Willie Henderson is walking Chicago music history personified. In conversation he is able to recall Blues clubs that have all but faded from memory. Walton’s Corner, Pepper’s Lounge, Little Mack’s Club, Castle Rock, Club DeLisa, The Playhouse and more. Born in 1941, Willie’s family migrated to Chicago from Pensacola when he was but a child. Consequently his childhood was then imprinted with the auditory strains of the first wave of Chicago Bluesman. His first instrument was alto sax. And as Willie is fond of saying, it’s been “straight ahead” ever since.
“I initially had no interest in music. But, I started out on the alto that my dad bought me. I was going to Wendell Phillips High School. After playing for a graduation ceremony, at the end of the night, Lew Whitworst, our music teacher came over to me and said, ‘Look, I want you to go to summer school and learn baritone sax. I want you to come back next semester and play the baritone in the Jazz band.’
“I was taken aback. I had just been in the concert band, blowin’ really hard and loud. That’s probably why he thought I could play baritone. Anyway, I went to summer school at Hyde Park on Stony Island. Across the street is Jackson Park which today is the future site of President Obama’s library.
“When I was comin’ up, we lived next door to Junior. Wells. We lived at 215 E. 18th Street and he lived at 213. Whenever he stepped out of the house, he was always sharp, casual or not. He was older than me so I didn’t really interact with him until I was grown.”
Willie has observed the changes in the music in general and specifically, the evolution of Chicago Blues. There’s a rumor of a quote that states, the Black man invented the Blues but the White man made a business out of it. In his assessment of the state of Chicago Blues past and present, he has some acute observations.
“The scene today, while controlled by White folks, is slower and less active than it used to be. When I was comin’ up, there were plenty of clubs in the Black community. On the West Side you had Walton’s Corner where guys like Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam and Bobby Rush hung out. Then you had Pepper’s Lounge on 43rd, where I met a lot of people. It was owned by businessman Johnny Pepper. Also in that area was Theresa’s Lounge, which operated out of its basement location for more than 30 years, owned by Miss T, Theresa Needham. Harmonica player Little Mack Simmons had a place down the street from me on 18th and Mission. We just called it Little Mack’s Club. It’s kinda strange when I think back on how I met all those people in that one certain area.
“Little Mack’s Club was where I met a lot of people at, including the late, great Otis Rush. There was a tenor player named John Jackson who played with Little Mack and all the guys would come in there. Detroit Jr., for one. I used to try to talk to him about his publishing. I kinda regret that we didn’t finish the publishing conversations. A lot of the guys didn’t have a lot of knowledge of the music industry and actually, I was just starting to learn myself. So, I met a lot of guys; Freddie Robinson, they called him The Buzzard. He’d be playin’ with Little Mack too. A lot of cats would go around and sit in with different people.
“Otis Rush had a tenor player named Abb Locke who would come around too. He liked the way I played and invited me over to the West Side to a place called Castle Rock where Otis was playing. Mighty Joe Young was the 2nd guitar player. They would always bring me home. As I matter of fact, Mighty Joe Young called me “Kid” until the day he died. Cuz I was really too young to be up in there. But I was playin’!
“I worked with many, many Blues artists; Lee Shot Williams and Smokey Smothers. We played a club called the Playhouse on 43rd, right off Lake Park. That was where one day a guy came in and shot the owners. Lee hid under the pool table. There was always a lot of activity all over the place.”
And that’s not all Mr. Henderson did was play. He has enjoyed a wide and varied career. He is not just a Bluesman. His producer’s resume is long. His listed production credits according to www.discogs.com, total 154. Certainly too long a list to state here but some of the artists he has produced, include Little Richard, Tyrone Davis, Major Lance, The Duke of Earl Gene Chandler, Esther Phillips, Erma Franklin, Otis Clay, Young-Holt Unlimited, Otis Leavill, Willie Henderson & The Soul Explosions, Walter Jackson, Jackie Wilson, Alvin Cash, Lionel Hampton, Barbara Acklin, Fred Hughes, Billy Butler, The Beautiful Zion Missionary Baptist Choir and even comedian Soupy Sales!
He has written and arranged for a similarly long list that includes the Chi-Lites, Lee Shot Williams, Little Milton, Ronnie Laws, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Willie Kent, Sonny Stitt, Otis Rush. He has conducted and led orchestrations in the studio and on stage for the likes of Percy Mayfield, Lavern Baker and countless others.
