Online project documents West Side's musical legacy

The Chicago Black Social Culture Map locates the history of Black Chicago in its rich sound

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By Bonni McKeown

Music lovers who want future generations to know about their favorite artists and sites can participate in the Chicago Black Social Culture Map. This online humanities project documents black history — from the Great Migration through the early 21st century — highlighting all kinds of black music, but particularly 1980s House music and dance. 

So far, the map has pinpointed over 350 historic cultural spaces. Last month, organizers of the map interviewed important West Siders who contributed to blues, record production and House music at the West Side Justice Center, 601 S. California Ave. 

The Sept. 7 event featured several panels, one of which was moderated by Ayana Contreras, host of WBEZ/Vocalo's "Reclaimed Soul" and author of an upcoming book with Northwestern University Press about Black Chicago. 

"I was born in 1981," said Contreras. "By then, a lot of Black people had distanced themselves from the blues. In the 1960s, white people started liking it, but for a lot of black people, part of the Great Migration was to distance from the blues. It was OK to like [soul singer] Tyrone Davis — he had strings in the background of his songs."

Contreras said that blues declined when black radio stations started only playing it on weekend shows, and then less and less.

"It's time for self-determination," she said. "Time for the people who created the music to benefit from it."

Contreras praised the late Otis Clay for attempting to create his own record label to get around the unfairness in the business.  

Poet and funk singer Avery R. Young, author of Neckbone, a new book of poetry, elaborated on the history and roots of blues music. 

"When Africans were brought over here, our bodies were in chains," he said. "So, when we express ourselves by moving or singing, it's in a space of liberation. Blues gives you permission to emote. There are limits of emotion in R&B and rap, but blues is raw. You can let your guitar talk; it becomes a channel for your feelings."

"If you can't pay your bills, you have the blues!" said West Side blues singer and drummer Larry Taylor, prompting laughter from the audience. 

"A lot of people play the blues, but to really do the blues, you have to have it inside of you," Taylor said. "You express your feelings, hurt and pain. Turn a negative to a positive." 

On the second panel focusing on record stores, George Daniels, owner of George's Music at 3915 W. Roosevelt, recalled his start in the business in the 1960s. 

He had a prom date with singer Minnie Riperton, who worked at Chess Records— part of a whole set of Record Row businesses around 21st and Michigan. Soon, he got a job there, running errands and chauffeuring artists like Etta James and Billy Stewart. Daniels said his path through the music business was tough. 

"I went bankrupt once, got addicted twice, but managed to get through it all," he said. "I sold records from the trunk of my car. I treated artists well, because they were struggling, too. People like the Isley Brothers came to visit our store. We had 15 employees at one time. They all walked to work. A lot of them were school kids — it was their first job." 

George's store kept slabs of cardboard for dancing and hosted pre-teens and other young people after school. 

"It was a safe space for kids," he recalled. "It gave them something to do."

Jarvis Mason landed a job at a record store — Out of the Past Records at Madison and Kostner. He was already buying stacks of records for DJ friends. Out of the Past has been known for its record bins of old R&B, pop, blues and soul records. Charlie and Marie Henderson, the proprietors, sold those records at a discount.   

The records were snapped up by Japanese fans of blues and soul music — and by party DJs and hip hop fans who used them for scratching and sampling.

Duane Powell, a music historian, said that the term "House" came from a Chicago artist, Jesse Saunders, who produced his own 12-inch records. Local artists and small labels pressed up and sold their own records and distributed them with Barney's Music at One Stops.  

But if Barney's ran out of Saunders' record, his labels had the address of his house. 

"Go to Jesse's house and get the records," Powell recalled sellers being told. "All kinds of DJ-type music ended up getting called 'House.'" 

Out of the Past Records is still operating, but George's Music Room closed in 2010. Daniels still does popup store presentations at other locations. Even though the legendary location is no longer operating, he said, the spirit of what it represented is still here.

"It's not gone," Daniels said. "We're going to do something with all that vinyl." 

Done't let your musical memories be lost to the ages. Contact Lauren Lowery of Modern Dance Music Archiving Foundation at lauren@housemusicarchive.org. Check out the Black Social Culture Map online at: http://mappingartsproject.org/chicago/. 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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