Helen Wooten claims the stroke she suffered last year has affected her memory, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she reacts to her picture in Light: On the South Side, the Michael Abramson photo book published in November by the local reissue label Numero Group. Though the uncaptioned snapshot was taken 34 years ago and she’s never laid eyes on it before, the instant she sees it she lights up with enthusiasm. “I can tell you exactly when this is,” she says, admiring her elegantly attired younger self holding court with two girlfriends at the High Chaparral nightclub, near 77th and Stony Island. Her slinky black outfit, adorned with shooting stars and radiant moons, is interstellar in its elegance—and her funky Princess Leia hairstyle predates the release of Star Wars by more than a year. “This is 1976, February 14, Valentine’s Day,” she says. “I had a show with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. That’s the day Teddy Pendergrass quit the group. He didn’t show up, and I had to use the Chi-Lites. I remember that like it was yesterday.”
The Numero Group’s Rob Sevier, record collector Bob Abrahamian, and I have come to Wooten’s South Shore home to give her a copy of Abramson’s book, which collects more than 100 black-and-white photos of the inhabitants of mid-70s south-side nightclubs and lounges. None of us has met her before, though Abrahamian has talked to her on the phone. Keni Rightout, best known for recording with local vocal groups the Traits and the Center Stage, put them in touch in November after Abrahamian showed him a promo video for Light: On the South Side—Rightout went to high school with Wooten and identified her in the clip.
Sevier is here because he’s keen to put names to faces—the photos are mostly of ordinary clubgoers, and this is the first positive ID of someone Numero staff didn’t already recognize. Abrahamian hopes Wooten will be able to help him brighten a few corners in his quest to document Chicago’s vocal groups of the 60s and 70s. And I’ve tagged along because Abrahamian has told me Wooten was involved early on with the Jackson Five, whose formative years are a special interest of mine (see my Reader cover story from September 10, 2009, “The Jackson Find”).
Flipping through the book on a couch in her living room, Wooten names old friends on page after page. Some are infamous—Flukey Stokes, a drug kingpin who liked to play Robin Hood; a pimp named Magellan—but most, like Latitia Binion and Diane Tobra, the two women sharing her table on page 30, wouldn’t be familiar to anyone outside her circle of friends.
Judging from Wooten’s home, though, her circle of friends appears to include the majority of the residents of the south and west sides and virtually every black celebrity since the 1960s—when, as a teenager, she first made a name for herself booking R & B shows in Chicago. Her walls are hung with wood plaques the size of coffee tables, covered with photos of her hobnobbing with deejays, soul singers, and boxers, their smiling faces barely visible through amber shellac. Stacked on several couches and tables are albums filled with still more photos: Wooten with LL Cool J, Wooten with the Jacksons, Wooten with Mike Tyson.
Her home is perpetually busy with guests, and on this day they include Tyrone Austin, an old friend who used to sing at the High Chaparral in the 70s. Today he videotapes Wooten looking through the book while I interview her—footage for an autobiographical film she plans to produce. Five minutes don’t go by without one of her phones ringing: That was Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites. That was the mother of rapper Da Brat. That was singer Ruby Andrews, domestic partner of Robert “Squirrel” Lester, the ailing Chi-Lite (who has since passed away). A big-screen TV glows with the People’s Choice Awards, and it seems like every other artist appearing is someone Wooten’s on a first-name basis with, thanks to a half century on the margins or behind the scenes of the entertainment business. Her journey has taken her from playing preteen talent shows to booking international tours, and along the way it’s included stints as a tavern owner, record producer, stylist, and film financer, among countless other jobs and hustles. Her many connections—not just to the Jacksons but to all kinds of old-school south-side movers and shakers whose phone numbers I thought I’d never get—make her somebody whose brain I could happily pick for days. But I have no idea what an incredible tale I’m about to stumble into.
Wooten is still gazing at her own stunning photo. “I’ll tell you what,” she says. “February 11, three days before that, I had got shot. I came out of intensive care to come out to that show.”
