How The South Side Got Its Groove Back

Coutesy of Numero Group and Andres Rueda

Stories scatter the city’s South Side. Many are kept alive by word of mouth, while others are stored away on slabs of vinyl. As records begin to disintegrate, Numero Group, a South Side-based reissue record company, stands nearby ready to salvage the best.

The Bandit Label

In the late 1960s, 4114 S. Martin Luther King Drive was happening. The two-story greystone was the home of Arrow Brown, leader–perhaps dictator–of the Bandit record label. A transplant from the American South, Arrow was a man of growing ambitions. Arrow threw large weekend parties to develop a network of musicians, his greystone evolving into a mix of harem and commune. From this beginning emerged Bandit’s first signed group, the Arrows. Though Arrow himself was not a member, the name is telling of the label’s dynamics.

The stories of Bandit’s acts weave in and out of focus throughout the label’s precarious lifetime. One of Arrow’s sons, Altyrone Deno Brown, sang in clubs and recorded for the label, eventually taking the title of “Chicago’s answer to Michael Jackson.” Yet despite initial success, his father began squandering his earnings, and Altyrone’s last moment in show business was a brief cameo as a dancer in “The Blues Brothers” film. The label’s only act to outshine Altyrone’s brief run was Johnny Davis; his cut “You’ve Got to Crawl to Me” is a proto-funk classic. Yet Bandit’s best shot at wider success was found mysteriously dead in a trash incinerator in 1973, his body mangled from a twelve-story fall. The sudden loss marked the beginning of the end for Bandit. Arrow’s women and money disappeared, and the bands disintegrated, and the home was robbed of its musical equipment. In 1990, at age 66, Arrow Brown died.

Numerous children survived Arrow, but most either lived estranged from their father or were burned by his commercial pursuits. Many of Bandit’s musicians have since died or want nothing to do with the label. Bandit faded, as the greystone that once housed harem, commune, and label alike fell apart. Its story remained untold, more fitting legend than fact.

The Label

Bandit’s tale may have remained unknown if it were not for Numero Group, founded in 2003 by Ken Shipley and Tom Lunt. The duo, later joined by Rob Sevier, run a reissue record company on the South Side dedicated to the discovery of forgotten sounds that deserve another listen. Bandit was a perfect fit. Initially tipped off by the discovery of an Altyrone Deno Brown single, innocently entitled “Sweet Pea,” Numero began its search.

In a city of three million, finding the relatives of a man with the surname Brown proved daunting. Eventually, the discovery of a living Arrow Brown in the phonebook, Arrow Sr.’s nephew, provided the necessary break. Numero worked its way through the family tree, avoiding schemes for unwarranted profit while trying to find the true story along the way. As it turned out, Arrow’s life did not make for polite conversation.

“The Bandit Label” went on to become Numero’s second release in a series called “Eccentric Soul”. The label’s reach, however, is expansive. Its series “Wayfaring Strangers” looks at personally issued folk recordings, while “Cult Cargo” examines the funk experience across the Americas. Their operations are housed in a modest basement off Marshall Boulevard in Little Village. Covered with boxes, posters, and CDs in clear plastic cases, the crowded rooms reveal the work ethic of a label run by a small group committed to a monumental task. Shipley, sitting in his office with an entire wall of CDs behind him, neatly summarized the label’s mission–“It’s about connecting the music to a larger story, finding the cross of song and story…when the two meet together it’s so perfect, you get a sense for a world that you had no chance to experience.” Outside Shipley’s office, the doorframe is aptly crowned with a CD by Minor Threat, the DIY heroes of the Washington, D.C. hardcore scene. Step into the backroom, and the challenges of running a label became apparent. Numero’s vinyl records and CDs fill up row upon row of shelves. Within each beautifully numbered case is a history as meticulously researched and engaging as that of the Bandit label. Anything else wouldn’t fit the Numero profile.

Light: On the South Side

Released last year, Numero’s “Light: On the South Side” is a multimedia window onto Chicago’s mid-1970s black nightclub scene. The centerpiece of this release is not the music, but a 132-page book containing photographs by the most unlikely of observers: a white 23-year-old living in Evanston. Traveling to the city’s South Side, visiting the likes of Pepper’s Hideout and Perv’s House, Michael Abramson turned his lens not on the club’s musicians, but towards its crowds and characters. The images depict a sharp-dressed scene, at times engaged in theatrics, and at other times irreverent toward the photographer. It is the portraits, however, that stand out. A cinnamon-skinned young woman is pictured in a tall black booth, a man leaning intently toward her, her beauty and charisma mesmerizing. The booth and club are now gone, McCormick Place squatting in their place. Shipley reflected on the strange incorporation of the club into the city’s evolving fabric–“I just went to a Lego Convention [at McCormick Place] with my kid the other day, it was weird…you just realize how close you are to these things, but [the club’s] probably in a dump now.”

