Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Chicago Sound - Part Three

Some of our readers ... as well as some of the movers and shakers who made some of this great music from this era ... weigh in on our latest topic ... 

Read on!  (Here are some of the first responses in):   

You know, Kent, this is a good question. Just what the heck is the Chicago sound, if there is indeed a definitive trademark sound?  
You touched on two possibilities that kind of go together ... the Chess Records blues and the brass sound. To me they're related.  
You have the 60s garage bands like The American Breed, The Buckinghams, The Shadows Of Knight, and The Mauds.  The first two represented a more brassier sound, but nonetheless the R&B roots come thru. They'd be joined later by The Ides Of March. Vehicle and Superman would be a departure from their earlier pop sound. More on that in a second.  
The Shadows Of Knight and The Mauds  were more straight ahead blues bands, influenced by Chess Records. The first few New Colony Six sides also had R&B influences as well. On the other hand you had The Cryan' Shames, the later NC6 sides and the early Ides sides, that took their cue from The Beatles. Then you have the soul / R&B of Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, the Impressions, the Chi-Lites, Ramsey Lewis, The Staple Singers, The Dells, Gene Chandler, etc, who had to be influence by the blues issued by Chess and Vee-Jay Records. So if I were to go with one aspect that defined the Chicago Sound, I cast my vote for the Chess Records sound.  
Jack Levin  
There's no easy answer to this one ... and no "right or wrong" answer either ... as you point out, there are MANY elements that encompass "The Chicago Sound".  (Even '60's "pop" acts like The Buckinghams and The New Colony Six laid down tracks at the Chess Studios, whether it was just for a certain quality of sound or an inspired ambiance to those surroundings.  Heck, even The Rolling Stones made it a point to record there ... although, as we learned a few weeks ago, NOT their big hit #1 Record "Satisfaction"!!!  lol)  Lots of opinions here ... and I'm sure we'll see quite a few more once this posting goes out.  (kk)

All of the mid-'60's Chicago bands have admitted to some influence by The British Invasion bands ... The New Colony Six formed as "The Patsmen" for their High School Talent Show and performed a Beatles track ... then decided to stay together to see if they could make some real music of their own.  The Shadows Of Knight were called "Chicago's Answer to The Rolling Stones" ... so while certainly influenced by the Chicago Blues Sound of Chess Records, they may have come by it second hand through an act like The Stones or Them.  Even Jim Peterik later admitted that the very first Ides Of March Hit, "You Wouldn't Listen" was a combination of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions and The Kinks, jumbled up together to create a fresh, new sound.  
The Hollies were another group that had a HUGE influence on our local heroes, particularly The Cryan' Shames, The Revells and The Buckinghams.  (They caught on to their incredible sound WAY before the masses did here in The States!)

I think it's the sound of soul. By soul I don't just mean R&B music, the blues, or African-American music ... I mean the music of deep feeling.  
Chicago's sound, thanks to both the blues and to Curtis Mayfield, was far more rich and had far more originality and depth than the Philly teen idol music of the early 60s, for example. It had its own kind of soul to it, much like Memphis and Detroit had their own soul. 
I think Mayfield is really ground zero for most Chicago music of the 60s -- even the rock and roll. Many rock groups recorded Impressions or Jerry Butler songs and tried to match their harmonies. Throw in the Beatles and the English groups' love of Chicago blues, and you've got what created the whole garage rock scene.  
Just my .02 
Stu Shea  

Outside of the garage early stuff, I always think of the great harmony vocals by The Shames and Bucks.
Dr. M.
Glenn Barton 

That's a great question and frankly I don't have a complete and definitive answer. While the "Garage Bands" didn't have a polished sound, perhaps it was that "Rock & Rag Tag" appeal that won the ears and hearts of teenagers. Kids listened to their music and thought "I can play as good as that! Tommy James and the Shondells were painfully raw and yet they certainly caused the cash register to ring.  The group Chicago had its brass that did enhance their sound but that was several years after the fact and yes, there certainly was the Chess sound. Chess was using tubes in their audio board when I first started doing voice work there and their audio often sounded more warm. The bottom line is that I can't define it but I know it when I hear it. 
-- Clark Weber / WLS, the 60's 

