The powerful horn riff heard in Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” makes even the wallflowers at the club hit the dance floor. However, that horn riff was created over 40 years ago for a song called “Are You My Woman” by a Chicago based group called the Chi-Lites. The group was a vocal soulful powerhouse known for their harmonizing and crossover appeal.
Formed in 1959 in their hometown of Chicago, originally the group was called the Hi-Lites. The group consisted of Creadel Jones, Eugene Record, Robert Lester, Clarence Johnson, and Marshall Thompson. In 1964, they became known to the world as The Chi-Lites in order to represent their foundation of where they came from. They churned out a string of top ten hits including “Oh Girl,” “Have You Seen Her,” “Stoned out of My Mind,” and “Homely Girl.”
While Jones, Record, Lester, and Johnson have each passed away over the years, one original member is keeping the group’s memory alive and well: Marshall Thompson.
At the age of 69, Thompson shows no signs of slowing down. From his own record label Mar-Ance Records, to a hit online radio station, and keeping the group’s sound alive, Thompson still finds time to mentor up and coming artists, providing a wisdom that has earned him the title of the “Godfather of Vocal Groups.”
Soultrain.com caught up with the only surviving member of the group to discuss bridging the gap between the past and the present, and what helped push the Chi-Lite’s popularity across music genre lines.
Soul Train: Mr. Thompson, what has been the highlight of your career?
Marshall Thompson: The highlight of my career would be having number one songs! (laughs) But, I would have to say to come up with the song “Oh Girl” and have it reach number one on all charts across the board.
Soul Train: What do you think about artists today that have sampled The Chi-Lites, such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Fantasia to name a few? How does that make you feel since they are re-introducing your music, and maybe even introducing it to this generation?
Marshall Thompson: Well it’s good for me because they are rejuvenating our career. The shows now, whether it’s outside or inside a large theater, the young people know the music. They just don’t know what we’re singing because our lyrics are different. Sometimes they may even think that we stole from them (laughs) but they don’t realize they got it from us.
Soul Train: What would you say is the biggest difference in the music industry from when you first started to the industry today?
Marshall Thompson: The music back in the day, everybody could really sing like crazy. You didn’t have all of these chances like the young folks do now. Today they have all the chances in the world to make it. It was a little harder back then with us, it was like hitting the lottery, you may or may not win. It was ten years before we even made it. 1969 is when we came out with our first hit “Give it Away,” and then from there until about 1977 we had a string of top 20 records. So back then it was a little harder, just like playing the lottery and you have to hit that right number, you have to get that right record.
Soul Train: What do you think about the lyrics in the music today? Some say the music is lacking in substance and others say there are no real love songs, do you agree?
Marshall Thompson: That’s because they are dealing with everybody’s problems in their records. With all the different personalities and what they are dealing with in their lives, that’s what they are writing about, we didn’t deal with all that. Back in our day we dealt with happiness, lovemaking, you know people made babies off of our music. Ours was just different. Now days, whatever is going on in the household, they put it on a record and just these young folks think that’s hip. They come up with different slang, and hear it in the streets and in their household so they think that’s hip. We based our records on happiness and lovemaking, and that’s why our music has lasted for so long and why people continue to sample our music. We have the softness of the strings, and the horns, just like what you hear in Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” It took us a long time to figure out how we wanted it to go for our song “Are You My Woman”. It’s just the music has to come from the heart, and today the music is coming from what they are learning on the streets. It will get old after a while and then what you going to come with? Look at R. Kelly. He’s got the old style out now, he’s very talented, he took it to another level in another way. He didn’t stay with one way over and over, he changed it. He can do that because he’s a pop idol! (laughs)
Soul Train: (laughs) That change up seems to work for him very well. How did you get the name “Godfather of Vocal Groups?”
Marshall Thompson: Well, that came from the artists, and it comes from me being in this business for 52 years. I’m one of the ones still standing, and the last original Chi-Lite still living. They gave me the title. I book all of the groups and make sure they can feed their families. If you work with somebody that can help you feed your family, what would you call them? (laughs) They just do it out of respect.
