Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who've been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Women are often written out of music histories, especially in soul, R&B, and funk. In Chicago, the likes of Curtis Mayfield, the Chi-Lites, Jerry Butler, and Syl Johnson dominate the narrative. You might hear about hitmaking divas such as Minnie Riperton, Fontella Bass, and Mavis Staples, but even when women are included, they're frequently treated as a sidebar. And Betty Everett, Barbara Acklin, and Shirley Wahls, to name just three more, hardly ever get mentioned.
Windy City girl groups such as the Sequins, the Gems, and the Opals fare even worse, especially compared to their Detroit counterparts—insofar as people still care about girl groups at all, they're much more likely to know the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and Martha & the Vandellas. Hometown heroines the Lovelites have been largely forgotten, though they seemed to have everything going for them back in the day—not just dazzling talent but also actual hits.
The Lovelites' members all lived in Altgeld Gardens on the far south side, one of the first public housing projects built in the U.S. (it was intended to provide homes for Black soldiers and their families after World War II). Patti Hamilton and her sister Rozena Petty, aka Rosena Hamilton, formed the group with their friend Barbara Peterman while all three were attending Carver High School. In 1967 Bandera Records released the trio's first 45, the smooth "I Found Me a Lover" backed with the snappy, danceable "You Better Stop It." The B side is still beloved by the northern soul contingent in the UK, but it didn't hit big at the time. Peterman left the group in 1968, replaced by Ardell McDaniel.
In 1969 the Lovelites enjoyed their first hit with "How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad (That I've Been Bad)." Written by Patti Hamilton with producer and former Chi-Lites member Clarence Johnson, this downer ditty came out on Lock Records, cofounded by Johnson. It echoes the teen-pregnancy theme of the Supremes' 1968 smash "Love Child," telling the tale of a young mother abandoned by her baby's father and afraid to let her parents know about her predicament—a much more scandalous situation 50 years ago. The single reached number 15 on the Billboard soul chart, hit the top five on WVON, and sold roughly 400,000 copies, 55,000 of them locally. Its success earned the Lovelites a contract with Uni Records (a division of major label MCA), which had picked up the single for distribution. By the time they signed it, Petty had been replaced by Joni Berlmon, who'd attended Hyde Park High School.
On the Lovelites' 1970 Uni singles, "Who You Gonna Hurt Now" and "This Love Is Real," the group perfected their sweet, string-soaked soul sound. These tracks also appeared on their first LP, With Love From the Lovelites, produced by Johnson and Johnny Cameron. It didn't make much of an impact when it came out in 1970, but it's now considered a classic—and because original copies have become so rare, collectors pay hefty sums for them (as of this writing, the cheapest copy on Discogs is $324.61).
That same year, Johnson folded the Lock label and created a new imprint, Lovelite Records, especially for the trio. The first single for the label, the honey-drippin' R&B number "My Conscience," nearly matched the national success of "How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad," and sold 70,000 of those copies in the Windy City. (It might've helped that they'd put photos of their smiling faces on the hub of the 45 to deter a counterfeit group using their name.) The Lovelites released several more singles on their namesake label in 1971, but while groovin' tunes such as "My Baby Loves Me" and "Bumpy Road Ahead" sounded just as good as their hits, they didn't take off.
In 1972 the Lovelites signed to Cotillion Records, a division of Atlantic that was also home to the post-Curtis Impressions, Freddie King, Slade, and the Velvet Underground. By this point, McDaniel had quit, her spot taken over by Rhonda Grayson. The group started going by Patti & the Lovelites, acknowledging the importance of Hamilton's songwriting and her frequent role as main vocalist.
The group recorded for Cotillion at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, producing top-quality mellow ballads for the singles "Love Bandit" and "Is That Lovin' in Your Heart" (the latter accented by electric sitar). Either could've been the kind of crossover hit that Roberta Flack or Gladys Knight were having at the time, but it wasn't in the cards.
After a few more sides for the Lovelite and 20th Century labels, the Lovelites called it a day in 1973. Johnny Cameron, who'd been the group's producer and arranger for most of their career, met an untimely death, and Berlmon and Grayson quit. They soon hooked up with Theresa Davis, who'd been a member of the Emotions, and the three of them became in-demand backup singers around Chicago into the 1980s. Hamilton briefly reunited the original Lovelites lineup in 1975, then put the name to rest.
Like many soul artists of the era, the Lovelites continue to make new fans decades after their breakup, and their music has been reissued several times on several continents. In 1999 Johnson released The Lovelite Years CD compilation, presented by legendary DJ and svengali Herb Kent. Hamilton, who'd never fronted another group, was working as a CTA bus driver and trying to launch a gospel career. She told the Reader at the time that she didn't expect to see any money from the release.
The Lovelite Years included previously unissued tracks featuring a young Deniece Williams, then known as Denise Chandler or Niecy—she'd briefly been a member of the group before joining Stevie Wonder's Wonderlove. One of those tracks, "I'm Not Like the Others," was released again in 2004 on a split 45 with Bobby James via resuscitated UK label Grapevine, and then included alongside 18 other Lovelites songs on the 2007 CD compilation Sisters of Soul: The Sweeter Voices of Soul. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.