Out in the waiting room, there’s a guy who’s been here since 8:30. It’s noon now and the commissioner still hasn’t arrived. Another fellow has been waiting since 10. They both want to discuss businesses that they’re planning to open.
A man in a Bulls jersey and Bulls cap who’s been looking for the commissioner all morning sticks his head in once again. “When will he be coming in?” he asks the secretary.
“Can’t tell,” the secretary says. “I can leave a message.”
“I’ll wait,” he says and sits down.
The other two men give up and leave.
Half an hour later, the commissioner saunters down the hall singing to himself. He apologizes for being late, and asks the man in the Bulls outfit to come into his office. “Thanks so much for seeing me, commissioner,” says the man after waiting close to four hours. “Thank you so much.”
Jerry “Iceman” Butler first ran for the Cook County Board in 1986, and he was elected with more votes than any other commissioner. Running for reelection in this year’s primary, again he led the field. His triumph was less a tribute to his political savvy than to the enduring power of his R & B hits, which include “Only the Strong Survive,” “For Your Precious Love,” “I Stand Accused,” and his version of “Moon River.” Ask Butler why he has gotten so many votes and he’ll say, “Because I’m a rhythm and blues singer.”
When he’s on the floor for one of the Cook County Board’s bimonthly meetings, he doesn’t say much other than aye and nay. Before coming to attend a meeting of the Board of Commissioners, I told Butler, “I’d like to see you in action.” “You won’t see much action there,” he responded.
A great deal of Butler’s day is spent in his office answering phone calls from people seeking favors. As I enter for this interview the phone rings and Butler finds himself speaking with a man whose son has been turned down for a position in the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. Butler informs the caller that he’ll look into the matter and “see what I can do.”
Butler seems very comfortable here in his commissioner’s office. He leans back in his swivel chair with his hands behind his head and laughs a lot. Lying around his desk you can find books of philosophy. On the walls are the framed gold records.
Adam Langer: You don’t record any more, now that you’re commissioner, do you?
Jerry Butler: I have not recorded in about ten years. That doesn’t have anything to do with being a commissioner. It has more to do with the fact that there are a lot of young executive types who have come into the industry since [stressing the phrase] my fame and fortune, and it’s difficult to make a deal based on past performance. The fact that you’ve been doing this for 30 years gives you no credibility whatsoever. They say, Bring it in and if we like it we’ll sign you. But I refuse to audition. And more than that, I have not run across anything that I could record that would absolutely stand up to what’s happening in the marketplace today. I have been thinking of doing something. As a matter of fact, I’m doing a guest performance on an album with a lady by the name of Angela Charles. But, that’s about it right now. A lot of it also has to do with the fact that most of the things I’ve been successful with, I’ve been a writer or cowriter. Now that I’ve got all this stuff to do, it’s difficult to find a creative I love you kind of spot to write in. Perhaps because I’m 50 years old now, that makes it difficult to see love in the same perspective as I did when I was 20. [He laughs.]
AL: You’re not as optimistic as you used to be?
JB: The man once said that the word for a pessimist is an experienced optimist. I think I have become an experienced optimist.
AL: Let’s talk a little bit about how you got started in the music business. My understanding is you started out in a church choir.
JB: Actually that’s a misnomer. It wasn’t a choir; it was more like a group. A gospel group. Much like the Soul Stirrers or the Five Blind Boys. We were called the Northern Jubilee Spiritual Singers, as opposed to gospel singers, and the reason for that was that it was formed inside of a spiritual church. Curtis Mayfield’s grandmother was the pastor of that church called the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church, and that was the group I first started to travel and sing with. Prior to that I had been in church choirs and school choirs and that type of stuff, but that’s not any different from a million other folks. Everybody, especially from the African American community, pursued singing for the first time in a choir. And because our community is so deeply religious, a lot of early upbringing is within the confines of the church. It’s one of the first places your mom takes you. It’s the place where you go and no matter how bad you sound, somebody always says “Amen.” And so it’s an encouraging kind of thing and over time it gives you the ability to walk out in front of large audiences and perform.
AL: Were you a standout in the church choir?
JB: No. I was never a standout in any of the choirs or any of the groups until we recorded “For Your Precious Love,” and I think the reason I was the singer of “For Your Precious Love” as opposed to one of the other guys was because it was my idea, my song. Since I showed them the song, I became the lead singer of the song. When it was recorded, the record company decided that they would call the group “Jerry Butler and the Impressions.”
AL: But this wasn’t the first song you had written.
JB: Actually it kind of was the first song I had written. Actually it wasn’t even really a song. It was really a poem, which is why it doesn’t repeat any lines. There is no hook to speak of. It goes from beginning to end like a poem does. And because of that, I think that’s why Rolling Stone magazine thought it was unique enough to be called the, quote unquote, beginning of soul music.
AL: Had you been writing poetry before that?
