Helen Wooten claims the achievement she suffered aftermost year has afflicted her memory, but you wouldn’t apperceive it from the way she reacts to her annual in Light: On the South Side, the Michael Abramson photo book appear in November by the bounded archetype characterization Numero Group. Admitting the uncaptioned snapshot was taken 34 years ago and she’s never laid eyes on it before, the burning she sees it she lights up with enthusiasm. “I can acquaint you absolutely aback this is,” she says, admiring her alluringly attired adolescent cocky captivation cloister with two girlfriends at the Aerial Chaparral nightclub, abreast 77th and Stony Island. Her carnal atramentous outfit, adorned with cutting stars and beaming moons, is interstellar in its elegance—and her blue Princess Leia hairstyle predates the absolution of Brilliant Wars by added than a year. “This is 1976, February 14, Valentine’s Day,” she says. “I had a actualization with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. That’s the day Teddy Pendergrass abdicate the group. He didn’t actualization up, and I had to use the Chi-Lites. I bethink that like it was yesterday.”
The Numero Group’s Rob Sevier, almanac beneficiary Bob Abrahamian, and I accept appear to Wooten’s South Shore home to accord her a archetype of Abramson’s book, which collects added than 100 black-and-white photos of the citizenry of mid-70s south-side nightclubs and lounges. None of us has met her before, admitting Abrahamian has talked to her on the phone. Keni Rightout, best accepted for recording with bounded articulate groups the Traits and the Center Stage, put them in blow in November afterwards Abrahamian showed him a promo video for Light: On the South Side—Rightout went to aerial academy with Wooten and articular her in the clip.
Sevier is actuality because he’s agog to put names to faces—the photos are mostly of accustomed clubgoers, and this is the aboriginal absolute ID of addition Numero agents didn’t already recognize. Abrahamian hopes Wooten will be able to admonition him brighten a few corners in his adventure to certificate Chicago’s articulate groups of the 60s and 70s. And I’ve tagged forth because Abrahamian has told me Wooten was complex aboriginal on with the Jackson Five, whose determinative years are a appropriate absorption of abundance (see my Reader awning adventure from September 10, 2009, “The Jackson Find”).
Flipping through the book on a couch in her active room, Wooten names old accompany on folio afterwards page. Some are infamous—Flukey Stokes, a biologic arbiter who admired to comedy Robin Hood; a pimp alleged Magellan—but most, like Latitia Binion and Diane Tobra, the two women administration her table on folio 30, wouldn’t be accustomed to anyone alfresco her amphitheater of friends.
Judging from Wooten’s home, though, her amphitheater of accompany appears to accommodate the majority of the association of the south and west abandon and about every atramentous celebrity aback the 1960s—when, as a teenager, she aboriginal fabricated a name for herself booking R & B shows in Chicago. Her walls are afraid with copse plaques the admeasurement of coffee tables, covered with photos of her hobnobbing with deejays, body singers, and boxers, their animated faces almost arresting through amber shellac. Stacked on several couches and tables are albums abounding with still added photos: Wooten with LL Air-conditioned J, Wooten with the Jacksons, Wooten with Mike Tyson.
Her home is perpetually active with guests, and on this day they accommodate Tyrone Austin, an old acquaintance who acclimated to sing at the Aerial Chaparral in the 70s. Today he videotapes Wooten attractive through the book while I annual her—footage for an autobiographical blur she affairs to produce. Bristles annual don’t go by afterwards one of her phones ringing: That was Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites. That was the mother of rapper Da Brat. That was accompanist Ruby Andrews, calm accomplice of Robert “Squirrel” Lester, the ailing Chi-Lite (who has aback anesthetized away). A big-screen TV glows with the People’s Choice Awards, and it seems like every added artisan actualization is addition Wooten’s on a first-name base with, acknowledgment to a bisected aeon on the margins or abaft the scenes of the ball business. Her adventure has taken her from arena adolescent aptitude shows to booking all-embracing tours, and forth the way it’s included stints as a alehouse owner, almanac producer, stylist, and blur financer, amid endless added jobs and hustles. Her abounding connections—not aloof to the Jacksons but to all kinds of old-school south-side movers and shakers whose buzz numbers I anticipation I’d never get—make her somebody whose academician I could appropriately aces for days. But I accept no abstraction what an absurd annual I’m about to blunder into.
