Skip to main content

Jim DeRogatis

50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music — Soul And R&B

Some music historians call the African-American sounds that emerged in Chicago in the mid-’60s and thrived for the next decade and a half “soft soul.” This always has seemed like a misnomer to me, both in terms of the fiery passion inherent in the best music and the hard-hitting messages of the lyrics.

Whatever name you choose to give it — and we could just as easily use funk or R&B — the influence of this city’s blues and gospel roots often loom large. And the contributions of most of the giants here endure, none more so than with our first entry.

19. Curtis Mayfield

“Our purpose was to educate was well as to entertain.”

Born in Chicago and raised in part in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, Curtis Lee Mayfield first made his mark in the music world as one of the golden voices in the Impressions (and a shout-out here to the man who formed that combo, Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler).

Mayfield’s inspirational message of equality and self-empowerment was evident from the beginning, with songs such as his 1965 composition “People Get Ready,” the Impressions hit that became a Civil Rights anthem. That message was only amplified during the solo career he launched in 1970, and which also found him working as a producer and the head of the independent record label Curtom.

Always smooth and infinitely soulful, Mayfield was a master of subtle subversion, as evidenced by his famous soundtrack for the 1972 blaxpoloitation film Super Fly. Far from glorifying the gangster mentality, as Isaac Hayes did with Shaft and as is all too common in gangsta rap to this day, Mayfield excoriated the conditions which led to urban violence, including poverty, drugs and our country’s chronic neglect of its inner cities.

Mayfield remained inspirational, too, for the way he lived with incredible grace and generosity, even after he was paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him during a performance in 1990. He died from complications from diabetes at age 57 in 1999.

20. Sam Cooke

“As a singer grows older, his conception grows a little deeper, because he lives life and he understands what he is trying to say a little more … If a singer tries to find out what’s happening in life, it gives him a better insight on telling the story of the song he is trying to sing.”

Born in Mississippi, Samuel Cooke was only a few years old when the Great Migration brought his family to Chicago in 1933. He started singing with his siblings at age 6 and never stopped throughout a life that was far too short, ending at age 33 when he was shot to death by the manager of a Los Angeles motel in 1964.

After winning chart success as a member of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, Cooke scored an incredible string of cross-over pop hits starting in 1957, including “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Chain Gang,” “You Send Me,” “Another Saturday Night” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.”

Cooke’s chart-topping success took him further from Chicago than many of the artists this series is claiming as hometown heroes. But the sound of the city — and in particular the gospel choirs that formed his musical foundation — never faded, no matter how far he ventured from the shores of Lake Michigan.

21. Lou Rawls

“Music is the greatest communication in the world. Even if people don’t understand the language that you’re singing in, they still know good music when they hear it.”

Like Cooke, Louis Allen Rawls belongs to the world, but his roots are in Chicago. He was born here in 1933, became a childhood friend of Cooke’s, and started singing in the Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church choir at age 7.

Rawls moved to Los Angeles to join the Pilgrim Travelers in his late teens and rejoined the group after a stint in the 82nd Airborne. In the early ’60s, he signed to Capitol Records, where Frank Sinatra was a big fan. There he started a solo career that would sell 40 million records, including hits such as “Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing,” “Dead End Street,” “A Natural Man” and “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”

The singer and songwriter died in 2006 at age 72.

22. Gene Chandler

“[Originally], it wasn't 'Duke,' it was, 'do. dee, oh.' But I said that's kind of silly.”

Born in Chicago and a graduate of Englewood High School, the former Eugene Drake Dixon put 19 songs in the Top 40 between 1962 and 1970. But he’ll always be best known for 1962’s “The Duke of Earl,” a regal title he personified in top hat, cape, and monocle.

Listen to Chandler recount his long and fascinating career on Sound Opinions here.

23. Chaka Khan

“We need to learn how to love one another as women—how to appreciate and respect each other.”

Born in Chicago and raised in Hyde Park, Yvette Marie Stevens adopted the name the music world knows her by as a young social activist and member of the Black Panthers. She first won widespread fame in the early ’70s as a singer, drummer and songwriter for the funk band Rufus (“Tell Me Something Good”) before starting a solo career in 1978 and scoring a massive disco hit with the immortal epic of female empowerment, “I’m Every Woman.”

