The Woman on the Right | Feature | Chicago Reader

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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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Pendergrass went solo in 1977, releasing a string of platinum-selling LPs. His often aggressive love songs and steamy live shows (including his legendary "ladies only" concerts, which he guessed drew 80 percent women) established him as one of the top black sex symbols of the decade. His career lost much of its extraordinary momentum when he was paralyzed from the chest down in a 1982 auto accident, but he eventually resumed recording and charted with several more albums.

Wooten says she and Pendergrass had instant chemistry: "We were flirting around and we had a lot of things in common. I don't know how to describe it . . . we became good friends. That was my secret, private boyfriend. Listen, he had keys to my house and keys to my car." Her loyalty to Pendergrass, she says, was a boon to the Blue Notes; she would help them with Chicago shows, and she remembers landing them good gigs in Memphis and Atlanta. She says Pendergrass would sometimes come to see her even when he didn't have a show in the area. Though he doesn't mention Wooten in his 1998 autobiography, Truly Blessed, and during those years he had a live-in Philadelphia girlfriend who would bear his son, Pendergrass writes: "I was, I admit, not always faithful on the road."

Wooten says they eventually fell out over a disagreement about a piece of jewelry. But they maintained a cordial business relationship, and in mid-November 1975, Wooten paid a $3,000 advance to Harold Melvin to secure the Blue Notes for a big Valentine's Day show at the High Chaparral.

Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, with Melvin at far right and Teddy Pendergrass at center
  • Courtesy of the Gilles Petard Collection
  • Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, with Melvin at far right and Teddy Pendergrass at center

Three days before the show, by Wooten's account, she was working at the hospital when her boyfriend, Samuel Daniels, parked in front of her house on West Maxwell around 9 PM. Seeing the lights on and assuming she was home, he went inside and surprised three intruders in the upstairs bedroom. Daniels drew a .38 and forced them to lie down on the floor. "They got one of my new coats, they had my jewelry, and he saw they had my money bag," Wooten says. "So he called the police and he called me and told me not to come home, because he caught some robbers in my house."

Ignoring Daniels's advice, Wooten left work midshift, and got home in five minutes—ahead of the police. She raced upstairs to see the cowering intruders. "They were frightened," she recalls. "They were saying, 'Miss, miss, he might kill us.' I told them, 'You all don't even know who you're messing with—this is a crazy man!'" Apparently spurred to action by her imprudent threat, the thieves jumped Daniels and grabbed his gun. They shot him several times and Wooten once, leaving her crumpled on the closet floor. They left the furs and cash but took the gun and a few pieces of jewelry.

When the police arrived they recognized Wooten—the cafeteria at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's was a police hangout, and her first cousin, Howard Saffold, was a prominent reform-minded police officer who would later serve Mayor Harold Washington as security chief. They called an ambulance to take her back to the hospital she'd just left. "I said, 'Please don't take me there,'" she says, "because I'd snuck away from work, and I needed my job. So they took me to Illinois Research," now the UIC Medical Center.

Wooten had been shot at close range. The bullet had punctured her right lung and exited her back. She was taken to the intensive care unit, where doctors drained blood from her lungs. Daniels, who she calls her common-law husband (they were together from 1975 till '82), survived the shooting as well, though he was in coma for three weeks.

Despite these dire conditions, Wooten's thoughts kept returning to her investment in the upcoming Valentine's Day show. "I had spent about $5,000 for advertisements on radio and had given [Melvin] a $3,000 deposit, so I was out about $8,000. All that was on my mind was that I have got to do my show and get my money back." On the day of the concert she called her friend Sandy Wilburn, best known as a songwriter for the Chi-Lites, and had him go to her house and bring her a dress. She ducked out of the ICU and into a private room, where she fixed her hair and makeup and donned the stylish ensemble Wilburn had delivered. "Just like the pictures you got in that book," Wooten brags, "that's the way I looked when I left the hospital."

"When I checked out," she says, "they said, 'Mrs. Wooten, you have a bullet hole in you. You cannot leave intensive care.' I told them, 'What I got to do for Valentine's Day is way more important than my health right now.'"

Wooten headed straight for the High Chaparral, but there was bad news waiting for her. "[Melvin] said they wouldn't be there because they had broken up," says Clarence Ludd, who owned the High Chaparral and today owns Artis's Lounge at 1249 E. 87th with his wife, after whom it's named. "Early that afternoon they called and canceled."

Clarence Ludd and Helen Wooten
  • From the collection of Clarence Ludd
  • Clarence Ludd and Helen Wooten

Though Wooten had expected the Blue Notes to show up that night, the breakup was far from a shock. Tensions within the group had already led to a number of contentious shows. In Truly Blessed, Pendergrass characterizes Melvin, who died in 1997, as a difficult boss. Though he'd taught Pendergrass "nearly everything [he] needed to know about surviving in show business," his attitude was that every member but himself was replaceable. (In fact Pendergrass himself had joined during one of Melvin's complete Blue Notes overhauls.) This became a problem when Pendergrass lifted the group from the minor leagues to platinum sales. Melvin had a troublesome temper and allegedly hid royalties from his bandmates—underneath a mattress, according to Pendergrass. Cocaine was ubiquitous in that era, and as Truly Blessed details, the drug aggravated both Melvin's erratic behavior and Pendergrass's reactions to it.

Several incidents in 1975 suggested that the Blue Notes were headed for the rocks. In Detroit Pendergrass insisted on going onstage without the rest of the group. In New York he bailed on an Apollo show after an argument with Melvin. Though he later claimed to have left the band that October (a date cited in many sources), several of the group's most notorious breakdowns were yet to occur.

In mid-November Jet magazine reported that the Blue Notes had been fired from an extended engagement at Los Angeles's Playboy Club because Melvin had showed up late for one of the first gigs and told the audience to go fuck themselves (or, as Jet put it, he was on "C.P. time" and "suggested that they could find sexual release with themselves").

The feud between Melvin and Pendergrass seems to have come to a head in Chicago the weekend before Thanksgiving, when the band came to town to do two shows at Perv's House, the self-proclaimed "Entertainment Capitol of the Midwest." Owned by Pervis Staples, by then retired from the Staple Singers, it took up the north side of 79th for most of the block between Drexel and Ingleside (the current location of the East of the Ryan). Perv's was an extravagant venue with a full light show in its Evening Glo Disco room and an elaborate "adult playground" featuring a miniature golf course. It's also most likely where Melvin and Pendergrass shared a stage for the last time.

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