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The Woman on the Right

An uncaptioned photo in the Numero Group's recent book about south-side nightlife in the 70s set Jake Austen on the trail of this story about one crazy week in the life of longtime promoter Helen Wooten.

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Helen Wooten claims the stroke she suffered last year has affected her memory, but you wouldn't know it from the way she reacts to her picture in Light: On the South Side, the Michael Abramson photo book published in November by the local reissue label Numero Group. Though the uncaptioned snapshot was taken 34 years ago and she's never laid eyes on it before, the instant she sees it she lights up with enthusiasm. "I can tell you exactly when this is," she says, admiring her elegantly attired younger self holding court with two girlfriends at the High Chaparral nightclub, near 77th and Stony Island. Her slinky black outfit, adorned with shooting stars and radiant moons, is interstellar in its elegance—and her funky Princess Leia hairstyle predates the release of Star Wars by more than a year. "This is 1976, February 14, Valentine's Day," she says. "I had a show with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. That's the day Teddy Pendergrass quit the group. He didn't show up, and I had to use the Chi-Lites. I remember that like it was yesterday."

The Numero Group's Rob Sevier, record collector Bob Abrahamian, and I have come to Wooten's South Shore home to give her a copy of Abramson's book, which collects more than 100 black-and-white photos of the inhabitants of mid-70s south-side nightclubs and lounges. None of us has met her before, though Abrahamian has talked to her on the phone. Keni Rightout, best known for recording with local vocal groups the Traits and the Center Stage, put them in touch in November after Abrahamian showed him a promo video for Light: On the South Side—Rightout went to high school with Wooten and identified her in the clip.

Sevier is here because he's keen to put names to faces—the photos are mostly of ordinary clubgoers, and this is the first positive ID of someone Numero staff didn't already recognize. Abrahamian hopes Wooten will be able to help him brighten a few corners in his quest to document Chicago's vocal groups of the 60s and 70s. And I've tagged along because Abrahamian has told me Wooten was involved early on with the Jackson Five, whose formative years are a special interest of mine (see my Reader cover story from September 10, 2009, "The Jackson Find").

Flipping through the book on a couch in her living room, Wooten names old friends on page after page. Some are infamous—Flukey Stokes, a drug kingpin who liked to play Robin Hood; a pimp named Magellan—but most, like Latitia Binion and Diane Tobra, the two women sharing her table on page 30, wouldn't be familiar to anyone outside her circle of friends.

Judging from Wooten's home, though, her circle of friends appears to include the majority of the residents of the south and west sides and virtually every black celebrity since the 1960s—when, as a teenager, she first made a name for herself booking R & B shows in Chicago. Her walls are hung with wood plaques the size of coffee tables, covered with photos of her hobnobbing with deejays, soul singers, and boxers, their smiling faces barely visible through amber shellac. Stacked on several couches and tables are albums filled with still more photos: Wooten with LL Cool J, Wooten with the Jacksons, Wooten with Mike Tyson.

Helen Wooten with Michael Jordan

Her home is perpetually busy with guests, and on this day they include Tyrone Austin, an old friend who used to sing at the High Chaparral in the 70s. Today he videotapes Wooten looking through the book while I interview her—footage for an autobiographical film she plans to produce. Five minutes don't go by without one of her phones ringing: That was Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites. That was the mother of rapper Da Brat. That was singer Ruby Andrews, domestic partner of Robert "Squirrel" Lester, the ailing Chi-Lite (who has since passed away). A big-screen TV glows with the People's Choice Awards, and it seems like every other artist appearing is someone Wooten's on a first-name basis with, thanks to a half century on the margins or behind the scenes of the entertainment business. Her journey has taken her from playing preteen talent shows to booking international tours, and along the way it's included stints as a tavern owner, record producer, stylist, and film financer, among countless other jobs and hustles. Her many connections—not just to the Jacksons but to all kinds of old-school south-side movers and shakers whose phone numbers I thought I'd never get—make her somebody whose brain I could happily pick for days. But I have no idea what an incredible tale I'm about to stumble into.

Wooten is still gazing at her own stunning photo. "I'll tell you what," she says. "February 11, three days before that, I had got shot. I came out of intensive care to come out to that show."