JB: Messing around with it. You know, my mother was an avid reader of poetry. She loved it, still does. She’s 80 now and she still does a lot of research on biblical stuff and writes little poems and whatnot and I think I inherited the traits from her. So early on I had a fondness for English and literature. So I started to write based on that fondness and, fortunately, one of the poems became “For Your Precious Love.” When I started kindergarten I already wrote and read pretty well because of mom sitting down and reading with me. I wrote a lot of compositions when I was at Washburne High, which later became Cooley High, which later became Near North.
AL: Were you the musical one in the family?
JB: Not only me. My brother Billy had a group, Billy Butler and the Enchanters. He wrote “I Stand Accused” with me which was later recorded by Isaac Hayes. He’s living up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but he still plays guitar with me when I perform. My younger sister sings background and my older sister has never done any of those things.
AL: Now, how did the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Singers become the Impressions?
JB: It didn’t. That’s one of those misprints you see a lot when people talk about me. Actually, what happened was there was a group of guys from Chattanooga, Tennessee, called the Roosters–Sam Gooden, Arthur and Richard Brooks, Fred Cash, and there was a girl in the group. It was Four Roosters and a Chick. That’s what they called themselves. Three of the four Roosters came to Chicago with the hope of making records because Chicago was a recording center at that time. I joined the group as a replacement for one of the guys who didn’t come and I asked Curtis Mayfield if he would come and help us. Then we decided to change the name of the group from the Roosters to the Impressions because the Roosters sounded kind of country while the Impressions sounded very urbane and slick.
I’m sure you want to know about Curtis. [Mayfield’s neck was broken in August in a freak accident onstage in Brooklyn; he remains paralyzed.] Curtis has been a lifelong friend. You know he makes his living by performing, and when you find he may no longer have the ability to do that, that’s sad. But being a believer in the great Creator, we have to accept it.
AL: When I asked you how your spiritualist singing group became the Impressions, you said “That’s one of those misprints.” Are you implying that a lot that has been written about you has been inaccurate?
JB: Pretty often. People have a tendency to either take what you say and expand it or diminish it, depending on how much space they have to write about you. So sometimes stuff gets lost in the translation. One time I said that over 30 years I’ve sold maybe 30 million records. Along the way, somebody has dropped the maybe. What a difference a word makes. One of my favorite stories was when I ran for the office, I was interviewed by Ray Hanania of the Chicago Sun-Times and he said, “Jerry, I hear you plan to run for the Cook County Board.” I said, “Yes, I plan to do that.” So, he wrote, “Black rhythm and blues singer who’s a liquor salesman on the south side is running for a seat on the Cook County Board. He is being sponsored by ex-Black Panther, Alderman Bobby Rush.” Now, all of that was, in essence, true. But the way it was written shaded it toward militancy and a bunch of other stuff which had nothing to do with the truth.
AL: When “For Your Precious Love” came out and it was a certified hit, that probably changed your life-style a lot.
JB: More than a lot. [He giggles.] It gave me a life-style. Up until then, there was no life-style. Actually, it did and it didn’t. At that time we weren’t poor; we were broke. We didn’t have any money, but we didn’t need anything. We had clothes and food and we had laughs and on occasion we went to the movies. We had a TV and a record player and most of the things that folks have. I was living with my mother. My dad had died my first year in high school. And in 1957, my mother moved into Cabrini-Green, about the same time I was graduating from high school, and then in 1958 we recorded “For Your Precious Love.” So, I went right from high school into the workplace as a performing artist.
AL: So, what changed in 1958?
JB: All of a sudden I had money. I could buy clothes. I could buy a car. I was on the Dick Clark show. I was doing all the kind of stuff that folks dream about. But I don’t think it ever really affected me the way it does other people. I never saw it as I’m a star.
AL: But was there a moment, like when you were on the Dick Clark show, where you said to yourself, “I’ve made it”?
JB: I’ve never really made it in my own mind. I have never gotten to that point where I thought I had reached the apex or the meridian of my ability.
AL: What would be that point?
JB: I don’t know if it’s in show business. I think I’m going on a path rather than heading for a place. The work is more important than the completion of the work. I enjoy doing it more than I enjoy having done it and being rewarded for it or being awarded for it or getting a plaque for it or a gold record for it. That’s the after effect of the work. The work’s more important. The place is number one. You’re at number one. Whoopdedoo! That’s great. But the work is what I enjoy. If you get to number one, that’s cool. It means you did your work, and on that day at that time you were better than a whole bunch of other folks. But the work is who you are and that makes it fun.
AL: Why did you make the jump from show business to the Cook County Board or go into politics at all?
JB: The Cook County Board is the better question because I believe that almost everything is political. In fact, I’d argue that everything is political. [He laughs.]
AL: How do you mean “political”?
JB: I mean everything is political. Politics is people and when you deal with people, everything becomes political. A kid goes to the store with his mom and dad. The mom buys peanut butter A instead of peanut butter B because peanut butter A is equal in nourishment but cheaper in price. Then she gets home and she determines who gets to make the sandwich and eat the sandwich. That’s politics. Everything is politics. I have twin sons. Much as I try to treat them the same, I find myself favoring one in a particular instance because I’ve decided that one need is greater than another need. That’s kind of a dictatorship and dictatorships are political.
