Chicago Soul Music

Though success in anything gives birth to many parents, Chicago makes the strongest claim as the “Home of Soul Music.” Its artistic roots and commercialization began here. Described succinctly, Soul formed in the merger of Chicago’s Gospel and Blues traditions.

The Father of Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey, as music director Pilgrim Baptist Church, he wrote more songs sung in Black churches than any other composer. Chicago’s cultural climate allowed him to tread a fine line between the devil’s music (Blues) and the old Negro spirituals from the 1930s onwards. His arsenal of songs proved rich material for a hungry era of Gospel singers feeding Chicago’s numerous Black churches that drew 1st and 2nd generation Mississippi Delta vocal talent. From those resources strong Gospel choirs populated the churches. The largest churches had trained music directors, who could not find work elsewhere.

On the devilish side, Chicago sold Blues records in the 1930/40s, which allowed many record companies to develop mass-market production and distribution expertise. By the 1950s, Chicago was headquarters for the nation’s largest jukebox manufacturers. It developed the largest collection of Blues record companies.

Though Ray Charles pioneered Soul Music when he released the hit I’ve Got a Woman in 1955, his ongoing musical tastes were too diverse to drive the genre. Gospel-inspired Flames lead James Brown recorded the Soul Music hit Please, Please, Please in 1956, but failed to follow up with anything significant.

Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke

The door was left open for Chicago record producers on the Southside. They had access ot all the ingredients to propel Soul Music, principally from South Michigan Avenue district known as “Record Row.”

Those record producers could ask Gospel Music recording artists and church vocalists to collaborate with Blues rhythm sections for up-tempo musical accompaniment. A honey-voiced, handsome Gospel vocalist emerged as the strongest engine to that commercial boom. When Chicago-native, Gospel singer Sam Cooke recorded You Send Me in 1957, the stars aligned. Though You Send Me was recorded on a label outside Chicago with a Pop music background, Sam’s vocals clearly represented the epitomy of new sound later identified as “Soul Music.”

No “One-hit Wonder”, 29 of the next 40 releases by Sam Cooke went on to become hits. And when the Impressions’ For Your Precious Love was released in 1958 on a Chicago record label, it convinced listeners that Soul Music would live long and prosper. Chicago-raised Eugene Record and the Chilites, Jimmy Reed, Spaniels, The Dells, Betty Everett, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Tyrone Davis, the Five Stairsteps, and Curtis Mayfield first performed or recorded here. With 800,000 Black residents by 1960, Chicago had no problem producing Soul Music talent, as Black secular music tastes started shifting away from Rock & Roll.

Speaking of record companies, Vee Jay, Chess, King, Chance and other smaller labels began on Cottage Grove on the Southside. They and Mercury Records, moved to South Michigan Avenue in the 1950s and 60s, when it became the most affordable real estate closest to Downtown. National and regional record distributors and agents joined them to create a complete music industry ecosystem. Alas that industry in Chicago, like most other cities except was short-lived. Industry economics pooled the largest bank accounts in NYC, LA and Nashville enabling music companies in those cities to buy out record labels or their catalogs in Chicago and other cities.

Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and James Brown established the vocalization pattern of Soul and Neo-Soul balladeers heard today. But Sam’s background helped him bring a little something extra to the table. An established Gospel star since 1950, Sam Cooke as a member of the Soul Stirrers, was well known to Black church congregations nationwide. He was accustomed to sold out concerts in churches and good records sales by gospel standards. Trying to avoid controversy with his first secular reord in 1956, his first pop single Lovable was relased under the alias Dale Cooke. No one was fooled though and reord sold well. Then he really burst onto the larger musical landscape with the 1957 release of his million-selling single, You Send Me. That song rose to #1 in the Pop and R&B markets making it a huge crossover hit.

The song’s innovative blend of Gospel, Pop, and R&B earned Sam Cooke a disputed claim (along with Ray Charles and James Brown) to the title of “The Man Who Invented Soul Music.” He would eventually chart an amazing 34 Top 40 R&B hits over his brief Soul Music career, with most songs like You Send Me and I’ll Come Running Back to You written by Sam himself. Cooke also wrote and recorded such classics as Chain Gang, Cupid, Having a Party and the anthem, A Change is Gonna Come. At a time when record labels often left even the most talented and successful artist broke and penniless, Sam Cooke was one of the first artists of any race to buck the system and demand ownership of his career.

The success of Sam Cooke, James Brown and Ray Charles made it easier for Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross to prosper. R. Kelly continues that tradition of Chicago vocalists who sing Soul Music in the Hip-Hop era. Listen carefully to R Kelly and you’ll clearly hear the voice of Sam Cooke, reborn. Before his untimely death in December 1964, Sam Cooke was the first big Soul Music artist to establish his own record label and production company. In other words, he kept most of the money. Imagine Luther Vandross combined with business acumen of Russell Simmons. We can only speculate how much bigger Sam Cooke’s company would be compared to today’s Hip-Hop moguls.

Chicago Artist Reviews and Audio Clips courtesy of

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