Born Helen Saffold on June 9, 1949, Wooten was introduced to the love of her life—music—by her older sisters, Joyce, Virginia, and Elois. But it didn’t hurt that one of her babysitters was Robert “Stringbean” Tharp, who sang with legendary west-side doo-woppers the Ideals, best known for 1963’s “The Gorilla.” By age ten she and her sisters were writing songs and singing in talent shows. In ’63 she entered Marshall High School, then home to teen vocal groups like the Versalettes, the Constellations, the Ivories, the Kittens (whose early lineup included Joyce), and the Gems (who featured one member from Hyde Park High by the name of Minnie Riperton). That year she and her friend Latitia—the woman wearing the fur hat in the Abramson photo—started a dance group to support other acts onstage, and Wooten put together her own vocal group, the Casuals. “They wasn’t the best singing group,” recalls Rightout, “but they was the sharpest.”
Rightout, who sang with an outfit called the Dimensions while at Marshall, remembers being impressed by Wooten’s sophisticated sense of style and adult composure. “She was very, very mature,” he says. “She dressed like she was a teacher, and she actually ate with the teachers. She was highly respected in school.” That maturity proved to be a far greater asset than her voice. Soon Wooten had taken a major role in organizing Marshall’s legendary talent show, the Jamboree, helping bring in established headliners like Alvin Cash, Major Lance, and Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler to anchor lineups of up-and-coming student groups. In doing so she made contacts that allowed her to help book similar shows at teen clubs and record hops off-campus, even though she was still in school herself.
Wooten says that during her freshman year she appeared on groundbreaking black radio station WVON as the first “teen deejay,” inaugurating a long-running segment in which disc jockey Herb Kent would bring in a different high school student each week to choose records for half an hour. She enlisted WVON deejays like Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones to emcee and promote the shows she booked, and they became longtime friends; Jones’s daughter was among Wooten’s visitors during my first meeting with her.
Though her work for the Jamboree was volunteer, Wooten hoarded the money she earned booking bands elsewhere and working three other after-school jobs—one at a nursing home, one at an Alberto Culver beauty-products factory, and another collecting money at the back door of the High Chaparral, for which she had to lie and say she was 21. By 1967 she’d saved $17,000, which she invested with Spann and Jones, thinking she was supporting their dream of buying their own station. As she soon realized, however, the deejays were actually putting her money into developing the Jackson Five. When Spann and Jones gave up on the group and sold their contract to Steeltown Records’ Gordon Keith, they told Keith they’d invested around $30,000 in the group—meaning Wooten had technically owned a stake of more than 50 percent in Michael Jackson and his brothers.
By the 1970s Wooten was marshaling her impressive management skills to maintain a kind of double life. She was a working mother of two—she’d married William R. Wooten in 1968, a year out of high school, and kept his name after they divorced—who stayed busy with daughter Toyia, son Charles, and a job as a supervisor in the Transportation Service Department at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center. But she continued to pursue her ambitions in the semi-underground entertainment economy, financing and organizing shows in Chicago’s still vibrant music scene. Though the jewel in the city’s black entertainment crown, the Regal Theater at 47th and King Drive, had been demolished in 1973, venues like the High Chaparral (where Wooten had moved up to booking) and Perv’s House at 914 E. 79th continued to draw regular crowds of 1,200-plus revelers, all dressed to the nines. As the photos in Light: On the South Side make clear, even the most intimate spots demanded glamour from their patrons.
Wooten met Teddy Pendergrass around Thanksgiving 1971, when he was still drumming and singing backup for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, a Philadelphia R & B institution since the early 50s. Pendergrass had joined in 1969, and—as many obituaries noted last month, after he died at 59 following complications from colon-cancer surgery—his good looks and gruff, church-trained vocals had earned him a promotion to lead singer by the time the group released its debut LP in 1972. The Blue Notes quickly became superstars: their first four albums hit the top ten on the R & B charts (two at number one) and yielded classic singles like “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “The Love I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” and “Wake Up Everybody.”
Pendergrass went solo in 1977, releasing a string of platinum-selling LPs. His often aggressive love songs and steamy live shows (including his legendary “ladies only” concerts, which he guessed drew 80 percent women) established him as one of the top black sex symbols of the decade. His career lost much of its extraordinary momentum when he was paralyzed from the chest down in a 1982 auto accident, but he eventually resumed recording and charted with several more albums.
