A House of His Own
Nearly a decade has slipped by since "That's the Way Love Is," by Chicago's Ten City, became the first vocal house record to break England's pop top ten, peaking at number eight. It was the fourth and most successful in a string of hit singles the group made for Atlantic Records, and Ten City went on to release three albums on Atlantic and one for Columbia. More important, it was crucial in kicking off house music's long journey from the underground into the mainstream. But according to the group's singer and de facto leader, Byron Stingily, Ten City's career was fraught with compromises, disappointments, and frustrations that distorted its music. With his debut solo album, The Purist, due this Tuesday on New York dance indie Nervous, he says he's finally made an LP that reflects his musical reality: straight-up house with no distractions.
When house music got Stingily noticed by the music industry in 1987 he had relatively low expectations. He made his New York debut singing with legendary house DJ Marshall Jefferson. Both were shocked by the positive reception they received. "I couldn't believe it. We had just stepped off a plane and we heard a couple of my tracks and a couple of Marshall's on the radio," Stingily says. By the time they left, a week later, they had a deal with Atlantic, and when they went home they formed Ten City with keyboardist Byron Burke and guitarist-bassist Herb Lawson.
"Atlantic was looking at us as a singles group," says Stingily, now 32, in the small office of his west Loop recording studio and record label, Deep Soul. "They figured if we kept making successful singles we could build up a fan base big enough to warrant an album." Sure enough, in 1989 Ten City released its debut album, Foundation, but house music was still club music, and singles remained its currency. By 1992, when the label released Ten City's third LP, No House Big Enough, the band's dozen or so singles were outperforming the albums. In addition, label restructuring and personnel changes had eroded Ten City's business relationship with Atlantic, and they soon parted ways.
Within a week of wrapping things up with Atlantic, Ten City signed with Columbia, which released That Was Then, This Is Now in 1994. "Unfortunately, pretty much the same thing happened there," says Stingily. "No one really knew what to do with us. 'Are they a disco group? Are they an R & B group?'" Right after signing with Columbia the group joined forces with DJs Little Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, better known as the chart-topping production team Masters at Work, to record a song called "Fantasy." Through dub plates--prerelease versions used to test crowd response in nightclubs--the tune became a huge underground hit, but Columbia didn't want to release a single before there was an album to push. By the time the album came out, fans had either obtained bootlegs of the single or had gotten their fill of it in the clubs. For Stingily and Ten City it was the final straw.
"Ten City was about raw underground club music, and I think we lost our original vision," says Stingily. "I figured that since the record company was spending the money, I would cooperate. We'd do three or four house tracks, but we'd also do ballads and other stuff. But I knew in the back of my mind it wouldn't work. Ten City fans would be like, 'What the...?'" Columbia offered Stingily a solo contract, but he was so disgusted with the label's ignorance of the dance underground that he turned it down.
In 1996, after producing a record for singer Kim English on Nervous, Stingily signed with the label, whose Mike Weiss was more than happy to let him concentrate exclusively on house music. "I wasn't after money so much as I wanted to work with a label that believed in me," says Stingily. "If one or two records didn't happen I knew they would still stick with me." He hasn't had to test the label's commitment so far: of the four singles he's released three have been huge dance hits. Last summer's anthemic "Get Up"--which has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide--and last month's cover of Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" have both been top-20 pop hits in the UK.
With The Purist, Stingily is once again poised to make a run at the U.S. mainstream. The album features collaborations with some of dance music's biggest producers--Masters at Work, Frankie Knuckles, and David Morales, among others--but it's Stingily's striking singing, particularly the way his Marvin Gaye-like falsetto ripples through tunes that hark back to the golden days of disco, that commands attention.
House music has become a global phenomenon--Stingily's records also have been released in Australia, Israel, and Greece--but ironically its successes here, like Crystal Waters, CeCe Peniston, and Ultra Nate, have been sporadic at best. "Sometimes I just shake my head," Stingily says. "'Dance music' radio stations will play European house groups like Le Bouche, but they don't play anything from Chicago."
"But I just decided to be the best at what it is that I do, which is house music. I don't want to go chasing after something else and lose what I have. I can't lie--I would love to have a number-one pop hit in America. But only if I can get those numbers doing what I do."
The heads of Clark Fork Productions say they are no longer attempting to convert Evanston's Coronet theater to a music venue, but that they will investigate other possibilities for a club in Evanston. As reported in this column in late December, Brian and Craig Musburger and Max Shure were seeking a liquor license that would have allowed them to sell alcohol without selling food, which would have been unprecedented in Evanston. The decision to quit the Coronet came after Melissa Wynne, the alderman for the ward the theater is in, told Clark Fork last Thursday that she wouldn't support the application because of the potential disturbance to residential neighbors.
An exhibit of 50 photographs of artists who worked in Harlem in the first half of the century, called "O, Write My Name," has been on display since January 15, but the opening reception runs from 4 to 7 PM Saturday at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston; 847-491-0266. In addition to a bevy of writers and actors, the photographer, Carl Van Vechten, shot prominent musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, and Mahalia Jackson.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Byron Stingily photo by Dorothy Perry.