Wooten is still gazing at her own beauteous photo. “I’ll acquaint you what,” she says. “February 11, three canicule afore that, I had got shot. I came out of accelerated affliction to appear out to that show.”
Born Helen Saffold on June 9, 1949, Wooten was alien to the adulation of her life—music—by her earlier sisters, Joyce, Virginia, and Elois. But it didn’t aching that one of her babysitters was Robert “Stringbean” Tharp, who sang with allegorical west-side doo-woppers the Ideals, best accepted for 1963’s “The Gorilla.” By age ten she and her sisters were autograph songs and singing in aptitude shows. In ’63 she entered Marshall Aerial School, again home to boyhood articulate groups like the Versalettes, the Constellations, the Ivories, the Kittens (whose aboriginal calendar included Joyce), and the Gems (who featured one affiliate from Hyde Park Aerial by the name of Minnie Riperton). That year she and her acquaintance Latitia—the woman cutting the fur hat in the Abramson photo—started a ball accumulation to abutment added acts onstage, and Wooten put calm her own articulate group, the Casuals. “They wasn’t the best singing group,” recalls Rightout, “but they was the sharpest.”
Rightout, who sang with an accouterments alleged the Dimensions while at Marshall, remembers actuality afflicted by Wooten’s developed faculty of actualization and developed composure. “She was very, actual mature,” he says. “She dressed like she was a teacher, and she absolutely ate with the teachers. She was awful admired in school.” That ability accepted to be a far greater asset than her voice. Anon Wooten had taken a above role in acclimation Marshall’s allegorical aptitude show, the Jamboree, allowance accompany in accustomed headliners like Alvin Cash, Above Lance, and Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler to ballast lineups of advancing apprentice groups. In accomplishing so she fabricated contacts that accustomed her to admonition book agnate shows at boyhood clubs and almanac hops off-campus, alike admitting she was still in academy herself.
Wooten says that during her apprentice year she appeared on groundbreaking atramentous radio base WVON as the aboriginal “teen deejay,” inaugurating a long-running articulation in which disc jockey Herb Kent would accompany in a altered aerial academy apprentice anniversary anniversary to accept annal for bisected an hour. She enlisted WVON deejays like Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones to emcee and beforehand the shows she booked, and they became longtime friends; Jones’s babe was amid Wooten’s visitors during my aboriginal affair with her.
Though her assignment for the Jamboree was volunteer, Wooten aggregate the money she becoming booking bands abroad and alive three added after-school jobs—one at a nursing home, one at an Alberto Culver beauty-products factory, and addition accession money at the aback aperture of the Aerial Chaparral, for which she had to lie and say she was 21. By 1967 she’d adored $17,000, which she invested with Spann and Jones, cerebration she was acknowledging their dream of affairs their own station. As she anon realized, however, the deejays were absolutely putting her money into developing the Jackson Five. Aback Spann and Jones gave up on the accumulation and awash their arrangement to Steeltown Records’ Gordon Keith, they told Keith they’d invested about $30,000 in the group—meaning Wooten had technically endemic a pale of added than 50 percent in Michael Jackson and his brothers.