Wooten says she and Pendergrass had instant chemistry: “We were flirting around and we had a lot of things in common. I don’t know how to describe it . . . we became good friends. That was my secret, private boyfriend. Listen, he had keys to my house and keys to my car.” Her loyalty to Pendergrass, she says, was a boon to the Blue Notes; she would help them with Chicago shows, and she remembers landing them good gigs in Memphis and Atlanta. She says Pendergrass would sometimes come to see her even when he didn’t have a show in the area. Though he doesn’t mention Wooten in his 1998 autobiography, Truly Blessed, and during those years he had a live-in Philadelphia girlfriend who would bear his son, Pendergrass writes: “I was, I admit, not always faithful on the road.”
Wooten says they eventually fell out over a disagreement about a piece of jewelry. But they maintained a cordial business relationship, and in mid-November 1975, Wooten paid a $3,000 advance to Harold Melvin to secure the Blue Notes for a big Valentine’s Day show at the High Chaparral.
Three days before the show, by Wooten’s account, she was working at the hospital when her boyfriend, Samuel Daniels, parked in front of her house on West Maxwell around 9 PM. Seeing the lights on and assuming she was home, he went inside and surprised three intruders in the upstairs bedroom. Daniels drew a .38 and forced them to lie down on the floor. “They got one of my new coats, they had my jewelry, and he saw they had my money bag,” Wooten says. “So he called the police and he called me and told me not to come home, because he caught some robbers in my house.”
Ignoring Daniels’s advice, Wooten left work midshift, and got home in five minutes—ahead of the police. She raced upstairs to see the cowering intruders. “They were frightened,” she recalls. “They were saying, ‘Miss, miss, he might kill us.’ I told them, ‘You all don’t even know who you’re messing with—this is a crazy man!'” Apparently spurred to action by her imprudent threat, the thieves jumped Daniels and grabbed his gun. They shot him several times and Wooten once, leaving her crumpled on the closet floor. They left the furs and cash but took the gun and a few pieces of jewelry.
When the police arrived they recognized Wooten—the cafeteria at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s was a police hangout, and her first cousin, Howard Saffold, was a prominent reform-minded police officer who would later serve Mayor Harold Washington as security chief. They called an ambulance to take her back to the hospital she’d just left. “I said, ‘Please don’t take me there,'” she says, “because I’d snuck away from work, and I needed my job. So they took me to Illinois Research,” now the UIC Medical Center.
Wooten had been shot at close range. The bullet had punctured her right lung and exited her back. She was taken to the intensive care unit, where doctors drained blood from her lungs. Daniels, who she calls her common-law husband (they were together from 1975 till ’82), survived the shooting as well, though he was in coma for three weeks.
Despite these dire conditions, Wooten’s thoughts kept returning to her investment in the upcoming Valentine’s Day show. “I had spent about $5,000 for advertisements on radio and had given [Melvin] a $3,000 deposit, so I was out about $8,000. All that was on my mind was that I have got to do my show and get my money back.” On the day of the concert she called her friend Sandy Wilburn, best known as a songwriter for the Chi-Lites, and had him go to her house and bring her a dress. She ducked out of the ICU and into a private room, where she fixed her hair and makeup and donned the stylish ensemble Wilburn had delivered. “Just like the pictures you got in that book,” Wooten brags, “that’s the way I looked when I left the hospital.”
“When I checked out,” she says, “they said, ‘Mrs. Wooten, you have a bullet hole in you. You cannot leave intensive care.’ I told them, ‘What I got to do for Valentine’s Day is way more important than my health right now.'”
Wooten headed straight for the High Chaparral, but there was bad news waiting for her. “[Melvin] said they wouldn’t be there because they had broken up,” says Clarence Ludd, who owned the High Chaparral and today owns Artis’s Lounge at 1249 E. 87th with his wife, after whom it’s named. “Early that afternoon they called and canceled.”
