Bassist-turned-arranger Richard Evans put the soul in Cadet Records

by Dan Ubick and David Ma

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Richard Evans "Dealing with Hard Times"

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Richard Evans was the main man behind Chicago’s groundbreaking soul-jazz record label Cadet, a subsidiary of the successful blues label Chess. In the early ’60s, Richard not only took Charles Stepney under his wing but also played bass with Sun Ra and befriended a young, talented organ player named Donny Hathaway. As the ’60s neared their end and popular music became more psychedelic, Leonard Chess’s son, Marshall, took over the business, and Richard was promoted to full-fledged in-house arranger. He would soon become much more.

 

Originally published as “Soul Conductor” in Wax Poetics Issue 34

 

Successful LPs by Woody Herman (1970’s Grammy-nominated Light My Fire), the Soulful Strings, and Marlena Shaw (1969’s The Spice of Life) brought the fuzz and echo of ’60s rock into the mix at Cadet sessions. It also garnered Mr. Evans complete artistic control in terms of signing whomever he wanted (jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby) and producing however he saw fit. He was as fit as Muhammad Ali and most definitely the man during Cadet’s most fertile period. The results are some of the most sampled and well-respected LPs of the soul era. As Mr. Evans puts it: “I wanted things to be very Black [and] very funky at Cadet.”

Richard Evans went on to find even more success at labels like Capitol and Atlantic, producing and arranging LPs for Natalie Cole, Peabo Bryson, Eddie Harris, Ahmad Jamal, Tower of Power, and Ramsey Lewis—but his stint at Cadet is an unmatched legacy. We spoke with the man they now call Professor Richard Evans, who currently instills his years of expertise and insight to young hopefuls at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He’s surely still in the mix, and he is still doing it all for his brother, Claude.

Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and when you were first introduced to music.

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1932, and came to Chicago in 1939. My brother [Claude] came and got me from Birmingham, ’cause he had been in Chicago for a few years already. When we came to Chicago, before World War II, everything was real rural. There were ghettos everywhere. I mention this because I was still able to hear all kinds of music despite being poor. My mother listened to Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson a lot. We’d also listen to the Duke Ellington and Count Basie stuff too. This was before Bird [Charlie Parker], of course. I also remember one of our neighbors had a record player, so I’d listen to blues records too.

We lived in an area in Chicago that had a venue called the Regal Theater. Later, I found out it was part of what they called the chitlin circuit. I remember being about nine years old and going there. You could watch two movies, and then watch Count Basie live, Duke Ellington live, and Fats Waller live. And we loved Fats Waller because at the end of the show, he’d take the curtain, wrap it around his belly, and shake it. [laughs] Cab Calloway was there too. I tell you this because, for some reason, we knew we were getting something special and that we were privileged to see these people live.

And if you turned on the radio, you had Al Benson, a Black disc jockey who’d play Black music. And when the Black programming was done, you’d hear Polish programming and their music. And I never turned the radio off. I listened to all kinds of stuff. I knew polkas, how they went, and how they sounded. Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, so I absorbed a lot of Polish tunes and their distinct style. My stepfather was [actually] a farmer and began working the steel mill when the war started. When he’d make us breakfast, he’d listen to country music, so that’s how I heard country. So I had listened to jazz, the blues, Polish music, and country, and Minnie Pearl even.

As a kid, I didn’t know I was gonna grow up to be a musician. It just worked out that I came across diverse stuff when I was young. Plus, later I found out I could listen to a song once and arrange it without reading the sheet music.

When exactly did you pick up the bass?

Well, I always knew I was gonna be an artist. My brother was in the service in Guam and wrote me a letter saying I should be a musician. He was a hero to me, and anything he said, I would do. So I took music in high school and decided to play the bass, because it was a quiet instrument. People could see me play it but could not really hear it, so they wouldn’t know that I wasn’t a real musician. [laughs]

When my brother came out of the Army, he started working the steel mill with my dad. One day, I came home, and in the middle of the living room was a brand-new stand-up bass! My brother had worked two weeks [straight] to save the cash to get me that thing. I said, “Well, I’m gonna let him know he didn’t waste his money.”