By the 1970s Wooten was marshaling her absorbing administration abilities to beforehand a affectionate of bifold life. She was a alive mother of two—she’d affiliated William R. Wooten in 1968, a year out of aerial school, and kept his name afterwards they divorced—who backward active with babe Toyia, son Charles, and a job as a administrator in the Transportation Service Department at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center. But she connected to accompany her ambitions in the semi-underground ball economy, costs and acclimation shows in Chicago’s still active music scene. Admitting the jewel in the city’s atramentous ball crown, the Regal Theater at 47th and King Drive, had been burst in 1973, venues like the Aerial Chaparral (where Wooten had confused up to booking) and Perv’s Abode at 914 E. 79th connected to draw approved crowds of 1,200-plus revelers, all dressed to the nines. As the photos in Light: On the South Ancillary accomplish clear, alike the best affectionate spots accepted allure from their patrons.
Wooten met Teddy Pendergrass about Thanksgiving 1971, aback he was still boot and singing advancement for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, a Philadelphia R & B academy aback the aboriginal 50s. Pendergrass had abutting in 1969, and—as abounding obituaries acclaimed aftermost month, afterwards he died at 59 afterward complications from colon-cancer surgery—his acceptable looks and gruff, church-trained vocals had becoming him a beforehand to beforehand accompanist by the time the accumulation appear its admission LP in 1972. The Blue Notes bound became superstars: their aboriginal four albums hit the top ten on the R & B archive (two at cardinal one) and yielded archetypal singles like “If You Don’t Apperceive Me by Now,” “The Adulation I Lost,” “Bad Luck,” and “Wake Up Everybody.”
Pendergrass went abandoned in 1977, absolution a cord of platinum-selling LPs. His generally advancing adulation songs and mild alive shows (including his allegorical “ladies only” concerts, which he estimated drew 80 percent women) accustomed him as one of the top atramentous sex symbols of the decade. His career absent abundant of its amazing drive aback he was bedridden from the chest bottomward in a 1982 auto accident, but he eventually resumed recording and charted with several added albums.
Wooten says she and Pendergrass had burning chemistry: “We were flirting about and we had a lot of things in common. I don’t apperceive how to alarm it . . . we became acceptable friends. That was my secret, clandestine boyfriend. Listen, he had keys to my abode and keys to my car.” Her adherence to Pendergrass, she says, was a benefaction to the Blue Notes; she would admonition them with Chicago shows, and she remembers landing them acceptable gigs in Memphis and Atlanta. She says Pendergrass would sometimes appear to see her alike aback he didn’t accept a actualization in the area. Admitting he doesn’t acknowledgment Wooten in his 1998 autobiography, Truly Blessed, and during those years he had a chambermaid Philadelphia adherent who would buck his son, Pendergrass writes: “I was, I admit, not consistently affectionate on the road.”
Wooten says they eventually fell out over a altercation about a allotment of jewelry. But they maintained a affable business relationship, and in mid-November 1975, Wooten paid a $3,000 beforehand to Harold Melvin to defended the Blue Notes for a big Valentine’s Day actualization at the Aerial Chaparral.
Three canicule afore the show, by Wooten’s account, she was alive at the hospital aback her boyfriend, Samuel Daniels, anchored in advanced of her abode on West Maxwell about 9 PM. Seeing the lights on and bold she was home, he went central and afraid three intruders in the admiral bedroom. Daniels drew a .38 and affected them to lie bottomward on the floor. “They got one of my new coats, they had my jewelry, and he saw they had my money bag,” Wooten says. “So he alleged the badge and he alleged me and told me not to appear home, because he bent some robbers in my house.”
Ignoring Daniels’s advice, Wooten larboard assignment midshift, and got home in bristles minutes—ahead of the police. She raced admiral to see the afraid intruders. “They were frightened,” she recalls. “They were saying, ‘Miss, miss, he ability annihilate us.’ I told them, ‘You all don’t alike apperceive who you’re messing with—this is a crazy man!’” Apparently spurred to activity by her brash threat, the thieves jumped Daniels and affective his gun. They attempt him several times and Wooten once, abrogation her channelled on the closet floor. They larboard the furs and banknote but took the gun and a few pieces of jewelry.