He has also recorded or performed with Donny Hathaway, Jerry Butler, Junior Parker, Eddie Harris, The Staple Singers, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, Liz Mandeville, Mississippi Heat Syl Johnson Luther Allison, Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto. Whew! And he’s not done yet.
This days, in between gigs, Maestro Henderson is compiling material for a book on his music life experiences. He shared a few stories as he feigned a protest that Blues Blast was coppin’ his biographical chops!
“I did some Chess sessions with Little Milton including We’re Gonna Make It, If Walls Could Talk and also his cover of Bobby Bland’s Blind Man. Joe Scott, whom I took lessons from. was the arranger for Bobby Bland. He was out of Houston and worked for Don Robey’s Duke Records. When Joe Scott would come to town, I would buy him drinks at Robert’s Show Lounge and we would talk music. Now, a lot of the stuff he talked about, I didn’t understand. But he was drinkin’ and I was listenin’. As it so happened, I got drafted and went into the army. When I got out, I produced Can I Change My Mind which was a big hit for Tyrone Davis. When Joe Scott came back in town, I said to him, ‘Come on man, give me another lesson.’ He said, ‘I can’t give you no more lessons. You got a hit record.’ I really like his arrangements, especially his horn lines. Still do.
“Before I went into the army, I was workin’ at Club DeLisa. At the time it was a show club, owned by Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones. I was the director of Syl Johnson’s band. Since the club was so large, we’d added more pieces. When I first received my draft induction notice, I told E. Rodney Jones, ‘Hey man, I got a notice to go into the army.’ He said, ‘Well, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.” This went on for months. So, on the night before I was to report, I said, ‘Hey Rodney, I gotta go to the induction center in a few hours.’ He said, ‘Bye M***** F*****!
“So I went into the army with just a clothes bag and my hair processed, conked out. Man look, when I went in there they said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a musician. I was pretty crazy! I ended up in the 158th Army Band. Don Myrick was in the 113th Army Band, across the way. Don and I had been schoolmates at Crane Junior College along with Charles Henry and Maurice White. They had a group called the Jazzmen. He eventually became a member of Earth, Wind & Fire with Maurice White.
“Now George Patterson, who later did the arrangements for the Isley Brothers. along with Tom-Tom Washington, had a group in Chicago called the Jazz Interpreters. I had a group called the Metronomes and we were playing Blues and stuff. We were taught by a guy named James Mack and then began calling ourselves the Mackmen, which was crazy. I started getting involved in a lot of recording sessions so I reached back and got the guys I knew which was Don Myrick, Louis Satterfield and all of them. One of the things we did was Your No Good by Betty Everett.”
Also in Willie Henderson’s discography is an album by electric saxophonist Eddie Harris entitled Eddie Harris Sings The Blues, on which Willie plays bari. A notable percussion credit is also given to Marshall Thompson of the Chicago vocal group, the Chi-lites. When asked about Thompson’s percussion proclivities Henderson gives a studied and varied response.
“Well, I believe Marshall also played drums for Gladys Knight for awhile. Marshall’s father, they tell me, was an excellent pianist and his uncle was a great drummer. So I guess he had percussion in his blood. In fact, Marshall Thompson’s son played drums on a Gospel recording I produced, entitled, I’ll Make It All Right, by the Beautiful Zion Missionary Baptist Church Choir.
“It was strange how I got that gig. Bruce Swedien is a very well known audio engineer. He worked with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones on Thriller. At the time, he was with the Brunswick label. He was the engineer on the hits I did with Tyrone Davis. One day Swedien asked me if I knew any Gospel people. I told him sure enough, in my mother’s church. Consequently, I went to my mom’s church and told them I could record them. Emma Richards, who sang a lot of lead for the choir, had put together the tune, I’ll Make It All Right. That tune was arranged by Gene “Daddy G” Barge, with Louis Satterfield on bass, Odell Brown on organ and Rev. Marvin Yancy, Natalie Cole’s ex-husband on piano. We recorded it and it started sellin’ a lot. It was played on all the R&B stations across the country. What then happened was, it then turned out to be the same melody as the Womack Brother’s (The Valentinos), Lookin’ For A Love. The Womack’s lawyers got in touch with the record label and started attaching royalties. They had already paid me a portion for the church. I had been under the impression it was an original song. So that’s how that got put out.”
