Very early on in Move on Up, Aaron Cohen gives his readers, in one line, a manual for reading the rest of his book. He is discussing “For Your Precious Love,” the 1958 song by Jerry Butler and the Impressions. The song is stunning: Butler’s aching baritone (he was 19) is wonderfully accented by Curtis Mayfield’s simple, profound guitar figure (he was 16). The production is a triumph of negative space—there isn’t really too much on the track, but it contains multitudes. As with so much of Move on Up, Aaron Cohen does not want us to pay too much attention to the song itself, but wants to call attention to the worlds it inhabited and created: “While only a few people were on hand for the recording, a community generated the circumstances for this song to be created—and for a larger audience to hear it” (6). The subject of Move on Up, Aaron Cohen insists in the first few pages, is Chicago soul music as a vector of social change. The book does not feature close readings of songs, but it sure does include productive close readings of artistic and political movements, evolving radio station formats, housing project culture, and a number of previously underappreciated Chicago artists, activists, and cultural entrepreneurs.
The stakes are high in Move on Up. While the book does not always insist on the primacy of a legible through-narrative, it is clear most of the time that Cohen wants to insist that we understand the politics and poetics of Chicago soul as mutually constitutive. The headline, ultimately, is the election of Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor in 1983: “That transition from musical performance to governance succeeded because serving is what artists like [Jerry] Butler always did. They convinced people to listen soulfully and to believe in the progress that made the political ascendancy of Harold Washington possible” (163).
“To listen soulfully”: here we have a cognate for Michael Denning’s insistence in Noise Uprising (2015) that years before actual decolonization took place, colonial subjects underwent a process of having their ears decolonized by recorded sound. Cohen’s book tells a tale of African Americans in Chicago in the postwar period using music (and related arts) as part of a larger liberation effort. The election of Washington to the mayoralty might be the headline, but it is not really the main story here. While Cohen cares about, and pays considerable attention to, electoral politics (Jerry Butler himself was elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1986), the real action at once comes with more broad-based cultural achievements of musicians, such as the Impressions, Gene Chandler, and Fontella Bass, and with the more avant garde explorations of such groups as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Affro-Arts Theater.
It should be clear that Move on Up is not a book that is going to fill out your discographical knowledge or your understanding of the key record labels and recording sessions of this era. (Fortunately, we have Robert Pruter’s very solid 1991 book Chicago Soul for all that.) This is a book about a scene and not in the by now familiar subcultural studies approach now reaching middle age: Move on Up is less concerned with labels, venues, and fan behavior than it is with the shaping influence of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategic move into Chicago in 1966, or Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton’s speech at the Affro-Arts Theater in the late 1960s. Cohen’s most valuable contribution here is to demonstrate that the “Black Cultural Power” of his subtitle was forged as a web of political, cultural, and social engagements. From his early years in the Cabrini-Green housing project to his founding of the Songwriters Workshop in 1969, Jerry Butler stands as an emblematic figure for Cohen. In the decade or so stretching from his first popular hit to his leadership role in the community, Butler demonstrates how the general ferment in Chicago’s scene could be embodied in, and expressed by, a single energetic figure. (It is interesting, in this light, that it is Curtis Mayfield who appears on the cover of the book. Mayfield will certainly be a more recognizable figure than Butler for many readers, but he is—strangely?—not a major presence in the book. Perhaps Cohen took note of the fact that Todd Mayfield’s recent book on his father does a more than competent job of exploring Curtis Mayfield’s political and social activism?)
Even more thrilling than Cohen’s good work on Butler is his exploration of the lives and careers of artists who have generally not been understood as “political” figures or who have remained off the historical radar altogether. In the first instance, it is fascinating to see Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler explaining that he felt aligned with the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. but could not really take a “visible role in any of the marches”: “I was not nonviolent” (31). It is even more striking to learn that Tyrone “Can I Change My Mind” Davis was enthralled with the oratory of Fred Hampton and “answered his call” to become more involved in Black political life in Chicago.
And those are just the marquee names: Cohen also makes a significant contribution exploring the careers of figures such as James Mack, nominally a music instructor at Crane Junior College, but ultimately a central player in training a generation of politically conscious musicians (including some future members of Earth, Wind and Fire) and an activist who worked tirelessly to integrate Chicago’s musicians’ union in the mid-1960s. Cohen skillfully weaves together the stories of relatively familiar figures, such as Butler and Mayfield, along with the likes of Mack to narrate a convincing tale of shared mission in this time of community-based cultural ferment.
