This post is part of The Heart of Chicago Series that will be running on South of I-80 for the month of March. This post is written by ChicagoNow's own Music Mom, Anne Kiplinger. I am so happy that she is here today to share her music knowledge with us.
14 Chicago Musicians and the Neighborhoods They Call Home by Anne Kiplinger
It’s not a secret that Chicago has spawned some amazing music in its history. Of course the city is famous for its blues, but there is plenty of music heard on mainstream radio by artists who originated from this area, many of whom still call it their home. I struck out to find out a bit about some of these artists, ultimately dividing them up geographically. For the purposes of this article, I have considered the entire Chicago area to be “Chicago” (although I know the suburbs aren’t really Chicago). I think we can safely all take pride in the fact that these artists got their starts in and around our great city.
- Nat King Cole was born in Montgomery, AL but moved to the Bronzeville area of Chicago (Bronzeville) when he was only 4 and later attended DuSable High School. He smoked up to three packs of cigarettes a day, purportedly believing that they gave his voice its distinctive sound. Alas, with the good often comes the bad, as Nat King Cole ended up dying of lung cancer.
- Lou Rawls graduated from Dunbar Vocational School and grew up in the Ida B. Wells projects where he lived with his grandmother. He was greatly influenced by attending Baptist church services as a young boy. I found a 1966 video of a young Lou Rawls singing “I’m Going to Chicago” that was truly awesome!
- Mavis Staples attended what is now Paul Robeson High School on the south side. She was famously a member of her family’s gospel group (The Staples Singers), but she has made a name for herself as a solo artist, as well. Although she is 74, she has collaborated with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on two albums in the past few years and allowed a whole new batch of younger fans to discover her sound. Plus she regularly performs at Lollapalooza, so you know she’s cool.
- Common was born and raised on the south side; he attended Luther High School South but relocated to New York in 1999. He has written numerous songs about his hometown, and the video (which was directed by Common’s friend Kanye) for “The Corner” features many images of Chicago, both the more recognizable (Willis Tower, Navy Pier) and more gritty shots of Common’s neighborhood (I’m assuming).
- Chaka Khan was born on the south side and attended what is now Kenwood Academy. She recently returned to her childhood neighborhood because Chicago renamed a stretch of Blackstone Avenue, running alongside her former high school, in her honor.
- Andrew Bird comes by his Chicago area roots honestly: he attended Lake Forest High School and then Northwestern. He has an EP entitled “I Want to See Pulaski at Night” (which is in jest because “you don’t want to see Pulaski at night”). As he has said, “I do think people [in Chicago] are making art maybe for different reasons. That's how I've always felt. People move to L.A. waiting for something to happen to them. It takes some initiative. I think people in Chicago, or Minneapolis, I've always appreciated the sort of anonymity of it, a humbleness to the work ethic.”
- Liz Phair was raised in Wilmette and graduated from New Trier before moving on to Oberlin College and majoring in art history. As she said in an interview with Elle magazine a few years ago, “I was trying to break out of the suburbs, and when I did break out, I don't think I took my whole self with me - I think I played a role of being too cool and hip.” What I take from that is that there is a difference between the city and the suburbs.
- Eddie Vedder lived in Evanston during his early years but moved to California around junior high age. His heart stayed in Chicago, though, as he is an avid Cubs fan and penned the song “All The Way” about his beloved team. As he told Billboard magazine a few months ago, “…I'm going to go to a Cubs World Series game -- and I'm taking care of my health in order to do so." Sounds like a typical Cubs fan.
- Fall Out Boy was formed in Wilmette, and their first performance was in a cafeteria at DePaul. They have a song called “Chicago is so Two Years Ago” about missing their families back home after they had been out on the road. Awww!
- Richard Marx grew up in Highland Park and attended North Shore Country Day School; he now has a home recording studio in Lake Bluff. His youngest son, Jesse, is in a heavy metal band called For All I Am, and his proud papa recently watched that band perform in Joliet. It’s all in the family and keeping it local.
- Billy Corgan was born in Elk Grove Village but later moved to Glendale Heights and attended Glenbard North where he graduated as an honor student. He has remained in the area and recently opened a tea shop (yes, an actual tea shop) in Highland Park called Madame Zuzu’s, meant to be a place where artistic types can convene. He claims he has “tried to leave Chicago many times”, but he always comes back because there’s a “consistent quality to the working class to Chicago that I can appreciate.” Somehow a tea shop in Highland Park seems inconsistent with the Smashing Pumpkins’ image, but what do I know?
- Plain White T’s were formed in Lombard and attended Willowbrook High School. One of the band members, Dave Tirio, fulfilled a childhood dream by throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game and also got to sing during the seventh inning stretch.
- Kanye West was born in Atlanta but moved to Chicago when he was very young. He attended Polaris High School in Oak Lawn and later Chicago State (where his mom was a professor) but left to focus on music (inspiring the name of his album “The College Dropout”). He wrote the song “Homecoming” about Chicago, using the metaphor of a girl named Windy (get it?). During his rather memorable interview with Jimmy Kimmel last fall, he said “Never think that I'm not from Chicago for one second and think you can walk up and disrespect me and my family constantly." I don’t even know what that means, but I wouldn’t dare.
- Lupe Fiasco began his life on the west side but later moved to Harvey with his father where he attended Thornton Township High School. He has written a number of songs about Chicago, three of which landed on the “The 50 Greatest Chicago Rap Songs” list, including one of his more famous songs: “Superstar”.
So there you go, a myriad of artists and groups that discovered their musical potential in Chicago. I’m sure I’ve missed many, many more (that’s a disclaimer), so let’s just call this a representative sample. It’s exciting to realize that there may well be future talent in our midst right now! It’s yet another reason to be proud of calling Chicago home.
When Anne Kiplinger is not sharing her knowledge and love of music with her readers at Music Mom, she is spending her time with her husband and four children.
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