Night Lights: A compilation illuminates the South Side’s ’70s club scene

Light on the South Side book and double LP (Courtesy of Numero Group)

Light on the South Side book and double LP (Courtesy of Numero Group)

There’s a room bustling with self-tailored styles, dancers absorbed with their partners or, eyes closed, with the rhythm alone. A glum-faced, sharply-dressed man navigates the crowd purposefully, as though searching for someone. Another man wearing a pinstripe suit has been captured in a specific but unintelligible gesture, his mouth wide open, eyes half-closed, and hands conscientiously adjusting pearl-white hat. This is the first image in the book component to “Light: On the South Side,” book and double LP tribute to the South Side’s nightclub scene in the 1970s, lovingly presented by Numero Group, a Chicago-based label dedicated to reissuing unheralded archival material.

Numero’s package won’t be released until November, and pre-order copies are sold out, but if you were to turn to the last few pages of the book’s hundred photographs, you might notice a shift in tone: the streets outside the lively clubs documented in these pictures are silent, cracked, and, except for the parked limousines of the absent revelers, bare. Michael Abramson’s photographs, which inspired the project when Numero encountered a Chicago Tribune article about them a year ago, focus on a few clubs and just ten years, from 1965 to 1976. Yet they offer no simple interpretations of the people and music on display, nor of the area that had a reputation as dangerous and unwelcoming to whites like Abramson.

British music critic and “High Fidelity” author Nick Hornby introduces the book of photographs–an odd choice, considering that, he admits, he has only spent a few days at a time in Chicago. Tom Lunt, “Light: On the South Side” coordinator and Numero Group founder, explains that this distance actually makes Hornby an ideal commentator. “Nick is a cultural observer in a unique position to be surprised by the images,” he says, “which is how I think most people will encounter them.” He sees the project as much more than a re-release of obscure music, or even as a historical document of a vanished music scene. In fact, there is not a single photograph of a performing musician among Abramson’s images. “The book isn’t about the music,” says Lunt. “It’s about the audience.”

Hornby’s relationship with this scene is that of a distant spectator gazing romantically into an unfamiliar world. For Abramson, who became close with the patrons and owners of clubs like Pepper’s Hideout and Perv’s House, the camera became a foot in the door of a scene that otherwise might have been wholly inaccessible. A new resident of Evanston, Abramson was casually tipped off to the South Side’s nightclub scene, soon discovering a world of fascinating characters. “The camera was a tool that could justify my presence anywhere,” he writes in the book’s afterward. It allowed him to document the hidden territories of Chicago’s nightlife, but it also made him “a functioning part of the [each] club’s atmosphere.” The very desire to see into the scene caused him to become absorbed in it, much like one of Abramson’s aesthetic forerunners. “Brassaï, who photographed nocturnal Paris in the late 1920s, had always been one of my favorite photographers,” says Abramson. “Being an avowed lover of nightlife, he used his camera to transport himself into a world he longed to hang out in.”

Two LPs worth of Chicago blues and soul accompany Abramson’s resonant images, meant to serve as the jukebox for the hangouts sketched in the “Light: On the South Side” book. Lunt describes the music as in “blues form, just to the right of funk, riff-based, and well aware of what’s going on in rock music.” It’s consistently bluesy, but tailored for the dance floor, lending it a curious edge missing in other soul and funk from the period. But as those involved stress, the music is not the end of the Numero Group’s package. The photos and the music sit side by side as a portrait of nights out packed with stories that might never have been recorded but now have a chance to find new life in collectors’ imaginations. “As with all great photography,” says Lunt, “one’s imagination is a vital part of the process of examining an image.” One senses that he is speaking about the very process of digging through archives, of piecing together histories, as well.