As the Chi-Lites receive their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a ceremony on the boulevard today, some fans might say it’s coming not a moment too soon, given that the classic R&B band rose to fame a full five decades ago, with smashes like “Have You Seen Her.” But at least one key figure in the group’s development is pleased that the honor is coming when it is.
Paul Tarnopol, son of the man who signed the Chi-Lites to Brunswick Records at the end of the 1960s, has been behind the catalog label’s return to business over the past 20-plus years. And he has some experience with getting artists onto the Walk of Fame: He was the driving force behind Jackie Wilson’s Hollywood star ceremony two years ago.
“That took like 10 years to happen, so we said, ‘Let’s see if we get a star for the Chi-Lites,’” Tarnopol says. “I said to Marshall (Thompson, the group’s baritone and lone surviving original member), ‘Don’t get your hopes up, because this probably won’t happen the first time around.’ It was kind of a surprise.”
For a brief stretch in the late 1960s, when the sounds of Detroit and Memphis were defining modern R&B, Chicago re-established its bona fides as a revitalized home to modern soul music. While Jerry Butler and the Impressions with Curtis Mayfield were the heads of the class, Brunswick was the local label delivering a string of hits from a roster that included Jackie Wilson, Barbara Acklin, Young-Holt Unlimited and this month’s Hollywood Walk of Fame honorees, the Chi-Lites.
Led by lead singer-songwriter Eugene Record, the group delivered two of the label’s biggest hits, “Have You Seen Her” and “Oh Girl” in 1971 and 1972, respectively, as well as 25 more Top 40 R&B hits. One sign of the timelessness of their recordings: the melody and hook of their “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” is known by a new generation as Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.”
The Chi-Lites, who aspired to be Chicago’s answer to the Temptations and spent 12 years in search of their first hit, reached the higher reaches of the charts with soft, soulful love songs that became the norm alongside the early funk of early ’70s R&B. Record’s expressive high tenor and yearning falsetto distinguished the Chi-Lites, but they had another secret weapon.
“The microphones,” says Thompson. “It’s a combination of Eugene Record, with his genius self, and Red [Jones] having majored in music and getting our voices to blend. Then [engineer] Bruce Swedien gave us each our own microphone. He brought that sound out for us so that when we got in the studio, we always use the same mics and you’d always know it’s us singing.”
The group had its roots in the street-corner harmony singing of the late 1950s in Chicago. In high school, Record’s quintet, the Chanteurs, included future Chi-Lite Robert “Squirrel” Lester; Thompson led the Desideros whose tight choreography gave them a competitive edge at talent shows on the South Side.
Thompson eventually joined Record’s group in 1960 and soon brought with him Creadel “Red” Jones before finding work as a drummer, first locally for Gladys Knight and the Pips, then on tour with Major Lance.
At a show in Houston, Thompson had to step in for Lance and sing. “The girls went wild,” he recalls. At the end of the night, he asked the promoter to book his group from Chicago.
“We had broken up, so I had to put them back together,” he says.
“Everybody had a job to do,” Thompson says. “Eugene was a great writer, we liked everything he wrote, and we trusted him. And they trusted me to be the driving force. Whenever we came up with something, I made it happen. Get the right management company, the right production company, meet with the DJs.”
Unknown in Houston, Thompson got his “side manager” Reggie Thomas to get the boxer he was working with, Muhammad Ali, on the bill with them.
“The people were wrapped around the block even though they didn’t know who we were,” he says. The night was so successful, thanks to Ali’s name being on the marquee, “the people kept bringing us back to Houston, Texas. It was fantastic.”
At that point they were known as the Hi-Lites and recorded their first single, “I’m So Jealous,” for the indie Daran Records run by Thompson’s cousin, James Shelton. They were redubbed Marshall & the Chi-Lites after discovering another Hi-Lites group, but the name change didn’t help their singles sell.
In the mid-’60s, Thompson got them a meeting with Carl Davis, who had produced Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl,” handled A&R for OKeh Records and, while at Brunswick, produced Jackie Wilson’s comeback hits “Whispers” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”
Davis liked what he heard and issued the Chi-Lites’ “Price of Love” on his own Dakar Records in 1967. It went nowhere, but an association with Brunswick was brewing. Still, Thompson had his eyes on becoming a Motown act.
At a 1968 talent show at Chicago’s Regal Theater, Thompson was keen to get the attention of Motown A&R exec/recording artist Bobby Taylor. “I went upstairs and told Bobby, ‘take us to Motown. I’m ready for bootcamp.’ ”
His pleas were interrupted by an enthusiastic reaction to the singers on stage. “Bobby said, ‘whose making all that noise downstairs?’ Joe Jackson says, ‘That’s my little group. The Jackson Five.”
