Your Guide To Chicago Music History’s Greatest Hits

Music Education Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Music Education Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Your Guide To Chicago Music History’s Greatest Hits

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When music teacher Jose Lomeli was in graduate school studying classical guitar performance, he took a class in music curriculum development. It got him wondering about what he’d learned as a student in Chicago Public Schools. As a kid, he loved listening to music, especially artists like Muddy Waters and Smashing Pumpkins. He says he was surprised when he later found out that both artists hailed from his hometown.

“I’m a first generation Mexican-American growing up in Chicago,” he says. “Once I learned that some of the artists that I was interested in were from Chicago, it was a way for me to connect with the city.” 

But he never learned about those musicians in school. So he wrote in to Curious City asking:

Why doesn’t Chicago Public Schools have a citywide music curriculum to teach and celebrate the city’s rich musical heritage?

Well, about a decade ago, CPS’ office of arts education actually did put together an arts instruction guide that includes sample lesson plans and sections on Chicago music history. But teaching about local Chicago musicians is not required, and CPS officials say they don’t know when or if the arts teaching guide has ever been used.

So Jose, we’ve put together a little do-it-yourself guide to learning about Chicago music history. We broke it down into nine genres and asked music journalists, historians, writers and artists to give us 10 essential songs to guide you through the genre. Think of it as a CliffsNotes, if you will, to help you through your Chicago cultural cred class. Happy studies!

Listen to part II:

“Chicago blues was one of the byproducts of the Great Migration. African-American migrants brought acoustic musical traditions from the rural South and blended them with the sounds and instruments of the urban North to create a more electrified sound featuring electric guitar and harmonica, a sound better suited to be heard in loud, raucous clubs. The scene was both nurtured and bolstered by a host of important local record labels including Chess, Delmark, Alligator, Cobra and Bluebird Records.”

— Ayana Contreras, author and host of WBEZ’s Reclaimed Soul

Top Ten Chicago Blues Tracks

(According to Ayana Contreras, author and host of WBEZ’s Reclaimed Soul)

Country/Folk Header
“The (Chicago-based) National Barn Dance country radio show that started in the early ‘20s was quite a significant national presence. … During the folk revival you had clubs like the Gated Horn, the Quiet Knight and the Earl of Old Town with musicians like Bob Gibson, John Prine and Steve Goodman who were quite important. … Chicago also had Ella Jenkins, Smithsonian folkways’ best-selling musician of all time. … And then you have the Old Town School of Folk Music [that Roche led from 2000 to 2005] and the Wiggleworms program, where hundreds of young musicians have worked as music educators in a very positive way in terms of seeding future musicians of Chicago.”

— David Roche, nonprofit arts & culture consultant

Top Ten Chicago Country/Folk Tracks

(According to David Roche, nonprofit arts & culture consultant)

Gospel Header
“When African-Americans from the south moved to Chicago in the late 1920s, their spirituals, hymns and congregational singing met the blues and jazz of the city — and gospel was born. After founding the first two gospel choruses in Chicago, Thomas A. Dorsey went on to write one of the most popular gospel songs of all time, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Later, Chicago’s Roberta Martin and James Cleveland helped popularize gospel music with flowery keyboard flourishes and zesty lead and ensemble singing. For 90 years, gospel has thrived in Chicago — from soloists, groups and choirs to male and female quartets and, most recently, an acoustic slow jam praise and worship sound characterized by Grammy-nominated singer Jonathan McReynolds.”

— Robert Marovich, editor of the Journal of Gospel Music

Top Ten Chicago Gospel Tracks

(According to Journal of Gospel Music editor Robert Marovich)

House Header

“House music is the Chicago beat, known for unifying people of all diversities on dance floors worldwide. What started in the 80’s as a youth explosion in the Bridgeport vinyl pressing plant where Trax Records was born changed the sound of pop music forever. With little in the way of resources, no blueprint for the sound, or marketing, the House sound of Chicago is now the global sensation which launched DJ culture as it is known today!”