We could take this topic in many directions, but without hesitation, the most melodic Chicago sound came from The Flamingos and their legendary ultra-passionate "I Only Have Eyes For You" ... a song that from a recording stand point was really years ahead of its time. I first heard "Eyes" when I was 10 years old and 50 plus years later it still resonates with me.
I would also toss in the Dells and "There Is" along with the ChiLites with "Oh Girl."
Pop sound? Truly hard to figure. But if I had to pick two songs that still make me want to get up and dance I'd toss the cap to "Vehicle" and "Gloria."  For rich, romantic flavor, lets go with Ronnie Rice and the "Six" and "Things I'd like to Say." All underrated song: The Ides and "L.A. Good Bye." The song has an ethereal quality that is truly emotional.
By the way, my biography - yes, my tell all biog - Coppock: "The Microphone Doesn't Lie and Neither Do I" will be out in mid-September.  Hope our FH buddies will check it out. I still have student loans to pay off.
Chet Coppock
Always love reading your stuff, Chet ... make sure I get an autographed copy!!!
SO many different styles of music in your brief synopsis ... maybe we can't really narrow it down to just one "Chicago Sound"!!!  (Because ALL of these answers qualify!)
Then again for all of those purists who maintain that singing under the street lamp was strictly an east coast thing, I submit Chet's suggestion by The Flamingos ... doo-wop just doesn't get any better than this!  (kk)

Hey Kent, 
That is a very good and interesting question. I know when I fly in from California to do Shames jobs in the Midwest there is an enormous difference in the music the radio stations play in Chicago as compared to LA. I really think that is what is at the heart of the Chicago sound. 
Chicago music has always been very raw and in-your-face and very, very heavily influenced by black music. I really think most of the groups that you are talking about such as the Buckinghams in Chicago and Earth Wind and Fire were very, very heavily influenced by the sounds of WVON and Chess Records. There was a whole group of other Chicago music, as evidenced by the New Colony Six, Shadows of Knight, Saturday's Children and the Cryan' Shames, who were very heavily influenced by the British Invasion of music. Even though we were more heavily influenced by the British Invasion, what we listened to on local radio had a tempering effect on the way that we played this music. I think it was more raw and more soulful than what the original British Invasion sounded like. 
Now these are just my opinions and my feelings. It is definitely not a definitive comment on why the Chicago sound was different but I really think what we listened to had an amazing effect on what we produced as musicians. 
Tom Doody 
The Cryan' Shames 

The Chicago Sound was a hybrid of 'Garage Band' and 'R and B'.  
James Fairs  
The Cryan' Shames 
Singer / Songwriter  

Speaking as an outsider, the Chicago Sound was many things:  the doo wop sound of the 1950's from the Vee Jay, Chess, Parrot, and other labels, the R&B sound of the music produced by Carl Davis, Curtis Mayfield, and others, the smooth R & B sounds of Jerry Butler, the garage band / post British Invasion bands of the mid-late 1960's and all the horn-laced music of people like Chicago and the Ides of March (and I know there are other examples you Chicagoland people can name) But that's a start, and it is ALL great music!

The Chicago sound is full of wonderful contradictions -- like raw blues, yet polished with horn sections ... jazz with urban grittiness but full of the midwest's open spaces ... groundbreaking yet within the confines of tradition --
That's what makes it so great, you can't pin it down!
Steve Krakow / WGN   