AL: How was the specific decision made to run for the Cook County Board seat?
JB: I was driving with a friend of mine on the south side of Chicago and we were talking about Larry Bullock [who at the time, 1985, was a state representative from the south side], and I said, “Somebody ought to get this guy because he’s out of touch with the community.” My friend said, “Well, why don’t you run against him?” So, I called up Bobby Rush and said, “Look, I’m thinking about running against Larry Bullock.” He said don’t do it, and I said why? and he said, there’s a lady by the name of Lu Jones who has come very close to beating him on two occasions and Harold Washington is going to support her and it will put him in a fix because he won’t know which way to go, whether he should stick with her or go to you because you have a better chance to win because of your notoriety. So, after he explained that to me, I decided that I would start someplace else. The conversation then swung to the seven aldermanic districts that were going to be remapped because they had been discriminatory. And, at the time, Vrdolyak was chairman of the party and that gave him the power to slate candidates for county board seats. Being slated is almost tantamount to being selected. And so we looked at that and decided that that would be a good place for an independent person who didn’t have any political baggage.
AL: And it was that easy.
JB: Kind of. Name recognition means a lot in politics and I was extremely fortunate in that respect. At that time, it was newsworthy. I got a lot of free press. Channel Two and NBC picked up on it. You got all the stuff you couldn’t buy by virtue of the fact that it was unique that a rhythm and blues singer was running for office.
AL: Why do you suppose other rhythm and blues or pop singers like yourself haven’t run for political office?
JB: I don’t know of any others and I think the reason might be that some of us have never thought of it or maybe never had the desire to do it. Now, I hear that Stevie [Wonder] is thinking of running for mayor of Detroit and I don’t think that’s outside the realm of reason.
AL: Is there anything in being a rhythm and blues singer that prepared you for this office?
JB: Oh, I don’t know if being a rhythm and blues singer prepared me. I think the preparation for the job was done in school. When you’re traveling around as a performer, though, you find yourself being pulled into a lot of political arguments just by virtue of the fact that you have the ability to attract people. I remember I was in Atlanta, Georgia, when Andy Young was running for a city council seat and I wore one of his pins onstage and some guy in the audience was very irate because here I was, a stranger in his town, promoting Andy Young against his candidate. Being involved in the civil rights movement and all that prepares you. I performed at a fundraiser for Kenneth Gibson, who was the first black mayor in New Jersey. I went down and sang a couple of songs. I did that for Coleman Young in Detroit and Ron Dellums in Oakland. Things like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. If you were an African American performer traveling the circuit in the 60s, you almost had to belong, because you were giving your time or your dollars so that things could happen politically. When Martin Luther King was speaking one time in Washington, I was in Atlanta raising money for the people who went. There’s always been involvement, and being a performer made it possible for me to be involved in all of these different scenarios. But, this job I have now is about comprehensive reading, understanding business, having a basic knowledge of what the community wants. Knowing about those things has helped me in this job. Being an entertainer helped me to get it.
AL: Now, you said before that you hadn’t reached the apex of your career.
JB: [Laughing] I said I didn’t think so. I may be on my way out.
AL: A very political answer. But, with that name recognition you have, you could go on to a higher office. Have you thought about doing that?
JB: I could lie and say that I haven’t thought about it. But yes, I’ve thought about several different offices. I’m kind of using this one as on-the-job training to get the feeling for what can be done in bureaucracies and how to get it done and how to operate the machinery in a political situation. What we do as county commissioners is we deliberate on what laws should be, how we should raise revenue, but we don’t have administrative functions. The mayor of a city is a politician, but he is also an administrator. The buck stops at his desk. The president of the county board is an administrator. Everything stops on his desk. I don’t have that responsibility. But this is what I’m doing now and I’ll probably still be doing it three or four years from now, and if I do this good and don’t get myself in trouble I’ll start looking at something else.
AL: You anticipate getting in trouble?
JB: It’s hard not to. There are so many things that can get you in trouble in politics. You can get in trouble because you don’t agree with the thinking of the majority of your constituency. You can get in trouble because somebody finds something in your past that you think is not worthy of making a to-do about and it gets printed and becomes a whole bunch of stuff. You can get in trouble by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. You can wind up in the wrong company. When you become as visible as political types are, there is always a way to stub your toe.
AL: How do you try to avoid it?
JB: I try not to think a whole lot about it. I hope that God gives me the ability to see what’s right, and after that, whatever comes comes. That’s about the best you can do. There are just some things that you can’t foresee so you do the best you can. You try to vote as you feel you should. If the constituency doesn’t agree with you, sometimes they’ll forgive you and sometimes they won’t.
AL: Are there specific issues that you can see coming up that might get you in trouble?
