Give 'Em Soul, Richard!: Race, Radio, and Rhythm and Blues in Chicago
(University of Illinois Press)
US: Feb 2010
“Categories didn’t mean a thing; money meant everything.” This statement by Richard Stamz, the Chicago broadcaster and political activist remembered in this book, seems to sum up the man’s ethos pretty neatly. “Categories”, here, refers to a range of things, but is mostly connected to issues of race and popular entertainment.
One of Chicago’s first African-American disc jockeys, Stamz knew plenty about the injustices of racial categorization. One of the qualities this nurtured in him was an ability to think on his feet and find new ways to survive in a racist world, and it’s his chameleon-like flexibility as an entertainer that he is referring to in the statement above.
Give ‘Em Soul, Richard, its title taken from one of Stamz’s radio catchphrases, is part autobiography, part biographical commentary. The biographical and contextualizing comments are provided by Patrick Roberts, an associate professor at National-Louis University in Chicago. The book is a result of many hours of interviews that Roberts conducted with Stamz over a seven-year period and then edited into a chronological narrative.
Roberts has added a useful introduction to the book, introductory remarks at the start of each chapter, and further commentary in the form of endnotes. As Roberts reports, Stamz was already 93-years-old when they first spoke in 2000 and, though his memory was excellent, his reminiscences had a tendency to wander and to dwell on particular characters rather than chronology. Roberts’ editing and footnoting serve to make the account as factual as possible without losing the distinctive character of Stamz’s voice.
Stamz certainly possessed a distinctive voice, both as deejay and raconteur, and his narrative has a compelling freshness and immediacy to it. Stamz acts as witness to the changes of the 20th century and, through sheer age alone, is able to remind his audience that the past is not as remote as they might think.
The opening chapter, which recalls his childhood in Memphis, tells about both the pleasures of childhood and the brutal realities of racism. Stamz witnesses the body of a lynched black man being thrown from a car on Beale Street (“where B.B. King’s club is now”) and hears of another man who narrowly escapes lynching for the “crime” of “reckless looking”.
Chapter 2 takes us to Chicago, one of the cities of opportunity in the years of the Great Migration and the town that Stamz would call home for most of his life. Here Stamz gets a job as a dancer with Ma Rainey, enters the world of blackface minstrelsy, and begins a lifelong engagement with political activism. Touring with Ann Sothern and Roger Pryor, he learns more about categorization and segregation, all the while developing his ability to make the best out of any situation he finds himself in.
Stamz’s big break came while promoting various businesses via a “sound truck”, from which he blasted promo material and played the latest rhythm and blues records. From here he moved into radio work, finding opportunities as stations such as WGES realized the potential of black disk jockeys for promoting rhythm and blues music to a multiracial audience. Stamz’s show “Open the Door, Richard” was pivotal to the success of WGES, gaining enough popularity for its host to also be offered a television variety show, “Richard’s Open Door”.
Stamz’s media career ran more or less in parallel with the era of classic rhythm and blues, fading away as R&B became eclipsed by ‘60s soul. As Stamz recalls it, “I went from the top to the bottom, and I never did come back up.”
The section covering Stamz’s time as a disc jockey ought to be where the book really comes alive, given that this is his main claim to fame and the point of reference for the book’s title. This doesn’t happen, however. At page 60, Stamz is entering the world of radio; by page 100, it’s all over. The tale is told, but without much flavor. We don’t learn an awful lot about rhythm and blues or soul music, and only a little about the workings of radio. What we get instead is a series of tales of Stamz’s various scams, which serves to connect Stamz’s time as a broadcaster to the rest of his career but gives us very little sense of why any of it mattered.
Roberts points out how Stamz’s ability to play around with categories can be seen as a kind of strategic essentialism, a way of using his ethnicity to his advantage. However, it should also be noted that Stamz’s tricksterism was driven mostly by a strong capitalist sensibility. As he says, “money meant everything”, to him as much as to his employers. Capitalist desire, as much as any political strategy or love for what he was doing, drove the play of identity that Stamz engaged in. He makes no bones about this in his narrative.
Roberts, who is keener to politicize Stamz and place him in a longer historical narrative, points out how the capitalist drive was at the heart of W.E.B. Du Bois’ vision of black self-improvement. It was a case of grabbing every chance that came along.
Capital, of course, abhors a vacuum, and it is worth remembering that the search for profit also drove record companies at this time to branch out and challenge categorization, even as they attempted to police racial boundaries via the continued racializing of musical genres. Capital was also at the heart of the payola scandals that the disc jockeys were caught up in and which Roberts and Stamz claim as the cause of the decline of WGES and similar stations.
Without Roberts’ introduction and chapter-by-chapter commentary, though, there wouldn’t be much here at all. At the end of this short book, there are three appendices, containing transcribed excerpts from Stamz’s radio and television shows and some fan letters received by Stamz. Give ‘Em Soul, Richard! could really have done with much more of this material, preferably worked into the main text. In fact, it needs more material on everything that the title promises: more on race, more on rhythm and blues, more on Chicago. That way, readers might get more of a sense of who Stamz was, why he was important, and how he communicated his love of the music.
It could be argued that, as testimonial, Stamz’s tale modestly takes up its small space in a collectively owned and narrated history. It’s certainly better to have this material than to have nothing. Yet the book still seems slight and, besides, modesty is not a quality that ever sat well with Richard Stamz. It’s not enough to be told that Richard gave ‘em soul; we need to know how he did it.