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Unique Collection Of Classic 'Sweet Soul' Music From Chicago Finds New Home

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tennessee. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tennessee. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)

One of the largest private collections of soul music has a new home.

A collection of 35,000 recordings of classic “sweet soul” music from Chicago have been donated to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis by the late Chicago DJ Bob Abrahamian’s family. He died in 2014 at age 35.

A DJ with a passion for Chicago’s signature soul sound, Abrahamian grew up listening to hip-hop in the 1990s — a time when samples dominated the genre, says Jeff Kollath, executive director of the Stax Museum. The museum is located at the original site of Stax Records in Memphis.

Curious to know where the samples came from, Abrahamian dug around thrift stores looking for the “deep soul, deep funk cuts that were being sampled,” Kollath says. Instead, he uncovered a treasure trove of group soul records made by independent labels.

“What he found was a bunch of music that was recorded in and around the south side of Chicago during the 1960s with addresses on the labels,” Kollath says. “And he just took them on this journey that led him to finding so many of these artists and meeting them and interviewing them and telling their stories.”

One song in the collection is “Sitting in the Park” by Billy Stewart — a “perfect example” of the “sweet soul” music coming out of Chicago’s south side in the 1960s with orchestration and harmonies, Kollath says. Compared to cities like Memphis and Detroit, the tight harmonies are the signature of Chicago’s soul.

“[Chicago soul] spawned any number of groups that were part of these local communities,” he says. “And I think that’s what makes this story so, so impactful and powerful is that these are people from the neighborhood making records for their neighbors.”

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“How Could You Love Him” by Shades of Brown and “I Don’t Want To Be Late” by The Notations from the 1970s are two songs in the collection that display the city’s sweet soul sound. And fun songs like “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” by Black Zodiac will always get people on their feet to dance, he says.

Soul music gained popularity in the U.S. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The soul scene and smaller labels in Chicago reflected what was happening in local communities, Kollath says.

Soul music became a “giant source of pride” among Black Americans during the civil rights and Black power movements, he says.

“Not every song is ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ like James Brown. There’s subtle messages throughout,” he says. “But again, it’s all just this connection: connection to community and connection to people.”

One rare record in the collection is The Montclairs’ “Hey You! Don’t Fight It!” — one of the missing pieces of the Stax Museum’s Hall of Records.

The record was released on a subsidiary label, Arch Records, in St. Louis in 1968. After cutting ties with Atlantic Records earlier in the year, Stax Records was signing new artists and distribution deals to rebuild the label’s catalog, Kollath says.

Stax Records signed a deal with Arch Records founder Nick Charles, who was making records in his basement. The rough tracks traveled from St. Louis to Memphis to be completed at Stax Records.

But like many records, “Hey You! Don’t Fight It!” didn’t make a splash upon its release, Kollath says.

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Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of Otis Redding’s first recordings at Stax Records, Kollath says, and Isaac Hayes’ album “Shaft” came out 50 years ago this summer. As the golden age of Stax Records gets further and further away, the people who made the records — artists, session players, producers, graphic artists, photographers — are passing away.

“What we are losing is we’re losing those stories,” he says. “And so I think for us, it’s not only building our collection of physical objects, but it’s building our collection of stories, too, and really just wanting to be able to tell as many people’s stories as possible.”


More Music From The Segment

Black Zodiac, “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is”

Shades of Brown,”How Could You Love Him”

Watch on YouTube.

The Notations, “I Don’t Want To Be Late”

Watch on YouTube.

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.