50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music – Soul and R&B


Some music historians call the African-American sounds that emerged in Chicago in the mid-1960s and flourished for the next decade and a half “sweet soul”. It always struck me as a misnomer, both in terms of the fiery passion inherent in the best music and the hard-hitting messages of the lyrics.

Whatever you choose to call it – and we could just as easily use funk or R&B – the influence of this city’s blues and gospel roots is often prominent. And most of the giants’ contributions here endure, no more so than with our first entry.

19. Curtis Mayfield

“Our goal was to educate as much as entertain.”

Born in Chicago and raised in part at the Cabrini-Green Housing Projects, Curtis Lee Mayfield first made his mark in the music world as one of Impressions’ golden voices (and a tribute here to the man who formed this combo, Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler).

Mayfield’s inspirational message of equality and empowerment was evident from the start, with songs such as his 1965 composition “People Get Ready,” the hit Impressions that became a civil rights anthem. This message was only amplified during the solo career he launched in 1970, which also saw him work as a producer and head of the independent label Curtom.

Always sweet and endlessly soulful, Mayfield was a master of subtle subversion, as evidenced by his famous soundtrack to the 1972 film blaxpoloitation. super fly. Far from glorifying the gangster mentality, as Isaac Hayes did with Tree and as is all too common in gangsta rap to this day, Mayfield exposed the conditions that led to urban violence, including poverty, drugs, and our nation’s chronic neglect of its inner cities.

Mayfield also remained an inspiration for how he lived with incredible grace and generosity, even after being paralyzed when a light fixture fell on him during a performance in 1990. He is died of complications from diabetes at age 57 in 1999.

20. Sam Cooke

“As a singer gets older, his conception deepens a little bit, because he lives life and he understands a little more what he’s trying to say… If a singer tries to figure out what’s going on in life, it gives him more insight into telling the story of the song he’s trying to sing.

Born in Mississippi, Samuel Cooke was only a few years old when the Great Migration brought his family to Chicago in 1933. He began singing with his siblings at age 6 and would not stop throughout his life. far too short which will end at 33 when he was shot dead by the manager of a Los Angeles motel in 1964.

After achieving chart success as a member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers, Cooke scored an incredible string of crossover pop hits beginning in 1957, including “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “Chain Gang”, ” You Send Me”, “Another Saturday Night” and “Twistin’ the Night Away”.

Cooke’s chart-topping success took him farther from Chicago than most of the artists this series claims as local heroes. But the sound of the city—and especially the gospel choirs that formed its musical foundation—never faded no matter how far it ventured from the shores of Lake Michigan.

21. Lou Rawls

Music is the greatest communication in the world. Even if people don’t understand the language you’re singing in, they still recognize good music when they hear it.

Like Cooke, Louis Allen Rawls belongs to the world, but his roots are in Chicago. He was born here in 1933, became a childhood friend of Cooke and began singing in the Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church choir at age 7.

Rawls moved to Los Angeles to join the Pilgrim Travelers in his late teens and joined the group after a stint in the 82nd Airborne. In the early 1960s, he signed with Capitol Records, of which Frank Sinatra was a big fan. There he began a solo career that would sell 40 million records, including such hits as ‘Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing’, ‘Dead End Street’, ‘A Natural Man’ and ‘You’ll Never Find Another Love. Like Mine”.

The singer and songwriter died in 2006 at the age of 72.

22. Gene Chandler

“[Originally]it was not Duke, that was good. dee, oh.’ But I said that was kinda silly.

Chicago-born and Englewood High School graduate, the former Eugene Drake Dixon hit 19 Top 40 songs between 1962 and 1970. But he’ll always be best known for 1962’s “The Duke of Earl,” a royal hit that he personified. in top hat, cape and monocle.

Listen to Chandler recount his long and fascinating career on Sound Opinions here.


23. Chaka Khan

“We have to learn to love each other as women, to appreciate each other and to respect each other.”

Born in Chicago and raised in Hyde Park, Yvette Marie Stevens adopted the name the music world knows her as a young social activist and member of the Black Panthers. She first achieved widespread fame in the early 70s as a singer, drummer and songwriter for the funk band Rufus (“Tell Me Something Good”) before starting a solo career in 1978 and scoring huge success. disco with the immortal epic of female empowerment. , “I am all women.”

