Since 2004, Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used Chicago’s secret music history to spotlight worthy artists with Chicago connections who have been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
As I have complained here before, women are often excluded from music history, a problem that seems particularly serious in soul music. I’ll never understand why Loleatta Holloway, Holle Thee Maxwell, and the Fascinations aren’t as well-known as the Dell, Major Lance, and Curtis Mayfield. Chicago’s women’s group, the Opals, had ties to all of these men, but in comparison, they’re downright obscure.
To be fair, the Opals probably would have been more famous if they had released more music. But if you allow me the term “girl group” (despite having been women for much of their careers), the Opals are still one of the greatest girl groups Chicago has ever produced.
The Opals hail from East Chicago, Indiana, where founder Rosie “Tootsie” Addison won a local talent contest in 1962, singing “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles. Inspired by her success, she founded a group by bringing on board her friends Myra Tillotson, Betty Blackmon and Rose E. Kelly. A producer in east Chicago nicknamed them opals, and as a gimmick they started wearing opals around their necks (until Addison learned that gems were known to bring bad luck). The Opals released their first single, “Hop, Skip & Jump”, later that same year on small label Beltone.
This catchy installment of heartwarming doo-wop, which sounds a lot like Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” has become a local favorite. The Opals recorded it with Addison as the lead singer, but Kelly quickly took over the role. “I knew I wouldn’t always be the lead singer,” Addison recalled for a 2006 Chicago Sun-Times characteristic. “My gift was my ear. I could hear if we were flat or sharp, if we were rushing.
While playing at Steve’s Chicken Shack in Gary, Indiana, in 1962, the Opals were “discovered” by Mickey McGill of the famous pop-soul group the Dells. In the same Sun-Times story, Addison recalled telling him, “We have to get you out of that truck stop.”
McGill started coming to the house where the group rehearsed to help them. “They sounded pretty good, so we started teaching them,” he explained in Robert Pruter’s must-have book. Chicago Soul. “We didn’t manage the band, but we took them like little kids and showed them how to sing and things.”
McGill also presented the Opals to Vee-Jay Records. They started out as backing vocals for the label’s other artists, lending their voices to recordings by Otis Leavill and, most famously, Betty Everett – they’re on her iconic 1964 version of “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss) “. This instantly recognizable tune, written by Rudy Clark, had failed to rank when Merry Clayton released it as a single in 1963, but Everett took it to number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Checkout The R&B charts. It has since appeared in numerous films and became a hit several times, including after Cher covered it for the Sirens soundtrack in 1990.
The Secret History of Chicago Music Live at The Hideout
This episode of Steve Krakow’s in-person talk show focuses on Chicago blues, with guest DJs Scott Wilkinson and Jose Bernal. Proof of vaccination required. Tue. 10/26, 6 p.m., Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, $ 5, 21 and over
Blackmon left the band during this time, so when McGill helped the Opals work with producer and A&R man Carl Davis at Okeh Records, they were reduced to a trio. Davis had just enjoyed major hits with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” and Major Lance’s “Monkey Time”, and the Opals’ debut gig for Okeh was an uncredited spot supporting Major Lance on “Crying in the Rain,” the B side of his R&B smash “Hey Little Girl.” Davis then signed a recording contract with the Opals and had them sing for his saxophonist brother, Clifford, on the 1963 single “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers”, co-written by Phil Upchurch (and they got credit for their voice this time).
Soon Davis began to function as the manager of the Opals, polishing their image and providing them with chaperones on the road (a common practice among young artists in particular). He made sure the band had Chicago Hair Goods human hair wigs, to keep them looking sharp on stage. “We were sweating like crazy while playing,” Addison told the Sun-Times. “Our [real] the hair would get messy.
In January 1964, the Opals finally recorded a single for Okeh under their own name, the Billy Butler rock song “Does It Matter” b / w “Tender Lover”. Produced by Davis with chic arrangements by Johnny Pate, it has become a collector’s favorite – the cheapest copy currently on Discogs is $ 200.
The Opals’ next single Okeh was also released in ’64 and also featured arrangements by Pate and production by Davis. What set him apart was that both of his songs were by none other than Curtis Mayfield, who was still with Impressions and had started moonlighting for Okeh as a producer and songwriter. “You’re Gonna Be Sorry” is a classic dancefloor groover, and the “You Can’t Hurt Me No More” flip is a nerve-racking soul ballad. The single was a local hit, but the Opals released just one more, 1965’s “Restless Days”, b / w “I’m So Afraid”.
The Dell had recorded “Restless Days” (co-written by McGill) in the 1950s, but their version was not released. With its doo-wop flavor, the track seems to belong to a different era than its B-side: “I’m So Afraid,” also by Mayfield, has the kind of groovin ‘midtempo Motown feel that the Northern Soul crowd loves, and it ‘is the main reason why that rare 45 will sometimes look for triple digits.
The Opals provided more uncredited support to Major Lance on his 1965 single “Everybody Loves a Good Time” (written by Van McCoy), but Lance was past his prime and the song only reached number 109 on the Billboard graphics. By this time, Kelly had left the group and Juanita Tucker had joined her. But the Opals were essentially finished.
Addison became a backing vocalist for Ernie Terrell & the Heavyweights, a fighter-led group that won a contested heavyweight title in 1965 after one of boxing’s leading organizations (but not the other) stripped Muhammad Ali of his championship. Coincidentally, Terrell was also the older brother of Jean Terrell of the Supremes, possibly the most famous “girl group” of all time.
At the time of 2006 Sun-Times story, Addison was still singing gospel at the Lighthouse Church of All Nations in Alsip, Illinois. Other former Opals lived in Atlanta, Georgia; Union Springs, Alabama; Frankfurt, Illinois; and Hammond, Indiana.
Over the years, the music of the Opals has appeared on a multitude of soul compilations, and new tracks are still emerging. This year Kent Records in the UK released 45 of two vintage Opals tracks, which label consultant Tony Rounce identified as coming from the band after discovering them on a master tape transfer of Billy Butler’s recordings for Okeh. One of those lost and found tracks is called “Can’t Give It Up”, which sums up the attitude of soul-music collectors towards the band. Opals are arguably better known today than they ever were in the mid-1960s.
The radio version of Chicago’s Secret Music History airs on Outside the loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.