The Ice Man Cometh Back | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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The Ice Man Cometh Back

Jerry Butler puts politics aside for a rare Chicago performance of his soul hits.

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One of the greatest soul singers Chicago's ever produced is coming home next month to sing a few songs.

Actually, Jerry Butler never really left Chicago--he not only lives here, he serves on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. It's just that he so infrequently performs here that as a singer it's as though he moved away.

But on December 10 he'll play the Arie Crown Theater along with Gene Chandler, Ben E. King, and Lloyd Price, in a revival show they're billing as "A Night With Friends."

"You could say it's a musical homecoming," says Butler. "Folks around here might not know it, but I perform about 35 weekends a year. All of us--Gene, Ben E., and Lloyd--are still very active. We're not heading off to the geriatric center yet."

It's been over 40 years since Butler got his start, and it sometimes seems to him as though every corner of the city reverberates with memories of those early days. The Arie Crown, for instance, isn't far from the address on South Michigan Avenue of the old studio where he recorded "For Your Precious Love," his first hit. He was with the Impressions, a group that included a precocious 16-year-old tenor named Curtis Mayfield.

Mayfield and Butler were north-siders, raised in the community around Cabrini-Green. "My family lived at 1139 N. Wells and I went to the Jenner grammar school and Washburn High School, which later became Cooley High," says Butler. "We were all singing in the church, but Curtis was the genius of the bunch. The first time I saw him must have been 1953. He was at his grandmother's church on the west side--at Maypole and Western. He was a little kid running around while his older cousins and myself sang gospel songs. He was 11 years old back then. I was 14. We had ourselves a little group that he wanted to join, and we wouldn't let him 'cause we said he was too young.

"One day we were cleaning out his grandmother's closet and he found this old guitar. He tuned it and started to play. No lessons. He just taught himself. About two months later he knew every song we sang in the gospel group. We pulled him into the group because he was the only one who played an instrument."

Mayfield, Butler, and two other local singers (Arthur and Richard Brooks) formed the Impressions in 1958. "Curtis dropped out of Wells High School to go on the road with us," says Butler. "He was only a 16-year-old sophomore. By then he had written maybe 50 or 60 songs. Curtis was always writing. The music just poured out of his head."

After "For Your Precious Love" became a major hit, Butler went solo. "Jerry was only with them for one or two records," says Richard Pegue, the R & B expert who deejays the midnight dusties show on 1390 AM. "After that, they hired an excellent soundalike. I mean he sounded just like Jerry, so everyone was fooled. A lot of folks still think Jerry was singing on all those hits the Impressions had in the 60s."

Butler remained friends with Mayfield, who helped him write several songs, including "He Will Break Your Heart," "Find Another Girl," and "I'm the Only One That Loves You." All told, Butler had over a dozen hits. For a generation of teenage boys, he was the epitome of unruffled cool--the laid-back Ice Man who remained strong in the face of heartache. To this day those teenagers, well beyond 40, crank up the radio when they hear the opening lines of "Only the Strong Survive." Butler, crying his "heart out" because the woman he loves is gone, quotes his mama's words of advice: "Boy, there's gonna be a whole lotta trouble in your life / So listen to me, get off of your knees / 'Cause only the strong survive."

In the mid-1980s he stopped recording and performing on a regular basis and went into politics. This was during Council Wars, when Eddie Vrdolyak and his sidekick, Ed Burke, were leading the charge of white aldermen against Mayor Harold Washington. Since Butler backed Washington, Vrdolyak and Burke were against him. Not that it mattered. His popularity apparently transcended race. Just to make sure everyone remembered who he was, he ran as "Jerry 'the Ice Man' Butler" on the ballot.

"I never talked to Vrdolyak before I ran, but I did talk to Burke," says Butler. "He said, 'Are you with our slate?' I said, 'No, I'm with Mayor Washington.' He said, 'We can't be for you.' I said, 'That's fair.' Well, David Canter, who keeps track of these things, tells me I got more votes than any other commissioner in the history of the Cook County Board. I guess people still remembered the Ice Man."

He's been reelected three times since. "Politics and entertainment are two different worlds," says Butler. "When I finish performing onstage there's instant gratification. But I've been on the County Board for 13 years and we're still trying to get a new Cook County hospital built. I may not even be on the board by the time it's finished. I may not even be alive."

