By Robert M. Marovich


A young girl from Avondale who entertained millions during the Depression. A South Side waitress who became the first African American woman to start a record label. The choir director whose musical programs in the 1920s and 1930s drew thousands every month. The son of immigrants whose entrepreneurial efforts kept Chicago’s Polish American community dancing for decades.

The forgotten heroes of Chicago music: these are the people I write about. Not unsung heroes—in their day, they were stars of radio, phonograph recordings, and television.  Their comings and goings were covered in the local press. But because they died long ago, because their music is no longer in vogue, or because they have not attracted the attention of scholars, their contributions have gone largely unheralded.

I began writing about Chicago’s forgotten music heroes in my first book, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (University of Illinois Press, 2015). One of the book’s intentions, in fact, was to indicate the contributions of everyday Chicagoans to the development of gospel music into a national phenomenon. People like Magnolia Butts, a stenographer who helped organize the first African American gospel music convention (it is still in existence today). Or the many singers who never ventured beyond the confines of their church yet inspired some of the top gospel recording artists of the day.

And, as often happens while researching, one investigative pursuit down a rabbit hole unearths a handful of other interesting stories. For example, I first learned about choir director Professor J. Wesley Jones and his monthly musicales at Metropolitan Community Church while researching African American pre-war sacred music in Chicago. Jones’ story became the basis of my audio/visual presentation at the 2016 Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), and an article for the winter 2017 issue of Chicago History. Similarly, I turned my research on Chicago’s “Little Mountain Sweetheart,” child radio star Shelby Jean Davis, into another presentation for ARSC; my article on Davis is slated for publication in the fall 2018 issue of Chicago History. I am currently gathering material for an article on the entrepreneurial “Chicago Polka King” “Li’l Wally” Jagiello.

When I write about forgotten heroes of Chicago music, I feel as if I am giving them a platform on which to impact a new generation of music enthusiasts. Their stories also shine a light on parts of Chicago history that are also forgotten, such as classical music in the pre-war African American community and Chicago’s role in the early development of country music.

Researching forgotten music heroes often requires interviewing family, friends, neighbors, and associates whose own contributions are often just as important. In the process, I meet wonderful people, more than a few who have become friends. And every time I take on a new project, I learn more about the Chicago music scene, about the city’s history, and about writing. Never have I written an article or liner notes or book review and not improved my writing techniques.

Robert Marovich is author of A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (University of Illinois Press, 2015).