The legacy of Chicago’s Bandit Records

Categories: Chicago Magazine

By Mark Guarino

A tree, unlike any other tree, stood in front of the greystone at 4114 S. Martin Luther King Drive. Kids painted and repainted its trunk colors — red, black and green of the African flag. A red bench beside it had a speaker attached with a cord running to the house. So on a steamy Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1971, maybe when the Bud Billiken parade marched past, you could see kids playing out front, their mothers, not much older, chatting among themselves, the sweet soul music of WVON piped into the air, and a man, mustachioed and menacing, watching with a jailkeeper’s eye from his chair on the porch.

This was Arrow Brown. You heard he carried a gun. You heard he was a record producer. You heard all the kids in the yard were his and all their mothers were his too. You heard that if you treated his women nicely and showed him respect, maybe you might be invited to move into the house yourself, let him help you discover your natural gifts and maybe become a star at Bandit, his label.

Except Bandit had no stars. Because it never had distribution outside the South Side and its singles received minimal airplay on local radio, Bandit, for the past 30 odd years, dodged history completely. The records were lost, dumped in the trash long ago, or sat in boxes waiting on a whim by a trolling record collector to wonder what was inside. Its story lived only in the foggy memories of its survivors, most saying that chapter of their lives was locked and they threw away the key on purpose.

Time found its way in. Thanks to a Chicago reissue label called the Numero Group that chased Bandit’s trail for over two years in a hunt Indiana Jones would have recognized, Bandit’s raw soul sounds can today be heard all over the world. In the digital age, Bandit’s music — and the history of Arrow Brown’s complicated family — is unpredictably alive. The music, said Numero’s Ken Shipley, is “strange and amazing American R&B,” exotica shielded from the mainstream with a story that’s stranger.

Record labels in Chicago in the ‘60s were like coffee shops in Seattle in the ‘90s. The money was there and people were buying. “Chicago was a hotbed for soul music,” said Robert Pruter, author of “Chicago Soul” (Illinois Press). “It was very easy to get a record out.”

An unexpected effect of Chicago segregation was that it created an economy in black neighborhoods that grew by keeping money local. Black businesses boomed during the ‘60s — funeral parlors, hair salons, car dealerships, nightclubs. Entrepreneurs became local heroes. They were the catalyst for a musical renaissance. Businessmen funneled money they made from the companies they ran — insurance agencies, restaurants, even a coal company — into both vanity labels and hardcore enterprises that took advantage of all the ingredients required for a musical explosion: cheap record production, local radio, nightclubs and a talent pool as deep as the Mississippi River. Anybody could become a star and many did — Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, Otis Clay, the Dells, the Chi-Lites, Tyrone Davis, Syl Johnson, the Staples Singers — while hundreds of others were destined for the slavish appreciation of record collectors in the decades to come.

“Everybody had a label,” said Benjamin Wright, a member of the Pieces of Peace, Chicago’s ultimate session band that backed Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway and countless others. “Chess set the example.”

A decade earlier, Chess Records forced a cultural shift by recording such seminal blues stars as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and countless others. After British schoolboys like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton heard their records overseas, rock evolved with a whole new vocabulary and Chess became the Taj Mahal. By the ‘60s, it was an efficient and bustling empire with a pressing plant, recording studio and radio stations WSDM and WVON in its stable. Wright, who had an office at Chess, remembers watching artistry bloom before his eyes.

“A guy could walk in off the street with an idea, go track it that day, an engineer would come in and mix it and by eight o’clock that evening, it would be on the radio. It was like, damn! But it happened so much, it was what we anticipated,” he said.

The creativity rolled into the neighborhoods and seduced normal, everyday factory workers like Arrow Brown to walk outside and see just how easy this record business was. Pruter said it was not uncommon for a single to sell a million copies within weeks. Vee Jay, the largest black owned label in the nation before Motown, turned local hits like “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler into million sellers. They also took a chance on an unknown British band called the Beatles and made millions more.

“Let’s face it,” said Wright. “Back in the day in Chicago, if you messed around and sold 10,000 records, you were doing great. It was better than any job.”

Arrow Brown, in fact, hated his job. As a family man, he was bored. So he quit his job at Campbell Soup and never worked for anyone else again. He divorced his wife, abandoned his three children and didn’t look back. In 1962, he married Lilianne Brown, who worked for the postal service and had money in the bank. He wanted his own record label and she thought he should have one too. In 1965, she bought him a two story greystone he would make his headquarters. Three years later, in 1968, Bandit Records released its first single.