You went on to play with Sun Ra really early on in your career. What was Sun Ra like as a bandleader?

Sun Ra, to my ear, was like a poor man’s Duke Ellington at the time. He was like the planet Saturn; he was just strange and far out. He would do magic tricks a lot. And if you were a horn player in his band, he would write licks for you. Also, you couldn’t say anything negative to him. It wasn’t a band, more like a cult. He was one strict fella.

One time, I painted a sign for him that said “Sun Ra and his fabulous jazz band performing.” I spent about two weeks on it. He looked at it and broke out laughing. He said, “We don’t play jazz, we play dazz.” I took my little painting back, and still don’t know what he meant by that. [laughs]

I stayed with Sun Ra for about a month or so. Even though I left his band, and even though he was a strange fella, he did show me how to get copyrights for my work. I have to give him credit for helping me out with that.

CADET RECORDS

In the earlier years, Cadet was called Argo, both subsidiaries of Chess. Your LP, Richard’s Almanac was for Argo. Describe the main changes from recording for Argo and doing LPs for Cadet.

I think the year was 1959, and I was a whippersnapper then! I had a trio that followed Ahmad Jamal around Chicago, and that’s how I became involved with the fellows behind Cadet. I remember the company being located at Twentieth and Michigan Street in a three-story building with a studio in it. Chess did the blues, and Argo did the jazz stuff. The Chess Brothers, Phil and Leonard, were from Poland. They really liked Black blues. And at that time, in the ’40s, Black music was considered “race music.”

The Chess brothers were Polish Jews. And the rumor said that they left Europe to flee Hitler. They would record these Black guys doing the blues and would go down South and sell the records. Black people just didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to take their work and turn it into a company and control their own art—but the Chess brothers did. You see, when World War II broke out, there was a great migration up the Mississippi River to Chicago and Detroit to work in the war plants. So a lot of Black folks brought along with them their music. The Chess brothers saw and knew that.

What were the feelings towards the Chess brothers’ selling Black music? Was it seen as a negative or positive thing?

Anyone who was White and took the time to appreciate our music, like the Chess brothers genuinely did, we appreciated it. The attitude towards someone doing things with Black music was: “I’m glad someone’s doing it.”

You worked at Cadet during its heyday from 1967 to ’70. Was it a conscious idea to incorporate more current production techniques and sounds (fuzz, tape delay, et cetera) into the Cadet model? 

Yes, mostly. But I never got into that whole psychedelic scene, because I made up my mind as a young person that I wanted to live to be a hundred. So I never did drugs or anything. I mean, cocaine makes your heart beat faster, and I believe your heart only has so many beats it can beat. [laughs]

My point is, when the Rolling Stones got popular, Marshall, son of Leonard Chess, started hanging around with ’em and got into doing drugs. When his father Leonard passed away in fall of 1969, Marshall took over and wanted to make Chess a rock company. That’s how a lot of that psychedelic stuff happened on those recordings.

What level of control over what made it to tape did you have? How much of an influence did the Chess brothers have in Cadet?

I had a total free hand to do whatever I wanted there. It was all on me, and they made it clear—sign whomever, fire whomever, and write in whatever style.

Dick LaPalm was an Italian brother who hooked me up [with] Woody Herman. In ’67, Woody wanted to work for Chess, and I signed him because Dick wanted me to. On that very same evening, Leonard Chess called me and said, “You signed that old fade Woody?” I told Leonard that I could still get a hit out of him. So we went to a hotel ballroom in North Chicago and rehearsed some songs. We only had four tracks: one track for reeds, one for rhythm, one for solos, and one for brass. We cut that whole album, Light My Fire, in two and a half hours. It turned out to become a Grammy-nominated album. Leonard Chess actually passed in ’69, so he didn’t get to see it being nominated.

So the only guy who had any influence at this time was Dick LaPalm. He actually came out with the idea for [Woody Herman’s] Heavy Exposure. I credit Dick and myself for bringing Woody’s career up at the time. Woody was really overjoyed.

What made the Ter-Mar studio so successful?