The Brotherman Official Soundtrack

The effervescent beauty portrayed in “Light: On the South Side” stands in stark contrast to Numero’s 2008 release “The Brotherman Official Soundtrack”. A search for the accompanying film would be fruitless–it was never made. The “Brotherman OST” is the product of a poorly-funded blaxploitation film about a pusher who matures into a preacher. Hoping to cash in on the success of films such as “Shaft,” whose soundtrack became as popular as the film itself, the project’s producers had the soundtrack for “Brotherman” recorded prior to filming. The band tapped for the job was called The Final Solution. Hailing from the city’s West Side, the vocal quartet of John Banks, Allen Brown, and the Kennedy brothers were unaware of their band name’s use in the Nazi lexicon. For the recording, they were to sing the compositions of Carl Wolfolk, known for penning Tyrone Davis’s hit “Can I Change My Mind.” The recording session was a sign of things to come. The tracks were not granted the orchestral backing Wolfolk had slated for them, but instead were captured with sparse instrumentation–guitar, drums, and bass. Shipley, referring to the record as a “perfect storm,” notes, “Wolfolk’s tuning style was completely off in a way that shouldn’t exist.” The result, however, was of a strange beauty.

Though the financial collapse of the movie made for a perfectly off-kilter album, the storm was not so kind to the members of The Final Solution. The band soon disbanded, and Banks died young — a syringe nearby — shortly afterwards. Wolfolk spent two years trying to wrestle control of the tapes from the film’s producers. They sat dormant for nearly 30 years, and Shipley considers it “a minor miracle” that they surfaced at all.

Twinight’s Lunar Rotation

The lead that tipped Numero off to the miracle discovery of the “Brotherman OST” was found while conducting interviews for a 2007 installation in the “Eccentric Soul” series entitled “Twinight’s Lunar Rotation”. The Twinight label, so named because “Twilight” had already been incorporated, was largely known for their artist, Syl Johnson, who had seven commercial hits on the label. Numero, however, dug deeper, discovering that the Chicago label run by Howard Bedno and Peter Wright was something of a scam. As the owners focused on their radio promotion company, a parade of talented Chicago artists recorded for the label only to find their tracks on the “lunar rotation”–namely, a DJ’s late-night set, played when listening rates are low and the song selection is under less scrutiny from management. Searching through these recordings, Numero captured the Chicago scene in the 60s and 70s as it was transitioning from soul to funk in the commercial shadows. Tracking down “about ninety percent” of the artists, Numero has been able to offer them an “equitable split” from the new release. Fifty and forty years later, some hard work is finally paying off.

The Music of Myth

Numero’s upcoming release at first glance might appear to be its most straightforward–a collection of tracks by Syl Johnson, Twinight’s only star. Yet tall tales and half-truths surround Syl, who never became a national figure, despite success in Chicago. The release is entitled “Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology.” The collection spans fifteen years and contains 81 tracks, 35,000 words of history, and 49 photographs. The box housing the material is hefty and beautiful. Yet all of these resources cannot yield a complete account. Though scholars may long for clarity, the music’s power is only increased by Syl’s shadowy past.

The release of Syl’s music has been four years in the making. When Numero first contacted Syl, who is now in his 70s, Shipley says, “He wanted to sue us, though we hadn’t even done anything yet!” Over the years, however, the output of Numero convinced Syl, fearful of being scammed, to go along with the release. The music now secured, Syl’s life story had to be documented to allow the synergy of song and story, key to any Numero release, to develop.

In interviews, Syl proved enigmatic. He would tell the same story twice in three different ways; Numero had to look deep and hard to find some piece of solid truth. Given the circumstances, the research that appears in the liner notes of “Complete Mythology” is impressive. It is Syl’s own self-mythologizing, however, that provides the most compelling narrative. Information as basic as Syl’s real surname, originally Thompson, poses questions. Is he the son of Robert Johnson, the godfather of blues, as he claims?

Some of the facts, however, cannot be obscured. Just as Syl signed to Hi Records, at the time a force in the industry, Al Green became the label’s focus. As Shipley tells it, “The songs were there…it’s just that there was only room for one star.” During the 1990s, a divorce left Syl in financial ruin. Living alone with just “a television and a mattress,” he was miraculously lifted out of the red by discovering samples of his tune “Different Strokes” in songs by Kid Rock, NWA, and Wu-Tang, among others. Syl now claims, in typical fashion, “‘Different Strokes’ is bigger than ‘Billy Jean’. That thing’s like the national anthem!”

A tendency to bend the truth has a long tradition in the upper echelons of blues history. Robert Johnson, it is said, made a bargain with the devil. Syl, by claiming Johnson as his father, was perhaps pointing us toward a truth no one knew. Though Syl never did reach the top of the national charts, “Complete Mythology” reveals his music to be deserving of the myths he’s been telling for years. Syl himself puts it more plainly–“[I have] more soul than Marvin, and more funk than James…I rate right at the top, though I’ve been underrated my whole life.”

Once “Complete Mythology” is released, Syl will be making an appearance at the Old Town School of Folk Music on November 27. And don’t worry about his age, because, as Syl tells it, “If you listen to me now, damn, my voice is still as good as when I was 28.”

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