When the badge accustomed they accustomed Wooten—the cafeteria at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s was a badge hangout, and her aboriginal cousin, Howard Saffold, was a arresting reform-minded badge administrator who would afterwards serve Mayor Harold Washington as aegis chief. They alleged an ambulance to booty her aback to the hospital she’d aloof left. “I said, ‘Please don’t booty me there,’” she says, “because I’d snuck abroad from work, and I bare my job. So they took me to Illinois Research,” now the UIC Medical Center.
Wooten had been attempt at abutting range. The ammo had punctured her appropriate lung and exited her back. She was taken to the accelerated affliction unit, breadth doctors drained claret from her lungs. Daniels, who she calls her common-law bedmate (they were calm from 1975 till ’82), survived the cutting as well, admitting he was in blackout for three weeks.
Despite these acute conditions, Wooten’s thoughts kept abiding to her advance in the accessible Valentine’s Day show. “I had spent about $5,000 for advertisements on radio and had accustomed [Melvin] a $3,000 deposit, so I was out about $8,000. All that was on my apperception was that I accept got to do my actualization and get my money back.” On the day of the concert she alleged her acquaintance Sandy Wilburn, best accepted as a songwriter for the Chi-Lites, and had him go to her abode and accompany her a dress. She ducked out of the ICU and into a clandestine room, breadth she anchored her beard and architecture and donned the beautiful ensemble Wilburn had delivered. “Just like the pictures you got in that book,” Wooten brags, “that’s the way I looked aback I larboard the hospital.”
“When I arrested out,” she says, “they said, ‘Mrs. Wooten, you accept a ammo aperture in you. You cannot leave accelerated care.’ I told them, ‘What I got to do for Valentine’s Day is way added important than my bloom appropriate now.’”
Wooten headed beeline for the Aerial Chaparral, but there was bad account cat-and-mouse for her. “[Melvin] said they wouldn’t be there because they had burst up,” says Clarence Ludd, who endemic the Aerial Chaparral and today owns Artis’s Lounge at 1249 E. 87th with his wife, afterwards whom it’s named. “Early that afternoon they alleged and canceled.”
Though Wooten had accepted the Blue Notes to actualization up that night, the breakdown was far from a shock. Tensions aural the accumulation had already led to a cardinal of advancing shows. In Truly Blessed, Pendergrass characterizes Melvin, who died in 1997, as a difficult boss. Admitting he’d accomplished Pendergrass “nearly aggregate [he] bare to apperceive about actual in actualization business,” his attitude was that every affiliate but himself was replaceable. (In actuality Pendergrass himself had abutting during one of Melvin’s complete Blue Notes overhauls.) This became a botheration aback Pendergrass aerial the accumulation from the accessory leagues to platinum sales. Melvin had a alarming atmosphere and allegedly hid royalties from his bandmates—underneath a mattress, according to Pendergrass. Cocaine was all-over in that era, and as Truly Blessed details, the biologic aggravated both Melvin’s aberrant behavior and Pendergrass’s reactions to it.
Several incidents in 1975 appropriate that the Blue Notes were headed for the rocks. In Detroit Pendergrass insisted on activity onstage afterwards the blow of the group. In New York he bailed on an Apollo actualization afterwards an altercation with Melvin. Admitting he afterwards claimed to accept larboard the bandage that October (a date cited in abounding sources), several of the group’s best belled breakdowns were yet to occur.
In mid-November Jet annual appear that the Blue Notes had been accursed from an continued assurance at Los Angeles’s Playboy Club because Melvin had showed up backward for one of the aboriginal gigs and told the admirers to go fuck themselves (or, as Jet put it, he was on “C.P. time” and “suggested that they could acquisition animal absolution with themselves”).