Butler says he rarely performs in Chicago because he doesn't want voters to confuse his roles as singer and board member. The current show grew out of a nostalgia concert he, Chandler, King, and Price did two years ago in New York City. "We decided we should package our own show," says Butler.

They formed a company, and last January they put on three shows in New Jersey. They're coming to Chicago to see how the show plays in the midwest. "This show's not much different from the ones we did when we were starting out," says Butler. "In those days you had three or four artists on the bill, and each one sang a few songs. That's sort of what we're doing. I'll come out and sing 'He Will Break Your Heart,' or 'Western Union Man,' or whatever. Then I'll introduce Lloyd, who will sing 'Stagger Lee' or 'Personality,' and he'll introduce Gene Chandler, and so forth. We'll come back onstage enough times so you'll hear all the old songs."

At one point in the show, Butler, King, Chandler, and Price will sing background for Terisa Griffin, a Chicago performer. "Terisa will do a Gladys Knight song, and we're supposed to be the Pips. Actually, it's more like four old guys stumbling over each other trying to chase this young chick. It gets a laugh. We're having fun. I go back 30, 40 years with a lot of these guys."

The obviously missing one is Mayfield. "Well, you know, Curtis had his accident back in '90," says Butler. "He was performing outdoors in New York and there was a storm. The wind blew down a scaffolding and it crushed him. It broke three bones in the back of his neck and he was paralyzed."

In 1991 Mayfield (with the Impressions) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in 1994 he received a Grammy lifetime achievement award. "The Hall of Fame ceremony was a strange night," Butler recalls. "Curtis couldn't be there because it was soon after the accident. And it happened to be the night we sent planes to bomb Baghdad. It all put a damper on the evening. The Grammy thing was different. We escorted Curtis onstage and he got a standing ovation.

"We talk all the time on the phone, but I don't get to see him much. He lives in Dunwoody, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. He still does some writing, but it's hard. He used to write with his guitar. Since he can't play the guitar he's limited. He still has the melodies, but sometimes they're trapped in his head. He told me once, 'Jerry, what I hate most about this condition is that I can't reach over and pick up the guitar.'

"I sure wish he could be with us. Singing in Chicago always reminds me of Curtis. This is where we started. You can't go back in time, but I'd give up a lot just to have him up onstage."

Kicking the City's Access After two-plus years, Richard

Meeker's strange struggle with the city seems to be ending. But the city still won't let him use the disabled entrance at the 911 emergency center on West Madison Street.

To refresh your memory, Meeker's the police and fire dispatcher, written about here in April, who was denied access to the disabled entrance even though he's paralyzed and moves about in a wheelchair.

Instead the city's Office of Emergency Communications, which oversees the center, makes him wheel himself a quarter of a block past the disabled entrance and up an incline to the main entrance on Madison.

The office persisted in this policy even after Meeker pointed out the absurdity of locking a disabled entrance, located close to the disabled parking spaces, to a man in a wheelchair.

That door can't be opened because the building isn't properly secured, Meeker says city officials told him. (Apparently, they thought a bad guy might sneak in behind Meeker.) But Meeker was able to secure videotape of the door being held open as deliverymen scurried through. That raises a question the city has never answered: if the entrance is good enough for deliverymen, why isn't it good enough for Meeker?

Meeker pointed out that the extra push up Madison was weakening his back and bones and exposing him to rain, snow, and cold.

Use an umbrella when it rains, a lawyer for the city suggested.

"I said, 'Fine, I'll hold the umbrella with one hand. Now how can I push the wheelchair?'"

The entrance might have remained closed to Meeker forever. But he hired a lawyer, Marty Dolan, and filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city of "refusing to accommodate [him] by permitting handicapped accessibility to the work place immediately adjacent to the parking space."

In June, after a year of legal haggling, the city asked to settle. The settlement talks dragged on for another three months before the deal was done. Among other things, the city will pay Meeker $250,000 and allow him to use the disabled entrance.

But not yet. "They say they still have to work out security arrangements," says Dolan. "It is our understanding that it will open by December 1."

Dolan continues, "It's a shame they're making him go through this. Rich never asked for anything special. He's a by-the-rules kind of guy. Just let him use that entrance."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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