Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
I know I’m indulging in nostalgia for the “good old days” before the global consolidation of the entertainment industry, but it sure seems like it used to be easier for a talented artist to luck into a shot at fame—something more lasting than 15 seconds of Internet virality. In the 1960s, the workings of the music business were often more intimate. You didn’t necessarily have to pound the pavement knocking on doors, hire expensive management, or undertake years of specialized instruction—you could get discovered by singing spontaneously in a pool hall or winning a local talent contest. Soul singer and pianist Garland Green was discovered that way, but he wasn’t just lucky—he was a first-rate musician who burned brightly at first, then settled into a slower, steadier career.
Born as Garfield Green Jr. on June 14, 1942, in the Mississippi Delta town of Dunleith, Green was the tenth of 11 children. He arrived in Chicago in 1958, while still a teenager, and attended Englewood High School. He’d started singing with spiritual groups back in Ole Miss, and as the lore has it, one day in 1965 he was belting it out at a pool room (not as a featured performer, just for fun) when he was overheard by an entrepreneur and aspiring music producer named Argia B. Collins.
Collins was a sharp-dressed character who’d founded Argia B’s Bar-B-Que House at 47th and Forrestville in the early 1950s and soon began expanding—the original restaurant relocated to 78th and Halsted, and he opened locations at 71st and Yates and across the border in Gary, Indiana. In 1957 he began selling his own brand of barbecue sauce in local supermarkets, and though he died in 2003, it’s still available today (mostly in the midwest and on the east coast) under the name Argia B’s Mumbo Sauce. Collins was a generous soul who understood his influence as a role model, and in the late 60s he frequently gave free barbecue to Reverend Jesse Jackson and his comrades at Operation Breadbasket. Most important for our story, though, Collins loved music, and he’d eventually start a record label and production company called June 1st Music.
After hearing Green sing, Collins offered to fund his further musical education at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Green took him up on it, and he studied voice and piano at the conservatory while working at the Argo corn-starch plant in a subdivision of suburban Summit. Green was also singing in clubs, mostly on amateur nights, and in 1967 he won a talent contest at the Trocadero Theater, a famous burlesque house at 414 S. State founded in 1899. His prize was a gig opening for soul singer Lou Rawls and jazz pianist Earl Hines at the Sutherland Lounge, a popular club in the Sutherland Hotel in Kenwood.
In the audience at the Sutherland were producer Mel Collins and his wife, singer-songwriter “Joshie” Jo Armstead, formerly of the Ikettes. Collins (no relation to Argia B.) was born in Chicago, but Armstead was from the Mississippi Delta, just like Green—specifically Yazoo City. Early that year she’d moved to the Windy City from New York, where she’d joined the songwriting team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and cowritten hits for the likes of Betty Everett and Ray Charles.
Armstead and Collins ran a production company called Giant Enterprises on the south side and maintained the Giant, Gamma, and Globe imprints. They also leased recordings to larger labels, including Ruby Andrews‘s 1967 feminist R&B classic, “Casonova (Your Playing Days Are Over),” which Armstead cowrote. They promptly started working with Green as well. “I really liked his voice,” Armstead told Chicago Soul author Robert Pruter. “There was that pleading quality that I knew that women would just love.”
Green recorded his debut single, the 1967 Gamma release “Girl I Love You,” in Detroit. The lush, romantic tune was strong enough to get picked up by MCA’s R&B subsidiary Revue, but it didn’t become a major smash. After a couple more singles on Revue, Green moved to a larger MCA imprint called Uni for the 1969 release “Jealous Kind of Fella”—and it was a hit right out of the gate. Written by a team that included Armstead and Green, this heavenly slice of poppy, orchestral soul highlights Green’s smooth, powerful singing. It hit number five on the Billboard R&B chart and number 20 on the pop chart—according to Pruter, it sold a million copies.
After Green’s next singles failed to even approach those heights, he split with MCA and with Armstead. In 1971, Atlantic Records imprint Cotillion released what turned out to be his second-biggest smash, “Plain and Simple Girl” (with production by Syl Johnson and an arrangement by the great Donny Hathaway). Green had several more minor R&B hits on Spring Records in the mid-70s, including the snappy, up-tempo number “Let the Good Times Roll,” a major local success. His last hit before he moved to California in 1979 was the 1977 RCA release “Ask Me for What You Want.”
During his years in Chicago, Green also put out two proper LPs. The 1969 Uni album Jealous Kind of Fella included that hit, of course, plus some other great songs, including the sublimely sorrowful “All She Did (Was Wave Goodbye at Me).” (On the other hand, the extremely cringeworthy “Don’t Think That I’m a Violent Guy” would never fly today.) While on RCA in the late 70s, Green released the 1977 LP Love Is What We Came Here For, produced and arranged by Leon Haywood (of “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You” fame). It’s a glossy affair, which isn’t my favorite sound for soul music, but it has solidly slapping tunes such as the disco-dance-floor-ready “Shake Your Shaker.” Regrettably, neither RCA nor Uni seemed too interested in promoting Green’s work.
In 1980, Green recorded the EP Gospel Rap on his own Love LA Music label, which sits well alongside the work of rap innovators from the era such as the Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow (albeit with more lyrics about God). He then worked with the small Ocean Front Records for a self-titled album in 1983. Its boogie-synth-soul sounds benefited from songwriting and arrangements by legendary Motown hitmaker Lamont Dozier and production by Arleen Schesel—the latter of whom Green would later marry. The LP climbed into the lower reaches of the R&B charts, but Green was by then in his 40s, and he recorded only sporadically afterward. In 1991, he released an expanded version of his 1983 LP via Love LA Music.
At that point Green was arguably already a legacy artist—in 1990, Kent Records (a subsidiary of UK label Ace) had released an archival collection called The Spring Sides, which compiled his material for that imprint. Like many Windy City soul artists, Green remains a favorite of the “Northern Soul” scene in the UK and across the world, and his material continues to be reissued—his tune “Just What the Doctor Ordered” appeared on a various-artists EP in 2018.
In 2012, Green released a comeback album, appropriately titled I Should’ve Been the One. He certainly deserves to have become a top-tier soul star, and I hope he gets more love in Chicago and abroad—if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll see comeback number two.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.