The Chi-Lites – Marshall Thompson on the 50th Anniversary of “A Lonely Man” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Friday, April 19th, 2024  

The Chi-Lites – Marshall Thompson on the 50th Anniversary of “A Lonely Man”

Chicago, Perseverance, and Soul’s Golden Age

Apr 28, 2022 Photography by Courtesy Brunswick Records Corporation (c) 2022 Web Exclusive
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Founded as a high school vocal group in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood in 1959, The Chi-Lites eventually emerged as one of the most influential soul acts of their generation. The group has enjoyed a rich 60+ year career, having become known for its oft-imitated smooth vocal arrangements and lush orchestral production. With a classic lineup consisting of singers Marshall Thompson, Robert “Squirrel” Lester, Creadel “Red” Jones, and lead vocalist/songwriter/arranger/producer Eugene Record, The Chi-Lites scored eleven Top 10 R&B hits between 1969 and 1974, each release more integral to the evolution of Chicago soul than its predecessor, cementing the group’s place in modern musical history.

Following the commercial success of their 1969-released debut Give It Away and 1970’s I Like Your Lovin’ (Do You Like Mine?), The Chi-Lites decided to explore more overtly political themes on 1971’s (For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People, which became their most successful album up to that point, showcasing Eugene Record’s impeccable studio wizardry. The album boasted the group’s classic hit “Have You Seen Her,” as well as the titular impassioned cry for unity in the streets.

“When we first did ‘Power to the People,’ that was what was goin’ on,” Marshall Thompson reflects upon the sociopolitical climate of the late-’60s and early-’70s. “You had the war goin’ on out there, a lot of confusion in the world.”

Still, for every cut such as “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” and “We Are Neighbors”—which address timely social issues—there remains a certain warmth present within The Chi-Lites’ melodies. The group’s highly romantic style and unique dynamics created a glimmer of hope among the ruins. Having garnered further popularity with (For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People, the group returned to the studio the following year for a directional shift.

“We went into the studio and started recording a lot of slow songs, different things. Tryin’ to find our sound,” Thompson remarks upon the inception of the group’s fourth and finest album. “So, as we recorded A Lonely Man, we were reachin’ for our sound and we ended up gettin’ our sound.”

Released in April 1972, A Lonely Man marked a drastic turning point for The Chi-Lites, who had since begun experimenting with cooler soundscapes and further themes of heart trouble. Thompson, Record, and Company had spent much of the early-’70s touring the country, which fed conflict among significant others left at home. The album’s opening track “Oh Girl”—which peaked at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart—is one of Record’s great odes to love on the rocks, as well as one of the decade’s most recognizable hits. The track introduced the refined sound of A Lonely Man to a mainstream audience, earning itself a spot at #13 on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 Singles of 1972 chart. It has since been named by BMI as the 36th most popular song of the 20th century.

Wistfully heavy with soul introspection and earnest romantic desperation, A Lonely Man’s atmosphere is embodied within the icy Chicago skyline featured on its cover, ghostly flecks of light dancing out across the glassy lake below. Such tender deep cuts as “Love Is” and “Ain’t Too Much of Nothin’” frame with heavenly harmonies intimate tales of everyday folks in love, while the protagonist of “Living in the Footsteps of Another Man” wrestles with feelings of inadequacy and envy. However, the album’s standout title track—initially bearing some melodic resemblance to the previous year’s “Have You Seen Her”—plunges into far chillier waters.

“‘A Lonely Man’ takes [the audience] into another mood,” Thompson explains the track’s aesthetic appeal. “That was a great song for Eugene. He was going through his thing with his first wife at the time, and we was on the road, and that’s where he wrote it.”

“The Man & the Woman (The Boy & the Girl)” and the group’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” account for much of the record’s danceability, the latter allowing The Chi-Lites to maintain prominence among the popular Chicago-Style Stepping movement.

“When we recorded ‘Inner City Blues,’ that came off of our idea of Chicago being so heavy with the Steppers. Everybody used to get on the floor and dance and ‘Inner City Blues’ was perfect for the Steppers of Chicago. And, of course, it spread all over the country with the Steppers, so we had it at the right time with that particular track. And then we put Squirrel on the lead, and took Eugene off, because [Squirrel] had that type of voice, that soulful voice, and it worked for us.”

With Gaye’s original having been released less than a year prior, The Chi-Lites’ phenomenal ability to reinterpret such a raw, recent track and make it their own attests to their collective creative skill. Record’s tight arrangements and the group’s velveteen harmonies successfully introduced the classic song into the Chicago scene in a way familiar to each neighborhood.

Closing epic “The Coldest Days of My Life” packs the heaviest emotional punch, summing A Lonely Man’s vast midnight melancholia up in its epic sweep. This multilayered soul behemoth so convincingly conjures the chill of an early Lake Michigan spring, its string-laden glow carrying the listener forth into a realm of deepest heartache, allowing them to sense the intense loss of which the group sings. All hearts broken, the night ahead long and icy.

“I sing the lead on ‘The Coldest Days of My Life’ onstage,” Thompson states, “and I get a great, great feeling out of the audience on that one. I have them turn the lights on their cellphones and it’s beautiful. I mean, so beautiful.”

At 79, Marshall Thompson is still guided by the burning energy which drove him to greatness so long ago, remaining a passionate musician and performer, and an esteemed historian and storyteller, who takes great pride in his remarkable accomplishments: The Chi-Lites’ wildly popular hits, commercially successful records, and soundtrack contributions, as well as their numerous appearances on such television programs as The Midnight Special and Soul Train. Most recently, however, The Chi-Lites have usurped all previous achievements, having been awarded their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on September 30, 2021, a day to which Thompson triumphantly refers as, “The greatest of our whole music career out of 63 years.”

The Chi-Lites remain a crucial force in soul, their influence heard across the span of multiple generations and genres. Even still, their biggest hits receive frequent airplay. A Lonely Man, however, remains the group’s ultimate masterpiece—an intricately crafted, sleekly produced portrait of a talented group reaching a major personal and professional crossroads. The emotion is deep, the sentiment raw, and the melodies as intoxicating now as they were 50 years ago…and as for the future, the fortunate listener may rest assured that Marshall Thompson has expressed no intention of stopping.

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