Among her many fans: Prince (with whom she toured and recorded), super-producer Quincy Jones and of course Oprah, who turned to her for the show’s most beloved theme song.

24. Earth, Wind and Fire

“I started EWF because I had a vision and music was playing in my head that I wanted to make it happen. What I had in mind was exactly what Earth, Wind & Fire became. —Maurice Blanc

Soul and funk’s first big band really got its start in Los Angeles, but Earth, Wind & Fire deserves a spot on this list because it was indeed founded in Chicago in 1970 by Maurice White, a former session drummer for Chess Records who teamed up with several other local musicians after the end of their first band, the Salty Peppers.

Then, too, there’s no denying the band’s sartorial splendor, that honking section (take that, Chicago!), or a string of hits including “Shining Star,” “Sing A Song,” “Fantasy,” and “Boogie Wonderland.” , all of which have that unique Chicago base of gospel church transcendence and juke-joint blues bacchanalia.

25. Donny Hathaway

“When I think of music, I think of music as a whole, complete. From the lowest blues to the highest symphony, you know, what I would like to do is illustrate each style from as many periods as possible.

Hathaway is probably the least familiar name in this episode, unless people know he was the voice behind the eternal holiday standard “This Christmas.” But his legacy lay in an unforgettable voice – he was universally considered “a singer’s singer” – as well as stylistic innovations that brought elements of jazz, blues and gospel to a string of soulful hits before his life, like that of Cooke, is tragically cut off. short at 33.

Although he was raised by his grandmother in St. Louis, Hathaway was born in Chicago and returned here to launch his musical career at Curtom Records as a songwriter, session musician and producer working for Mayfield. The latter’s social conscience resonates in many of Hathaway’s best songs, including “The Ghetto.” Other hits that followed once he moved to Atco included “Someday We’ll All B Free”, “I Love You More Than You Will Ever Know” and numerous collaborations with his friend Robert Flack.

Hathaway continues to be cited as a huge inspiration by many R&B artists today, including our latest entry this week.


26. R.Kelly

“I only pity weak people. And above all, what I discovered is that the weak people are the ones who hate.

By the strength of his business accomplishments – the singer, songwriter and producer has surpassed all other artists on this list – Robert Sylvester Kelly must be included here. And his talents as a singer, songwriter, and arranger cannot be denied, though his recordings (except on the rare occasions when he consciously conjures up old-school gospel or “dusties soul”/stepping music) can be far too smooth and over-produced.

But Kelly raises the uncomfortable question of whether we should celebrate her music when we know her legacy of hurting so many young women (which this blog chronicled at length in 2013). Can we really separate the art from the artist? And should we?

Each listener must ultimately answer for themselves on a case-by-case basis. For me the answer is yes, we should generally separate the art from the artist – unless the art is largely about the behavior of the artist that has hurt others. And that’s the case, I believe, with the unbridled and selfish view of sexuality that dominates Kelly’s work, from “Bump N’ Grind” to “I Believe I Can Fly”, and “Trapped in the Closet” at last year’s Christmas Album.

As a listener, I can take no pleasure in Kelly’s music. And, like many, I find none of the inspirational powers or inexhaustible reservoirs of soul in everyone’s work here.


About this series:

In my “other” role as assistant professor at Columbia College of Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of many “Big Chicago” classes designed to introduce first-semester students to Chicago’s rich and diverse culture. “Music & Media in Chicago” made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer, my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your insight into Chicago music here!”

Compared to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Please note that this episode and all episodes of “Chicago Music History 101” are just a fan’s critical take on what most needs acknowledgment in our long and rich sonic heritage.

Limiting the series to “50 Chicago artists who changed popular music” is completely arbitrary – it could have been 100 or 1,000 – and I leave other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. . This overview is also entirely subjective: each reader and listener can and should have their own list. It’s simply a place to start the conversation.

Special thanks to director and videographer Andrew Gill, online butler Tricia Bobeda and former digital intern Jack Howard for all their help.

Click here for the first part of this series, the Blues.

Click here for part two of this series, Chess Records and Early Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Click here for part three of this series, Gospel.

Click here for part four of this series, Rock in the 60s and 70s.

Follow me on Twitter at @JimDeRogatisjoin me on Facebookand podcast or stream Sound Opinions.


Comments are closed.