter, gruffly but affectionately, for a few more minutes; then Spann and Koko leave the stage. The crowd has already begun to file out. Bland’s band finishes without him; during their last number Spann returns to the mike and shouts “Thanks for coming!” over and over, to a mostly empty room.
Around this time on a normal Saturday night he’d be on the air at WVON. The station is running a tape of one of his earlier programs. On the radio Spann’s canned voice announces, “Happy Mother’s Day! Happy Mother’s Day!”and then an ad comes on for a show starring Johnnie Taylor “tonight at the Regal Theater.” Someone cuts off the sound; after half a minute or so of silence, a more recent taped broadcast cuts in, in the middle of Taylor’s last hit, “Big Head Hundreds.” Soon another ad airs, this one for the UIC Pavilion show that’s just ended. This time the tape rolls on uninterrupted.
A few days later, Spann is still ebullient. “I’ve had more good compliments on that show,” he exults, “than on any show I’ve ever done!”
There were, in fact, some rumblings of discontent from fans who thought Spann should have announced earlier in the evening that B.B. King wouldn’t appear. “Only thing I can tell you, it wasn’t done,” he responds. “I see what they’re saying. If you announce it early or announce it late, that’s something I didn’t even think to do. A man is sick, in the hospital, there’s nothing you can do. I didn’t know about it until the day of the show, when I got the fax.”
A spokesperson for MCA Records says that King, who is diabetic, was at the Pritkin Longevity Center in Santa Monica for his annual checkup and “decompression” from the rigors of touring.
“We had a proclamation from the mayor!” Spann continues. “We didn’t read it because we were running out of time, and they had threatened me with some terrific overtime fees if we ran past midnight. I had to get the hell of out Dodge, you know? But I’ve had more praises from that show, more praises, than any show that I remember, truthfully.”
In the commendation, now in a the display case at WVON, Mayor Daley announces that “the Blues continues to thrive in Chicago due in part to the hard work of Pervis Spann” and offers his sincere congratulations to King and Taylor on their coronation.
“What you do, when you’re in promoting, you do the best you can and then hope for the best,” Spann says. “We didn’t do too bad on that, because you raise your prices and you make the same amount of money, on your tickets, on the money. So the inflated ticket prices kinda made up for the fact that we didn’t have a whole bunch of other people. The bottom line is what’s going to count anyway.”
Spann tells me he has to get off the phone and over to his office at VON, but before going he repeats a suggestion he’s been making, in one form or another, since I first began interviewing him.
“What you should do is get us some money. Write a good book and make it into a great movie! Do what you gotta do! Get us some money!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner/Amy O’Neal/Marc PoKempner.