Album cover

Universal Togetherness Band: Bringing the Party to Chicago

At the crest of his mid-20s, Andre Gibson, a native of the Washington Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, was nearly a decade deep into a sprawling, unchecked musical dissertation. There was no deadline for this seventh-year senior, no advisor guiding the work toward completion—just an endless supply of songs and the magnetic tape with which to capture them. In 1979, the burgeoning audio engineering program at Columbia College in downtown Chicago was flush with aspiring recording engineers seeking talent to help ply their trade. Gibson and his handpicked Universal Togetherness Band suddenly found themselves at the top of a short list of campus acts that were able to record at any given moment, for free, at the behest of any instructor or classmate. No matter who was behind the controls, and no matter which studio they were assigned to, the group always delivered. Over five mind-expanding semesters, Gibson tracked unearthly portions of his imaginative songbook for bewildered crops of student engineers, most of whom had no goal greater than convincing an instructor that he or she understood panning.

For Gibson, this world became a playground for an endless stream of ideas. Permutations of soul, jazz, new wave, disco, and interspersed micro-genres were explored with equal vigor. Whether tracking a candlelight confessional or an arena-funk anthem, he was able to create an intimate environment where improvisation, human error, and even a telephone ringing in the live room became yet another color on his multitrack canvas. A handful of rough mixes were finalized, but when Andre dropped out of college in the spring of 1982, Columbia’s recording program shifted to the next ensemble without missing a beat. His thesis remained unproven, and his work was subsequently stuffed into a locker and forgotten about.

The Universal Togetherness Band’s activities outside the studio are documented in a scant stack of flyers and Polaroids, even though they performed live dozens of times. Just one of those performances, albeit one that was lip-synched and broadcast a single time on WCIU’s short-lived Soul Train follow-up The Chicago Party, was the only evidence required to track down Gibson and urge him to turn in his unfinished work.

Andre Gibson was born January 24th, 1956 at Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago. His mother, Mattie Bell Daniels, had arrived from Bessemer, Alabama, to room with a cousin in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood in 1947. She later married Robert Lee Gibson, a fellow Southern transplant who hailed from Ashland, Mississippi, in 1951. At the time of Andre’s birth, Robert was a laborer at Howard Foundry, working in cast metals. His mother devoted most of her time and attention to raising Andre and his older brother, Anthony, though she also took part-time jobs around their Hyde Park neighborhood. Andre’s most powerful musical memories were forged at Bronzeville’s family-friendly Regal Theater, a historic platform for up-and-coming acts. As a six-year-old, he witnessed a matinee performance by Jackie Wilson, and would return to the theater throughout his formative years to catch glimpses of Little Stevie Wonder and the Temptations. By 1962, the Gibson family had relocated from Hyde Park to the Washington Park Homes at 62nd and Wabash.

Among the tenants in the Gibsons’ new high-rise was the upstart R&B act the Machine Company, which rehearsed on the communal breezeway, their instruments and band members spilling out across adjacent units. The group boasted future Impressions lead Vandy Harris on vocals, Kenny Harris on bass, Wesley Hall on drums, and Ronnie Hicks, whose ability on the organ resonated with a young Andre. Perhaps most instrumental in Andre’s own musical maturation was his connection with Artie “Duke” Payne, a Betsy Ross Junior High math teacher who is better remembered today for his fondness for the bagpipes than arithmetic. Outside of the classroom, Payne served as a conventional reedman with Cadet recording artists Odell Brown and the Organ-izers. Andre took note, and after learning much of the Motown songbook formed his first group for a talent show performance of Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Hang ‘Em High” and the Soul Survivors’ piano-heavy hit, “Expressway To Your Heart.”

By the late ’60s, the Gibson clan had grown to include another brother and three sisters. Benefitting from frequent promotions and improved pay, Andre’s father moved the family to a three-bedroom ranch home at 91st and Stoney Island in Chicago’s affluent Pill Hill neighborhood. In their first year in Pill Hill, Andre’s districted high school, Chicago Vocational School, launched a pilot program to institute a more progressive approach to music education. Under the leadership of Dr. Joe Miller and Dr. Harold Bray, the Vocademic Orchestra Program reinterpreted classical disciplines and combined them with the worlds of marching bands and jazz. Arriving from Betsy Ross merely a curious keyboardist, Andre would not only play organ in the jazz band, but mallet percussion in the marching band, cello in the orchestra, and flute in the concert band.

