Chicago is the third largest city in the union, at the crossroads between the west and east coasts. By the 1950s the black population was 800,000 plus, with many more mainly from the south arriving each week for new opportunity.
The main hub of the entertainment industry was on South Michigan, called “Record Row”. By the end of the 1950s there were seventeen major independent record distributors and six independent record labels with national and international exposure, producing million-selling records on several occasions. The main independent record companies on “Record Row”, where the Chicago sound was developed, were Chess Records, Vee-Jay Records, Mercury Records, Brunswick Records, Curtom Records and Okeh Records (a division of Columbia Records). This group of labels created in Chicago made the city a very influential recording centre from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. The first black-owned record distribution company was started in the fifties by two brothers, George and Ernie Leaner, who later founded One-derful Records in 1962 . They received a loan from their uncle Al Benson to finance the project. It was called “United Record Distributors” and employed mainly black staff in its promotion, accounting, and sales departments. This was a tremendous model for other black businessmen, who wanted to develop a career in the entertainment and other related industries. The possibilities were unlimited for anyone who was willing to aim high, stay focused and work hard. Later chapters will feature a brief history of the three most important labels and will examine their impact on the overall development of Chicago as a music centre of excellence. The main focus will be on the key musicians and technicians who created the signature sound of Chicago soul.