My personal opinion is that there is NO Chicago sound.  There are so many types of music that got their start to some extent or became hugely popular due to musicians from this city that to corner it and say it is horn rock, or blues or whatever, would be an injustice to the city. 
I submit an interesting perspective from Chicago's "Psyche Pscene" magazine published in late 1969 written by Ron Schlachter titled "A Letter to You" in which he finds that by 1969, Chicago was on the wrong path musically.  In some ways, he claims that musicians are leaving Chicago and that the city needs to fight to keep the music scene alive.  I believe he is right about some things, but wrong about others. Nonetheless, his essay is interesting, to say the least.  He quotes some of Chicago's biggest movers and shakers of the era.  
You will note that this is biased towards the psychedelic movement of the time, thus the Psyche Pscene Slant on music, yet two years earlier, it was showcasing the pop sounds more often, so PP was changing as Chicago music trends changed from teen clubs to more underground places and sounds.  There is also a blame the radio sense, as FM was the only way to get albums played. 
Sorry it is cut off, but my scanner would only pick up what I got. 
Clark Besch

LOTS of props going out to Curtis Mayfield for HIS contribution to The Chicago Sound ... here's one of my all-time favorites by The Impressions ...

That's tough to narrow down in a few words.  I think of so many things ... certainly the blues is foremost, truly Chicago.  I do think of the CTA, the group, who then changed their names and became "Chicago" and the great brass sounds they projected.  I liked them from the minute I heard them.  Chicago seemed to pick up where Blood, Sweat and Tears left off, fusing jazz with rock and coming up with an incredible sound.  Even today, the minute I hear an intro to one of Chicago's sounds, it gives me such a good feeling.  I know I've told you before the how and why I put together the Ron Britain Sub-Circus ... mainly because I knew there were so many great artists out there not being played on top forty stations, actually any stations, and the group Chicago was one that I had in mind, along with Jimi Hendrix.  I got to know many of the guys in the group and Chicago told me I was the first one to play their music when they were still using their original name, CTA.  This I always found funny ... the CTA sued them because of them using CTA, so they became Chicago. What a great time in musical history back then and I will always be grateful and proud that I was a part of it.   
Take care, my friend. 
Ron Britain

I always felt that it was a loose, under produced, in yer face kinda music.  There were holes in the instrumentation and the vocals were edgy and thin.  Some people might look at some or all that in a negative way but I think it is all positive.  It just didn't seem to take itself too seriously but still made the intended point(s).  Gee, what could be better.  "Drive My Car" by The BEATLES is as close to the Chicago Sound as they got! 
Bob Wilson (The Boyz and The New Colony Six)

That's a brain-buster!  To me, it's a hybrid of British Invasion, pop, horns, and blues-rock ... rather simplistic, but that's what I hear in my head. 
Dick Bartley    

It’s difficult to pare the “Chicago Sound” down to a few words. Usually, when one talks about the “sound” of a city it refers to studio musicians, like the Wrecking Crew in LA, the Motown folks, or Nashville’s top studio musicians.  It’s also difficult to pin down a city’s sound over many decades.  Here’s what I think:  
In the 1950s, it was the blues sound of Chess / Checker and Vee-Jay, which morphed from the blues of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Jimmy Reed to the rock and roll foundations of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.  
By the 1960s, it was the soul of Curtis Mayfield and all those he helped or participated with (Impressions, Major Lance, etc.), and the rock and roll horn bands which started with Jim Holvay and Gary Biesbeir and their band The Chicagoans / The Livers. The horn sound was “borrowed” from the soul bands in Chicago and modified for a big rock sound. By the late 1960s, this grew into big horn band sounds like Chicago (and by early 1970s, the Ides of March), as well as rock outfits like the Buckinghams and the Holvay / Beisbier follow-on group The Mob. 
The 1970s soul Chi-Sound was a direct evolution of Curtis Mayfield’s writing and production.  
So if there is a long-term thread here, it seems to be Curtis Mayfield, who grew from the blues in the 1950s with Vee-Jay’s Impressions to the 1960s Impressions and Curtis’ own production.  The horn rock sound developed out of the sound of groups like the Impressions. Mayfield also worked with Carl Davis, who was responsible for much of the latter Chicago music on the Okeh label.  
Just some thoughts. 
Mike Callahan