Born Helen Saffold on June 9, 1949, Wooten was introduced to the love of her life—music—by her older sisters, Joyce, Virginia, and Elois. But it didn't hurt that one of her babysitters was Robert "Stringbean" Tharp, who sang with legendary west-side doo-woppers the Ideals, best known for 1963's "The Gorilla." By age ten she and her sisters were writing songs and singing in talent shows. In '63 she entered Marshall High School, then home to teen vocal groups like the Versalettes, the Constellations, the Ivories, the Kittens (whose early lineup included Joyce), and the Gems (who featured one member from Hyde Park High by the name of Minnie Riperton). That year she and her friend Latitia—the woman wearing the fur hat in the Abramson photo—started a dance group to support other acts onstage, and Wooten put together her own vocal group, the Casuals. "They wasn't the best singing group," recalls Rightout, "but they was the sharpest."

Rightout, who sang with an outfit called the Dimensions while at Marshall, remembers being impressed by Wooten's sophisticated sense of style and adult composure. "She was very, very mature," he says. "She dressed like she was a teacher, and she actually ate with the teachers. She was highly respected in school." That maturity proved to be a far greater asset than her voice. Soon Wooten had taken a major role in organizing Marshall's legendary talent show, the Jamboree, helping bring in established headliners like Alvin Cash, Major Lance, and Gene "Duke of Earl" Chandler to anchor lineups of up-and-coming student groups. In doing so she made contacts that allowed her to help book similar shows at teen clubs and record hops off-campus, even though she was still in school herself.

Helen Wooten with Muhammad Ali

Wooten says that during her freshman year she appeared on groundbreaking black radio station WVON as the first "teen deejay," inaugurating a long-running segment in which disc jockey Herb Kent would bring in a different high school student each week to choose records for half an hour. She enlisted WVON deejays like Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones to emcee and promote the shows she booked, and they became longtime friends; Jones's daughter was among Wooten's visitors during my first meeting with her.

Though her work for the Jamboree was volunteer, Wooten hoarded the money she earned booking bands elsewhere and working three other after-school jobs—one at a nursing home, one at an Alberto Culver beauty-products factory, and another collecting money at the back door of the High Chaparral, for which she had to lie and say she was 21. By 1967 she'd saved $17,000, which she invested with Spann and Jones, thinking she was supporting their dream of buying their own station. As she soon realized, however, the deejays were actually putting her money into developing the Jackson Five. When Spann and Jones gave up on the group and sold their contract to Steeltown Records' Gordon Keith, they told Keith they'd invested around $30,000 in the group—meaning Wooten had technically owned a stake of more than 50 percent in Michael Jackson and his brothers.

By the 1970s Wooten was marshaling her impressive management skills to maintain a kind of double life. She was a working mother of two—she'd married William R. Wooten in 1968, a year out of high school, and kept his name after they divorced—who stayed busy with daughter Toyia, son Charles, and a job as a supervisor in the Transportation Service Department at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. But she continued to pursue her ambitions in the semi-underground entertainment economy, financing and organizing shows in Chicago's still vibrant music scene. Though the jewel in the city's black entertainment crown, the Regal Theater at 47th and King Drive, had been demolished in 1973, venues like the High Chaparral (where Wooten had moved up to booking) and Perv's House at 914 E. 79th continued to draw regular crowds of 1,200-plus revelers, all dressed to the nines. As the photos in Light: On the South Side make clear, even the most intimate spots demanded glamour from their patrons.

Wooten met Teddy Pendergrass around Thanksgiving 1971, when he was still drumming and singing backup for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, a Philadelphia R & B institution since the early 50s. Pendergrass had joined in 1969, and—as many obituaries noted last month, after he died at 59 following complications from colon-cancer surgery—his good looks and gruff, church-trained vocals had earned him a promotion to lead singer by the time the group released its debut LP in 1972. The Blue Notes quickly became superstars: their first four albums hit the top ten on the R & B charts (two at number one) and yielded classic singles like "If You Don't Know Me by Now," "The Love I Lost," "Bad Luck," and "Wake Up Everybody."

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