Friday, November 1, 2019

Living in the Future: Aaron Cohen's Move On Up

The Impressions in 1970: Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden (Phoyo: Giles Petard)

“They were living in the future, those artists. You have to live tomorrow, you can’t think of today. The real beauty is not the music but the reflection of what it shows us. I’m ready to get back to the future.”  – Rhymefest
I first encountered the fine writing of Aaron Cohen in his marvelous little book on Aretha Franklin’s magnificent 1973 live-concert gospel record Amazing Grace. His book with the same title was released by Bloomsbury’s 33-1/3 series focusing on individual albums and their influences on music and pop culture. I use the word “little” in reference not to its content, which is huge, but only to its diminutive format: the series takes short but penetrating looks (and listens) at frequently landmark recordings in an attempt to deeply explore the album as a work of art along the lines of a great painting or compelling novel. I was also fortunate enough to glean some insights from him for my own upcoming book on Tina Turner, and was grateful for the clarity of his grasp of soul music as an expression of black culture in general and Turner’s role in the first wave of popularizing its style with white audiences.

In this new book, Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, Cohen stretches out for a longer and in-depth appreciation of soul music in its city-specific relationship to his hometown of Chicago, where he teaches humanities, journalism and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and received a Public Scholar fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016. Cohen's articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, DownBeat, The Washington Post and The Nation and he is the two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). I like the way author Jonathan Eig characterized Cohen’s heartfelt study of the city and the army of talented musicians who gave it a distinct tone and vibe, one so different from Aretha’s Detroit or Tina’s St. Louis/Los Angeles: “An extraordinary achievement, cue up The Chi-Lites, open this book and enjoy.”

Indeed, The Chi-Lites, along with The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield solo, Chaka Khan and Minnie Riperton, all provide the ideal soundtrack to sink into while allowing Cohen to take us on his guided tour of the history of a sound. But more than just a sonic homage (though it is that too) it takes on the feeling of a historical and anthropological examination of the African-American consciousness so powerfully embodied in the soul style of music-making. This book looks at the social and cultural changes that shaped soul music in Chicago from the late 1950s to the early 1980s and how the musicians themselves became change agents. Interviews with more than 100 participants describe such challenges as educational and industrial segregation; how the push for empowerment included the artistic as well as political spheres; and why the music on these recordings has been so diverse, distinctive and influential. The book also includes original interviews with Jerry Butler, Chaka Khan, Gene Chandler and numerous other artists, activists and industry leaders.

Chicago’s place in the history of soul music is rock solid. But for Chicagoans, soul music in its heyday from the 1960s to the 1980s was more than just a series of hits: it was a marker and a source of black empowerment. In Move On Up, Cohen tells the remarkable story of the explosion of soul music in Chicago. Together, soul music and black-owned businesses thrived. Record producers and singer-songwriters broadcast optimism for black America’s future through their sophisticated, jazz-inspired productions for The Dells and many others. Curtis Mayfield boldly sang of uplift with unmistakable grooves like “We’re a Winner” and “I Plan to Stay a Believer.” Musicians like Phil Cochran and The Pharaohs used their music to voice Afrocentric philosophies that challenged racism and segregation, while Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire and Chaka Khan created music that inspired black consciousness.

Soul music also accompanied the rise of African American advertisers and the campaign of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. This empowerment was set in stark relief by the social unrest roiling in Chicago and across the nation: as Chicago’s homegrown record labels produced rising stars singing songs of progress and freedom, Chicago’s black middle class faced limited economic opportunities and deep-seated segregation, all against a backdrop of nationwide deindustrialization. Drawing on more than one hundred interviews and a music critic’s passion for the unmistakable Chicago soul sound, Cohen shows us how soul music became the voice of inspiration and change for a city in turmoil. Library Journal was correct in its estimation that “Cohen marries scholarly erudition with a sincere musical affection.” This book is a pleasure on so many different levels.

