1:30 p.m. Dec. 16
Long before house music, R. Kelly and rap there was “The Chicago Sound.”
Carl Davis was the architect.
He produced 1960s classics like “The Monkey Time” by Major Lance, “Higher and Higher” by Jackie Wilson and “Turn Back The Hands of Time” by Tyrone Davis (no relation). Davis and jazz bass player/arranger Johnny Pate employed a brass section that was centered around trombones and a baritone sax that put cool icing over warm vocals. Curtis Mayfield was Davis’s right hand man, assisting with production, songwriting and celestial guitar. This formula is why these songs endure, especially in the Beach Music scene of the Carolinas.
It has been declared “Dreamgirls Week” at my newspaper.
I will be wearing a black wig all week.
The 1981 “Dreamgirls” musical and now the movie spin off the story of The Supremes. I wanted to find Chicago’s Supremes. They were the Opals, a quartet from East Chicago, Ind. In the mid-1960s the Opals cut a few singles of their own and sang behind Major Lance, Gene Chandler and Walter Jackson.
Rosie “Tootsie” Addison is the only Opal still living in Chicago. Last week we took a road trip to Davis’s home in south suburban Homewood. She had not seen Davis in more than a decade. As the late Tyrone Davis sang, we did “turn back the hands of time…….”
……..I made sure to bring a Curtis Mayfield Okeh Records CD compilation I picked up years ago. The project included the uptempo Opals track “You’re Gonna Be Sorry,” written by Mayfield in 1963. Tootsie—I can call her this after spending a day with her on the Dan Ryan Expressway—enjoyed reliving the tune in my car.
We talked about many things before arriving in Homewood. After much prodding I even got her to sing her backing part on the 1964 Betty Everett hit “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss).” [The Opals feature runs Dec. 19 in the Sun-Times, Day 3 of “Dreamgirls Week.”] But I had to ask Tootsie about singing behind the late Walter Jackson, who is up with Jerry Butler and Otis Clay as the greatest soul singers Chicago ever produced.
Jackson had a pleading baritone that twisted your heart like a ribbon on Christmas morning. The Opals sang behind Jackson’s hits like “It’s all Over” and “Lee Cross.” Jackson died on June 20, 1983. He was 45.
I had seen Jackson in concert six months before his death on a blustery night at Tuts on Belmont Avenue in Chicago. About a dozen people were in the audience. Jackson performed with braces and crutches. He had contracted polio when he was five years old.
“We loved working with Walter,” Tootsie said. “He was very soulful and he had this delicate voice. Carl used us for most of the backgrounds because he thought we could do anything if we were taught the parts correctly. Carl had a knack for that. Even though he wasn’t a singer, he showed you how to emphasize certain areas.”
We arrived at Davis’s house and Tootsie and Davis caught up with some personal updates. We then revisited Jackson. Davis called Jackson his favorite singer, no small thing for a man who has worked with so many big names. “When I lived at 92nd and Creiger (in Chicago), Walter would come out to the house,” Davis told Tootsie moreso than me. “We would go to the family room and sit down on the floor. He took of those things (braces) he had on his knees and we’d just lay down on the floor and play records. He would ask me questions on how to sing certain songs.”
The Opals are at the beginning of the Mayfield ballad “It’s All Over,” before Jackson floats in and they begin call and response over a brass section playing with the nobility of a grand exit. “Back in those days you only had two, three, four tracks,” Davis explained. “You didn’t have 16 or 24. You pretty much had to put all the music on one track –and you had to balance it while doing it. Then you had the lead singer and background. You might have been able to put the lead singer by himself. In Walter’s case, I always put the background first after the music. I’d try to spread him over the tracks so it sounded like there was a choir going on. When he heard the Opals, that would get him going.
“They were like angels with those pretty voices.”
Tootsie brought along her scrapbook and a vinyl copy of “Okeh Soul” (Epic Records, 1982) that featured “It’s All Over” and “Does It Matter,” the Opals first recording for Davis. After Davis had a hit with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” Columbia Records hired Davis to reactivate the Okeh label. Okeh’s history dated back to 1918 and Louis Armstrong stepped out as a soloist for Okeh. Okeh is one of the most important labels in black music history.