JB: No, but they will come. As surely as the night follows the day, they will come. For instance, when I first sat down in the chair as commissioner, one of the big things was we had a doctor with AIDS out at Cook County Hospital and we suspended his job. There were some pro, some against. And that’s why everything’s political because there’s always somebody for and somebody against. The newspapers and radio and television portrayed it as we were uninformed and uneducated about AIDS and we had no right to suspend this doctor, that we were promoting fear. One side said, “Well, he has AIDS and we shouldn’t have him over there working on patients.” The medical people were saying that it was impossible for you to contract AIDS through spittle, this, that, somethin’ somethin’ somethin’, and the basic folks who went into Cook County were saying he’s got it and we don’t want him working on us. A specialist came in, told us we were doing wrong because we were denying this man the right to work. But since this doctor was an employee of the County of Cook, we were responsible for whatever happened to him. If he fell down the stairs and injured himself, the county taxpayers would have to pay for that simply because he was sick. And, the fact that we knew he had AIDS, the courts would have held us liable for his death even though everybody knew he was going to die. So, there are these kinds of questions that come up and the reason I voted to suspend him was couched in two things. One, I believe that it was the best thing for the hospital because of the possibility of the legal ramifications of something happening to him while he was in service at the hospital. And, I thought the gay and lesbian community was starting to use this issue politically to bring to light some of the questions they wanted raised.
AL: And the upshot of this was?
JB: The court determined that they were partially right and we were partially right and the doctor died.
AL: So you didn’t have to deal with that issue anymore?
JB: He wasn’t the issue. He was the person that brought the issue to the surface. The sickness was the issue. He just happened to be the vehicle. The issue is still out there.
AL: And the issue will come back to you, most likely, with all of the controversy over how County treats its AIDS patients and so forth. Is this the issue you’re afraid of? The one that will get you “in trouble”?
JB: Certainly it’s a troublesome issue. But that’s not the big piece. That’s the vocal piece, but that’s not the big piece. The big piece is we have an overcrowded jail, and even as we build new facilities, by the time we build the jail will still be overcrowded. It’s like building another lane on the Dan Ryan. There are just too many cars out there. No matter how many lanes you have, you’re going to have back-ups. The problem with the AIDS thing is that it is expanding and exploding through the usage of needles and so forth and where do we wind up? We have a handful of patients at Cook County Hospital now. But it won’t remain a handful. Yeah, we’re shortsighted and understaffed in that particular area now, but we will probably always be, just as we are shortsighted and understaffed in medical care period. We probably always will be. Why? Because taking care of the poor and the indigent is not a profitable business. And, anything that’s not a profitable business in a capitalist society is going to take a backseat. But we do the best that we can. While I was on the elevator coming up here, I was thinking about the Bulls and relating the job I do here to basketball. You take the shot they give you or you make the shot they give you until you can take the shot you want. And that’s what we have to do. We have to make what we can make until we can take what we want to make.
AL: You were talking about Cook County Jail. A few years ago, there was an article in the Tribune that talked about how you saw the conditions over there. In particular, since you were trained as a chef you had a problem with the food. Have you been over there since and has anything changed in your estimation?
JB: I was over there last week. Originally, when I went over there, they had flypaper hanging from the ceilings. A hundred years ago, that was outlawed. Flypaper in the kitchen with all the technology and stuff that we’ve got? That was crazy and yet it was hanging up there, flies stuck all on it. Some folks handling the food were wearing rubber gloves. Some were not. Garbage on the floor. Water on the floor. Tile floors, very slick ceramic tile. Somebody slips on the floor, falls, cracks his head open, who pays for it? The county taxpayers. Steam coming out of the dishwasher. It wasn’t working right so the dishes weren’t clean. Sometimes they’d run the dishes two or three times. Sometimes they wouldn’t. There’s a little food stuck in the corner? Ahh, don’t worry about it; these are prisoners. Food was cold. Those are the kinds of things I saw. Now, it’s better.
AL: How’s it better?
JB: No flypaper hanging from the ceiling. Trays come out of the dishwasher, water’s hotter. Those kinds of things. People’re wearing rubber gloves, hair nets.
AL: OK, so the kitchen’s nicer, but you still have the overcrowding situation.
JB: Can’t solve the overcrowding situation. Every jail in the United States is overcrowded. It’s not just Cook County and that’s the sad part. The press talks about Cook County, but they just had a lockdown in Stateville and at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. They’re all overcrowded. Joliet’s overcrowded. Everyone in the United States is overcrowded. In Massachusetts, they’re putting prisoners in Army barracks because it’s overcrowded and we have a get-tough policy on crime and we’re not getting the job done. We have a policy that says the user and the seller of drugs are both criminals. You can’t lock them all up; you don’t have space.
AL: So what would you like to see ideally? Prison furlough programs? Decriminalization of drugs? More money to build more prisons?
JB: We can’t build ourselves out of this. And anybody who tells you you can, I think is lying to you. There’s no way to build prisons fast enough nor can we afford it. We have to find some way to stop putting people in jail who may not belong there. Folks that go in there, we have to make sure they go to trial quickly and that they get whatever punishment that’s meted out to them and be done with it, rather than having the promise of some kind of punishment 20 years from now. There was this young kid that killed two people when he was 13, they finally got around to giving him the death sentence and carrying it out 15 years later. I’m using that as an example even though I’m not for the death penalty.