Perhaps no single figure captures Cohen’s intentions in Move on Up as fully as Phil Cohran, who converted a “former movie theater into a cultural wellspring.” The significance of Cohran’s work with this Affro-Arts Theater is convincingly outlined by Cohen, who gathers testimony about its centrality to the scene from a dazzling range of artists and activists, including a singer originally known as Yvette Stevens: “I remember how happy I felt at the Affro-Arts. It was a great institution in the community. Once you stepped inside the theater it took you into another place, to a place that was spiritually a really high place. I felt like I was in the presence of royalty” (87). Stevens, who would gain fame as Chaka Khan (her new first name was bestowed upon her at a naming ceremony at the Affro-Arts Theater), makes clear that this multipurpose site was central to the development of the scene. As Cohen writes, “Plays, poetry recitations, and dance performances ran concurrently with concerts. Upstairs, the education center offered free classes in Arabic, Hebrew, French, and Swahili, as well as discussions about such health concerns as diet and exercises for proper breathing” (92).
What is perhaps most surprising about Move on Up is, ultimately, how slyly it decenters popular music from its conversation about “Black cultural power.” This is somewhat jarring in a book that articulates in clear detail how Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield managed to comment on the “tribulations of low-wage employment” in a time of serial recessions, (“I’m a-Telling You”) or why we have to hear Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black” as a direct response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. But ultimately Cohen’s animus is to recuperate the titular “Chicago Soul” not primarily as a subgenre of popular music, but as what Raymond Williams taught us to understand under the rubric of “cultural formations” (“simultaneously artistic forms and cultural locations”). The music matters, to be sure, but only insofar as it is produced and received in consequential sites of community activism. It is still surprising to hear Fontella Bass speak of the songs she was recording in this era as “Mickey Mouse music” and counterposing it with the studio jam (and rap) sessions that would break out when the tape stopped rolling in between songs or because “somebody…would mess up”: “[E]verybody would kind of challenge on another…And I’ll play the piano…[T]hat way we got to know one another. We talked about the music, what was going on around town” (58−59).
The map of Aaron Cohen’s Chicago soul includes Black Arts theaters, songwriters’ workshops, gangs, radio stations, high school dances, housing project recreation centers, and—yes—recording studios. In Cohen’s title (as in the Curtis Mayfield song that inspired it) “move” is meant to suggest individual mobility and collective action. But given the broad ambition signaled by the title and subtitle, ultimately the book reads as a series of sketches and not a deeply contextualized history—an impression that is underscored by all the journalistic-sounding chapter titles and subheads Cohen deploys (“Baby Huey and the Babysitters Blend Garage Rock with Rhythm and Blues”). This becomes particularly stark with Cohen’s consideration of gangs: while Cohen nods at the centrality of gangs to Chicago’s artistic and political landscapes, his book includes no reference to the decades of academic and journalistic work that has grappled with the place of these social organizations. Since at least the late 1920s (I am thinking here of Frederic Thrasher’s crucial 1927 work) through more recent work (John Hagedorn’s pivotal 2006 work on race and Chicago gangs, Sudhir Venkatesh’s 2008 Gang Leader for a Day and so on) observers have tried to reckon with the centrality of gangs to Chicago’s urban scene. But Cohen remains surprisingly uninterested in the place of gangs in the larger context surrounding them: you would not know from this book that Mayor Richard Daley announced a “War on Gangs” in 1969.
To his credit, Cohen is committed to centering African Americans in what is, after all, primarily a story of African American cultural production and reception. In some ways the book acts as an answer to the cover of Jerry Butler’s 1961 album Aware of Love, released on the Black-owned Vee-Jay records, but which featured an image of a smiling white couple. Cohen’s respectful reframing enables us to consider (just for instance) the significance of his claim that Chicago’s “vibrant youth culture” made it “the country’s dance music capital” in the mid-1960s. (39) As Cohen puts it, a “new culture sprouted at African American teen dances, and it would unfold to subsequent generations, constituting a social cohesion that would be a step toward…mass movement” (39). Among other things, “these sounds, dances and styles” emerging from Chicago high schools would inspire a WVON personality, Don Cornelius, who would go on to combine “them with more overt social and political messages for his television program Soul Train” (41). That show, like so much of the Windy City cultural activity described in this book, would “reverberate further” than its localized origins would have suggested.