Soul Train: In 2009, after Michael Jackson died, you kind of got swept up in the controversy of an interview that his father Joe Jackson did on the red carpet where he was talking about the record label that the two of you have. Do you still have that label, and what was your take on things after the media seemed to grab a hold of that and run with it?
Marshall Thompson: I had Mar-Ance Records before Joe got involved. The label was named after my wife that passed away. Her name was Constance Thompson and I’m Marshall, so the label was named after both of us. Joe just happened to be on television at the BET Awards when the reporter asked him a question. He asked him what is the next thing for him to do, so he couldn’t remember everything about the company so that’s why he told me to get up there and tell them. He asked him the question, so what was he supposed to do? He asked him a question about what was next and that was his answer was to talk about the record label. They made a big deal out of that, but they also made Mar-Ance Records one of the biggest record companies in the world today without finance. I can’t go anywhere without people asking to get on the label.
Soul Train: Do you have any plans to put out any new music?
Marshall Thompson: Right now I am doing a radio station on Jango.com, just type in Chi-Lites when you go to the website, so that’s where you can hear our new music. You can also buy it on iTunes. I’m not trying to reach out for radio airplay at radio stations– that’s in the past. Doing online radio is the way things are done now. Through Jango if they want to pick it up they can. It’s doing very well. I’m able to reach out to the world and not just a local station. That’s a way for youngsters to get ahead and let people hear their music, have their own radio station online. We didn’t have this when I was coming up. I’m probably one of the oldest entertainers that can use a computer (laughs). I’ve been into computers for over 15 years. That helped me a lot to sustain my career.
Soul Train: That was the next question, actually. How have you been able to sustain your career all these years? What’s the key to your longevity?
Marshall Thompson: Well, first there’s my computer. Second, it’s the type of music that we had. We didn’t have just R&B; we also had pop hits. When you have those types of records, you can do a great deal of damage out here. So you can go further with your career. For example, take an R&B station. Who would win a battle on-air between the O’Jays and The Chi-Lites? The O-Jays would win because they are R&B. Now go over to the pop station and the Chi-Lites will win all day. That’s because of the crossover, and “Oh Girl” was number one hit on everybody’s chart. Now if you ask a black person what our number one hit was they would say “Have You Seen Her,” because it was more R&B. “Oh Girl” went number one on the pop and R&B charts. See the difference? Let’s say I was coming to do a show in your city, and right now my records are cold. You advertise me on your R&B station and there’s no way I can pack an arena, because I’m not hot right now. Now say the promoter goes to the pop station with “Oh Girl.” Watch the arena fill up. That’s the difference in the music business. Messing around with just R&B will have you starving to death (laughs). People have to work on a crossover record, because if it’s not a crossover record, then you’ll have problems on down the line. If you listen to Beyoncé’s music, she’s not R&B at all. Look at her career. A lot of people don’t study their music, so they don’t know what to do.
Soul Train: What advice would you give to someone trying to get into the business?
Marshall Thompson: The only way to get your name out there is to get on the computer.
Soul Train: Now, Mr. Thompson, just how many suits do you have? You are always so clean when you are out and about!
Marshall Thompson: (laughs) I have about 350 suits with the hats to match! We are known for our suits. When you talk about the Chi-Lites you know we are always dressed in a suit.
Soul Train: Do you have any Soul Train memories that you’d like to share?
Marshall Thompson: We were actually the ones that helped start Soul Train. I have all kinds of memories. You know we were the ones that helped Don Cornelius get the tape to take Soul Train to California. I brought in the local acts every week right here in Chicago, then one day he came to me and said he wanted to do a pilot to take to California and he did and got the deal, the rest is history. That’s how it all started. My favorite performance was performing on “Oh Girl” on Soul Train.
Follow Marshall Thompson on Twitter @MaranceRecords and check out his website www.chi-lites.com.
Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, or her own site, www.themofochronicles.com. She’s also a special guest contributor on The Social Hour on Urban Soul Radio. Follow her on Twitter @mofochronicles.