To this day, 15 years after his death, details of Brown’s life hide in the shadows and his survivors don’t know much about him. He chose mystery over paternal warmth. His first wife, who he met when she was 15 and left soon after, refuses to talk even though she knew him best. (“She has nothing nice to say,” their daughter Tridia explains.)

Everyone knew this: Berry Gordy was his totem. Motown’s chief architect put Detroit on the map and his story was so simple — borrow $800 from your parents, buy a house and tighten the rein on your talent — it read like a blueprint for fortune.

Brown was a Gordy believer. But while Gordy may have been notoriously manipulative, Brown made him look like a Woodstock hippie. Brown wanted to be Gordy but with a flair for Hugh Hefner. He stocked his house with girls he taught to sing, had a son he designated as the next Michael Jackson. With his second wife’s blessing, he drifted from girl to girl. House parties were thrown to loosen everyone up and attract curious newcomers to the mix. If you entered, he ruled you, installed an intercom system to monitor your comings and goings. You couldn’t see movies or go on dates. To pay for your food and housing, your welfare check would do just fine. The term his daughter Tridia Donnay Baker, 54, uses to describe her father is not “pimp” — no one was bought or sold in the literal sense — but “pimpologist.”

“He was a control freak. He frightened (the girls). They were young and impressionable so they were scared of him,” she said.

Mary Ann Miller-Gibson was dropped off at the house by her mother, an alcoholic who couldn’t take care of her anymore. Years earlier, Brown had saved her own mother after a robbery attempt, so he was a man to be trusted. Miller-Gibson arrived at age eight and was ushered into his vocal group, the Arrows. At age 13, she was pregnant with his son, Deno.

“Chicago, that’s where I got messed up,” she says today at age 53 from her home on the South Side. Throughout her childhood, she dreamt of escaping to her hometown of Greenville, Miss., but she had “no money, no nothing.”

In total, Brown fathered eight children with five mothers. They would all intertwine in the family business.

Brown wrote the songs and told his singers to learn them. He hired Benjamin Wright, then a 25-year-old string arranger and pianist, and brought in the Pieces of Peace to work on the music. Brown knew Wright was a professional and he paid attention.

“He didn’t have much experience,” Wright said of his former boss. “He was not an authority on the music that I was doing. But I think he liked it. He was very quiet around me. He never had a word for me in the studio.”

Brown worked fast in the years between 1968 and 1975, Bandit’s golden era. Next to recording, he also booked his groups at popular South Side lounges like the High Chaparral, Lonnie’s Skyway and Budland. His singers were unschooled and he taught them to find the emotion within themselves and deliver it raw. You could hear the ambition in the almost two dozen singles and sole LP Bandit produced in these years. The Arrows, and later the Majestic Arrows, opened the floodgates to their deepest, darkest feelings and let them loose on stunning dance floor grinders and soul ballads.

The music’s emotional complexity and elaborate arrangements is what sets it apart. The chugging guitars and lovely vocal cooing from Johnny Davis (“You’ve got to Crawl to Me”) is warm and inviting until everything stops and he deadpans “you’ve got to get on your knees/and crawl to me.” The singer is hurt but he wants revenge, too. Linda Balintine, another Bandit star, express pure joy on “You’re a Habit Hard to Break,” but it’s a dream. Amid punching horns and a sinister dance beat, she’s outside her lover’s window while he’s with another women. “I’m going to love you until the day I die,” she sings, her husky voice on the brink of tears.

Maybe the most psychedelic song Brown wrote was “Going to Make a Time Machine” by the Majestic Arrows. With space effects whooshing behind them and acid guitars sprinkled throughout, the group harmonizes about escaping to the past. “You can be long, tall, skinny, fat/black or white the time machine don’t care,” they sing. But by the end of the song, the time machine jets off, the singers miss it, their fantasy crushed. “Time machine!!” they shriek, sounding like the fumes are melting them. Then the song cuts off.