For me, the premiere attraction of the book is the axis, hub or pivot provided by the exemplary talent of Curtis Mayfield, who emerges as a kind of touchstone for Chicago soul in general and gritty urban social commentary through music in particular. Though I was passingly familiar with Jerry Butler, and with Curtis as The Impressions prodigy, I first seriously encountered Mayfield in a artfully musical manner while bumming around the Spanish island of Ibiza in 1972, the year he released his blockbuster music soundtrack for the film Superfly. This wasn’t your average soul band; it was a boiling hybrid of rock and pop that grabbed me by the neck when I first heard it booming out in a dark and scruffy bar filled with expatriate hippies and artists. And it never let go, prompting a “what the hell?” response that still lingers to this day. I’m thankful to Cohen and his book, the title of which derives from a famous Mayfield song found on his debut 1970 solo record called Curtis, for helping me to finally understand what it was that stopped a young, white, long-haired vagabond in his tracks and caused him to catch his breath.

Superfly would be his third solo record on his Curtom label, by then already legendary in Chicago soul circles, and this soundtrack for what has come to be known as a film in the ironically named blaxploitation genre, was, like Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit What’s Going On, one of the early pioneering soul concept albums, and its then-unique socially aware lyrics about poverty and drug abuse made both the film and its music stand out big time. The music, however, only assumes its true stature when divorced from the movie and listened to for what it actually is: a painting or a novel for your ears. By that time, though, Mayfield, the groundbreaker around whom the book rightly revolves to some degree, had been a storyteller for years, ever since his largely vocal-centered Impressions started burning up the charts as early as 1964, right at the height of the so-called British Invasion. While exciting in itself, however, and quite revolutionary for pop music for the manner in which the four white British geniuses blended black R&B, rock, skiffle and music-hall traditions into a new concoction all their own, that new wave had little impact on the already blossoming environment of Chicago soul music. It just got stirred into the simmering dream soup along with everything else.

Chaka Khan strutting in 1981, the year she left Rufus to go solo. (Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times)

The detailed trajectory of Cohen’s book is comprehensive and multi-layered, with more or less chronological and evolutionary leaps occurring what feels like every ten minutes as the black music business begins to rapidly come of age and matures dramatically. He charts a course though changing neighborhoods and social mores and shows how emerging media inspired new musical forms, including the radical shift from the holy to the profane; how artists and savvy entrepreneurs inspired each other simultaneously and stepped forward in the 60’s; how a creative alliance of musicians, activists and educators all operated in tandem to build and grow an expanding field of opportunity; how the 60’s psychedelic counterculture counter-culture picked up and transmitted new political and social attitudes conveyed by the new music; how fresh Afrocentric perspectives and aggressive demands for change helped meet the earlier 60’s theoretical assumptions; how organizational drive shaped the 70’s in black music, commerce and politics; how the sound of power fusing funk and disco shone a light on connections, divisions and shared aspirations; and finally, how reissues, techno-sampling and a younger generation reconsidered their own social history and artistry all the way to rap and hip-hop.

As Cohen puts it so well, tying the spirit to the concrete as he opens his tome with a recognition of the great Jerry Butler: “The sounds of Chicago soul have always felt as expansive as a drive through this city’s neighborhoods and down its wide boulevards. Even the blunt word ‘funk’ signified, and combined, everything from small African percussion to interstellar explorations. R & B star Jerry Butler took in large pieces of it all, and when he used his music to become an agent for wider changes, he did so in the city that had always surrounded him.” For Butler’s part, his hometown was and still is an amalgam of everything that black culture represents and that black power can achieve: “Most of what’s done in this city is prompted by politics, and most of black politics is supported by music. And so the music and the politics kind of walk hand in hand down Michigan Avenue.”

I would go even further and say that for such an urban space, music is politics and politics is music, and that’s what Cohen has captured so emphatically in his great book. As he describes the agenda for Move On Up, “Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power details these meetings of music and hope for social progress. Mass movements and localized efforts for localized change helped create R & B in Chicago. Here too, musicians acted as change agents. Still, compared with other cities, surprisingly little literature describes how music and social forces combined in this metropolitan area during the 1960’s and 1970’s.” His book remedies this lacking history very well, quite apart from having an obvious love of this music and a flair for declaiming it. “My methodology stemmed from my work as a journalist, which meant speaking with as many participants as I could. So I included interviews with a range of people who made it all happen; my concentration is on artists, but entrepreneurs, fans, media figures, activists and one original Soul Train dancer also provided valuable observations.”