Kent --
I just wrote you a 750-word essay on how I define the Chicago sound.
My definition aligns with your reader's expectations: For me, it was indeed about the Buckinghams and the Shames and the NC6. That was because those were the bands I could play at home without getting yelled at. I was not alone in that.
This was a great idea -- and thank you for including me in your research.
-- Jeff Duntemann
   Colorado Springs, Colorado

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Cadging from Saul Bellow: I am an American, Chicago-born. Chicago, that *straightlaced* city.
Ok, that isn’t quite fair, and certainly no longer true. But back in 1963, when I first came upon pop music, Chicago was a sort of “none of the above” city. It wasn’t as diverse as New York, nor as liberated as California. It was less weird than, well, *anywhere.* This shaped the music: The Chicago Sound was to a great extent what our parents would let us play inside the house.

In a gigantic semicircle that surrounded the city’s core and went out as far as Crystal Lake and Aurora, an enormous horde of Boomer kids hit their teens at about the same time. I lived in Edison Park about 750 feet from the city limits and so I can’t speak for the kids further in, but our culture was stiflingly middle-class suburban. Our fathers served in WWII and listened to WGN. They kept us on a pretty short leash. When we drove it was in their boring cars, by their fussy rules, and before
their force-of-law curfews. Drag racing was done by somebody else on *Sunday! Sunday!* at some heavily advertised drag strip near a road none of us could find on a map.
Our common culture was mostly about music, bound together by local stations WLS and  WCFL, and documented by the weekly printed music surveys. National hits from other places dominated the air. I liked the California sound, but it might as well have been from another universe.  The B-side of a Morty Jay instrumental 45 I had in 1963 called “Salt Water Taffy” was entitled “What Is Surfing All About.” It was full of helpful advice like “Don’t wipe out!” Check, got it. I eventually had to go to the Carl Roden library to look up what “surfing” was. Alas, none of that was happening on Foster Avenue Beach.
No fast cars, no surf. As topics for pop songs, that left one another.  Hormones were universal, and the hot topic in 1966 was how to approach girls at the Immaculate Conception Teen Club and ask them to dance.  There was a priest and a Chicago cop at the back of the parish hall, and strategically placed parents with rulers in hand, so there was much politeness and not a great deal of actual physical contact. (I’m convinced that “fast dancing” was invented by nuns at Catholic schools for precisely that reason.) I recall surreal basement conversations with my 14-year-old friends about how you could tell when a girl was ready to hold hands with you.
What the local bands recorded reflected this. It was all about first kisses (the Riddles’ cover of “Sweets for My Sweet”) and walking along the sand with a girl, wistfully wondering if “It Could Be We’re In Love.” There was sand eight miles due east. All we needed, then, was bus fare and a girl. (One out of two ain't bad. Ok, it is.) Songs about heavy-duty making out like Lou Christie’s “Rhapsody in the Rain” were threatened with banning and were eventually defanged with tamer words.
What that left for the local groups were what I call “chaste love ballads” like the New Colony Six’s “I Will Always Think About You,” the Buckinghams’ “Don’t You Care,” and the American Breed’s “Any Way That You Want Me.” There was a lot of melody and harmony, and a remarkable lack of lust. The lust sometimes snuck in the side door (we all thought that “Gloria” was a pretty horny song) but it was encoded in a rougher style and not the lyrics. I knew a number of girls who were five-foot-four. None of them were hammering on *my* door at midnight, promise.
This Clean-Cut Coalition began to fragment 1968-ish, as college and the Vietnam War loomed large over us. I had more money, bought more albums than 45s, and listened to quirky little local FM stations more and WLS less. Fewer of us lived at home, which meant that we could play whatever we wanted without getting yelled at. (I think by then our parents were just tired of yelling, period.)  Chicago music gradually merged with and became indistinguishable from national music.
I haven’t lived in Chicago since 1979, but I still play the Buckinghams, the Cryan’ Shames, the Capes of Good Hope, the American Breed, the New Colony 6, and the Riddles. Why? They were the map of my young teen life, and just smell like home. Besides, I know most of those songs by heart and can hear them in my head without also hearing somebody opening the basement door halfway through and yelling, “Turn that thing down!”
The Chicago Sound. Totally yell-proof since 1963. Long may it wave!  