Among her many fans: Prince (with whom she toured and recorded), super-producer Quincy Jones and of course Oprah, who turned to her for the show’s most loved theme song.


24. Earth, Wind & Fire

“I started EWF because I had a vision, and music was playing in my head that I wanted to bring through. What I had in mind was exactly what Earth, Wind & Fire became.” — Maurice White

Soul and funk’s premier big band really got going in Los Angeles, but Earth, Wind & Fire deserves its place on this list because it was indeed founded in Chicago in 1970 by Maurice White, a former session drummer for Chess Records who linked up with several other local musicians after the end of his first band, the Salty Peppers.

Then, too, there is no denying the group’s sartorial splendor, that kicking horn section (take that, Chicago!), or a string of hits including “Shining Star,” “Sing A Song,” “Fantasy” and “Boogie Wonderland,” all of which have that uniquely Chicago base of gospel church transcendence and blues juke-joint bacchanalia.

25. Donny Hathaway

“When I think of music, I think of music in its totality, complete. From the lowest blues to the highest symphony, you know, so what I’d like to do is exemplify each style of as many periods as I can possibly do.”

Hathaway is probably the least familiar name in this installment, unless people know he was the voice behind the eternal holiday standard “This Christmas.” But his legacy stands because of an unforgettable voice — he was universally considered “a singer’s singer” — as well as stylistic innovations that brought elements of jazz, blues and gospel to a string of soulful hits before his life, like Cooke’s, was tragically cut short at age 33.

Although he was raised by his grandmother in St. Louis, Hathaway was born in Chicago, and he returned here to launch his musical career at Curtom Records as a songwriter, session musician and producer working for Mayfield. The latter’s social conscience echoes in several of Hathaway’s best songs, including “The Ghetto.” Other hits that followed once he moved on to Atco included “Someday We’ll All B Free,” “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” and many collaborations with his friend Robert Flack.

Hathaway continues to be cited as a huge inspiration by many R&B artists today, prime among them our final entry this week.

26. R. Kelly

“I only feel sorry for weak people. And mostly what I’ve come to find is that the weak people are the ones that are the haters.”

By the sheer force of his commercial accomplishments — the singer, songwriter and producer has outsold every other artist on this list — Robert Sylvester Kelly must be included here. And his talents as a singer, songwriter and arranger can’t be denied, even if his recordings (except on the rare occasions when he’s consciously evoking old-school gospel or “dusties soul”/stepping music) can be way too slick and over-produced. 

But Kelly raises the troublesome question of whether we should celebrate his music when we know about his legacy of hurting so many young women (which this blog recounted at length in 2013). Can we ever really separate the art from the artist? And should we?

Every listener must ultimately answer for themselves on a case by case basis. For me, the answer is yes, we generally should separate the art from the artist — unless the art is in large part about behavior by the artist that has hurt others. And that, I believe, is indeed the case for the unrestrained and selfish vision of sexuality that dominates Kelly’s work, from “Bump N’ Grind” to “I Believe I Can Fly,” and from “Trapped in the Closet” to last year’s Christmas album.

As a listener, I can take no pleasure in Kelly’s music. And, like many, I find none of the inspirational powers or bottomless reservoirs of soul in the work of everyone else here.

About this series:

In my “other” role as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of several “Big Chicago” classes intended to introduce first-semester students to the rich and diverse culture of Chicago. “Music & Media in Chicago” has made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your overview of Chicago music here!”

In comparison to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Mind you, this and every installment of “Chicago Music History 101” is just one critical fan’s take on what is most in need of recognition from our long and rich sonic legacy.

Limiting the series to “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music” is completely arbitrary — it could have been 100, or 1,000 — and I’m leaving other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. This overview also is entirely subjective: Every reader and listener can and should have their own list. This simply is a place to get the conversation started.

Special thanks to ace director and videographer Andrew Gill, online majordomo Tricia Bobeda, and former digital intern Jack Howard for all of their help.

Click here for Part One in this series, the Blues.

Click here for Part Two in this series, Chess Records and Early Rock ’n’ Roll.

Click here for Part Three in this series, Gospel.

Click here for Part Four in this series, Rock in the ’60s and ’70s.

Follow me on Twitter at @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast or stream Sound Opinions.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X