Thompson, in the long run, is grateful the Detroit label passed. “We would have been caught up competing with the Temptations and all those people over there for songs. It’s much better that Michael ended up at Motown.”
Later that year, Brunswick signed the Chi-Lites and their first single, “Give It Away,” went Top 10 on Billboard’s soul chart. They followed with two singles, “I Like Your Lovin’ (Do You Like Mine?)” (No. 11 R&B) and “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So),” which peaked at No. 8 on the R&B tally. The songs clearly reflected the group’s appetite for Temptations-inspired mid-tempo, percussion-heavy songs rich with group vocals and gave them an ever-so-slight glimpse at crossover success, hitting No. 72 on the Billboard pop chart.
In 1971, the year of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Edwin Starr’s “Stop the War Now,” Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” and other socio-political R&B hits, the Chi-Lites chimed in with “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People.” The hit from their ’71 album, though, sounded like nothing else they had recorded.
Drawing inspiration from the sound of a Catholic church choir while utilizing spoken word interludes, Record and Acklin wrote their first smash, “Have You Seen Her,” an R&B No. 1 that went to No. 3 pop.
“We came off the stage [at St. Louis’ Kiehl Auditorium] and the guy said, ‘Y’all got to get back on stage.’ We ask, ‘For what?’ and he said, ‘Um, you didn’t sing “Have You Seen Her.”’ So we ended up getting on stage and we sang that for about 15 minutes. That was the first place where that song was popular.” It would peak in the U.S. in November and December 1971 and hit No. 3 in the U.K. in February. The single’s success led to the album, “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People,” hitting No. 12 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on the R&B chart.
Their fourth — and most successful — album, “A Lonely Man,” followed in April 1972. It topped the R&B chart and hit No. 5 pop, driven by the group’s biggest hit, the melancholy smash “Oh Girl.”
“We went to do the Flip Wilson TV show [in March 1972] and I was saying that ‘Oh Girl’ might be a little too pop-ish. I’m thinking R&B, because we might not be big enough to go into the pop market.
“We did ‘Oh Girl’ and it went to No. 1 on the charts. It shut me up. Biggest record in the world, took us all the way to the top. After that, that’s what looked for — all crossover records.”
Paul Tarnopol’s father, Nat, ran Brunswick Records in the 1960s when it was owned by Decca, turning it into an R&B label and, in 1970, purchased it from Decca’s parent, MCA.
“He always loved soul music and didn’t really care for things that are too pop,” says Tarnopol, who owns and oversees Brunswick as a catalog label. “It took a lot of work to get an R&B record to cross over and not many did. And so when you had a crossover hit, like ‘Oh Girl’ and ‘Have You Seen Her,’ it was a really big deal.”
While they would not reach similar chart heights again, the Chi-Lites registered a couple of Top 40 pop hits, “Stoned Out of My Mind” and “A Letter to Myself,” while continuing to land on the R&B Top 40 beyond the disco era.
They left Brunswick after their eighth album, 1975’s “Half a Love,” and members started to depart. Most significantly, Davis recruited Record to work as a producer and A&R exec. He left Brunswick to record as a solo act for Warner Bros. in 1977, later rejoining Thompson to record as the Chi-Lites for Davis’ new label, ChiSound, which saw them return to the charts in 1980. Eventually, Record departed to sing gospel.
“In the early ’80s, it slowed down. We tried recording stuff but it didn’t mean nothing. I took the guys overseas where the records never get old” and the group found they had hits such as “I Found Sunshine” and “Too Good to Be Forgotten” that were never popular in the U.S.
In 2000, the Chi-Lites were inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame.
Record died in July 2005, two years after Beyoncé and Jay-Z had taken “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” and turned it into the hook for “Crazy in Love,” which would go on to win two Grammys in the R&B category.
Other samples have kept the Chi-Lites’ music connecting with a younger crowd, chiefly Jay-Z’s use of “That’s How Long” in his “December 4th” and Fantasia’s “Baby Mama,” which includes “There Will Never Be Any Peace.”
Synchs have been crucial, too: “What Do I Wish For” was used in a 2004 U.K. ad for KFC; McDonald’s used “I Found Sunshine” in the Middle East this year; and “Oh Girl” featured in everything from “The Sopranos” to “Ozark.”
Their music will get some more exposure when a previously unreleased cover by the Rolling Stones of “Troubles A-Comin'” comes out on that group’s “Tattoo You” boxed set this fall.
Considering how Brunswick artists were largely marketed to Black audiences, Tarnopol says, “The whole world is discovering music that only 20% of the country really heard much of in the ’70s. I just think that people are catching up with this great, quality music that, for a lot of the country, was really unknown.”
WHAT: The Chi-Lites receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Sept. 30
WHERE: 7057 Hollywood Blvd.