Sights Unheard: The Chicago Party

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Sights Unheard: <i>The Chicago Party</i>

From the nation’s second largest city…the Windy City!...second to none in entertainment… where fun, beauty, excitement, and just great entertainment all come together…ladies and gentlemen: The Chicago Party!

For the better part of the year in 1982 that gloriously hyperbolic run-on sentence, read by voiceover artist Bill O’Connor, was like the Bat-Signal for Chicagoans with their TV sets tuned to WCIU. It announced the start of The Chicago Party, a woolly and funky hybrid of Soul Train and a public access variety show that was sadly short-lived and provided a crucial document of the Windy City’s underground R&B, soul, funk and disco scenes.

“It’s a lost chapter of Chicago music history,” says Jake Austen, producer of his own cable TV music/variety show Chic-a-go-go and editor of Roctober magazine. “It wasn’t a well-documented era. Watching it now, you’re getting a good idea of what you would see if you went out to a club at that time. You would expect to see a live band rather than a DJ or something electronic.”

What The Chicago Party gave you was so much more than just music. As the array of still photographs that opened each episode revealed, producers/hosts Willie Woods and James Christopher offered up comedy, lip-syncing routines and magic shows alongside live performances by local acts like the Universal Togetherness Band and Central Power System.

It was precisely that mix of fantastic music and oddball entertainment that attracted venerable revival imprint Numero Group to issue Ultra-High Frequencies: The Chicago Party, a 2-LP (or single CD) collection highlighting 14 of the little-known but amazing artists that performed on the show, packaged with a 100-minute DVD mixtape of clips culled from TCP’s 23 episodes.

The label learned of the show’s existence through Woods. The musician (he was a member of the pre-Earth Wind & Fire group, The Pharaohs) and former owner of CopHerBox II, the nightclub where The Chicago Party was filmed was one of their go-to resources for information about the Chi-town music scene.

“We were over at his place and he said, ‘I did this show in the ‘80s and I’ve got boxes of tape,’” remembers Jon Kirby, one of Numero’s A&R reps. “We got a taste of it and it was some pretty outrageous stuff. We’re talking progressive heavy funk stuff, a Jerry Lewis impersonator breakdancing, a leotard dance routine, and Jheri-Curl’ed ventriloquists.”

According to the extensive essay written for the set by Austen, the TV show is actually a glimpse into a typical night at Woods and Christopher’s club. “To set itself apart,” he writes, “the CopHerBox II hosted campy competitions with cash prizes going to the winner of say, the Big Butt Contest. A Miss CopHerBox Pageant went off without a hitch, its winner walking away with cash and a fur coat. There were fashion shows, martial arts demonstrations and senior citizen social clubs before the proper club even considered restocking the bar.”

After opening their doors to local radio affiliate WJPC and allowing their morning radio host Tom Joyner to broadcast from the club, the owners decided the next logical step was to bring cameras in and capture the spirited atmosphere and bumping bodies of a typical night at the space. They luckily found a willing partner in WCIU, an independent UHF station.

“They were involved in narrowcasting a long time before cable got into that game,” Austen says. “They were programming to target to ethnic groups in the city. They were the bridge to cable access in that way.”

The Chicago Party operated much like even the most famous variety shows, giving people a regular mix of live performances, shots of the club’s denizens getting down to the hot dance singles of the day, and oddball entertainers like The Unknown Skater, who performed James Brown-like footwork while wearing both roller skates and a paper bag on his head. Framing it all was the loose repartee of hosts Woods and Christopher, which extended out to some particularly shaggy comedy routines by the pair.

“Even if the skits aren’t funny, I love how proud those guys are,” Austin comments. “You see how close they are both onscreen and off. And that’s a really nice feeling.”

Even with its brief run, the show became a sensation in the city, especially for African-Americans who loved seeing members of their own community getting a piece of the TV spotlight. Even with that, The Chicago Party cost money that the CopHerBox II owners couldn’t afford to spend anymore, forcing them to cease production on the show in the summer of 1982.

Considering how many local American Bandstand/Soul Train-style teen dance party shows there were around the U.S., and how many of them flickered out of existence before the advent of the VCR, the archive that Woods maintained of all 23 episodes of The Chicago Party is pretty remarkable.

That doesn’t mean that you should expect a comprehensive box set of all the episodes to hit the market any time soon, though. Numero Group was able to secure the rights to highlight an impressive number of local artists who performed on the show—including the smooth Rufus-esque group Harvey-Allison Experience, the popping electro-funk grooves of MC2, and the gorgeous harmonies of IND—but many others proved impossible to track down. As well, significant portions of the show featured hits by Kool & The Gang, James Brown and other hitmakers of the day. Licensing the tracks would have proved too costly, and resyncing them to new music would take away from the experience of watching the show as it was meant to be seen.

So while you might never get to see the whole megillah, everyone involved insists that the 100 minutes they were able to cut together for mass consumption are still vital for anyone wishing to understand the post-Disco Demolition Night scene in the Second City.

“These were the artists that were reacting to things happening around the country, but didn’t make it,” says Austen. “You really would not have a good idea of what was going on in Chicago clubs and music without this.”

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