All the stuff that was done at Chess Records was done in that studio. Check it out: On a Monday, they’d have Ramsey Lewis cover “The Weight” by the Band. By Wednesday, [we] would press it and be basically done by Thursday. They had a pressing plant on Twenty-first Street to make albums and singles. Chess had the ability to think of a single on Monday, record it the next day, get it made, and have it in stores by Friday.

DONNY HATHAWAY

What are your fondest memories of Donny Hathaway as a man and a musician? 

I was with Donny in a car in 1965 or so, before he was real famous. We were on our way to a gig. He’d talk about how unpopular he was in school and how people made fun of him. I mean, he was from the South and always kinda had a football-shaped head with a little saddle in the middle of it. [laughs] He wasn’t ugly or anything, but just had a funny-shaped head. Donny was a sensitive guy though. But his wife was a beautiful woman, who could play classical piano and sing. His daughters were beautiful girls too. He was a special guy who had a special way of hearing and playing music. Donny could write from a classical standpoint as well.

That’s why, when I did Woody Herman’s record, Heavy Exposure, I brought Donny onto it. Woody didn’t know who Donny was, but I told him to just wait. I also brought him onto [Soulful Strings’] String Fever too.

So was that Donny humming along with the melody on “Valdez in the Country”?

If anyone’s humming on that track, it’s Donny.

You, Ric Powell, and Phil Upchurch wrote “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything),” which ended up on Donny’s Live LP. Talk a little bit about that song.

What happened was, after he became famous and said he wanted to rerecord “Voices Inside” but that he wanted to change the name to “Everything Is Everything,” I said okay. The rest is history. I still get checks for that now.

I supported Donny heavily. In fact, later on he wanted me to be his main producer on another album of his, but I was signed to Chess and couldn’t do it. Around that time was actually when his health deteriorated heavily.

When was the last time you saw Donny Hathaway?
In January ’79 or so, I saw Donny at the airport with a man on either side of him helping him walk, and he saw me and just sheepishly nodded. About a week later, Rodney Robertson and I were eating dinner and was told that Donny either was pushed out, or jumped out, from a window and had just died. I knew that his mind was going on full speed all the time.

What was going on with him?

Say you’re a cop and you go out on an emergency call because someone says they saw a man with a gun. You get there and see a shadow of someone with a gun, and you jump and fire at the shadow! But later, [you] come to find out it was a ten-year-old kid with a toy gun. Those are the kind of experiences that change you; you’ll never be the same after that. So Donny, I think, had some bad experiences like that, which messed with his reality.

He was a beautiful human being. I think that he was an all-around genius. If he had lived, the whole music world would have been changed.

TERRY CALLIER

What’s your history with Terry Callier?

In 1978, I was supposed to do an album with Terry called Fire on Ice. But all of a sudden, in the middle of it, he became very paranoid. It came time for him to put some top vocals onto some of the recordings, and he told me he didn’t trust me. Then I get a call from one of his cohorts telling me he’s in L.A. and that the session is over. He was wild.

Then, after I told him I was gonna scrap the whole thing, he appears out of nowhere. [laughs] So he came back, and we got Minnie Riperton to do some vocals on the project—which was the last time I ever did anything with her. And that was it. I didn’t talk to Terry for decades after.

In ’95, I got a call from Terry from London, saying he wanted me to produce his new project. I told him I’m not gonna work on his album until I got an official notice from the company. I guess he had some sort of epiphany between those twenty years or so. [laughs]

MARLENA SHAW AND CHARLES STEPNEY

Woman of the Ghetto is one of your most well-known songs. Give us a little insight about the song.

It was 1968. I lived in an upscale middle-class part of Chicago. By then, I pretty much ran Chess and Cadet. At that time, there was a lot of Black discontent. There was a guy named Bobby Miller who helped write the song, but I didn’t like him because he was very arrogant. Anyways, Marlena’s albums always did good, but not great.

Then in 1999, about thirty years later, I got a check in my mailbox. Now look, I believe in a supreme being, not necessarily in churches. If the supreme being can hear you in church, then you can pray from your home. And there were points between the ’60s and ’90s that I prayed for some relief. So the check was for $75,000, and on it was written “Remember Me.” I didn’t know what it was about, but I put it in the bank and thought, “I’ll argue about it later.”