— Rachael Cain, president of Trax Records and house artist known as Screamin’ Rachael

Top Ten Chicago House Tracks

(According to Rachael Cain, president of Trax Records and house artist known as Screamin’ Rachael)

Hip Hop Header
“Chicago hip-hop really started to take hold in the ‘90s with Common and his key song “I Used to Love H.E.R.” It sort of put the stamp on the kind of conscious, soul-based hip-hop coming out of Chicago. The production on those early Common records by No I.D. was also a signature sound. Those two artists — Common and No I.D. — had a tremendous influence on subsequent eras. … [Later], the influence of the open mic scene at the Chicago Public Library and the Young Chicago Authors scene [gave] a literary [and] gospel bent to a lot of the music that was emerging out of Chicago in subsequent years. … Today, it’s almost impossible to name all of the hip-hop artists that have emerged from Chicago that have made a national impact — Chance, Vic Mensa, Noname, Sir the Baptist, Jamila Woods, it goes on and on.”

— Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune music critic and co-host of WBEZ’s Sound Opinions

Top Ten Chicago Hip-Hop Tracks

(According to Chicago Tribune music critic and Sound Opinions co-host Greg Kot)

Jazz Header
“From early traditional jazz performers who came up from New Orleans during the Great Migration and avant-garde musicians to young innovators today who are influenced by hip-hop and international sounds, Chicago has served as fertile ground for innovation, mentorship and musicians building on and re-interpreting the work of artists who preceded them.”

— Lauren Deutsch, former executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago

Top Ten Chicago Jazz Tracks

(According to Lauren Deutsch, former executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago)

Latin Header
“The history of Latino presence in the Chicagoland area dates back to the 19th century. Our communities always had an active music life. Some of the earliest records are not surprisingly part of the early history of the sound recording industry of which Chicago was a pioneering hub. Throughout the 20th century, the size of the community grew, and music styles evolved with the times: mambo and rumba in the 1950s, mariachi and bolero in the 1960s, salsa and cumbia in the 1970s, folk in the 1980s, and Duranguense and even punk rock on the 1990s, etc. Today, the Latino community thrives with a rich variety of performers, educational programs, venues, festivals and broadcasting outlets that nurture the continued development of Latin music.”

— Juan Dies, ethnomusicologist, co-founder of Sones de Mexico Ensemble

Top Ten Chicago Latin Tracks

(According to Juan Dies, music teacher and co-founder of Sones de Mexico)

Polka Header
“Polka music gave people whose parents and grandparents emigrated from eastern Europe, primarily Poland as far as Chicago goes, a connection to their roots and a voice to their identity. It was also the background for a Friday night out at the local tavern or a Saturday night wedding, and a Sunday picnic at one of the Forest Preserve pavilions around Chicago. It was and is happy music that allowed people to forget their problems for a few hours and helped them live happier lives.”

— Patrick Henry, veteran polka promoter and DJ

Top Ten Chicago Polka Tracks

(According to veteran polka promoter and DJ Patrick Henry)

“Chicago’s rock scene, in addition to producing a large number of notable artists and bands since the ’60s, has been an incubator of national and international trends over the decades and a cornerstone of genres such as noise rock (Big Black, the Jesus Lizard), industrial (Ministry, Revolting Cocks), alternative/insurgent country (Wilco, Handsome Family) and post-rock (Tortoise, Gastr del Sol, the Sea and Cake).”

— Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune music critic and Sound Opinions co-host

Top Ten Chicago Rock Tracks

(According Chicago Tribune music critic and Sound Opinions co-host Greg Kot)

“Chicago soul emerged out of a Doo Wop sound that took on a layer of elegant horns and strings on songs like “Selfish One” by Jackie Ross. Later, it became characterized by remakes of older tunes like “Oh What A Night” and album-oriented fare like Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” The scene thrived during the 1960s, but even after the recording scene slowed down, Chicago continued to crank out impressive soul acts as big as Earth Wind & Fire.”

— Ayana Contreras, author and host of WBEZ’s Reclaimed Soul

Top Ten Chicago Soul Tracks

(According to Ayana Contreras, author and host of WBEZ’s Reclaimed Soul)

More about our questioner

Jose Lomeli grew up in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and says he was so passionate about music as a kid that he made it his career. He received his master’s degree from Northwestern University in classical guitar performance and he teaches and performs around the city.

Jose says he thinks learning about local music history would make a difference for young Chicagoans.

“I hope it can inspire curiosity in the music that took place in the neighborhoods, and uncover the stories and history of people who make music where we live,” he says.

And, his reaction when we told him that Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and Diana Washington all went to the CPS high school Wendell Phillips Academy?

“Oh, imagine the music program there at the time.”

Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @monicaeng.