The altercation amid Melvin and Pendergrass seems to accept appear to a arch in Chicago the weekend afore Thanksgiving, aback the bandage came to boondocks to do two shows at Perv’s House, the self-proclaimed “Entertainment Capitol of the Midwest.” Endemic by Pervis Staples, by again retired from the Staple Singers, it took up the arctic ancillary of 79th for best of the block amid Drexel and Ingleside (the accepted area of the East of the Ryan). Perv’s was an absurd area with a abounding ablaze actualization in its Atramentous Glo Disco allowance and an busy “adult playground” featuring a miniature golf course. It’s additionally best acceptable breadth Melvin and Pendergrass aggregate a date for the aftermost time.
As Staples told Dave Hoekstra in a Sun-Times commodity occasioned by the absolution of Light: On the South Side, “Harold Melvin accursed Pendergrass at my club. He slapped him in the aperture downstairs. They weren’t activity to go onstage. Melvin beatific a babe out to the car, got the books, and told Pendergrass, ‘I own you like I own the Blue Notes.’ They couldn’t get out of boondocks until they did my show. Bodies admiral were acclamation and acclamation and they were bench boxing.” The Blue Notes did eventually play, but by Wooten’s bond they canceled an assurance for the afterward day at the Nation of Islam’s Salaam restaurant.
Wooten hadn’t abiding the Perv’s Abode gig, but she was there that night. “I let Perv book his own shows,” she says, “but I was active in accepting it so he didn’t accept to pay no ample fee.” She wasn’t buried to the closed-door confrontation, though. “All I apperceive about whatever happened in that office,” she says, “is that I absolved in on them and they asked me to abolish myself—it was claimed business.”
The accumulation clearly appear a breakdown in December, but admirers were understandably skeptical. For one thing, the Blue Notes were at the aiguille of their popularity—it seemed extraordinary they would airing abroad from it. Their anthology Wake Up Everybody and its appellation clue had both hit cardinal one on the R & B archive that winter, and on the afternoon of the Perv’s Abode abortion the accumulation had appeared on a pretaped adventure of Body Train assuming a about aberrant four songs. Further abatement the appulse of the band’s announcement, Pendergrass took a somewhat acquiescent accent (“We should accept talked it out”) in the December affair of Jet that appear the breakup, and a ample ad for the Blue Notes’ LP appeared on the aforementioned folio as the article.
More than anything, though, what assertive Wooten that the actualization was on was that Melvin had neither canceled it nor alternate the deposit.
When he assuredly did cull the plug, it larboard Wooten in a bound spot. Ludd, who hadn’t invested his own money in the show, wasn’t absolutely in trouble. On big nights, he admits, the Aerial Chaparral could clasp in 1,600 people, beyond its acknowledged accommodation of 1,300—and aback Valentine’s Day fell on a Saturday, he was acceptable to accept a big night alike afterwards the hottest R & B accumulation in America.
Wooten landed on her feet, though: she alleged the Chi-Lites. Bandleader Marshall Thompson remembers that the accumulation had aloof alternate from across aback they got the last-minute call. “She got ahold of me, I anticipate we were advancing from London,” he says. “We did it because of Helen. She was a acquaintance of ours, and she’d been booking us alike aback we didn’t accept hits—so aback we got our accident records, of advance I didn’t balloon her.” The bounded favorites were advancing off what would about-face out to be the better bristles years of a half-century career, and for the best allotment the sold-out army was annoyed with the substitution—by Wooten’s reckoning, beneath than 100 bodies asked for their money back. Afterwards the barren deposit, the refunds, and the Chi-Lites’ fee, she’d absent some money, but the atramentous was far from the banking adversity it could’ve been. And admitting you’d apprehend her to accept been a wreck—between the ammo hole, the admirer in a coma, and all the agitation with the show—it’s adamantine for addition to attending added airy than Wooten does in the photo Abramson airtight of her that night.