AL: Why not?
JB: Because it doesn’t solve the problem. It takes that one guy out of the system, but it doesn’t solve the problem. And waiting 15 years for it–if you’re gonna do it, do it quick. Assume you have a child and the little guy or the little lady does something wrong. You say I’m going to spank you ten years from now. That’s what we’re doing. If they commit the deed now [slapping his hand in his palm for emphasis], you say, “No that’s wrong now [another slap]” and you give him a slap on the hand now [and another]. But if you say, “Five years from today I’m gonna do something to you,” that’s crazy. And now we have a situation where–“Five years from today you will be sentenced for what you did. [He laughs.] We won’t tell you what the punishment is, but in the meantime, you’re going to spend two or three years in jail waiting for us to get around to telling you what your punishment’s going to be.” That’s one of the big problems at Cook County Jail. We have a lot of pretrial detainees that are there 12, 18, 24 months waiting to go to trial. Part of the reason is that you’ve got lawyers manipulating. They say, “Well, if they don’t take it to court for two or three years, maybe something will change. Maybe the law will change.” So, it gets delayed. I’ve been reading this book by [Charles] Colson.
AL: The Watergate plumber?
JB: Yes, and he talks about retribution. And he makes an excellent point. Here he is, college-educated, high up in the executive branch, and he winds up in jail and the guy in the cell next to him is a past president of the American Medical Association, and they’re washing dishes and dirty clothes with all of their skill and all of their knowledge. As opposed to being in an area where they can train or teach about government. And in the meantime, the taxpayers pay $20,000 a year to lock them up. You build a cell for $40,000, but it costs you millions over time. You put somebody in it. You have to have a guard and he makes a salary. There’s electricity and heat and this and that and all of those parts cost the taxpayers lots and lots of money. And we have to pay for that. Some people need to be locked up. Some are never going to be anything but bad people, but there are some people who are locked up foolishly. Because they pissed off an arresting officer.
AL: Give me an example of someone who, in your opinion, has been locked up foolishly.
JB: Well, take my son as an example. He’s going to the armed forces. He and his pals they go out to a place on 87th Street. They have a couple beers, maybe a couple too many. They’re coming down Cottage Grove Avenue. Big truck makes a U-turn in the middle of the street. They hit the truck. Police come to the scene. They let the guy in the newspaper truck go. One of the boys becomes a jailhouse lawyer: “You can’t do this! You gotta give us the test! You gotta do this. You gotta do that.” Pissed the policeman off. They handcuff my son who was driving. The one who was arguing, they can’t do nothing to him because he’s not guilty of anything. They take my son down, throw him in the thing, lock him up, $3,000 bond. I get a call at six in the morning. I traipse on down to the jail, 300 cash dollars in my pocket. I get my kid out, take him home. They take him to court. None of the policemen saw the accident. The judge threw it out. My wife said, “Well, he got justice.” I said, “No, they stopped an injustice, but they didn’t give him justice.” The guy who drove the truck was just as guilty as they were. It’s against the law to make a U-turn in the middle of the street. Now, the fact is, my son shouldn’t have been handcuffed. It was a traffic accident. Nobody was injured. Nobody was killed. They pissed off the policeman, so the police wrote the book. They said he was drunk even though they didn’t even test him. They said he didn’t have an insurance card even though I knew the insurance card was there because I put it there myself. But these are the kinds of things that happen that make people cry police brutality. And, the bottom line was that it cost $300, four or five trips to court, and he was lucky.
AL: The situation would have been worse if you weren’t Commissioner Jerry Butler?
JB: No, I don’t think they knew who I was. I never identified myself. I don’t think the guy who took my $300 knows or cares whether or not I was county commissioner. The thing that saved my son was the fact that he had a father who would get up at six in the morning and get his hands on $300. It wasn’t the seat I sit in; it was the fact that I had the money. If I didn’t have the $300, he would have probably gone into an overcrowded jail because some policeman was pissed off and he probably would have stayed there until somebody came up with $300 to make the bail. He would’ve lost his job and everything else.
AL: What can you do as a county board commissioner to expedite the judicial process?
JB: This process has been building up for years before I got in. What we’re going to do about it, I don’t have the foggiest idea. Speedier trials would help a lot. Pretrial sentencing. If somebody pleads guilty, maybe he doesn’t have to stand trial. That’s going to help. Electronic surveillance will help. But what happens when guys figure out how to abuse this? And they will because you’re dealing with some pretty intelligent guys. They may not have a lot of smarts in terms of PhDs and all that, but given enough time you can learn to do or undo almost anything. They will learn how to manipulate the new systems. There’s some talk about a boot camp theory, training guys like in an Army boot camp. That might be a good idea. I’d like to see some of these young guys go into the armed forces because it will give them some discipline and an overview of the world from a different perspective. But of course, there are laws that prevent that from happening. So we have to try and find a way to change those laws. I think we ought to reform systems of retribution. The other day, my sister-in-law’s car was broken into. She reports the radio stolen. The insurance company will probably replace the radio, but who’s going to replace the four or five days she spent without it? Who’s going to take care of it if the insurance company decides because this happened that they’re going to raise her premium? Even if they catch the people who did it, those people will never repay her. Whatever they pay will go directly to the state or to the county. That’s something that should be corrected.
