BY ROSALIND CUMMINGS-YEATES
Credit Myriam Santos
Chance The Rapper
Chicago’s rich music history includes so many genres and influential artists that the depth and breadth of the city’s contributions reach into every era and tradition. Although Chicago is noted for developing distinctive blues, jazz, house, R&B and gospel styles, the city’s significant musical impact also extends to rock, hip-hop and pop. The city’s central location and accessible studios, venues, music festivals and apprenticeship communities have established Chicago as an international music powerhouse.
It’s always good to start at the beginning, and for American music, that means blues. Blues music developed in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, when enslaved workers sang call-and-response chants and hollers in the rhythms they had brought from Africa. Around the beginning of World War I, the development of brutal Jim Crow laws drove many African Americans from Mississippi to Chicago, which was directly accessible on the Illinois Central Railroad. They joined the Great Migration movement from the South to the North, hopped the trains and took their rural blues traditions with them.
After arriving in the bustling city, blues artists adapted the music to their new environment. The harmonica and guitar of the country blues evolved to include the piano, a popular feature in Chicago clubs and taverns. The tone, arrangements and lyrics changed to reflect the urban sophistication of city life. By the 1920s, this new blues sound started to be recorded by Chicago record labels like Bluebird and Rialto. It soon exploded into nationwide popularity, with blues stars like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith recording songs here and driving an awareness of Chicago as a blues incubator.
By the 1940s, Chicago had developed into the national center for blues recording and the signature Chicago blues sound emerged at Maxwell Street Market. This open-air marketplace attracted huge crowds and a prime audience for blues musicians. They started hooking up amplifiers so that their music could carry across the extensive market and the electric, amplified rhythms of Chicago blues was born. This arrangement of amplified guitar and harmonica with a rhythm section of drum and bass defined Chicago blues and was the pivotal foundation for rock, R&B, jazz
and pop music.
Shemekia Copeland: A second-generation blues phenomenon as the daughter of Texas blues guitar legend Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, Shemekia’s powerhouse vocals, social/political commentary and eclectic song choices have helped modernize Chicago blues. Her tongue-in-cheek humor, expert songwriting skills and nuanced vocals have supplied a fresh perspective to the Chicago blues scene.
Koko Taylor: The undisputed “Queen of the Blues,” Koko Taylor was famous for life-altering performances, a formidable contralto and distinctive growls that filled her tunes. She released her signature song, the raucous “Wang Dang Doodle,” in 1964 and proceeded to dominate the blues scene for four decades. Her command of the stage and ferocious delivery continues to influence the countless blues women who followed in her footsteps.
Influential Chicago Blues Artists
As the legendary “home of the blues,” the number of important Chicago blues artists is vast. It would require a book to name everyone, so here are a few that have left a significant impact on the genre
Big Bill Broonzy: A prolific songwriter and guitarist who helped shape the Chicago blues sound from the 1930s to the 1950s. An expert of the fingerpicking style, Broonzy played on hundreds of blues tunes for Bluebird records, the foremost Chicago blues label of the era. He was also noted for his songwriting and storytelling skills, which are reflected on his classic songs like “Key to the Highway,” “Digging in My Potatoes” and “Unemployment Stomp.” Broonzy served as a mentor for Muddy Waters and is an acknowledged influence on Howlin’ Wolf, Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton.
Elmore James: Nicknamed the “King of the slide guitar,” James left a huge impact on Chicago blues as well as blues rock, which he’s credited with creating. His distorted, amplified and intense vocals helped cement the Chicago blues style. He dominated the Chicago blues scene during the 1950s with hits like “Dust My Broom,” “The Sky is Crying,” and “Shake Your Money Maker.” His distinctive guitar playing led him to be inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Memphis Minnie: A standout talent who defied the gender expectations of the time, Memphis Minnie played guitar when few blues women played any instrument, and she regularly battled and won guitar showdowns against Chicago bluesmen. Wearing a ball gown and flashing a gold tooth, she became a major Chicago blues star after blowing Big Bill Broonzy under the table in a guitar showdown. Memphis Minnie wrote many blues classics including “When The Levee Breaks,” covered by Led Zeppelin and “Black Rat Swing,” later recorded by the queen of the blues, Koko Taylor. She is a major influence on female musicians including Bonnie Rait, Ruthie Foster and Maria Muldaur.