For a period during the early 1960s Tootsie and Opal Myrna Tillitson lived with Davis and his late wife Mable in their home at 87th and Calumet on Chicago’s far south side. “Remember the parties we had over there?,” she asked Davis. “Dionne Warwick would come by.” Davis added, “We would shoot pool with the Four Tops. They’d come by after performing at the old Regal (theater).”
Davis is an avid sports fan. He was once football coach at Hyde Park High School and in the mid-1990s he started a record label with former White Sox and Cubs outfielder Lance Johnson–no Major Lance pun intended. Not suprisingly, Davis was a disciplinarian when working with artists like the Opals. “I guess I was more of a singer’s producer,” he said. “I wanted them to tell me a story that I could listen to. You would not walk into my studio with a lead sheet and put it on the stand. No, no. You would learn the song. When it got to the point when you learned the song, you didn’t need the lead sheet. You’d just sing. There’s a big difference between somebody looking at the lyrics and somebody learning the song. I think that’s why people wanted to record with us. We took our time and did it right.”
“Dreamgirls” is set in Detroit (the musical was based on Chicago girls). Of course Davis was aware of Motown, but he wanted to make his own kind of music. In 1996 Davis told me, “The Motown Sound used to put a picture frame together, put it all in the background and set the artist in the frame. We (The Chicago Sound) tend to start with the artist, put him there and frame everything around him.”
With Tootsie on board, he elaborated, “We took a bit from the South, a bit from the North. We took Curtis’s unique guitar sound and put chords in the strings and the horns. We never thought about Motown. However, it got to the poing where the Motown band (The Funk Brothers) would come to Chicago because of Sonny Sanders.”
Sanders was a trumpet plaer who appeared on Mary Wells’ earliest Motown hits. Berry Gordy had fired Sanders and he relocated to Chicago. Davis hired Sanders to do arrangements. Sanders would invite Funk Brothers like bassist James Jamerson and drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen to Chicago to play on Davis’s sessions. “Whatever scale was, I’d double it,” Davis said with a sly smile. “I’d give them cash. Every time Berry found out, he would fine them. And they’d still come back the next weekend.”
It had been a memorable trip. Davis got quiet while perusing Tootsie’s scrapbook and seeing black and white pictures of Major Lance, Jackie Wilson and Curtis Mayfield. They are all dead. He must have wondered where the music went in such fleeting fashion. Davis and Tootsie exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep in touch.
Tootsie and I got back in my car.
“I got the name ‘Tootsie’ because its’s sweet like chocolate,” she said with a warm smile. Jackson’s dramatic, staccato delivery on “What Would You Do” played in the background. Things are different today. Tootsie now sings in the choir at the Lighthouse Church of All Nations in Alsip. She said she is sometimes conflicted about her secular past, but that her pastor assures her there’s nothing improper about a Curtis Mayfield song. He wrote about love, respect and self-reliance.
“The Chicago Sound” was uplifting. There was no posturing or pretense, which is how it found a pure path to your heart. Tootsie asked me to drop her off at her church. She had choir practice that evening. She gave me a quick tour of the church and was proud to point out that people from 54 different countries attend services at the Lighthouse Church of All Nations.
“Would you like to go to church with me?,” she asked.
What would you do?
I will go to this church, and I will hear angels sing.
THANKS: To Bob Abrahamian, a passionate fan of Chicago soul music who hosts the Sunday night “Sitting In The Park” 60s and 70s soul music show on WHPK (88.5-FM) in Chicago. For a complete interview with the Opals and other soul greats, visit his webpage at: www.sittinginthepark.com/interviews.html . Also thanks to my friend and fact-checker Robert Pruter, the author of “Chicago Soul” (University of Illinois Press, 1991). Finally, for more information on Carl Davis and his latest projects, check out www.chi-soundrecords.com