AL: You think the armed forces are good for discipline. Is your opinion based on the time you spent in the armed forces?
JB: I was just in the National Guard. It was one of those times when kids were enamored with the army, all those John Wayne movies. [He laughs.] It’s not as glamorous as it was, but it’s an alternative to the war going on in the streets that has no values except money and dope. Young kids who don’t have fathers or older brothers to protect them join gangs to protect themselves. So, if you’ve got to be in a gang, at least be in the U.S. Army gang.
AL: You supported your son’s decision to go into the armed forces.
JB: Yes, and I think he grew from the experience. He wasn’t doing well in school. He was hanging out on the streets and that was a formula for getting in trouble. He got some college. He got a rank. Everybody’s not made to be doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Maybe he’ll become a great military leader: who knows? At least, he can find some opportunities for young men there that the streets will never offer. I suggest it highly to folks who are not sure about the direction they’re headed. God willing he’ll serve his time and never have to fire his gun at another human being.
AL: Before, you were saying that you were using your position as commissioner as on-the-job training to see how effective bureaucracy was?
JB: What I said was I was using this as on-the-job training to see how I could effectively move bureaucracy. [He laughs.]
AL: How well does it work?
JB: Slowly. For everything you want to do, there are so many laws and rules and regulations. What you have to do is try to get through the regulatory process in order to do something. I’ll give you an example. The overcrowding. They said we’ve got a jail that’s overcrowded. I said, “What’s the big deal? We’ve got all these empty cells in district precinct houses all around the city. We’ll just put the people in the precinct houses.” Well, that doesn’t work because we got a rule that when the city arrests somebody, in 24 hours he has to be turned over to the county. They’re not just talking about overcrowding in terms of beds. They’re talking about the fact that they can’t give prisoners enough rehabilitative time, enough exercise time. There’s a whole lot more attached to this argument about overcrowding than what you see on the surface. That’s what makes moving stuff difficult. There are laws that say you can’t do certain things. I mentioned the armed forces. If you’ve committed a felony, you can’t even get in. Now, what’s a felony? [He laughs.] A felony can be a myriad of things. If you got a driving ticket that’s unpaid, if you’ve been arrested for having a joint, you can’t get in. And you didn’t have to be smoking it. It could’ve just been in your pocket. Now all of a sudden you’re a criminal. And so what looks like it might be a practical solution to a guy’s problem, gets him three squares a day, gets him all the clothes he needs, gives him the discipline, gives him some comradery that he probably needs, gives him a chance to see the world, opens his eyes to a whole bunch of things, and a cigarette is keeping him out. It’s crazy. That’s why bureaucracy is so difficult to move. Every piece of paper on this desk is duplicated at least 17 times and then on top of that it’s duplicated for everybody in the administration and that’s so everybody knows what’s going on. The paper that’s duplicated never tells you what’s going on anyway because there isn’t space. You get a little paragraph: “We need 40,000 insulin capsules for the Cook County pharmacy.” OK. For what? “Because we need ’em.” Now we don’t know whether they need them or not. We’re not gonna go over there and count all 40,000 capsules. We have to take their word for it and still their word has to be spread to all these different people. Everybody has to know. And it’s all designed to try and keep the cheat off. And the cheating is kind of like rust in metal; it’s built into the metal. [He laughs.] It’s not something that happens from the outside. The corrosion is in the metal. The corrosion is in the system.
AL: Is there a lot of corrosion or a little corrosion in the system right now?
JB: A lot of corrosion. Because everybody wants their piece. Some guy needs $30,000 so he breaks his finger because an operation costs $30,000. It’s that simple and it’s that crazy. You’ve got people breaking their fingers and toes because they need money. It’s terrible. There’s a law in the books that says you can’t discriminate because of age. Suppose some 70-year-old guy wants to be a police officer in the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. He goes out there and breaks his leg and we pay for it.
AL: Do you get frustrated by the bureaucracy?
JB: Sure, and it doesn’t take long. [He laughs.] It gets frustrating real quick. But then, a lot of things get frustrating. You have kids and they’re real pests when they’re little, but you think, “When they get 10 or 12 years old, this will all be behind me.” But when they’re 10 and 12, they have another set of problems. And when they’re 18, they have another set of problems. Maybe if you’re lucky, by the time they’re 25 or 26 they’re off on their own and they’re all right. The point I’m trying to make is that every day brings its own set of problems. And when you deal with something like this, the job the average guy does not want to do, he gives it to us to do. The bureaucracy says, “OK, we’ll do it, but we’ll do it in our own time.” And the politics of it start to take over. You’re my friend. You call me up. You say, “Hey buddy, I’m the guy who did the interview with you. I got a nephew who needs a job. Can you help me?” I pick up the phone. I call up the park. I say, “Hey, I got a friend who needs a job.” The guy knows I’m the commissioner. I sit on top of his budget. He says, “OK commissioner, I’ll try to get your friend the job.” So my guy walks by 15 people that were standing in line to get that job. Is that fair? No. But if I don’t do it for my guy, someone else will do it for his guy and it’s still not fair. My guy didn’t get the job and neither did the 15 people standing in line. Probably somebody got the job who deserved it or needed it even less than the other 16 people.
