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Shining A 'Light' On Chicago's South Side Soul

In 2003, The Numero Group released its first compilation, a detailed anthology of Columbus, Ohio's Capsoul Records. In its 30-plus releases since, Numero has grown to become one of the leading reissue labels anywhere, known for its exceptional attention to detail in packaging, liner-notes research, song recovery and mastering. All that energy is poured into highlighting little-known but compelling regional labels, genres and artists.

Recently, Numero has expanded beyond just CDs and vinyl LPs. This spring's Local Customs: Downriver Revival included a bonus DVD with an informative documentary and impressive digital-outtakes vault, all focused on a tiny home studio/label in Ecorse, Mich. Numero's new Light: On the South Side is its 33rd release, an auspicious number for any vinyl-oriented label. In honor of the occasion, Numero is releasing its first book, Light on the South Side, a collection of Michael Abramson photos which document the mid-'70s South Side Chicago bar/club scene. The book is partnered with a 2-LP set of era-appropriate funky blues cuts, titled Pepper's Jukebox.

The latter title refers to Pepper's Hideout, a lounge originally opened in 1956 by Jack Pepper; it jumped around to various locales before settling in at 2335 S. Cottage Grove Dr. In 1974, Pepper turned ownership of the Hideout over to blues musician and record man Malcolm "Little Mack" Simmons, who installed Simmons Recording Studio upstairs. The 18 tracks on Pepper's Jukebox include sides Simmons helped record or distribute, as well as other singles from Chicago's prolific blues scene.

In particular, Pepper's Jukebox focuses on blues cuts that absorbed funk sensibilities, placing crying harmonicas over driving basslines and wah-wah guitars. It's hard to imagine a better inaugural cut than Arlean Brown's "I'm a Streaker Baby," a smoky slow-burner that finds the sassy 54-year-old bragging, "I'm built like an outhouse / without a brick out of place." Even more salacious is Bobby Rush's "Bowlegged Woman," on which Rush croons, "In my room / boom boom boom boom" as the band grinds out a wickedly slinky track.

Pepper's Jukebox showcases the considerable depth of the Midwest's musical community. Little Ed and the Soundmasters offer up the appropriately titled "It's a Dream," marked by Ed's druggy vocals and a rhythm track so lo-fi, it sounds like it was recorded in a Dumpster. There's Willie Williams' "Detroit Blues," a squawking instrumental with Memphis basslines and chicken-scratch guitar. The most veteran player, Syl Johnson, contributes an instrumental version of his devastatingly moody social commentary, "Is It Because I'm Black?" Befitting the album's theme, there's a rough, unpolished varnish to much of the anthology, invoking the scratchy sound of jukeboxes, with their well-worn seven-inch singles and finger-greased buttons.

The Sights And Sounds Of Chicago's South Side

If Pepper's Jukebox lends the sound, Light: On the South Side supplies the visuals. Abramson's 100-plus images were all taken between 1975 and '77, a short but stylistically rich era captured in fashions that ranged from flared collars to floral head wraps to gold lamé to three-piece suits and banded fedoras. More important than the fashions are the people wearing them, and Light: On the South Side conveys a humbling sense of the neighborhood's density and diversity.

Some subjects pose for the camera, like one nattily dressed 12-year-old with a subtle ice-grill. Other shots are candid: two women dancing in Charleston outfits; a man with a knife handle protruding from his back waistline; another man, slouching in a chair, a pocket full of pens next to a button that reads, "Talk to me."

My sole complaint is the lack of captions. It may be that Abramson never got around to noting names or dates, but I want to know the "Talk to me" man's name, or what the backstory is behind the big Allegro RV parked in front of Pepper's. I did, however, appreciate the 11 pages of party fliers, advertisements and business cards included at the back of the book, especially the black-and-green duotone ad for "The Original Pimp Oil by Unique," endorsed by Mack Simmons, a.k.a. "THE WORLDS GREATEST HARMONICA PLAYER."

I have two favorite photos. The first is the same image that graces the box set's cover: a shot of Pepper's and its stone facade, two neon Schlitz liquor signs behind barred windows and a sandwich board that announces Mac Simmons' Special Stage Show and Birthday Party. It looks like any number of old-school dive bars in blue-collar neighborhoods across America -- a little worn and weary, but not quite down and out, despite being devoid of people standing outside.

Flip to the first photo in the book, though, and you imagine that this is what it must look like inside: a room packed with people, with such a clear depth of field that it almost could have been shot on a Hollywood sound stage. Everyone is dancing, a mass of bodies filling in the frame, but near the center, in the back, you see one head rise up, eyes facing the camera. A solitary man with a Cab Calloway mustache grabs his hat with two hands and lets out a yell.

Off the page and across 30 years, you can still hear the holler.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.