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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As Staples told Dave Hoekstra in a Sun-Times article occasioned by the release of Light: On the South Side, "Harold Melvin fired Pendergrass at my club. He slapped him in the mouth downstairs. They weren't going to go onstage. Melvin sent a girl out to the car, got the books, and told Pendergrass, 'I own you like I own the Blue Notes.' They couldn't get out of town until they did my show. People upstairs were clapping and clapping and they were downstairs boxing." The Blue Notes did eventually play, but by Wooten's recollection they canceled an engagement for the following day at the Nation of Islam's Salaam restaurant.

Wooten hadn't arranged the Perv's House gig, but she was there that night. "I let Perv book his own shows," she says, "but I was instrumental in getting it so he didn't have to pay no astronomical fee." She wasn't privy to the closed-door confrontation, though. "All I know about whatever happened in that office," she says, "is that I walked in on them and they asked me to dismiss myself—it was personal business."

The group officially announced a breakup in December, but fans were understandably skeptical. For one thing, the Blue Notes were at the peak of their popularity—it seemed inconceivable they would walk away from it. Their album Wake Up Everybody and its title track had both hit number one on the R & B charts that winter, and on the afternoon of the Perv's House fiasco the group had appeared on a pretaped episode of Soul Train performing a nearly unprecedented four songs. Further blunting the impact of the band's announcement, Pendergrass took a somewhat passive tone ("We should have talked it out") in the December issue of Jet that reported the breakup, and a large ad for the Blue Notes' LP appeared on the same page as the article.

More than anything, though, what convinced Wooten that the show was on was that Melvin had neither canceled it nor returned the deposit.

Helen Wooten

When he finally did pull the plug, it left Wooten in a tight spot. Ludd, who hadn't invested his own money in the show, wasn't really in trouble. On big nights, he admits, the High Chaparral could squeeze in 1,600 people, exceeding its legal capacity of 1,300—and since Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, he was likely to have a big night even without the hottest R & B group in America.

Wooten landed on her feet, though: she called the Chi-Lites. Bandleader Marshall Thompson remembers that the group had just returned from overseas when they got the last-minute call. "She got ahold of me, I think we were coming from London," he says. "We did it because of Helen. She was a friend of ours, and she'd been booking us even when we didn't have hits—so when we got our smash records, of course I didn't forget her." The local favorites were coming off what would turn out to be the biggest five years of a half-century career, and for the most part the sold-out crowd was satisfied with the substitution—by Wooten's reckoning, fewer than 100 people asked for their money back. After the unreturned deposit, the refunds, and the Chi-Lites' fee, she'd lost some money, but the evening was far from the financial disaster it could've been. And though you'd expect her to have been a wreck—between the bullet hole, the boyfriend in a coma, and all the trouble with the show—it's hard for someone to look more relaxed than Wooten does in the photo Abramson snapped of her that night.

"Teddy called me that night after everything was over," she says. "He said, 'I'm glad you got a replacement for me,' and he promised to make it up to me." Though as a solo artist Pendergrass was soon too big a star for the midsize venues Wooten worked with in Chicago, he made sure she got some money out of his next high-profile Chicago appearance in '77 by hiring her as a promoter even though she hadn't booked the gig. "He did a hell of a show," she remembers, "but from then on we wasn't as tight because I was still angry." And Melvin, she says, never did pay back that deposit.

Wooten has long since recovered from both her gunshot injury and the financial hit she took from the Valentine's Day show. The crime remains unsolved; neither Daniels nor Wooten recognized the robbers, but Wooten suspects they were sent by a friend familiar with her work schedule who left town immediately after the incident.

Not long after the Chi-Lites concert, she and Ludd became partners in two lounges, the Godfather II on 97th and Stony Island and the Godfather III on 64th and Cottage Grove. (The latter became the Jedi when Wooten's sister Joyce took over for her in 1983.) Though these clubs couldn't support the kind of lavish live entertainment that Wooten was used to scheduling, she stayed involved in larger bookings, and in 1978 she worked with Atlanta-based promoter Leonard Rowe on a tour by the Jacksons that visited 12 countries and 60 cities—finally recouping her unwitting 1966 investment.

Given how many friends and associates Wooten accumulated in the 70s, let's consider for a moment how unlikely it was that a stranger would capture one of the most tumultuous nights of her life. Michael Abramson set foot in the High Chaparral for the first time that Valentine's Day, and not because he wanted to see Pendergrass. "I went because I'd heard it was a happening place," he says. "I was a young white kid in love with photography, thinking this was a cool place to photograph." Though Abramson would make many friends at the south-side nightspots he frequented in the mid-70s, he never met Wooten. And he still hasn't—he'd never even talked to her on the phone till last month, after she got her copy of Light: On the South Side.

Many of his memories from those years have faded, but Abramson distinctly remembers taking that photo and how excited he was to print it. "There were a lot of people there—it was packed—but this table was special. The way they held themselves, what they were wearing, and the context of the scene—to me it looked like Paris in the 20s," he says. "It was like an era I had only seen in photographs."

In the past three decades Wooten, now 60, has stayed intimately involved in Chicago's black music scene. In 1982 she started a production company, HK & Associates, and when her daughter, Toyia, was murdered in 1988 while at college in New Orleans, she spun off a record label called ToiNik that's named after her. Wooten's companies concentrated on artist development and recording, and in the late 80s and early 90s the performers she worked with included her goddaughter Da Brat, Donell Jones, and R. Kelly. Starting in '88 Kelly helped write and produce music for her artists, and she gave his career an early boost by getting him gigs opening for acts like Heavy D. and Teddy Riley's group Guy. She's also recorded her son, Charles, who raps under the name DonCharlieon.

Wooten with Will Smith

In 2003 Wooten served as executive producer, location manager, set designer, stylist, and music coproducer for a direct-to-video hip-hop feature film, When Thugs Cry (distributed by Lions Gate). She and Charles both have cameos—Wooten as a fictionalized version of herself, dressed in eye-catching purple leather. She's working with the director, Parris Reaves, on a sequel, When Thugs Don't Have to Cry No More.

She's also been giving interviews, like the one I conducted—and that Tyrone Austin documented—the day I met her. Her goal is to use them to make a film about her life. She's anxious to tell the world, while she still can, just what a woman can achieve if she has style, hustle, and the tenacity to make sure the show goes on.   

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