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Book review: “Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” by Aaron Cohen Previous item Book review... Next item Poem: Robot factory

Book review: “Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” by Aaron Cohen

One of the pleasures of reading Aaron Cohen’s 2019 Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power is its walk down memory lane of the great Chicago-based soul music created over the course of a quarter century, beginning in the late 1950s.

If you were alive and in town then — or actually anywhere in the U.S. — you’re familiar with most of these songs and with their place in the rising Black consciousness of the time and its cultural power.

Even if you were born after 1980, you’ve probably heard a lot of these songs, and, if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat.

The stories that Cohen tells about the creation of so many records of that era — as well as his account of the business of music for the creators and distributors and of the intertwining of the civil rights movement and the music — is likely to move a lot of readers to create a playlist of some of the best of the tunes.

I know that’s what I did.

“Slick, sleek,…sincere and foxy.  Ice.”

My list starts with “For Your Precious Love” by the Impressions, a group that included both the 18-year-old Jerry Butler and a 15-year-old Curtis Mayfield, both of whom had major solo careers ahead of them.  It is a four-chord love song, recorded in 1958, that features “Mayfield’s lyrical guitar lead and the group’s incantatory harmonies,” writes Cohen, and it was the opening of a musical revolution.

“Those harmonies convey understated power.  No big vocal leaps or instrumental flourishes were needed to make ‘For Your Precious Love’ a departure from the doo-wop that came before it. While only a few people were on hand for the recording, a community generated the circumstances for the song to be created — and for a larger audience to hear it.”

Among those circumstances: the desire of young Blacks to express their identity with music, the rise of African American-owned record companies, the emergence of Black radio stations and personalities, and the opening up of mainstream society and the mainstream audience to Black music in the midst of the civil rights movement.

In contrast to the doo-wop groups, the Impressions gave “For Your Precious Love” a choir-like sound, as Cohen explains.

“The choral intoning was intentional.  The Impressions’ harmonies on ‘For Your Precious Love’ remained close to the gospel quartet tradition, but true spirit came from inside them….But what made the song so distinctive was the way it was delivered.  Butler’s baritone avoided obvious highs and lows while conveying deep, quiet persuasion.”

Indeed, Cohen notes that a character in Leon Forrest’s 1992 novel Divine Days calls this “the first urban Soul song…Slick, sleek too, ultra smooth, celebratory, sincere and foxy.  Ice.”

“Assertions of identity”

Cohen’s book is a granular look at the Black music scene in Chicago. The author has little interest in sweeping musical or cultural pronouncements. His story is in the details. And he’s got a laser focus on the nuts and bolts of music and music-making and music-listening during the blossoming of Chicago soul between the late 1950s and the early 1980s.

Move on Up is deeply rooted in the interviews that Cohen conducted with more than 100 singers, musicians, arrangers, producers, record company executives, radio personalities, teachers and others involved with the music.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, the city’s soul music was inextricably intertwined with the rising economic, social and cultural power of African Americans.  Cohen writes:

“A new culture sprouted at African American teen dances, and it would unfold to subsequent generations, constituting a social cohesion that would be a step toward any kind of mass movement.

“At the same time, Chicago’s vibrant youth culture and its concentration of upstart black record companies made it the country’s dance music capital…This audience constructed a culture around musical innovations, responding expressively in moves on the dance floor and in sharp fashions.  All of these became assertions of identity in a city that largely considered these youths invisible.”

“An elegiac interpretation”

While white singers and predominately white rock bands were borrowing from soul, as well as from jazz and the blues, African American artists in Chicago were returning the favor with soul-inflected covers of such tunes as “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” the Crosby, Still & Nash song interpreted by the Notations, and the Beatles song “Come Together” by Syl Johnson and the Pieces of Peace.

One of the most interesting groups to arise in this time was the Rotary Connection, a musically and racially integrated band that was formed in 1967 by Marshall Chess. 

“He brought a white garage band from the West Side together with [Charles] Stepney’s arrangements and two other Chess employees, vocalists Sidney Barnes and Minnie Riperton.  Through the Old Town School of Folk Music education-performance space, he recruited Judy Hauff, a singer from South Dakota.”

The focus for the group’s songs and albums was on group harmonies rather than highlighted solos (although later Riperton had great success on her own until her death from cancer at the age of 31).

“Drawing on her background singing in a Roman Catholic church choir, Hauff added Gregorian change to an elegiac interpretation of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Ruby Tuesday.’  Stepney combined organ and sitar to rework the hymn ‘Amen.’ ”

On another track, “Memory Band,” the melody was formed by wordless vocals while, layered underneath, were a sitar, theremin, and “a phantasmagoric string section.”

“Future telling”

Of course, a high point for any playlist a reader might put together would be the Mayfield song that gives Cohen’s book its title.

“Move On Up” was one of many message songs of Chicago soul, songs that not only commented on the Black Is Beautiful/Black Power efforts of the era but also fostered and nurtured such endeavors.  Featured on Mayfield’s first solo album Curtis, the song was musically inviting and offered a slogan for African American efforts at gaining greater respect. Cohen writes:

“The extended LP version of that song features a quick-tempo percussion solo from [Henry] Gibson.  While the song maintains a standard 4/4 time throughout its eight and a half minutes, Gibson’s propulsive attack makes an instrumental break feel like it’s adding a contrasting tempo.”

Cohen devotes only a few pages at the end of his book to the music of the past 40 years.  Soul music from Chicago and elsewhere set the stage for what came after as artists of the last four decades will readily acknowledge.

In fact, Cohen ends his book with the comments of South Side-based rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith, noting, for example, the social consciousness of Mayfield and the spirituality of Maurice White who founded Earth, Wind and Fire.  Rhymefest added:

“They were living in the future.  You have to live tomorrow, you can’t think today.  If you really go into it, think about it.  Curtis Mayfield was talking about the War on Drugs before there was a War on Drugs.  And the real beauty is not the music, but the reflection of what it shows.  I’m ready to get back to future telling.”

Patrick T. Reardon

5.18.21

This review originally appeared on 3.23.21 at Third Coast Review.

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