Pondering why the South denies its soul

by Amy Kingsley

It’s late. Real late. And I’m in some claptrap bar stuck out in the middle of one of Chicago’s forgotten industrial tracts – an old wooden frame house that wouldn’t last two minutes if anyone onstage ever pulled a Great White.

It’s a place called the Hideout, and although the performers may have left the actual pyrotechnics at home, they’ve set the capacity crowd on fire. Which is incredible considering that the first – the inimitable Ralph “Soul” Jackson – said he hasn’t performed in almost 30 years. But here he is, this man marking his seventh decade, mock-humping a female audience member under the hot stage lamps.

I’m here because of a chance encounter with a couple of writers from the Birmingham Weekly. We met at a conference for alt-weekly writers held at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. One of the two writers was working on a story about a DJ based in Chicago who had rediscovered a soul label called Birmingham Sound in Alabama. The DJ – John Ciba – organized the first of two release parties for a compilation culled from the record label for this weekend in Chicago. The other would happen the next weekend in Birmingham.

The Chicago Reader devoted a little ink to the project, and Ciba’s hometown crowd is out in force tonight celebrating the project. Chicago’s got some soul fans. The opening band is a local soul cover group by the name of Todd Hembrook and the Hemispheres. They impress, despite the skepticism generated by their white, hipster mien. In fact, they are so good they remain onstage as Jackson’s back-up band.

Jackson, who’s showing off why a fellow at least two generations removed from his audience can still sport the nickname “Soul,” wears a pale print zoot suit. He’s tall, loose and emphatic, with a bushy bumper of graying hair.

The native of Phenix City, Ala. keeps his set short, and knocks the city slickers dead. The next performer on the bill is his label-mate Roscoe Robinson, a soul legend who has maintained a career and reputation for the past four decades.

Like his predecessor that night, Robinson’s dressed dapperly for the occasion. The singer, who moonlights in the Blind Boys of Alabama, is nearing 80 years old. Several soul legends from Chicago orbit Robinson onstage, occasionally relieving his singing duties. He too plays a short set and then turns the evening over to a pair of soul DJs, disco balls and a bunch of wasted white kids.

“This is breaking my heart,” says Birmingham Weekly staff writer Phillip Jordan. All night long, the musicians onstage, even those from Chicago, have been professing their love for his city.

“I guarantee there are not going to be this many people at the Birmingham show,” he says.

It’s a dilemma, for sure. Why is it that outsiders – often from bigger cities – are so much more apt to appreciate and support Southern artists?

It’s a subject we can acknowledge and ponder tonight, although there aren’t any clear answers. And I suppose it’s better to familiarize dozens of Chicagoans with Birmingham soul than no one at all.

The singers finish around 1 a.m., but the night isn’t nearly over for the crowd at the Hideout. Ciba’s parents and Robinson stick it out until the bitter end, well past the 2:30 a.m. last call (Jackson left around 1:30 a.m. looking a bit ragged).

By the time the bartender is sweeping the last of the barflies out the door, the train back to Evanston has stopped running. Ciba is sleepily heading back to Lincoln Park, but his parents have ample room in their luxury sedan to haul a few journalists to the north shore. It’s on the way to their home in an unincorporated suburban county.

We set out at 3 a.m., but the trip back to the hotel evolves into a late, late night tour of Chicago. Ciba the elder hacks his way through the anarchic traffic conditions caused by the downtown bar exodus. He’s quick to point out both the pop cultural icons and provide context to a swank neighborhood north of the Gold Coast built from the ashes of the Great Fire.

As it turns out, this late night tour of Chicago is one of the most edifying moments of my visit. Like other large cities, it’s a place that never sleeps. But as I’m listening to our hosts relive their courtship driving along the Lake Michigan coast, I realize that this town is not as much the sole purview of the young and wealthy as New York City.

And I like it, this city of Chicago. I just wish it had a few more hills.

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