In addition to being excellent educators, Miller and Bray were in-demand session players who were acquainted with most of the prominent forces in Chicago’s emergent urban jazz movement. It was not uncommon for the Rotary Connection’s Minnie Ripperton to sit in with the high-school vocal choir, or for Eddie Harris to drop in and show off an experimental mouthpiece for his electrified sax. As musical directors at the Guys and Gals Club on 69th at Halsted, Miller and Bray occasionally tapped CVS students to moonlight in the venue’s house band, Joe Miller and the Seeds of Life. Andre’s notable classmates included future television and film composer Kurt Farquhar, as well as bassists Angus Thomas and Darryl Jones, both of whom would later play with Miles Davis in the ’80s.

Outside the classroom, Andre ignited a new group, Blue Flame, with Stony Island acquaintances. Behind a vocal quartet of Charles “Cake” Gossett, Jerry Gossett, Kenny Ransome, and Don Nash was guitarist Michael Barnes, bassist Walter Norwood, and drummer Michael Burton. Pooling his wages as a bellhop at the Seville Motel, his father agreed to match him in the purchase of a Farfisa Combo Deluxe Organ and Ampeg amplifier, acquired from a pawnshop at 110th and Michigan. As Andre neared graduation, his younger brother Arnold started keeping time for Blue Flame, eventually taking over managerial duties once Andre graduated in spring 1973.

That fall, Andre migrated two hours southwest to Bloomington, Illinois, in pursuit of a Musical Therapy degree from Illinois State. Much like CVS, the curriculum at Illinois State was progressive. Under the leadership or Dr. Frank Suggs, the Black Art Jazz Performers incorporated elements of theater, dance, and music into their repertoire, and Suggs encouraged his participants to create original, experimental compositions. Andre’s admiration of groove-conscious jazz pioneers Roy Ayers and the Crusaders was evident in “Wang Dang,” an up-tempo instrumental with hot horns. (“Wang Dang” was one of a half-dozen original compositions the group carried with them via passenger van to Jerry Milam’s Golden Voice Studios in rural South Pekin, Illinois.)

Chicago natives (and identical twins) Fred and Leslie Misher, who were residents of the Wilkins Hall dormitory, overheard Andre jamming on his Farfisa and asked if he’d like to join them for a gig at a nearby sorority function. Word of Andre’s abilities traveled around campus, catching the attention of Eddie “Moon” Gordon, Kenneth “Easy” Davis, Elasko “Skip” Thigpen, and Fred Wilson—a vocal quartet in search of a band. Dubbing themselves Foreal, Andre recruited Fred and Leslie for bass and guitar, filling out the lineup with Jerome Odom on drums, Gwen Cain on flute, Deborah Devon on saxophone, Robert Thompson on trombone, and Louis Sanford on percussion. Still, there seemed to be greater opportunities for a musician of Andre’s ability in Chicago. While his younger siblings queued up for college tuition, Andre left Bloomington, returning to Chicago in fall 1976.

In July 1977, Andre Gibson married his high-school sweetheart Cynthia Tabb and moved to a one-bedroom apartment in the Crandon House, adjacent the South Shore Country Club. Once settled, he assembled the group Colorvision, comprised of Blue Flame standouts and Foreal associate Fred Misher, who’d returned to Chicago for a job in advertising. Throughout this time, music remained a constant in the Gibson family. Though still in high school, Andre’s brother Arnold continued to gain proficiency on bass and French horn, and the Gibson matriarch sewed sequined dashikis for Colorvision and Arnold’s assorted combos.

After bouncing between a few entry-level positions a Zot’s Liquors and Sonicraft Electronics, Andre got a job in research and development at CBS Musical Instruments, the firm responsible for the Fender Rhodes, Stratocaster, and Telecaster, as well as Rogers drum sets, Gemeinhardt flutes, and the Gulbransen organs. His days were spent building custom cabinetry for organ prototypes and stringing wires to circuit boards; the majority of his lunch breaks were spent jamming with musicians and engineers on whatever equipment was available. At the behest of coworker Jim Swoboda, Andre brought the entire Colorvision crew to his officemate’s residential studio in Chesterton, Indiana to record the dazzling “Dreamality,” a danceable odyssey clocking in at nearly eight minutes. Prompted by a tuition reimbursement program at CBS, Andre convinced his employers that his musical abilities would make him an asset during trade shows, where staffers were expected to dazzle vendors and competitors with demonstrations of their products. CBS bit, and in fall 1978, Andre enrolled at Columbia College in downtown Chicago.

Having already benefitted from his instruction at CVS and Illinois State, Andre’s urge to create original compositions persisted. Although the “Dreamality” sessions indicate the group had immense studio potential, his band members balked at the notion of crafting more experimental, cascading compositions in the Gibson tradition. With Fred Misher back in Chicago and Arnold Gibson months from a CVS graduation ceremony, Andre’s ideal line-up began to emerge. Upon graduating from Illinois State, Leslie Misher had taken a job as an OSHA inspector at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. Nonetheless, he was willing to commute to rehearsals and gigs. With two sets of brothers, all working toward one unified vision, Universal Togetherness Band was the name that seemed most appropriate for this kindred quartet.

