On the surface, Chicago soul music is a niche passion when compared to the deep history of Chicago blues, rock and house music.
But Black Ensemble Theater’s production of “Chicago’s Golden Soul (A ’60s Revue)” does a thorough job of illustrating the volume of music that emanated from labels like Chess, Vee-Jay and Brunswick on Chicago’s “Record Row.” The show covers 26 songs in 120 minutes in snappy precision, backed by a tight eight-piece band.
“Chicago’s Golden Soul” opens Sunday at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, running in repertory with the acclaimed “It’s All Right to Have a Good Time … The Story of Curtis Mayfield.” Cecil Jones, who portrays the young Mayfield, is pulling double duty, with roles in both shows.
“Chicago’s Golden Soul” is standard Black Ensemble fare — there’s no mention of payola, drugs or the cultural challenges women such as Mitty Collier, Betty Everett and Etta James (all depicted in the revue) faced in the 1960s. But it’s a trip down Dick Clark Street, and that’s OK, especially when paying tribute to the legacy of Chicago soul dancing. (Check out ensemble’s fine take of the Five Du Tones’ “Shake a Tail Feather,” later popularized for Caucasians by the Blues Brothers.)
The house band’s secret weapon is longtime Chicago soul guitarist Herb Walker, best known for his work as bandleader for the late Tyrone Davis & Thunder, circa 1973-76. The cresting 1970 Davis hit “Turn Back the Hands of Time” is included in the revue.
Walker understands the jazzy runs of Curtis Mayfield as well as the fluidity of his mentor Phil Upchurch. Chicago soul flourished by the way the tasty guitars blended with jazz horns (the house band is anchored by longtime Chicago jazz trombonist Bill McFarland). Walker embraced the “teardrop” approach of Upchurch, where the guitarist hits the note and pulls on the vibratone so it sounds like it is being delivered from the distance.
In 1972 Walker had his own seven-piece band, Family Soul (like Sly and the Family Stone), when a booking agent called about Davis needing a band.
“I was working at Johnson Products on 83rd Street,” Walker said before a “Golden Soul” dress rehearsal. I packed and moved 42,000 jars of Afro Sheen in one day and got a pat on the back. They said they had never run that fast before. That was my last day. All I ever wanted to do was play music.”
Family Soul merged with Thunder to create a large sound that fueled Davis’ biggest hits. Walker said, “We augmented his band, me and his guitarist L.V. Johnson [the late nephew of Elmore James]. I produced two of L.V.’s albums. We went up to a 12-piece band with a six-piece horn section. It was really powerful.”
Most of the cast members in “Chicago’s Golden Soul” weren’t born when Chicago soul crossed over into America’s pop charts. The revue includes the Gene Chandler smash “Duke of Earl,” Dee Clark’s “Raindrops” and the Alvin Cash dance classic “Twine Time” (written by the still active Andre Williams).
How does Walker describe Chicago soul to a new generation?
“The younger cast members were not aware of these artists,” said Walker, 62. “Chicago soul has earthiness. And if they didn’t use horns, they put the strings out in front and they were thick. They had a purpose. [String sections are covered in the revue by keyboardist Justin Dillard, a longtime collaborator with late avant-garde tenor player Fred Anderson.] You never realize how many people came to Chicago to record here because of Curtis and Chess Records. When I was 19, I was an intern at Chess and I worked there five days a week. I could sit in on any recording session. That’s how I got close with Phil Upchurch. I’d see Ramsey Lewis, Maurice White [future member of Earth, Wind and Fire], Minnie Riperton.”
In 1980, Walker moved on to work at the late Carl Davis’ Chi-Sound Records, where he played with Walter Jackson, the Chi-Lites and Major Lance, all rightfully honored in “Chicago’s Golden Soul.”