“He could make something out of nothing,” Brown’s son Altyrone Deno Brown said of his father. Deno was six when he cut “Sweet Pea” and “If You Love Me,” two mountainous songs he belted with the spooky maturity of an adult, not unlike Michael Jackson. Brown maneuvered so his son might reach a similar level of stardom. Deno became a child actor, appeared in films, modeled for print ads and toured for over a year in “Raisin,” a stage version of “Raisin in the Sun.”

“I didn’t have a childhood,” Deno, 39, says today. Although he looks up to his father (“he had a very mean streak, but a very kind heart”), he realizes he paid a price for being both a son and a commodity. As an adult, he discovered life was a maze he couldn’t figure out and soon, the demons arrived. After struggling to unlearn his father’s unhealthy attitudes towards women (Deno has four children and is separated), he took a job and settled. But the questions won’t let him alone.

“I’m trying to catch up with my life,” he said. “God gave me the talent … so why would I have this talent if it wasn’t for a reason? Why did I go through all these changes in my life? To be where I’m at now or to be successful?”

At the Merchandise Mart, where he has worked as a security guard for six years, he carries with him a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photos from his past showing him on stage belting out a song or offstage signing autographs. “All of us wanted to make that goal to be rich,” he said.

No one got rich at Bandit. Brown worked too fast and he never bothered with getting the records in many stores. “Arrow Brown was a poor businessman, the evidence is the decent amount of stock that ended up in warehouses,” said Numero’s Rob Sevier. “He had no distribution. I would question whether Arrow Brown even wanted to be successful.”

He won friends and influenced people through his pistol. Tridia remembers the frustration her father felt in just trying to communicate. In discussions with contractors he hired for artwork or P.R, “he would talk to them like they were his children,” she said. “And they would naturally respond to him like children. But not too quick because he would pull a gun if you did.”

Brown had no scruples using his gun on his own children. When he overheard Tridia telling another singer that Brown was not above lying to get what he wanted, he pulled a gun on her. “If you call me that again, I’ll pull the trigger,” he announced.

“He was closed off from the world in a lot of ways and shut down,” said Numero’s Shipley who patched together Bandit’s history. The records “only showed up in Chicago. That leads me to believe the guy wasn’t meeting the right kind of people. He was getting his bands onstage but he wasn’t putting together the kind of relationships that led to financial success.”

By the mid-‘70s, soul music in general was fading. Funk and disco became the new flavors, harder and edgier music that made the dreamy deliverance of soul sound corny. Chicago’s talent pool migrated to L.A. The record industry had become a big business and independent labels either died or were swallowed by major labels. Wright made the move in 1975, where he launched a successful career as an arranger and producer, working on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album as well as countless other stars including, most recently, Justin Timberlake and OutKast.

Brown hounded him by phone, sent him videos of young girls he wanted him to work with and asked for advice. “I would counsel him on what I thought. But I told him I’m not coming back to Chicago, I’ve had it,” he said.

Trouble also stirred at the label. The Majestic Arrows refused to follow Brown’s rule of no fraternizing and began sleeping with each other. A singer got pregnant and Brown broke up the group in 1975. Two years earlier, Davis was mysteriously murdered, thrown off a balcony and found inside a trash incinerator.

Tridia, one of the singers and a devout Baptist, began to counsel the girls and convince them to leave. One by one, they did. “I think it was immoral,” she says today.

After Brown died in 1990 at age 67, his wife died in 1993, followed by the house. Vandals ripped out the fireplace, piping, stained glass, put holes in the floors, ripped out staircases and left crack spoons. “Totally bombed out,” Shipley said. “Like Poland after World War II.” The city placed a lien on it in 1995 for water and sewer services and back taxes are owed. The house is in Brown’s stepfather’s name and, according to neighborhood rumor, it is for sale for the right price.

Shipley said he broke in because he heard a file cabinet remained with clues to Bandit’s history. He did find curiosity items — Deno’s business card, Brown’s medical records, receipts for the Baldwin organ that still stands lost in living room’s ruin. Boxes of unopened Bandit records, once stored in the basement, were dumped in the alley years ago by one of Brown’s other sons, disgruntled his father didn’t dote on him like he did Deno. “The entire legacy of his family was thrown away,” Shipley said.

Everyone interviewed said their good memories come from playing outside and that tree. Brown etched words into its trunk for all to read before they walked up the stairs to come inside: “don’t mistake kindness for weakness.”

Some time ago, the tree was cut down. When is just another mystery.

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