At Columbia, Andre’s coursework included classes in entrepreneurship, sound engineering, and advertising. In a promotions class, he met Paul Hanover, a harmonica player and pianist who was also a member of the Chicago Latin Ensemble and an onstage asset to Puerto Rican poet/performer David Hernandez. Andre and Hanover bonded in class, and Andre liked the prospect of writing harmonica leads for pieces in his rapidly expanding repertoire. After hearing a handful of Andre’s demo cassettes during a class critique, classmate Antoinette Rose Stern expressed interest in managing the group. It was well known within the department that Stern’s husband was Aaron Stern of the local promotions powerhouse Jam Productions. She facilitated a recording session at Audio Technics, which allowed Andre to improve on a batch of demos, including “Missing You So,” “Out Of Our Depression,” and “I Thank Him For You.”

While traipsing through the cafeteria in the spring of 1979, Andre spotted a flyer announcing that faculty from the engineering department were seeking bands to serve as specimens for recording majors needing to clock studio hours. Shortly after, UTB auditioned for Malcolm Chisholm, the pioneering instructor of Columbia’s sound engineering program. Born in Chicago in 1929, Chisholm served as an electronics technician in the Coast Guard before turning to the music business in 1955. He was well regarded for his stints at not only Universal, but Chess and Paragon, and was celebrated in the field for his humor and expertise, which carried over into influential articles, diatribes, and public rants. In the studio, he was a hard-nosed instructor who hovered over his pupils, relishing the teaching opportunities afforded by their missteps. It was a tough brand of love, and thin-skinned students fared poorly, as did those allergic to profanity. Andre embraced the unorthodox lessons in mixing and mic placement, and thrived under Chisholm’s direction and mentorship on both sides of the console.

Sessions occurred either at Chisholm’s alma mater, Universal Recording, or newcomer Zenith/dB. Universal was partnered with Columbia Records and serviced most major-label clientele throughout the Midwest. The state-of-the-art facility was situated in the heart of Chicago’s Rush Street district, home to some of the city’s most notorious nightclubs, and the surrounding streets were well-trodden by musicians, club-hoppers, and night owls alike. Zenith/dB, on the other hand, was situated in the relatively unfashionable North Loop. Slathered in shag carpeting, the labyrinthine facility beneath 676 North LaSalle had been a studio since 1972, when partners Chuck Lishon, a local promoter, and classical composer Hans Wurman opened Sonart/dB Studios. From the cockpit of his modular Moog (serial no. 002), Wurman crafted several Switched-On Bach knock-offs, including The Moog Strikes Bach and Chopin à la Moog. Able to facilitate a vast range of clients, Sonart grew to specialize in the jingle, becoming an asset for advertising agencies and movie studios. After Lishon passed in 1978, Wurman sold the building to Dick Girvin, who moved his audio- and video-postproduction concern Zenith into the former Sonart.

Both studios had their advantages. A session at Zenith could run overtime, a luxury rarely afforded at the densely booked Universal. And while most of Universal’s high-profile clientele brought or rented their own instruments, there was always plenty of stray gear lying around Zenith. Andre loved the sound achievable at Universal, but appreciated the ability to leisurely tinker at Zenith, especially on the house vibraphone. Paul Hanover had a penchant for phasers and flangers, and could be found in the margins of any multitrack tape, experimenting with an echo chamber or Mu-tron gadget. Having gained a fundamental understanding of recorded music’s building blocks at Sonicraft and CBS, Andre often conferred with studio staffers about how to achieve the specific tone or timbre that matched his mental projection.

For these inaugural sessions of 1979’s spring semester, a few Bloomington stowaways from the Black Art Jazz Performers drove to Chicago to participate in the free recording sessions. Percussionist Louis Sanford became the Universal Togetherness Band’s sixth man, heavily seasoning sessions with timbales, tambourine, and cowbell. Dawn Maxine Brooks contributed distinctly sassy vocal lines on the inaugural sessions in 1979 with “Ain’t Gonna Cry” and “Taken By Love.” As for Chisholm’s students, some preferred to track the same song as part of a classroom competition. Other teams favored a range of options. With Andre writing as many as five compositions a night, UTB had no shortage of material to audition for undergraduates. So long as Andre paid for the magnetic tape, the multitrack reels were his to keep.