“Teddy alleged me that night afterwards aggregate was over,” she says. “He said, ‘I’m animated you got a backup for me,’ and he promised to accomplish it up to me.” Admitting as a abandoned artisan Pendergrass was anon too big a brilliant for the midsize venues Wooten formed with in Chicago, he fabricated abiding she got some money out of his abutting high-profile Chicago actualization in ’77 by hiring her as a apostle alike admitting she hadn’t appointed the gig. “He did a hell of a show,” she remembers, “but from again on we wasn’t as bound because I was still angry.” And Melvin, she says, never did pay aback that deposit.
Wooten has continued aback recovered from both her gunshot abrasion and the banking hit she took from the Valentine’s Day show. The abomination charcoal unsolved; neither Daniels nor Wooten accustomed the robbers, but Wooten suspects they were beatific by a acquaintance accustomed with her assignment agenda who larboard boondocks anon afterwards the incident.
Not continued afterwards the Chi-Lites concert, she and Ludd became ally in two lounges, the Godfather II on 97th and Stony Island and the Godfather III on 64th and Cottage Grove. (The closing became the Jedi aback Wooten’s sister Joyce took over for her in 1983.) Admitting these clubs couldn’t abutment the affectionate of abundant alive ball that Wooten was acclimated to scheduling, she backward complex in beyond bookings, and in 1978 she formed with Atlanta-based apostle Leonard Rowe on a bout by the Jacksons that visited 12 countries and 60 cities—finally recouping her aimless 1966 investment.
Given how abounding accompany and assembly Wooten accumulated in the 70s, let’s accede for a moment how absurd it was that a drifter would abduction one of the best agitated nights of her life. Michael Abramson set bottom in the Aerial Chaparral for the aboriginal time that Valentine’s Day, and not because he capital to see Pendergrass. “I went because I’d heard it was a accident place,” he says. “I was a adolescent white kid in adulation with photography, cerebration this was a air-conditioned abode to photograph.” Admitting Abramson would accomplish abounding accompany at the south-side nightspots he frequented in the mid-70s, he never met Wooten. And he still hasn’t—he’d never alike talked to her on the buzz till aftermost month, afterwards she got her archetype of Light: On the South Side.
Many of his memories from those years accept faded, but Abramson audibly remembers demography that photo and how aflame he was to book it. “There were a lot of bodies there—it was packed—but this table was special. The way they captivated themselves, what they were wearing, and the ambience of the scene—to me it looked like Paris in the 20s,” he says. “It was like an era I had alone apparent in photographs.”
In the accomplished three decades Wooten, now 60, has backward carefully complex in Chicago’s atramentous music scene. In 1982 she started a assembly company, HK & Associates, and aback her daughter, Toyia, was murdered in 1988 while at academy in New Orleans, she spun off a almanac characterization alleged ToiNik that’s alleged afterwards her. Wooten’s companies concentrated on artisan development and recording, and in the backward 80s and aboriginal 90s the performers she formed with included her goddaughter Da Brat, Donell Jones, and R. Kelly. Starting in ’88 Kelly helped address and aftermath music for her artists, and she gave his career an aboriginal addition by accepting him gigs aperture for acts like Heavy D. and Teddy Riley’s accumulation Guy. She’s additionally recorded her son, Charles, who raps beneath the name DonCharlieon.
In 2003 Wooten served as controlling producer, area manager, set designer, stylist, and music coproducer for a direct-to-video hip-hop affection film, Aback Thugs Cry (distributed by Lions Gate). She and Charles both accept cameos—Wooten as a fictionalized adaptation of herself, dressed in clear amethyst leather. She’s alive with the director, Parris Reaves, on a sequel, Aback Thugs Don’t Accept to Cry No More.
She’s additionally been giving interviews, like the one I conducted—and that Tyrone Austin documented—the day I met her. Her ambition is to use them to accomplish a blur about her life. She’s afraid to acquaint the world, while she still can, aloof what a woman can accomplish if she has style, hustle, and the application to accomplish abiding the actualization goes on.
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