Sweet soul: The generosity and tragedy of soul historian Bob Abrahamian



Bob Abrahamian
  • Courtesy of Jennifer Abrahamian
  • Bob Abrahamian
When I learned that my friend Bob Abrahamian had taken his life on Thursday, I felt a physical jolt, an actual spasm of sadness. But I was not surprised. Though the Chicago soul deejay, archivist, scholar, and oral historian spread and derived joy by finding and sharing rare sweet harmony records, he had long suffered from depression—and he had terribly adverse reactions to the medications he was prescribed.

Several years ago I spent about a week visiting with him in a suicide ward after an unsuccessful attempt, and surprisingly, like most of the time we'd shared together over the past two decades, it was a fairly pleasurable experience. We pored over 1960s newspaper ads for south-side nightclubs that I had collected for a story I was working on, we played Jenga, and we found a million things to joke about. Though his condition had frequently paralyzed him over the years, his sense of humor, though always dark, never dimmed, and he always had an eye and ear out for the absurd, shocking, and beautiful. Unlike most severely depressed individuals, Bob was never a drag to hang out with.

We met around 1995, when he came to the University of Chicago as an undergrad and quickly gravitated to the school's community radio station, WHPK, where I volunteered. Though a child of the suburbs, Bob was destined for the south side, in part because he belonged on a campus where so many of the best students had Bob-like brains—brains that processed information at a higher level than those of mere mortals. But more significantly, he was destined for the south side because, as he would soon discover, it was home to the music that moved him the most.

Initially a hip-hop fan, Bob began his record collection by searching for funky 45s to sample. After discovering that local groups were more likely to have made sweet vocal harmony records than hard funk, he became enthralled with the Chicago sound and was soon its greatest advocate and historian. With some guidance from WHPK deejays (and future Dusty Groove moguls) Rick Wojcik and JP Chill, Bob learned the ins and outs of finding the rarest, most outstanding records. A decade into his radio career he made his own distinct mark when he began interviewing obscure musicians on his weekly program Sitting in the Park (many episodes are archived at sittinginthepark.com). What makes his shows so special is the respect and attention he gives to previously anonymous members of lost vocal groups, all of whom were giants in Bob's world. The information they share is available nowhere else and would be lost without his efforts.

Bob Abrahamian at WHPK in the mid-90s—hes on the far right, in the KMFDM T-shirt.
  • Courtesy of Steve Laymon
  • Bob Abrahamian at WHPK in the mid-90s—he's on the far right, in the KMFDM T-shirt.

Though no serious record collector would consider me a member of the tribe, on occasion I would find myself at record shows or conventions around the country—and upon learning where I was from, dealers, reissue-label owners, and fans would inevitably mention Bob. Among collectors of soul and R&B 45s, he was elite, having amassed one of the greatest collections in the world—but what was most important about Bob was how different he was from many of the most intense 45-hungry fiends.

Because the most valuable records are the rarest ones, the people involved in their production usually didn't go on to lucrative careers; consequently, tracking down these elusive treasures often involves dealing with elderly and frequently impoverished African-American men and women. These R&B veterans are easy targets for ruthless predators looking to rip them off, and sometimes collectors will buy out their entire priceless personal stocks of records for a pittance, treating them more like marks than like respected elders. But Bob not only paid higher prices than most of his peers, he also paid attention. Most of these vocalists didn't have copies of the songs they'd recorded in their high school days, and Bob would find them the records or make CD-Rs for them. He would keep them company and talk to them on the phone, long after he'd mined whatever vinyl or information he desired. He'd lend them money, help them negotiate the computer age, even occasionally help them find housing or physically help them move.

Bob didn't always love doing this; among friends he'd sometimes gripe and curse, revealing (along with his dark humor) a short fuse and an aversion to forgiving slights. But he rarely revealed this side of himself to his aging heroes, whom he consistently treated with tremendous care. His approach to archiving artifacts and information was not only kind, it was profoundly moral. And generous. One of the craziest things Bob told me was that some collectors interview these folks but never publish or share the interviews, instead hoarding the information to help in future vinyl quests. But generosity was built into the DNA of the Sitting in the Park radio show, and prior to the Internet age Bob made dozens of CD-Rs for guests, friends, and fans (he kept doing it even after his show went online, on behalf of interview subjects who'd fallen victim to the digital divide). He tracked down records requested by even his most eccentric listeners, and most important, he shared more than 100 interviews and eight years of music programs on his website.

But despite Sitting in the Park's immeasurable value, the anecdotes, data, and culture preserved in those recordings represent a fraction of what Bob knew about the hundreds of musicians he featured. He would privately interview them for hours in advance, and he knew so much more than got on the show. His humanity trumped any journalistic instincts, so Bob would never ask on the air about difficult truths, or dig into stories that made his subjects uncomfortable. But he knew all the dirt and the fascinating backstories. And we don't. And we won't.

One of the reasons I find it so satisfying to explore and document the cultural history of Chicago's south side in my Reader articles and in Roctober magazine is that it's so sorely underdocumented, with even the late-1960s Chicago recording history of a giant such as Michael Jackson left undiscovered. I was able to be successful with my research in part because I could turn to Bob at a dozen junctures during each story to find contact information or collect data about some obscure figure with whom Bob had built goodwill. I'll continue my work, but it will inevitably be harder and the results likely weaker without him around.

There's a proverb that when an elder dies a library burns, but when this young man died a thousand libraries were lost. Just last week Bob shared with me a short blurb that a respected music historian had sent his way for a forthcoming Chicago R&B reissue series. Bob had instantly found several significant errors in this future liner note. Without him around to correct the mistakes, our city's cultural history will be twisted and flawed, which is sad.

But what isn't sad at all is an e-mail exchange Bob and I had over the past couple of weeks. He was getting really energized because his recent viewings of David Cronenberg's early films were making him reinterpret Videodrome, his favorite movie. His thoughts on the films were deftly intelligent, foulmouthed, funny, and giddy with the excitement of discovery. As much as he loved R&B, and as strong as his compulsion was to acquire earth's most comprehensive collection of those records, Bob was far from single-minded. He filled his sleepless nights consuming comedy albums, exploitation movies, martial arts flicks, dumb TV (he particularly loved Celebrity Wife Swap), and bizarre autobiographies revealed in absurdly lengthy eBay descriptions. Ultimately, the least depressing thing about this tragic victim of depression is that despite his condition, which so often left him housebound and awake with unblinking insomnia, he was able to fill those countless hours consuming culture that gave him pleasure.

Which I know because Bob, forever generous, was always excited to share his latest discoveries.

Visitation hours are tonight from 6 till 9 PM at Piser Funeral Services in Skokie (9200 Skokie Boulevard at Church Street).

Bob's funeral is Tuesday, June 10, at 11 AM, also at Piser. It will be followed by burial at Memorial Park Cemetery, 9900 Skokie Boulevard.

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