The only thing that makes the system fair is when we individually try to make it fair. When we individually take an interest in it, it will work. But we don’t take an interest in it. We get interested when it screws up. Then everybody gets interested. They say, “Ahhh, they’re screwin’ it up. Let’s throw the bums out, get a new set of bums.” If everybody would feed the kid next door that’s hungry, then we wouldn’t have to do it. If every father looked at every kid on the street as if it was his kid, we wouldn’t have to do it. But since everybody won’t do it, somebody has to do it. We get elected to do what everyone else doesn’t want to.
AL: I assume lots of calls come to you with people asking for favors.
JB: Sure. All the time.
AL: Do you help the people?
JB: Sometimes. When you do, you’re a hero for a day. When you don’t, you’re a no-good bum. There’s some place when a guy’s in the right place at the right time. There was a guy who was waiting for me three hours this morning and he left right before I came in. The bottom line is you are always remembered because of who you are and where you sit. If I was in private industry and he was out there and I didn’t show up he’s say, “He didn’t show up,” and that’d be the end of it. But since I’m in elected office, he’ll say, “I went to see that son of a gun and voted for him and he had me sit out there three hours. Blah blah blah blah blah. And then he called me to reschedule.” And he might not vote for you.
AL: How well do you get along with the other commissioners?
JB: We get along much better than people assume we do. We try to do what we think our own constituencies will applaud and each of us is expected to function in that framework. There are some commissioners who take the job seriously. There are some who just take their check and go on about their business. The one thing I’ve found about politics is to try not to take it personally. I think that all the people here are basically good people. They’ve got their faults, their bad points, but they’re all pretty civil. They know what they can get away with and what they can’t get away with. There’s not a viciousness, because sooner or later one of us is going to have to ask the other for a vote, so you try to keep your relationships friendly enough so that if you need a favor you can at least ask for one.
AL: One of your most famous songs is “Only the Strong Survive.” This is your operating principle on the floor of the county board?
JB: Oh yeah.
AL: Campaign slogan?
JB: That too. You need strength. That song is about the ability to get up after an unrequited love affair and move on. Folks at Prairie View college down in Texas in 1967 took it as a militant theme. An old lady in Georgia came to me and said, “This is what I’ve been trying to tell my kids for years. I’m glad you said it in your song.” As for me personally, the thing cries of survival of the fittest. Does that make me a panther or a tiger or a lion? I’m not out there trying to kill anybody; I’m just out there to survive physically and spiritually. The song came out in that period when the fuzztones and the wa-wa pedals had become very popular and technology was taking over, and yet there was B.B. King, Aretha, Gladys, and all those people who had come from the same period that I had. They incorporated these sounds into their music. And we realized only the strong survive. The song was couched in a situation that I’d been in as a young guy in love with a lady. I was fresh out of high school and she was in the mode to get married and she found an older fellow because he was older and ready to get married and I was a young kid who didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was crushed. That was like the big one. My mother said, “Look, you don’t even know what love is. There’s a world of women out there you don’t even know.” That’s how the song came about. I took what she told me, rhymed it, and shaped it to fit the melodic structure.
AL: We’ve been talking about love affairs and politics. Is love political?
JB: [He laughs.] Yeah. Sure. If I love somebody or some group of people more than I love other people, that’s political. Those that you love you favor over those you don’t love. Two weeks ago, Commissioner Siebel wanted to bring in a resolution about Lithuania, asking the U.S. Senate and the Congress to help Lithuania. We all voted aye. But in my mind, I said to myself, “Why didn’t he write a resolution for South Africa?” I can relate directly to that because of my color and I don’t think he meant not to include South Africa in his resolution. But at the time, Lithuania was on his mind. If I were a militant, I would say, “Well, Lithuania is on his mind because Lithuania’s about white people. And South Africa’s about black people.” And I can extend it out and say, “Well, he don’t care about black people because he only voted for Lithuania.” So, as the conversation expands, it becomes more political.
AL: Did you bring this up at the meeting, that South Africa should have been included?
JB: No, because that would have been political. [He laughs.] The thing to do is for myself to draft my own resolution for South Africa. Not for me to be angry with him. And hopefully, since I voted for his resolution he will vote for mine.
AL: Before you made the jump from show business to politics, you were in a number of businesses. You mentioned before you ran a beer distributorship.
JB: I’ve had successes and failures in a thousand businesses. We had a Pabst distributorship. It was successful. I got out in 1979. Later, we got involved in an Old Style distributorship, started having trouble with my partners, didn’t do so good. I had a record company called Fountain Records, never got off the ground. I had several publishing companies.