He has accomplished this honorable task and produced a highly readable and entertaining, as well as jam-packed, informational saga, by operating at the street level, focusing on the reality of communities and their reflection in the identities of the artists who chose to represent them. Mayfield wasn’t even yet sixteen years old when he and Butler started navigating those streets and orchestrating their almost military strategy to get a record deal sometime in early 1958, when the tale opens. By the end, we feel as if we’ve actually grown up with Mayfield, as well as so many other hungry, creative kids who dreamed their shared impossible dream. Jackie Ross, Ruby Andrews, James Mack, Minnie Riperton, Carl Davis, the incredible Chi-Lites, the visionary Don Cornelius (creator of Soul Train), and the incendiary Baby Huey (a personal favorite of mine, whose actual name was James Tomas Ramey) all started to fill those streets with talent and appetite, blazing paths for future stars who would make it even bigger and cash in even more.

Curtis Mayfield, in 1960. (Photo: Michael Ochs)

The immortal and gigantic Huey unfortunately wouldn’t live long enough to taste the full measure of success he deserved, passing away at 26, but he proved to be a massive link, both creatively, metaphorically and yes, literally, between early soul and funk and those later nearly psychedelic formats being explored by equally visionary talents such as the similarly youthful Shuggie Otis (himself a literal link between his father the legendary Johnny Otis and a gifted white blues player such as Mike Bloomfield, for instance). This was a living body of music that eventually crossed and erased all ethnic and racial lines.

Cohen’s cartography starts with a nod to the religious roots of soul in supercharged gospel sounds and follows the tributaries all the way into the frenzy of later funk, with stops along the way to acknowledge every major player who contributed to the city’s boisterous cultural personality. He initiates his guided tour of soul music in Chicago with an essential grounding in the religious origins of the genre. Yoruba masters of the talking drum, the original Nigerian soul music that spawned post-diaspora gospel and its own later derivatives, soul music and funk, are the far afield ancestors of Mayfield and Baby Huey, and all the others he lovingly profiles. These hopping dudes, and their sublime brethren in similar ethnic spirit music, were the true origin of what later evolved into the rural soul sound of the Southern states and the urban funk sound of the northern cities such as Chicago.

And we can still hear their thunderous juju spirit flowing through the veins of many of the artists profiled by Cohen in his book. He observes that religious foundations reflect multiple sources: “Migrants and their children also heard or participated in older traditions, from blues to singing in the many churches on the West and South Sides. Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler had abundant experience with church music, and Mayfield has also expressed his admiration for blues musicians.” Indeed, it is this heady stirring together of sacred hymns with secular rhythm and blues, spiced up with a dollop of rock and roll, that pretty much gave birth to what we now call soul music in the first place.

Certainly one of the finest ways to fully absorb and explore these divergent roots as they branched out all the way to contemporary soul and pop soul is the comprehensive discography that Cohen includes at the end of his book. It’s a rundown that will illuminate any reader/listener who wants to deeply understand what all the hubbub is about. A good place to start might be the record by Barbara Acklin, Love Makes a Woman, from 1968; followed up quickly perhaps by Jerry Butler’s 1972 The Spice of Life; Gene Chandler’s The Gene Chandler Situation from 1970; The Chi-Lites’ Give It Away from 1969; Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden in 1970; and People Get Ready, by the sparklingly harmonic Impressions in 1966.

By then you’ll be ready for the full monty: Baby Huey, The Living Legend (1971). And you will eventually happily arrive in the waiting arms of Rhymefest and his Blue Collar, all the way up to 2006. If you give these records a listen prior to picking up this book, you’ll be quite well prepared to hold on for the rocking roller coaster ride that awaits you. And, like Rhymefest said, you’ll be ready to get back to the future.

A highly entertaining and instructive Spotify playlist curated by author Cohen can also be accessed by visiting "Chicago Soul Book" at

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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