Though Wooten had expected the Blue Notes to show up that night, the breakup was far from a shock. Tensions within the group had already led to a number of contentious shows. In Truly Blessed, Pendergrass characterizes Melvin, who died in 1997, as a difficult boss. Though he’d taught Pendergrass “nearly everything [he] needed to know about surviving in show business,” his attitude was that every member but himself was replaceable. (In fact Pendergrass himself had joined during one of Melvin’s complete Blue Notes overhauls.) This became a problem when Pendergrass lifted the group from the minor leagues to platinum sales. Melvin had a troublesome temper and allegedly hid royalties from his bandmates—underneath a mattress, according to Pendergrass. Cocaine was ubiquitous in that era, and as Truly Blessed details, the drug aggravated both Melvin’s erratic behavior and Pendergrass’s reactions to it.
Several incidents in 1975 suggested that the Blue Notes were headed for the rocks. In Detroit Pendergrass insisted on going onstage without the rest of the group. In New York he bailed on an Apollo show after an argument with Melvin. Though he later claimed to have left the band that October (a date cited in many sources), several of the group’s most notorious breakdowns were yet to occur.
In mid-November Jet magazine reported that the Blue Notes had been fired from an extended engagement at Los Angeles’s Playboy Club because Melvin had showed up late for one of the first gigs and told the audience to go fuck themselves (or, as Jet put it, he was on “C.P. time” and “suggested that they could find sexual release with themselves”).
The feud between Melvin and Pendergrass seems to have come to a head in Chicago the weekend before Thanksgiving, when the band came to town to do two shows at Perv’s House, the self-proclaimed “Entertainment Capitol of the Midwest.” Owned by Pervis Staples, by then retired from the Staple Singers, it took up the north side of 79th for most of the block between Drexel and Ingleside (the current location of the East of the Ryan). Perv’s was an extravagant venue with a full light show in its Evening Glo Disco room and an elaborate “adult playground” featuring a miniature golf course. It’s also most likely where Melvin and Pendergrass shared a stage for the last time.
As Staples told Dave Hoekstra in a Sun-Times article occasioned by the release of Light: On the South Side, “Harold Melvin fired Pendergrass at my club. He slapped him in the mouth downstairs. They weren’t going to go onstage. Melvin sent a girl out to the car, got the books, and told Pendergrass, ‘I own you like I own the Blue Notes.’ They couldn’t get out of town until they did my show. People upstairs were clapping and clapping and they were downstairs boxing.” The Blue Notes did eventually play, but by Wooten’s recollection they canceled an engagement for the following day at the Nation of Islam’s Salaam restaurant.
Wooten hadn’t arranged the Perv’s House gig, but she was there that night. “I let Perv book his own shows,” she says, “but I was instrumental in getting it so he didn’t have to pay no astronomical fee.” She wasn’t privy to the closed-door confrontation, though. “All I know about whatever happened in that office,” she says, “is that I walked in on them and they asked me to dismiss myself—it was personal business.”
The group officially announced a breakup in December, but fans were understandably skeptical. For one thing, the Blue Notes were at the peak of their popularity—it seemed inconceivable they would walk away from it. Their album Wake Up Everybody and its title track had both hit number one on the R & B charts that winter, and on the afternoon of the Perv’s House fiasco the group had appeared on a pretaped episode of Soul Train performing a nearly unprecedented four songs. Further blunting the impact of the band’s announcement, Pendergrass took a somewhat passive tone (“We should have talked it out”) in the December issue of Jet that reported the breakup, and a large ad for the Blue Notes’ LP appeared on the same page as the article.
More than anything, though, what convinced Wooten that the show was on was that Melvin had neither canceled it nor returned the deposit.
When he finally did pull the plug, it left Wooten in a tight spot. Ludd, who hadn’t invested his own money in the show, wasn’t really in trouble. On big nights, he admits, the High Chaparral could squeeze in 1,600 people, exceeding its legal capacity of 1,300—and since Valentine’s Day fell on a Saturday, he was likely to have a big night even without the hottest R & B group in America.