-- Jeff Duntemann
   Colorado Springs, Colorado

I don’t see that there was a Chicago sound, guys.  My belief is that you analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel, adjusted for the instruments you had available and then either selected tunes by others to match your line-up or wrote songs to support that line-up.  Bands with strong vocalists would logically write / select material that could benefit from its singers’ skills.  If you had a horn section, you wrote / selected material that utilized those talents.  Lyrically, I know we wrote from our lives, such as the story behind Can’t You See Me Cry, and I think most of the Chicago bands whose personnel did their own writing followed suit.  So, other than management dictating that “the only way to a hit song is this or that”, and the band caving to those demands, I’d have to say we wrote what we lived – and things such as girls / relationships / cars / moods / things we read / unhealthy or positive pastimes / faith lives / senses of humor / what was going on in the world at large, etc. became the foundation for lyrics.  Not sure if this is helpful or not, but there ‘tis, for whatever it’s worth.
I’d very much like to be kept up to speed with what others feed back to you, as they may strike a chord that resonates with me and takes me to offering other thoughts, which may be beyond my ability to consider on a Fathers’ Day evening when I know that the frickin’ alarm clock goes off again early tomorrow morning and I am already tired from a busy weekend! 
Later lads,     
Ray Graffia, Jr.

Regarding "The Chicago Sound," there is, of course, no such thing. Chicago, just like New York, L.A. and countless other locations, have nurtured the wildly divergent "sounds" of loads of different singers, songwriters and musicians all of which only have one thing in common -- home addresses relatively near each other. Yes, Chicago was the home of Chess Records, The Buckinghams, The Cryan Shames and The New Colony Six, but the records of none of those four always sounded the same. Chicago has given birth to acts specializing in hard rock, soft rock, be-bop, blues, folk, country, sweet 'n' swing big band music, classical, doo-wop, polkas, etc. -- all diverse categories of music with some crossbred elements (as does ALL music) but otherwise nothing in common except the notes they mix in different configurations printed on sheet music. Chicago's the home of the blues -- but much of that came up from Mississippi and the rest of the deep South. Big band leaders as widely different as Kay Kyser, Jerry Gray, Benny Goodman, Eddy Howard, Duke Ellington, Dick Jurgens, Earl 'Fatha' Hines, Jan Garber, Griff Williams, Woody Herman, Frankie Carle, Joe Sanders, Ted Weems, Count Basie and others all performed in Chicagoland nightclubs and dance halls in the '30s and '40s, broadcasting live to fans all over the country.  Were they "The Chicago Sound"?  Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup recorded "That's All Right" and his other pre-Elvis rock hits in Chicago – as did the soul stars of Vee Jay and Mercury and gospel greats from Thomas A. Dorsey to The Staple Singers. Are they "The Chicago Sound"?  Chicago today is the home of heavy rock, house music, hip hop, rap, punk and a highly active (and diverse) independent music scene -- as well as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Sinfonietta. Are they the "Sound of Chicago"?   
Groups of music people who frequently work together can and often do develop “A” sound -- as happened at Sun Records and Motown -- but even it does not define ALL the music generated in a specific city, locale or state -- especially over long periods of time (like, say, decades). Trying to link the wide array of musical forms which have come together in the Windy City over the years is like trying to link musicians by their birth dates ("Ooh -- that guy really has the Scorpio Sound") or favorite flavors of ice cream ("I really dig your Pistachio influence").  As the full spectrum of artists and types noted above attests, there is no "Chicago Sound" -- but there sure are Chicago SoundS!  
Gary Theroux 
"The History of Rock 'n' Roll"   

Got some thoughts of your own you'd like to share? Drop us a line ... I'm sure this topic is far from over (although we DO wrap up this particular segment tomorrow.)   Please let us hear from you and we'll run your comments in a future issue of Forgotten Hits.  (kk)