Muddy Waters: Chicago’s most famous bluesman, Muddy Waters is known as the father of modern Chicago blues, but his influence stretches past the city to all over the world. He helped pioneer and promote Chicago blues style with dazzling showmanship and musical innovation. Waters took the Delta blues standards he had heard growing up in Mississippi and amplified them with new tones and soaring guitar riffs. Signed to Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, he pumped out a string of classic blues hits, aided by bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon, who wrote songs specifically for him. His pioneering hits include “Got My Mojo Working,” “Mannish Boy” and “Rollin’ Stone,” the inspiration for both the magazine and the British rock group. He earned six Grammy awards and induction in both the Blues Hall of Fame and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, influencing every electric guitarist who draws on the blues.
Just like electric blues, Chicago is also the birthplace of gospel music, which stemmed from the same rhythms and the Great Migration journey. When African Americans first arrived from the South, the music in their Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal reflected the formal hymns and stiff phrasing from the choirs. The sound changed when Thomas A. Dorsey, who also worked as a bluesman called Georgia Tom, started writing gospel tunes that combined blues rhythms with more expressive Pentecostal elements. Although they initially looked down on the “worldly” treatment of church music, pastors realized that it attracted more church members.
Gospel choirs started to sprout up all over the South Side and he formed the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses to train them at Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Thomas served as the musical director. By the 1940s, gospel choirs all over the country were copying the upbeat Chicago gospel style. His songs like “Take my Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley” became gospel standards and Chicago radio stations began broadcasting local Sunday church services, further expanding gospel’s reach.
Influential Chicago Gospel Artists
The list is also long for Chicago gospel artists who have made an impact,
so here are a few highlights:
Mahalia Jackson: Revered as the “Queen of Gospel” and considered one of the most influential singers of the 20th century, Mahalia Jackson took gospel beyond the church and all over the world. Her rich, soaring vocals touched all who heard it and she scored the highest-selling gospel single in history with “Move On Up A Little Higher” in 1947. She hosted her own gospel show on TV, toured Europe and sang at the inauguration for John F. Kennedy. An active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, she sang at the March on Washington and at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mahalia left a lasting impact on listeners of all faiths.
Albertina Walker: Mentored by Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker paved her own path as a gospel legend by forming The Caravans, a groundbreaking gospel group that produced exceptional vocal talent including Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Norwood and Inez Andrews. Accompanied by the famed gospel pianist James Cleveland, Walker and the Caravans became the most popular female group in gospel. As a solo artist, she produced more than 60 albums and earned a place as gospel royalty.
The Staple Singers: Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his singing children Mavis, Yvonne, Cleo and Pervis set the standard for successful gospel groups breaking into mainstream music. Defined by Pops’ evocative guitar, Mavis’ smokey contralto and the group’s silky harmonies, the Staple Singers amassed gospel hits like “Uncloudy Day,” “Swing Down Chariot (Let Me Ride)” and “Help Me Jesus” for Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records. But that was just the first act. They recorded social protest songs, including Bob Dylan tunes, to a new following in folk and rock clubs. By the ’70s they had conquered R&B with hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” Mavis has maintained a solo career since the ’60s and her gospel-inflected R&B has been joined by a striking range of collaborators including Prince, David Byrne and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.
Jonathan McReynolds: With emotionally-charged vocals and a direct approach to songwriting, Jonathan McReynolds has been called the future of gospel. After producing his debut album in his Columbia College dorm room, Jonathan has gone on to win a Grammy for his song “Movin On” and act as a judge on the gospel music competition Sunday Best.
With celebrated blues and gospel traditions to lay the framework, it’s no surprise that Chicago has birthed an impressive line-up of R&B and soul stars. Spearheaded by Vee-Jay Records, one of the first Black-owned, female-led record labels in the country (and the first U.S. label to record The Beatles), the city started delivering tunes that blended Chicago blues with gospel harmonies and hard-charging harmonies. This Chicago brand of R&B would influence generations of musicians.
Influential Chicago R&B Artists
The number and relevance of Chicago R&B and soul artists is almost endless, especially considering the number of singers who switched between gospel and R&B regularly.
