The crowd hadn’t had enough; at this rate, Hyde Park Records wasn’t going to close on time. Gathered last Saturday at a quarterly “Soul Reunion” hosted by P.J. Willis, a WHPK DJ and member of the “Thursday Night Dusty Steppers Crew,” one thing was clear: a party was brewing.
This autumn’s installment of the soul series was held in honor of the recently deceased Carl Davis, the famed producer of many Chicago soul labels, including Okeh, Brunswick, and Chi Sounds. As one of the first African-American A&R directors, Davis helped recruit black artists and craft the new “Chicago Sound” in soul music. His early records, many of which were based around lyrics and melodies written by a young Curtis Mayfield, are famous for their syrupy sweet, upper-range vocal harmonies paired with equally rich and intricate string and brass arrangements.
The tribute, however, was in no way solemn. As a documentary on the life of Davis was projected onto one wall of the record store, Willis spun hit after hit from the glory days of Northern Soul and stirred the crowd in song and spirit. Adding to the clamor was Dusty Stepper’s DJ, whose resonant voice called out soul-themed trivia questions. “What does the name of Gladys Knights backing band–the Pips–stand for?” he shouted at one point. With raffled off records and prizes awaiting the correct answer, Soul aficionados racked their brains. The answer, according to Willis, was “Power in Performance.”
At one point, the appearance of a large man decked out in a pin-stripe suit and large shades, with a close-cropped, flat-topped afro, caused a minor sensation. “Hey man, I know you. You’re Bobby Hutton!” a man shouted from the back of the store.
To most people, the name Bobby Hutton doesn’t ring any bells, or is otherwise confused with “Lil’ Bobby” Hutton, the founding treasurer of the Black Panthers. However, the Hutton who appeared on Saturday was not a militant activist, but rather a singer.
“Your episode of Soul Train was playing just last night!” Hutton was, in fact, the first singer to appear on a nationally syndicated episode of the Chicago-based variety show. His appearance at the record store prompted the synchronized whipping out of cell phones and disposable cameras to snap a pose with the soul star, who is currently touring to promote his new CD.
Hutton wasn’t the only attendee to turn heads at the event. Another Chicago-area soul singer, Ruby Andrews —known for her hit song “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)” —also surprised the awe-struck crowd with her presence at the tiny neighborhood record shop.
Forced to stay open an hour after its planned closing time to cater to the high demand, Hyde Park Records saw the patrons of the “Soul Reunion” keep foot-tapping and head-nodding into the morning’s early hours. According to Hyde Park Records employee Kevin Jones, Willis is currently keeping the next Soul Reunion, due some time in January, “under wraps,” and has yet to give away any details about the event’s theme or location. Until then, though, Willis will continue dropping dusty soul gems every Thursday night, nine to midnight, keeping Davis’s memory alive and kicking over the airwaves.