As Willie Henderson’s status grew as an artist, producer arranger and conductor, his mark began to extend to beyond Chicago record labels like Chess or Vee-Jay. Other labels came a-knockin’. Atlantic Records, New Sound from Nashville. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy label, based in L.A. Obscure foreign labels from Spain and France. Willie had his own label also called Now Sound based in Chicago. Then Willie started working for Brunswick before they moved to New York.
“That’s another strange story, ” says Willie. I was with Chess saxophonist & arranger Monk Higgins (whose birth name was Milton Bland). We used to do music for One-Derful Records which had Alvin Cash & The Crawlers and The Five Du-Tones. I went on the road with The Five Du-Tones to New Orleans. When we got down there, all our gigs were rained out. They had the biggest mosquitoes in the world! We had to play at the Dewdrop Inn. We were stranded. We played there and stayed there. The guy would give us one meal a day; pigtails, red beans and rice. I remember one night Wilson Pickett and his group came in and we burned ’em. We smoked ’em. They were doing I Found A Love.
“When we got back to Chicago, we were workin’ with Betty Everett at the Vee-Jay studios. We were rehearsing in the back room, doing the sessions for You’re No Good. A guy came in and said, “You should go down to Chess Records. They’re lookin’ for a band. So I took the guys down there. They hired the rhythm section. Satterfield on bass, Maurice White on drums and Gerald Sims on guitar. They called us when they needed the horns. We did Billy Stewart’s Summertime and all that stuff. It was really interesting but that’s how we got exposed. It all progressed from when we got started at Crane Junior College. We were young guys out there doin’ stuff and everybody wanted a part of what we were doing cuz we were playing really, for kind of cheap. We just wanted to play. So uh, we started out like that.
“One-Derful records had moved down to right off 18th Street at Michigan. Monk Higgins would write chords for songs and tell me to play. One day I was on my way out the door and a lady named Ann DeConjay told me that Brunswick was looking for a music director. So I went down to 1449 South Michigan and talked to them. Executive Producer Carl Davis was looking for someone to work with the songwriters and also write lead sheets so songs could be copyrighted. So, I was doing that and one thing kinda led to another. One day Carl said to me, ‘Hey man, we have this guy Tyrone Davis. I want you to work with him and produce him and write the arrangements. So I did that and that’s how Can I Change My Mind (#1 Billboard Hot R&B Singles, # 5 Hot 100) came about.
“When Carl Davis asked if I knew any other arrangers, I referred Tom-Tom Washington who was another cat that came behind me at Crane Junior College as well as James Mack. That’s how they got in there and started workin’ for Brunswick.
“In 1970 I cut an instrumental co-written by me, Tom-Tom Washington and Carl Davis. Called Funky Chicken Pts. I &II, we recorded it as Willie Henderson & The Soul Explosions on the Brunswick label. It cracked the Billboard Top 100 and became another hit for me.
“Now Jackie Wilson, called himself being one of my cousins. He said, ‘Man, I’m your 4th cousin.’ We would laugh about it all the time. I had a chance to record him once. It was a track titled, I Get The Sweetest Feeling. Before I got to the studio that day, they cut a song on Jackie written by Barbara Acklin and David Scott titled, Whispers (Gettin’ Louder), which turned out to be a hit for Jackie. I also played bari sax on Barbara Acklin’s Love Makes a Woman.
“I played on Donny Hathaway’s first album Everything Is Everything, also in 1970. Donny was a gifted, rare talent. When I returned from the Apollo Theater in New York promoting my record Funky Chicken, Donny had a session for me. I went down there with my New York boots and apple cap, cocked to one side. Donny starting wearing an apple cap right after that. He was copying me. He used to call me “Star”. ‘Hey Star!’ He was interesting.
“Toward the end of his life he called me again wanting me to contract some musicians for him. I discussed it with a drummer by the name of Quentin Joseph who now works for Philadelphia International Records. He told me, ‘Man, you know, Donny is having a lot of mental problems. If I were you, I wouldn’t deal with him.’ I had a lot of respect for Quentin, so I said to myself, okay, I’ll pass on it. I regret it to this day.”
Master Willie Henderson is still booking gigs. He was in the horn section at the grand Otis Rush tribute at the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival. He advises anyone with a true ear to note, “If you want a hit song, call me. I’ve got four notebooks full.” He posted on Facebook recently that his vault of unrecorded “Hit Songs” is now open. As he is so fond of saying, “STRAIGHT AHEAD!” To the next session then.