Wooten landed on her feet, though: she called the Chi-Lites. Bandleader Marshall Thompson remembers that the group had just returned from overseas when they got the last-minute call. “She got ahold of me, I think we were coming from London,” he says. “We did it because of Helen. She was a friend of ours, and she’d been booking us even when we didn’t have hits—so when we got our smash records, of course I didn’t forget her.” The local favorites were coming off what would turn out to be the biggest five years of a half-century career, and for the most part the sold-out crowd was satisfied with the substitution—by Wooten’s reckoning, fewer than 100 people asked for their money back. After the unreturned deposit, the refunds, and the Chi-Lites’ fee, she’d lost some money, but the evening was far from the financial disaster it could’ve been. And though you’d expect her to have been a wreck—between the bullet hole, the boyfriend in a coma, and all the trouble with the show—it’s hard for someone to look more relaxed than Wooten does in the photo Abramson snapped of her that night.
“Teddy called me that night after everything was over,” she says. “He said, ‘I’m glad you got a replacement for me,’ and he promised to make it up to me.” Though as a solo artist Pendergrass was soon too big a star for the midsize venues Wooten worked with in Chicago, he made sure she got some money out of his next high-profile Chicago appearance in ’77 by hiring her as a promoter even though she hadn’t booked the gig. “He did a hell of a show,” she remembers, “but from then on we wasn’t as tight because I was still angry.” And Melvin, she says, never did pay back that deposit.
Wooten has long since recovered from both her gunshot injury and the financial hit she took from the Valentine’s Day show. The crime remains unsolved; neither Daniels nor Wooten recognized the robbers, but Wooten suspects they were sent by a friend familiar with her work schedule who left town immediately after the incident.
Not long after the Chi-Lites concert, she and Ludd became partners in two lounges, the Godfather II on 97th and Stony Island and the Godfather III on 64th and Cottage Grove. (The latter became the Jedi when Wooten’s sister Joyce took over for her in 1983.) Though these clubs couldn’t support the kind of lavish live entertainment that Wooten was used to scheduling, she stayed involved in larger bookings, and in 1978 she worked with Atlanta-based promoter Leonard Rowe on a tour by the Jacksons that visited 12 countries and 60 cities—finally recouping her unwitting 1966 investment.
Given how many friends and associates Wooten accumulated in the 70s, let’s consider for a moment how unlikely it was that a stranger would capture one of the most tumultuous nights of her life. Michael Abramson set foot in the High Chaparral for the first time that Valentine’s Day, and not because he wanted to see Pendergrass. “I went because I’d heard it was a happening place,” he says. “I was a young white kid in love with photography, thinking this was a cool place to photograph.” Though Abramson would make many friends at the south-side nightspots he frequented in the mid-70s, he never met Wooten. And he still hasn’t—he’d never even talked to her on the phone till last month, after she got her copy of Light: On the South Side.
Many of his memories from those years have faded, but Abramson distinctly remembers taking that photo and how excited he was to print it. “There were a lot of people there—it was packed—but this table was special. The way they held themselves, what they were wearing, and the context of the scene—to me it looked like Paris in the 20s,” he says. “It was like an era I had only seen in photographs.”
In the past three decades Wooten, now 60, has stayed intimately involved in Chicago’s black music scene. In 1982 she started a production company, HK & Associates, and when her daughter, Toyia, was murdered in 1988 while at college in New Orleans, she spun off a record label called ToiNik that’s named after her. Wooten’s companies concentrated on artist development and recording, and in the late 80s and early 90s the performers she worked with included her goddaughter Da Brat, Donell Jones, and R. Kelly. Starting in ’88 Kelly helped write and produce music for her artists, and she gave his career an early boost by getting him gigs opening for acts like Heavy D. and Teddy Riley’s group Guy. She’s also recorded her son, Charles, who raps under the name DonCharlieon.
In 2003 Wooten served as executive producer, location manager, set designer, stylist, and music coproducer for a direct-to-video hip-hop feature film, When Thugs Cry (distributed by Lions Gate). She and Charles both have cameos—Wooten as a fictionalized version of herself, dressed in eye-catching purple leather. She’s working with the director, Parris Reaves, on a sequel, When Thugs Don’t Have to Cry No More.
She’s also been giving interviews, like the one I conducted—and that Tyrone Austin documented—the day I met her. Her goal is to use them to make a film about her life. She’s anxious to tell the world, while she still can, just what a woman can achieve if she has style, hustle, and the tenacity to make sure the show goes on.