Billed as “an original music band,” UTB began frequenting established venues across Chicagoland: Sauer’s, Gaspar’s, the Wild Hare, the Cubby Bear, Mother’s, Redford’s, and the Steel Worker’s Union Hall. Stern continued rubbing elbows with industry insiders, touting the merits of her lone client. Whether through her husband’s connections or her own, she secured an opening slot for the group when Peter Gabriel performed at Columbia College’s Showcase 1980, greatly increasing their visibility. Chicago Fest soon followed, and the Universal Togetherness Band rocked the rooftop stage at the easternmost point of Navy Pier.

During this period, the Universal Togetherness Band were acquainted with several groups on the scene who were securing record deals, among them Jerry Butler’s Omni, Paul Richmond’s Amusement Park, and Brass Bullet. Cleveland Eaton, a bassist with Ramsey Lewis, introduced Stern to brass at Mercury Records, but the aspiring manager’s reluctance to include band members in these discussions created a rift between Stern and Andre. Mercury merged operations with Polydor, RSO, and Casablanca in 1981, and the company began disassembling its Chicago operations within the Equitable Building on North Michigan Avenue. Having been left out in the cold by their management and abandoned by Mercury, UTB decided to part ways with Stern. Subsidized recording sessions became less frequent after Andre halted his studies at Columbia. Now working as a market reporter on the Commodities Exchange, he alone shouldered the burden of booking the band. The group recorded less, and performed less lucrative sets. UTB charter members began to lose focus. Leslie’s commute to and from Michigan grew more taxing, and Fred’s obligations at the agency only deepened over time. The chemistry weakened and the vision blurred until eventually, both Mishers bowed out altogether.

The band was evolving from a star to a red giant when James Christopher approached Andre in late 1982 after a gig at the So Rare Dinner & Supper Club on 87th and Throop. Christopher and his business partner, Willie Woods, were known for mining talent for The Chicago Party, a weekly variety show broadcast on WCIU Channel 26 that featured a menagerie of dancers, magicians, musicians, contortionists, and break-dancing Jerry Lewis impersonators. The show was recorded at the Copherbox II, a popular nightclub at 117th and Halsted, which Christopher and Woods co-owned. Just as Yvonne Gage, Terry Genghis, and over a dozen others had done before them, UTB crossed the Copherbox II’s illuminated dance floor in hopes that someone out there—whether on the floor or at home on the couch—liked what they saw.

In the interest of saving time and money, musical guests on The Chicago Party were required to lip-synch pre-recorded songs during tapings. This played to one of UTB’s greatest strengths, given their deep reservoir of recorded (and original) material—a luxury not shared by upstart acts with only a single or self-funded 45 in their catalog. During their presentation of “Pull Up,” Paul pretended to play electric piano and Andre faked it on the guitar. Stand-in bassist Willie James mimed the bass line Arnold had tracked at Universal, while Arnold reenacted a drumbeat previously tracked by Fred Misher. There was perhaps no better metaphor for a group on their last lap than a make-believe performance of an unreleased song on a public access show that itself was just two weeks from cancellation.

With UTB’s fate uncertain, Arnold Gibson started playing a Casio with drum accompaniment alongside childhood friend and bassist Emeal Miles. Together they honed a repertoire of pop tunes by the likes of Debbie Gibson and Cyndi Lauper. Meanwhile, Hanover caught the engineering bug and began producing studio sessions and live events. Louis Sanford, a fixture in the group’s recording sessions, left Bloomington for Atlanta. Even after the classic incarnation of Universal Togetherness Band had unraveled, Andre continued to jot “UTB” in the client field of self-financed studio sessions. Later entries in his songwriting portfolio, including “My Sentiments,” “More Than Enough,” and “Paper Chase,” reveal a more mature manifestation of the UTB sound before the group first crossed the studio threshold in 1979. His modified lineup of Frank Alexander on drums, Art Love on bass, and Allen Burroughs on guitar—along with Michael Young sweetening the stock with tasteful saxophone parts—showed promise. But these stringers soon settled into more profitable combos.

During their four years of studio immersion, the Universal Togetherness Band amassed a catalog of recorded material larger than most aboveground acts. Years later, long after the group’s disintegration, Andre began circulating cassettes featuring new self-produced tracks among his clients and colleagues at the Commodities Exchange, ignoring boxes of masterpieces from his college days all the while. Having outlasted the cassette era and thrived in the age of the compact disc, his newest contributions continue to beckon listeners via the online music megalith CD Baby. The steppers’ delights and digital ballads he concocts in his home studio still evoke the sounds and spirit of the breezeways in the Washington Park Homes, where his internal musical dialogue first began. Collectively dropping out, the Universal Togetherness Band followed a path of independent study unquantifiable in course hours or grade point averages. Above all, it reveals that the person who gained the most from these exercises in academia was Andre Gibson himself.

– Jon Kirby, August 2014