Wilco formed in Chicago under the leadership of Jeff Tweedy. With 2 million albums sold, a Grammy win and 7 Grammy nominations, Tweedy and his bandmates still make their musical home in a loft on the city’s Northwest Side.
Wax Trax Records, later the home label of Chicago’s Industrial music scene, was founded in Lincoln Park by life partners Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher.
Kanye West won his first Grammy for Best Rap Album with College Dropout.
Blues singer and queer pioneer Ma Rainey made her first eight recordings, including “Bad Luck Blues,” for Paramount.
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was founded in Chicago, with members including jazz luminaries such as Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton, Jeff Parker, and Henry Threadgill, and spinning out acts like the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
YouMedia Center opened at Harold Washington Library. At this creative and educational space for local teenagers, the late Mike Hawkins, known as Brother Mike, would mentor a generation of Black poets and hip-hop artists, including Noname, Chance the Rapper, Saba, Lucki, and Mick Jenkins.
Chicago's Black-owned Vee-Jay label drops the first U.S. release by an unknown band called The Beatles.
Jesse Saunders & Vince Lawrence released “On and On,” cited as the first house music record.
Buddy Guy moved to Chicago, where he established himself as a lasting legend of the electric blues and an influence to Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, and John Mayer.
Pitchfork Media was founded, making Chicago a hub of indie-music criticism and curation. In the mid-2000s, Pitchfork would launch its eponymous, annual music festival in Chicago.
Chicago pianist, composer and arranger Ramsey Lewis won his first Grammy Award for “The ‘In’ Crowd.” Lewis’s version of the song reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year.
Chicagoans Maurice White, Don Whitehead and Wade Flemons formed a group called the Salty Peppers. After renaming the act Earth, Wind & Fire, they would go on to sell more than 90 million records.
Mahalia Jackson met Thomas A. Dorsey in Chicago. Dorsey would become the father of Gospel music, an enormously popular and influential form, and his composition “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” would become Jackson’s signature vocal performance and a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Impressions recorded “People Get Ready” in Chicago. Inspired by the 1963 March on Washington and written by the legendary Curtis Mayfield, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., named the song the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
Soul Train first aired on WCIU-TV in Chicago. Before its syndicated run ended in 2006, the much-loved music program would propel the careers of many Black artists, from the Jackson 5 to LL Cool J to Lenny Kravitz.
Chuck Berry recorded “Johnny B. Goode,” laying down what would become one of rock & roll’s most iconic opening guitar riffs, at Chess Records studio, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Chess Records was founded and would come to be known for recording and promoting brilliant and influential Black artists, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. Their music was often copied by British Invasion artists, such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, who rose to levels of wealth and fame that the Black Chicagoans who originated their music never did.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe made her solo debut at the age of 6, performing at the 40th Street Church of God in Christ in Chicago. She went on to become a guitarist, songwriter, and recording artist known around the world as the “Godmother of Rock & Roll.”
Frankie Knuckles began DJing at The Warehouse, 206 S. Jefferson Street in Chicago, the club from which the dance genre known as house music derives its name.
The word “jazz” was printed in the Chicago Tribune. This is believed to be the first time the word was used in American media to describe the musical form. (Those seeking the article in the Tribune archives should be forewarned that it is accompanied by an offensive illustration.)
Chance the Rapper upended the music industry by winning 3 Grammys for a streaming-only album, and without the support of a record label.
Muddy Waters moved to Chicago. Waters would influence generations of blues players and rockers in the UK and USA. With his pounding performance of “Mannish Boy” in 1955, Waters asserted Black personhood: “I’m a man! I spell M, A (child), N. That represent man. No B, O (child), Y.”
With humility, gratitude, and hope, the Arts & Business Council of Chicago reserves a place on this list of great Chicago-music moments for all of the Chicago artists and musical events not mentioned, especially those who exercised their talent and made their art in the face of systemic racism and insidious discrimination, enabling many artists who followed them to find success.
We reserve this place also for the next Chicagoan(s) to influence the music world, likely a musician or band working today in one of the city’s 77 neighborhoods. Even as we celebrate its rich and varied musical history, we assert that the city’s best musical moments lie ahead of it. And so we fix our eyes on the present and future of Chicago music, with our ears wide open.
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One thing became clear as public votes for great moments in Chicago music history were tallied: disruption, grit, and innovation—much of it applied under the weight of systemic racism—have fueled the moments that make Chicago a hotbed for music that starts and amplifies cultural movements.
Another truth made obvious in the process was that even with the valued input of those who voted, and of the #ChiMusic35 Ambassadors, A&BC and our volunteers are in no position to declare any 35 moments “the greatest,” especially in a city with as many great musical moments as Chicago can claim. We consider this list merely a necessarily incomplete introduction to Chicago’s incredibly influential music history.
Moments were submitted and voted on by the public here at ChiMusic35.com. The process was guided by the #ChiMusic35 Challenge Committee and seeded by DJs, performers, producers, and journalists from across the Chicago music landscape who shaped the Challenge as Ambassadors, highlighting the Chicago music moments that mean the world to them.
To be considered for inclusion, moments were times when a person or people from Chicago influenced ears and minds the world over with a music-related activity. Public voting was open 5/18 - 6/19, 2020, and was non-binding but was a primary input for determining the 35 moments. Moments associated with marginalized communities were given positive weight.