Like many of the vocal groups popular in the 1960s or ’70s, the Chi-Lites have had a rocky road to the 21st century.
With only one of its original members remaining, the group who charted with such classics as “Oh Girl” and “Have You Seen Her” may not look the same when they visit the Clyde Theatre as it did 40 years ago, but the sound that put them on the charts continues to enthrall audiences just as much as it ever did.
Formed in Hyde Park High School in Chicago, the young men who were to become the Chi-Lites spent years honing their impeccable harmonies. By the early 1970s they had so perfected their sound that they found themselves scoring huge hits and making television appearances.
Personnel changes undermined their success. By the late ’70s key original members, like lead singer and songwriter Eugene Record, had left to return only for a 1980s reunion. Through ups and downs the group continued to perform their music with the same smooth vocals that had been their bread and butter.
But now with Thompson the last man standing, the group continues to tour and gain new audiences, thanks in some part to their profile on the TV One series Unsung, a program which looks back on R&B performers who might otherwise fall into obscurity.
Thompson’s interview on the program retraces his own musical history leading up to and including the Chi-Lites, something he speaks of often in recent interviews.
“My family was always musically inclined,” Thompson said in a 2016 radio interview. “I said on Unsung, which told the life story of the band and how I started with Gladys Knight and the Pips as a drummer, I wanted to be an entertainer across the world. After being with Gladys Knight and the Pips, I came back to my crew from high school and have been pleased to perform in front of so many beautiful people all over the world.”
Thompson is proud that the group found success in the United States but also earned fans in places as far away as England, Germany, Singapore, Japan, Australia, and Greenland. In the book Last Man Standing, Thompson explained how his early musical influences helped shape the sound of the Chi-Lites.
“Yeah, everyone in the Chi-Lites was musically inclined,” he wrote. “We all contributed in big ways to make the right sound: that perfectly balanced melody that was all inclusive expressing the love we felt in our hearts and the thoughts we had in our heads.
But he also admitted in the book that there were hardships along the way, both of a personal and more global nature.
“Our signature songs like ‘Have You Seen Her’ and ‘Oh Girl’ truly expressed the heartfelt meaning of our music. But times weren’t always good. The realities of life and its hardships were reflected in our music, and the journey continues in this book, sharing the good times and the bad, paying tribute to some of the greatest men and women I’ve had the pleasure to call friends.”
It’s easy to forget how short radio singles were as the 1970s dawned. While the decade would eventually produce some of the longest hit singles in history, that was certainly not the case when the Chi-Lites were recording their early hits. A 1972 interview with Eugene Record demonstrates how the groups of the day were often censoring their own songs based strictly on length — and how nearly some of the great records in pop history almost weren’t recorded for that reason alone.
“Oh, you maybe won’t believe this, but that song’s been in my mind for more than two years now,” Record said of “Have You Seen Her.” “Barbara Acklin and I were on tour with the group and Gene Chandler and we just came up with it. I’ve believed in it all this time but I always thought that it was too long to really become a success. And so I carried it around with me until last year when we set about recording our last album, and I felt that perhaps it would be accepted as an album cut because we did intend to try something different. We were all a little bit afraid to actually record it, and I certainly never thought it would get as far as it has.”
Another of the group’s major hits, “Oh Girl,” was hugely successful as well, but Thompson admitted in a 2016 interview that he was reluctant to perform it for an appearance of The Flip Wilson Show.
Although he concedes now that having a crossover hit has been what has kept them in the limelight for half a decade, when it was suggested they perform “Oh Girl” in front of a national audience, he bristled.
“I was always an R&B guy,” he said. “And I thought ‘Oh Girl’ was a white record and said I didn’t want to do that. But six weeks later, it was a number one record and stayed there for 18 weeks. It didn’t even climb the charts. It just went to the top.”
But as Thompson said, there were hard times too, and among the challenges faced along the way was a tax debt, one which has dogged many performers over the years. Handed too much money at an early age and not surrounded by the kinds of honest and savvy professionals who might have steered them into more practical financial handling, the group began to splinter under the weight of the problems.
Later, health issues plagued them, and Record died of cancer at the age of 64 while Thompson suffered a stroke that seriously put the future of the group in question. With the others gone, could the Chi-Lites exist without their founder and lone survivor Thompson?
Fortunately the group and Thompson continue to thrive, and his appreciation for the ongoing affection they receive at performances keeps him on the road and at the helm. It’s telling that when asked by an interviewer what his favorite Chi-Lites song is, his response is less about commercial success and more about his gratitude for the career the Chi-Lites has provided him.
“I would have to say ‘That’s How Long I’ll Love You’ because in the song we talk about the people that supported us for 57 years, and we let them know that we love them more and more because they kept us progressing and sustained our careers that took us all over the world. We owe it to them, to ourselves, and the public, because the public is what keeps us out there.”
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March 27 • The Clyde