AL: Do you still maintain contact with the Impressions?
JB: Sure. I just came back from Jamaica last Monday with most of the original guys. We did four shows. We also played the Regal Theatre with Curtis.
AL: Is being a member of the county board similar to being a member of a singing group?
JB: It’s different, because the members of the group all came from the same cultural background. We grew up together. We lived together. We were almost brothers. This is kind of a nine-to-five relationship. We come in here, we slap hands, we may associate at cocktail parties, but rarely is it a “come over to my house on the weekend” kind of thing or “let’s have dinner at my house.” We live in different areas of the city. We associate when we have to. I would venture to say that some of the commissioners who live in the same area don’t have a friendly relationship outside the confines of the board. A great many of them have seen me perform.
AL: Is there jealousy?
JB: There may be some jealousy because of my notoriety. [He laughs.] He gets all the publicity and he doesn’t know his behind from a bowl of beans and I’ve done this for years and I’ve knocked on doors and I’ve done this and I’ve done that just to get a few thousand votes. From that point of view, there may be some jealousy. If I were in that position, if I had spent 30 years in politics as opposed to show business and here’s some guy who’s spent 30 years in show business and decides that he wants to run for County Board and he’s the largest vote getter in the whole election, I would say that was unfair. But I don’t think there’s a jealousy of my talent. There’s a jealousy based on the fact that it might not be fair.
AL: Does it matter to you that it’s not fair?
JB: A lot of people voted for me because I’m a singer, but I’m really working hard to be good at this. I think I have been given some talent which helps me to do this. I’m pretty well-read considering where I’ve come from. I’ve never been just a music buff. I’m pretty well-rounded. I’ve been in business, so I can understand five-year-plans and two-year-plans, balance sheets and all that.
I was not really good at the parliamentary game, but I find most folks aren’t. I was intimidated by it when I first came here, what to do to second a motion, to kill a motion, all those little things, who should be recognized first and why. Guys use the parliamentary game to embarrass you, so you have to stay up on the game.
AL: They embarrassed you by using rules that you didn’t know?
JB: Yes. For instance, a guy says, “I appeal to a ruling of the chair.” Now if you don’t know what that means, you can sit there with your thumb up your behind trying to figure it out. And I saw this the night Harold Washington died over at City Council. They played the parliamentary game to the hilt. They misused the whole concept of how to run an ordered meeting. And that’s what the rules are for, not to use it to have a disorderly meeting. But that’s what happens in politics. A majority of politicians are lawyers and they have these legal minds that take everything out of the context of the spirit.
AL: With a new president coming in, is there a lame-duck situation going on at the board that keeps things from getting done?
JB: No. You see, things are set in motion and they have to play themselves out. As long as Dunne’s trying to solve problems, it’s incumbent upon ourselves as trustees to solve those problems whether he’s a lame duck or not. There’s not a whole lot of bad blood.
AL: Are there people in show business and politics who you’ve patterned your careers after? And are those who you admire in show business or politics?
JB: I admire people in both. In music, Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Joe Williams, Ray Charles. If you ever hear my records, you’ll hear bits of those people in my vocalizing. I try not to make it blatant. I try to make it my own. Politically, another whole ballgame. [He laughs.] I could easily say Harold Washington. He had a savvy about how to get things done. Martin Luther King was not a politician. I don’t know what party he belonged to. He transcended party lines.
AL: When you think of goals today, do you think in terms of artistic or political goals?
JB: Depends on what I’m thinking about. I’d like to have a platinum album. That’d be nice. I’d like to find some really killer song and record it.
AL: Has mayor of Chicago crossed your mind?
JB: It’s a no-win job. I have said that I don’t want it, but politics makes strange bedfellows. Who knows? If I were to pursue it, I’d like to pursue it after I had had some more experience. I don’t think I could go from Cook County Board to mayor. This is only my fourth year in the political arena so it would be foolhardy to think of it now. Maybe after 10 or 12 years of dealing with the political animal, I could do it.
AL: Are all political jobs no-win jobs?
JB: It depends on how you view a win. Because you’re dealing with human frailties, whenever you do something good for somebody, it will be viewed as bad for someone else. Every time you please Peter, you’re gonna piss Paul off.
AL: In the last primary, you were the highest vote-getter among the commissioners. Would you like to be the highest vote-getter without people knowing you’re an R & B singer?
JB: That’d be real good. But it probably will never happen. The press would never let me forget. If it’s a good story that I became commissioner, it’d be a great story if I became mayor. Like the cart follows the ox, your history follows you.
AL: And the name “the Iceman”?
JB: Most R & B singers had nicknames. Jackie Wilson was “Mr. Excitement.” James Brown was “the Godfather of Soul.” George Woods, the deejay, used to have a show, and after I left the Impressions he used to tease me about walking out onstage, singing so cool. He said, “This guy’s so cool, we’re gonna call him ‘the Iceman.'”
AL: If you were writing a story about yourself, what would you call it?
JB: “Only the Strong Survive.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.