“You can take a walk down Michigan Avenue from Roosevelt Road to Cermak on the sunniest afternoon of the summer, but no matter how bright the light, it won’t illuminate the full history of the street. New condos, bars, and restaurants abound, but only a couple signs remain to hint at this neighborhood’s lasting impact as an incubator of Black popular music from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.
“Back in those years, a different kind of energy flowed down the stretch of Michigan just south of the Loop. Though the street was dingier, some of its buildings—as well as more than a few of its inhabitants—surely overawed the young hopefuls who roamed its sidewalks. Once known as Record Row, this neighborhood indelibly shaped a wide range of Chicago’s diverse musical idioms—soul music especially thrived in this neighborhood. But with the exception of the heralded former site of Chess Records, near Michigan and 21st, this story is largely invisible.
“No doubt Chess did play a pivotal role in this history: its roster brought together youthful talent and virtuosic veterans in musical combinations that still command global audiences generations later. But a litany of other record labels lined these blocks, and some influenced soul music as much as Chess did. Record Row was also home to distributors that made Chicago a hub for the networks that carried these songs around the world. Some of the companies with outposts on the street, such as Cincinnati-based King Records, were established national operations; others were fly-by-night outfits.
“Record Row also offered the kind of community that makes music happen, nurtured by a mix of driven individuals and mutually supportive collectives. Colleagues could woodshed ideas and sculpt them into hits. Songwriters congregated in a workshop sponsored by singer Jerry Butler, while musicians, producers, radio personalities, and managers hung out together at beloved diners. Widespread success and acclaim may have always been long shots, but almost everyone on Record Row felt they had little to lose by aiming high. Ironically, when Ebony magazine decried the lack of Black entrepreneurs in 1961, this street lined with small-scale businessmen and -women was also home to the office of its publisher.” (Cohen, 10/23/19)
Summoning the ghosts of Record Row; For two decades, a short stretch of Michigan Avenue hosted a concentration of creative entrepreneurship whose influence on Black popular music is still felt today. Aaron Cohen, Chicago Reader, 10/23/19
Aaron Cohen spoke about Record Row as part of a discussion of his new book, Move On Up, published by University of Chicago Press. Thu 10/24, 7 PM, Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2665, free, all ages