'Record Row' Remembers City's Recording Artists
Byline: Ted Cox
Few people remember, but at one point - long before the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair and Veruca Salt came along - Chicago was one of the recording capitals of popular music. From the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s, Chicago churned out as much great music as any city in the world.
Why that isn't more a source of civic pride, I don't know. I'd hate to think it was because most of the Chicago recording artists of those days were black.
Early on in "Record Row: Cradle of Rhythm & Blues," an excellent new documentary on that era, a vision of mid-'50s South Michigan Avenue dissolves into a shot taken from the same vantage point today. CTA buses, bustling sidewalks and beautiful buildings vanish, replaced by a ghost town.
Those glory days are gone and all but forgotten.
But "Record Row" brings them back, for an all too brief hour. It revives the artists and places them in context, through present-day interviews and a stunning array of old TV clips.
Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, the Impressions (the original group of Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler), Fontella Bass, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, the Chi-Lites, the Dells and, last but certainly not least, Etta James, who returns as narrator of "Record Row": All recorded on "one musical mile" of Michigan Avenue from Roosevelt Road to Cermak, where several labels flourished.
The locally produced documentary, written and made by Michael McAlpin, airs at 9 p.m. Thursday on WTTW Channel 11. The run-of-the-mill PBS production would take the music of those great singers and songwriters and turn it into a watchable program. But "Record Row" not only does that, it takes their tales and organizes them in a way that makes sense.
The Chicago music scene took off in the years after World War II when two Polish Jewish emigres, Phil and Leonard Chess, moved out of the nightclub business, where they had served a primarily black clientele, and into the music business, where they served the same audience, only more so - first with Chess Records, then with radio station WVON 1450-AM.
The record and radio industries had a cozy relationship in those days. As Leonard Chess' son Marshall says of one well-known local disc jockey: "Al Benson would play a record four times in a row if you took care of him right."
In any case, the Chicago audience for that music was huge: growing toward 1 million blacks in the city proper in the '50s. That gave Chicago record labels a massive foundation to build on.
The Chess label catered to that audience, first with the electric blues of Waters and Wolf, then with the rock 'n' roll of Berry and Diddley. But Chess, even then, was perceived as a white-owned label making the most of its black artists. …