A week later, I get a call from Marlena Shaw asking me if I got a check. She explained that it was for “Woman of the Ghetto,” which was on a compilation or remix project in Europe called Remember Me. I couldn’t believe it.

The hip-hop generation knows you from Marlena Shaw’s take of “California Soul” (written by Ashford and Simpson, sampled by Gang Starr and DJ Shadow). What do you remember about making that now-beloved song?

I cannot tell you. I know I produced that album, and I think Charles Stepney produced some of the stuff too. I don’t even remember doing the song. I met Charles Stepney in 1962. I met him through Eddie Harris, who had been ranting and raving about him for a while. Stepney and I ended up doing “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” around ’62 or ’63. But around ’65, he wanted to quit doing music. I told him he had talent and should keep arranging, so he gave it one more shot and ended up doing Minnie Riperton’s record. He got in tight with Marshall Chess, and he became the man afterwards.

For my third Soulful Strings project, Another Exposure, Charles covered Aretha Franklin’s [“Since You’ve Been Gone”] track on that. Instead of using that as the single, I chose “The Stepper,” and that pissed Charles off. After that, our relationship was a bit strained.

In 1976, he passed away. But before that, I got on his case and said, “Man, you’re working too hard; you gotta get someone to copy your stuff.” I guess he was worried about them stealing his work. I think he just overworked himself.

SOULFUL STRINGS

Tell us how the Soulful Strings projects began.

I went with [saxophonist/composer] Paul Winter in 1962 for a six-month trip for President Kennedy’s culture exchange tour. So I was told if I went and played bass, I could do some production and some of my songs will be released once I got back. We ended up being the first jazz band to play at the White House.

Paul hooked me up with Ahmad Jamal, who I had known from a long time before. Ahmad said, “Oh, you’re an arranger now? Arrange my next album,” and I jumped at the chance, of course. I do recall that when we were doing Jamal’s record, they told me I could use what I wanted to, so I got a symphony orchestra. I was writing stuff for instruments I had never even heard of before. [laughs]

When Esmond Edwards came in to produce at the time, it was his first production gig. We were into about the fourth cut, and Ahmad just stopped to read some notes he had or something. Edwards got on the mic and said, “Ahmad, cut out the bullshit, and let’s get back to work!” I knew that Ahmad Jamal is one of the most sensitive people in this world. Sure enough, Ahmad stopped the session and just walked out on a house full of musicians I’d just hired. He made Esmond leave and refused to work until Esmond was out of the project. So Ahmad and I had to do the mixing and everything ourselves. We had to learn [that] on the spot, and so I never really liked how that album turned out.

But because of that record, I went onto Chess and did all that. I spoke with Leonard Chess and told him I wanted to be an in-house arranger. That was in fall of ’62. Leonard said, “Wait till January.” I called him back, and Esmond was on the phone. Esmond made me explain to him why I called, and he told me that they didn’t need an in-house arranger. “Up yours!” he told me. We exchanged words, and I got a call from Leonard months later telling me about an idea to have strings do up-tempo, contemporary-sounding tunes. So that whole Soulful Strings recordings happened by accident.

Tell us about that funky rhythm section on the Soulful String LPs.

I can only remember Lenny Druss on flute and that he could play anything that had a mouthpiece on it. Lenny was a real sweetheart of a guy. So his girlfriend and his daughter would come to my house and we’d barbecue, and his girlfriend told me that Lenny had told her [that] the best thing that happened to him was playing music with me. And I told her I felt the same doggone way.

Also, Phil Upchurch was on guitar. Ron Steele was a young White kid I had on guitar too, but he did most of the reading for us. See, Phil couldn’t read or write music, so everything he did was by ear. You would just give him the chord changes and let him do things just by using his instinct. So I knew my flute and my guitar would be a driving force behind these records.

I also had Johnny Griffith on piano at times. You couldn’t work with him too long, because he’d play so fast, he’d wear you out. He said he didn’t like all the free jazz because he felt they didn’t respect chord changes enough.

So I had Lenny, Druss, Phil, and Johnny. I also worked with [vibraphonist] Bobby Christian by the time we did Soulful Strings’ The Magic of Christmas album. No one got jealous about solos and stuff, and everyone knew what they needed to do—that’s why everything with those sessions worked so well. I used everyone according to their talent.

