A Book on Chicago's Soul Scene

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Picture this: The year is 1958. Singer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield is making his way down Michigan Avenue to Vee-Jay Records—the hottest label in the Midwest—to jump-start Chicago’s contribution to one of the greatest genres ever: soul. That’s how author Aaron Cohen starts his latest book, Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power ($20, University of Chicago Press), tracing a thrilling path through the boom of Chicago soul music from the ’50s to the early ’80s, and the parallel rise of the civil rights movement and episodes of social unrest in the city. As the Impressions singer Jerry Butler notes in the book, “most of what’s done in this city is prompted by politics—and most of black politics is supported by music.” As Cohen dug deeper into soul, he was frustrated by the narrow focus on Detroit and Memphis as epicenters of the genre. “I always felt that more needed to be told in terms of soul music’s role in Chicago,” the Evanston native says. More than 100 interviews and 21 years later, the book is finally complete, featuring anecdotes from greats like Chaka Khan and lesser-known contributors like producer Johnny Pate, who arranged Mayfield’s wildly successful solo album Super Fly. Even so, Cohen wished he could have snagged just a couple more interviews. “I really regret not starting sooner,” he says. “People don’t last forever. I wish I was smart enough to know that earlier.”

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