Here are just a few who changed the game:
Sam Cooke: Armed with a smooth, heart-snatching voice, keen songwriting and political awareness, Sam Cooke is credited as the inventor of soul music. The son of a Baptist minister, Cooke captivated the gospel world as the teenage lead singer of The Soul Stirrers, a pioneering group that spurred the development of the quartet style of gospel singing. He left gospel to sing secular music and combined his gospel harmonies with R&B tempos to create soul music. He was the most successful Black artist of the era, with a string of classic hits including “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang” and the political anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come.” He was also a civil rights and entrepreneurial leader, as one of the first Black artists to start his own publishing company and record label.
Earth Wind & Fire: Combining elements of jazz, R&B, funk and pop, Earth, Wind & Fire is one of the most innovative bands ever. Influenced by founder Maurice White’s interest in metaphysics, the group’s music focused on themes of universal love and cosmic expansion. EWF’s genre-bending hits include “Shining Star,” “September” and “Let’s Groove.”
Chaka Khan: Electrifying vocals and a commanding stage presence has earned Chaka Khan the title “Queen of Funk.” With a career that has spanned five decades, Khan has released 22 albums with classic hits like “Sweet Thing,” “I’m Every Woman” and “I Feel For You.”
Jennifer Hudson: The pride of the South Side, Jennifer Hudson sharpened her vocals singing in church and rose to fame as a finalist on the third season of American Idol. Besides a successful music career, Hudson has blazed a path as an actor, winning an Oscar for her role in the movie “Dreamgirls” and as a producer, earning a Tony award for the musical “A Strange Loop.” She is one of only 17 people to attain the elusive “EGOT,” winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award.
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, while New York was perfecting the hip-hop genre, Chicago was developing house music. Played at house parties and small clubs throughout the South Side, the blend of disco, jazz and funk with gospel tones was infused with electronica and synth beats. Pioneering house DJ Frankie Knuckles spun these diverse and danceable records at a cramped club called The Warehouse and by the early ’80s, the genre had taken the name of its birthplace and was dubbed house. The scene was largely gay, Black and Latino and the culture was more inclusive and celebratory than Chicago’s mainstream clubs of the era. Knuckles soon opened his own club, The Power Plant, and more house DJs sprang up, most notably, The Chosen Few, a collective that continues to host parties and the annual Chosen Few Picnic & Festival in Jackson Park to this day. Radio stations started hosting house programs, record labels were formed and the music exploded all over the globe.
Influential House DJs
Several house DJs helped expand and innovate the genre as it became a worldwide phenomenon.
Frankie Knuckles: The “Godfather of House” created the blueprint for the genre by playing disco, soul and sometimes rock records, with European electronic tunes. His masterful remixes and sets are still played today.
Ron Hardy: After Frankie Knuckles left, The Warehouse became the Muzic Box and Ron Hardy took over as resident DJ, developing the concept of extended edits and playing records pitched at a high volume.
Derrick Carter: Working across Chicago’s club scene, Derrick Carter captivated crowds with an eclectic mix of old-school disco with soul and jazz during the mid-’90s. Beloved in Europe, he is the founder of two dance music labels.
With the house scene emerging during the ’80s, Chicago didn’t really establish a hip-hop scene or reputation until the ’90s. Influenced by the city’s historic musicianship and a growing spoken word community, Chicago hip-hop artists don’t fall into any one style, but musicality is one general hallmark. Influences come from everywhere and you will definitely hear that diversity with the city’s hip-hop artists.
Influential Chicago Hip-Hop Artists
Common: One of the first Chicago MCs to gain national acclaim, Common earned attention with his classic 1994 album “Resurrection.” He racked up more recognition with his subsequent albums, “Be” and “Like Water For Chocolate,” before establishing a strong acting career in TV and film.
Twista: Credited as the fastest rapper of all time, Twista is famous for spitting out 280 words per minute. He produced underground albums before scoring the hit “Slow Jamz” with Kanye West and Jamie Foxx.
Lupe Fiasco: Know for multi-layered songwriting and sharp lyricism, Lupe Fiasco grabbed fame with his brilliant 2006 debut, “Food & Liquor.” A proponent of community building and media awareness, he won a Henry Crown Fellowship for community leaders and participated in the MLK Visiting Professorship at MIT for the 2022/23 academic year.
Chance The Rapper: Noted for his versatile style that features jazz and gospel influences, Chance The Rapper earned acclaim for his second mixtape, “Acid Rap” in 2013. He has gone on to win three Grammy Awards and is known for his social activism.