Chicago’s black music history is so vast that grasping the connections between hundreds of artists and dozens of groundbreaking record labels can seem impossible. Yet in just six weeks, house music pioneer Vince Lawrence and Chicago advertising agency O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul (OKRP) have created an impressively comprehensive resource for people to learn about the subject.
Throughout Black History Month, the results of their joint effort, 312 Soul, will be updated weekly with video interviews, articles, audio clips, and playlists exploring four musical eras: 1955–1966 (“The Birth of Chicago Soul"), 1967–1976 (Chicago’s Soulful Evolution”), 1977-1984 (“The Dawn of Disco and Funk”), and 1985–1990 (“Where House Was Built").
Lawrence is founder of the music production company Slang Music Group, but he’s most famous for cocreating what many people consider to be the first house record, “On and On,” with Jesse Saunders. Shortly thereafter, he helped found the influential house label Trax Records.
Lawrence has deep connections to Chicago’s recording industry. His father worked with Eddie Thomas of Curtom Records, Curtis Mayfield’s independent label, and in the late 1970s, Lawrence toured as a roadie with local funk singer and songwriter Captain Sky, whose music is frequently sampled by hip-hop artists.
Here, Lawrence discusses the project, from how it came together to what he hopes it achieves.
What is 312 Soul in a nutshell?
312 Soul is an ongoing retrospective of untold stories in Chicago’s black music history. Given the number of superstars that have come out of Chicago — from Nat King Cole to Curtis Mayfield to Sam Cooke, I could just keep naming groundbreaking black artists — there are so many stories that people don’t know because the dots haven’t been connected between them.
What was your inspiration to create it?
My friend Gavin Christopher. He was an original member of Rufus and a bit of a pop star. He signed to Capitol Records and played American Bandstand. Although Gavin was 15 years my senior, I would often call him, and we would talk about songwriting or recording technologies. I woke up one morning in 2016 and Gavin, this huge wealth of information, was gone. That made me think that there must be other hidden treasure troves of music history in Chicago. I’ve grown up around these giants, but the day Gavin passed, I stopped taking that for granted.
So how did that lead to you connecting with OKRP?
I’ve been consulting for OKRP on cultural engagement and music since last spring. When they asked what I would do for Black History Month, I said I’d just tell all of these stories about amazing musicians that nobody knows about even though they should. I cited arranger and producer Tom Washington. He’s been nominated for two Grammys, he’s probably worked on 60 or 70 recordings, and nobody knows who this guy is!
Matt Reinhard, Tom O’Keefe, and tons of people at the agency are real crate diggers. They knew quite a bit about Chicago’s musical history. We started talking about the impact of string and horn arrangements from Chicago music, and then house music’s influence on the world. Everybody needs to know these stories.
Why focus on 1955 through 1990?
There’s a lot of stuff that’s happened since the ’90s, but that’s really not history yet, that’s history in the making. That’s part of why 312 Soul is ongoing. There’s a contact page so we can gather even more stories. We hope that people participate and that it self-propagates. We’re just pushing the snowball down the hill — we want to watch it get bigger on its own.
What have you most enjoyed about interviewing so many major figures in Chicago’s black music history?
The stories. Singer and saxophone player Willie Henderson talked to me about driving up to Detroit to play horns on a session and meeting this little kid named Stevie Wonder. Chess Records producer Gene Barge talked about the Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir, the backing band for Martin Luther King Jr. You never really think about that, but Martin Luther King was rocking stadiums.
The backdrops against which these stories occur are a tremendous inspiration. There’s a whole list of artists that come from the Ida B. Wells and Cabrini-Green housing projects. Maurice and Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire, Tom Washington, Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, all came from our housing projects. These people stand as living proof that you can do it, whatever it is, no matter where you come from.
Some of these artists are incredibly influential but not well known today. Why do you think this is?
Well, Tom Washington’s a string and horn arranger. He’s not the front guy, but he’s responsible for all of the famous licks. He wrote horn parts to “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” by the Jacksons.
Not everyone knows these people, but lots of people know these songs. The Chi-Lites “Are You My Woman?” is basically the music track for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Crazy in Love.” “Move on Up” by Curtis Mayfield is the backing track for “Touch the Sky” by Kanye West. Etta James is the voice in Avicii’s “Levels.” Our effort is shining a flashlight on it.
What do you hope people will take away from the project?
During Black History Month, I really hope people see that black musicians from Chicago have done amazing things through amazing circumstances. Most of the time, artists like this are honored or recognized posthumously. The fact that these people are still here with us, it made it all the more worthwhile for me to be able to celebrate them.
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