The Cotton Club's brightly lit facade stands out like a palm tree in Alaska on the desolate strip of South Michigan between 17th and 18th streets. People are here from all over the south and west sides to see a club favorite, Terrence Cain. He's been playing the club's Monday open-mike nights almost every week for the past couple of years. And he's done so well that he's headlining this Wednesday- night "best of the open mike" show. Cain is taking a break while one of the many guest performers he's invited to join him does a short set. But though he's trying to rest, Cain can't relax.
"E-flat!" he yells from backstage. "Go up to E-flat!"
The beleaguered singer adjusts his tones and Cain beams. His perfect pitch won't leave him alone.
A six-foot-five giant with wire-rim glasses and a boyish face, Cain is a 26-year-old R & B singer hoping to follow singer R. Kelly, jazz saxophonist Art Porter, and comedian Bernie Mac from the Cotton Club's open mike to stardom. His voice melds the silken tones of Luther Vandross, the emotional tug of Stevie Wonder, and the control of Peabo Bryson into one smooth package.
By day, Cain works for the city as a garbage collector. "I sing in the alleys," he says. "I'm dumping garbage and I'm humming, writing songs in my head. When people ask me what I do, I say 'I'm a garbageman and a singer.'"
By night he works on his music, playing the Cotton Club and occasionally other south-side venues like the Clique, Club Ultimate, and Club Regal. In April he headlined for the first time at the Gold Coast's Underground Wonder Bar, and Liza Minnelli, in town for a show of her own, came to see him perform.
Though he has had some professional training, Cain got most of his experience at the United Baptist Church on West Roosevelt, where his parents, Betty and Jesse, are deacons.
"I learned a lot from singing in church," he says. "There it's 'You're off-key. Stand up straight. Be professional.' You're singing in front of an audience at all times, but these are your peers and your family, so it's harder to sing in front of them. My family are all singers. Every single one of them is musical. You can get 60 members of my family together and, even if they haven't rehearsed a song, give them the words and they will fall in harmony like a barbershop quartet."
Gospel music, however, has its place, and the nightclubs aren't it. "I had to adapt my style of singing to a club atmosphere," he says. "I was a gospel singer, but I used to be ashamed to sing gospel songs. If somebody got up at the open mike and started singing church songs everyone would groan. So I tried crossover contemporary gospel songs and it worked. Now they've had gospel nights at the club. At every show I tell the audience, 'I don't care what religion you are, give God a handclap for me.'"
At the Cotton Club, Cain's set ranges from "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to PM Dawn's "I'd Die Without You." During "Yesterday" Cain challenges the audience to a sing-along and passes the microphone into the crowd. I'm sitting next to his older brother Cedric, who nearly flattens me in his enthusiasm. Cedric is standing up waving his arms and harmonizing along with Terrence to Babyface's "Whip Appeal." The whole crowd has reached a frenzy. Cain never breaks concentration even with the chaos in front of him.
"I don't care what the crowd is doing," he says. "If you let them get to you, you'll lose it. A crowd can sense your attitude, which is why confidence is 80 percent of singing. If you're not confident, they sense you. They'll talk all over you. It's different in white clubs. If they don't like you, they'll still clap when you're through. Black people, in churches and clubs, thrive on ego. You must reach black people. They like somebody who's above the crowd."
Cain seems to know instinctively whether to belt out a high note or smooth a low one to grab their attention. He calls it "discernment."
"I can reach out with my spirit and touch yours," he says. "All preachers can discern, it's a God-given gift. Through singing I can discern everyone in the room. I can feel people talking, watching, and listening. I'll zero in on one person and it'll spread. One night I sang 'Bridge Over Troubled Water.' People were enjoying it, but I could feel that this one lady had a burden in her heart. She was crying, so I sang that song for her. Another time I sang 'You Are So Beautiful.' Every woman in the room was in tears. Every woman."
Cain's parents are extremely proud of him. Photos of him, as well as other family members, adorn the walls of their apartment above their soul-food restaurant at Harrison and Pulaski. But they don't go to watch him perform. As church-going people, Betty and Jesse don't like nightclubs.
"It's not a matter of supporting Terrence, he has our support," Jesse says. "We don't have to be there to support him. I know he can sing, and he will be successful. I love Terrence for who he is, not for what he has or might have. If he were making a million dollars and he was a wreck, I wouldn't want to be around him."
Cain is working on a single that he wants to release this fall on Skyway Records. He hopes to sign with a major label deal and sing full-time, but in the meantime he doesn't mind his day job. "I don't want to be a starving artist," he says. "I'd rather be a content person. I can do both if my mind is in the right place."
Cain is playing at 9 and 11 tonight at the Union Hall at 1307 S. Michigan (427-3084). Tickets are $10. You can also catch him most Mondays at the Cotton Club, 1710 S. Michigan (341-9787). Admission to open-mike night is $6.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.