Where did you find strings players who could swing like that?

The strings weren’t necessarily the funky parts of the music. The guitar or flute would be the ones that would groove a lot more. I would just mask the songs with swinging instruments, but it wasn’t necessarily the strings that would be funky.

What would you say was your biggest hit for the Soulful Strings albums?

My biggest hit was [1967’s] “Burning Spear,” I would say. It was done [a few years] after Kenya became a sovereign country, so I came up with that track. When that song was released, people started using the song for their radio shows, and it sort of became an anthem. By then, I was running Cadet fully. And after they assassinated Martin Luther King, and with all the race tension going on, people told me I was gonna get in trouble for using so many White musicians on that record. But to me, you could be a zebra for all I care. As long as you could play and understand what I wrote, it didn’t matter. Just play my song, and I’ll love you.

Why didn’t you play bass on those sessions?

Well, I was a mostly a producer at the time, so I didn’t want to worry about playing in on a song and be wondering what everyone else sounded like.

If you have [Soulful Strings Play Gamble-Huff ], there’s a track called “I’ve Got the Groove,” which I played bass on. It was a bass with guitar strings on it. It was almost like a cello, so I tuned it in fourths, not fifths. That’s me, running the track at half speed, and playing a solo on it. So when you run the track back at regular speed, it sounds real unique and even kind of strange. Other than that, I mainly produced and arranged those records.

Talk about your experience recording the Back by Demand LP.

It was in 1968, at the London House [in Chicago]. We played there twice and packed the place. We were guys wearing tuxedos and playing funk. People loved it!

Earlier, you touched on your Christmas album, The Magic of Christmas. The version of “Jingle Bells” has by far the funkiest drums on any holiday record. Was it Morris Jennings on the drums?

Lenny told me that his daughter finally heard “Jingle Bells,” and she said they weren’t playing the melody right. [laughs] And it was Morris on drums.

DOROTHY ASHBY

Where did you first hear Dorothy Ashby, and when did you know you wanted to work with her?

It was 1962, and I was in New York negotiating with John Hammond, and we were about to watch Ella Fitzgerald. I decided to run to this bar next door, and when I came back, there was this beautiful Black lady with a bass and harp, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. She really amazed me. I went up to her and told her I really enjoyed her stuff.

In 1966 or so, I went to Detroit to watch [singer/guitarist] Frank D’Rone. When I went to dinner, I saw Dorothy again playing with another trio at the restaurant I was meeting Frank at. Right then, I asked her if she had a record deal. She said no, and I asked her if she wanted one, and that was it. Then we did Afro-Harping right after.

From Dorothy’s first LPs to Afro-Harping and The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby on Cadet, the sound changed from straightahead jazz to a very vibey, almost cinematic soul with jazz flourishes. What inspired you to take Dorothy’s recording aesthetic to these new realms? 

Her jazz playing was very New York-ish, very sophisticated. But I wanted things to be very Black, very funky at Cadet. She had a lot of pentatonic scales and stuff, but I wanted a swing. She was an expert on the harp and did things very instinctively. I think she just wanted to please me, and that’s why those recordings are different. By the time we cut her last record, it was very artistic. I thought it was gonna sell five copies. [laughs] But after those three albums with her, I had to use her anytime I needed a harp player.

Did you keep in touch with Dorothy in her later years? 

No, we didn’t really keep in touch. But I do remember her as a very modest person. She always had a very self-acquired peace about her. Her manner was very gentle.

After having a wonderful career, working with fascinating musicians, you now teach at Berklee College of Music. Is there a secret to your longevity and vitality?

My secret is that most of the music I did, everything I played and created, was to please my brother, Claude Evans. All of it has been for Claude.

 

Dan Ubick is producer/musician, record collector, amateur surfer, and father of two. Wax Poetics previously featured his pieces on Lalo Schifrin and the Gabor Szabo Quintet’s Jim Stewart.

David Ma is a regular contributor to Wax Poetics, and has written for various publications including Remix, Pitchfork, The Metro, Scratch, SLAP, and XLR8R.

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