Helen Wooten, Chicago music promoter, booker, manager and club owner, dies at 72

At a time when Chicago nightclubs were buzzing with the sounds of The Jackson 5 and The Chi-Lites, Helen Wooten stood out.

And not just because of her flaming red hair, the elegant way she dressed, and the gold Rolls-Royce Corniche she drove.

Miss Wooten promoted, booked and managed hot music acts at such famous South Side clubs as High Chaparral, Godfather Lounge and Perv’s House, run by Pervis Staples of Staple Singers. Sometimes she had also invested in the places.

In the 1960s and 1970s, “you just didn’t see women, especially black women, in those kinds of positions,” record executive Jun Mhoon said.

In addition to The Chi-Lites and The Jackson 5, Miss Wooten signed or launched the careers of such artists as The Temptations, LL Cool J, Will Smith, En Vogue, Donell Jones and Da Brat.

If the artists needed help, she bought them groceries, got them clothes, paid their rent.

“A lot of people got started because of her,” said singer Tomiko Dixon, the granddaughter of blues legend Willie Dixon.

Helen Wooten (right) and Da Brat.

Helen Wooten (right) and Da Brat.

Bernard Dean Moten / Dean Moten-Photography

“If they were from [music labels] Motown or Brunswick or Vee-Jay, anything to do with soul, blues, doo-wop, R&B, hip-hop, Helen had her hand in it,” Dixon said. “She knew my grandfather. She knew BB King. If you came to Chicago, if you needed a loan, if you needed a producer, she connected them. If you needed a drummer, a singer, any kind of musician, if you needed a venue, Helen was there for you.”

Miss Wooten, 72, died May 5 at Wentworth Care and Rehabilitation Center on the South Side, according to singer Scarlett Parks, whose career she directed.

The cause was complications from diabetes, according to Miss Wooten’s son, Charles McFerren.

Helen Wooten (right) in a nightclub in the 1970s, as seen in Michael L. Abramsom's photo book

Helen Wooten (right) in a nightclub in the 1970s, as seen in Michael L. Abramsom’s photo book “Light: on the South Side.” The book was packaged with Numero Group blues recordings.

“It all comes back to Helen. Excuse the expression, but she was ‘The Man,'” said producer and arranger Benjamin Wright, who worked with artists including Donny Hathaway, Destiny’s Child, Earth, Wind & Fire and Frank Ocean and arranged strings for Michael Jackson’s album ” Off-the-Wall”. .”

“She was a trailblazer and one of the go-to promoters,” said Tony Wilson, who performs as Young James Brown.

Helen Wootten.

Helen Wootten.

Bernard Dean Moten / Dean Moten-Photography

“He had a great, down-to-earth personality,” said guitarist Keith Henderson, who has played with Beyoncé, the Emotions, Quincy Jones and the Temptations and whose deep voice can be heard saying “We are the Bears” on the track. song. chorus of “The Super Bowl Shuffle”.

Miss Wooten wouldn’t get in people’s faces unless she thought she needed to.

And then Mhoon said, “He used profanity and whatever else. She was carrying a gun. She really had to make sure people knew she was in business.”

“Sometimes she would yell and yell a little bit,” promoter and agent M’Buzi Levine said. “Being women, you had to take a stand because they would say, ‘Oh, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ ”

“He just didn’t take anything,” said event organizer Robert Money.

“If you were her artist,” Parks said, “She’d say, ‘I’m not going to let anyone take advantage of you.’

Helen Wooten (left) and Tomiko Dixon.

Helen Wooten (left) and Tomiko Dixon.

Bernard Dean Moten / Dean Moten-Photography

“She didn’t hang out with mobsters,” Parks said. “But they knew that she was very powerful and influential. They knew that Helen made many decisions. She got a lot of people started and they respected her.”

“He would put new artists on shows with established artists, and force them to do it,” Mhoon said. “If Helen Wooten was booking the show, to the very end, she was elevating new talent.”

He was only 16 years old when he was working as a drummer in the High Chaparral.

“Every time the authorities would come, and I was a little kid, she would tell them, ‘No, that’s my son, leave him alone,’” Mhoon said.

Miss Wooten also booked shows in Atlanta and Memphis, according to Levine.

Born Helen Saffold, Miss Wooten attended Marshall High School on the West Side. She hosted school talent shows and once worked as a junior DJ at WVON radio, Parks said.

She went on to work as a phlebotomist and supervisor at what is now Rush University Medical Center, according to Parks, while, working nights, she built her career as a concert promoter, talent booking, club manager and investor. nocturnal.

Helen Wooten with Marshall Thompson of The Chi-Lites.  In the 1970s, she helped her out of a bind when the conflict between Teddy Pendergrass and Harold Melvin torpedoed a Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes show.  She needed an act to fill in, and The Chi-Lites came to the rescue.

Helen Wooten with Marshall Thompson of The Chi-Lites. In the 1970s, he helped her out of a bind when a conflict between Teddy Pendergrass and Harold Melvin torpedoed a Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes show. She needed an act to fill in, and The Chi-Lites came to the rescue.

Bernard Dean Moten / Dean Moten-Photography

The people he worked with attributed his success in part to his ability to handle the controlled chaos of live concerts.

In the 1970s, when Teddy Pendergrass was singing with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, friction between Pendergrass and Melvin put Miss Wooten in a bind because she had booked the group to play at High Chaparral.

So he contacted Marshall Thompson of The Chi-Lites.

“She called me and said, ‘Marshall, I’m in trouble,'” Thompson said. “She said she had Teddy Pendergrass do the show for her, and he canceled. She had all this money used up and said, ‘I need somebody strong.’ ”

The Chi-Lites had earned some of their first paychecks thanks to Miss Wooten and they never forgot it.

“I told her, ‘Helen, we’re on our way home and we’re going to do the show,'” said Thompson, who said his favorite song was his group’s 1971 hit “Have You Seen Her.”

In addition to ingenuity, the concert was a testament to his determination. She was determined to be there despite the fact that she had been shot a few days earlier during a robbery at her home, she once told the Chicago Reader.

“I got out of intensive care to go to that program,” he said.

Helen Wooten (from left) with record store owner George Daniels and singer Scarlett Parks.

Helen Wooten (from left) with record store owner George Daniels and singer Scarlett Parks.

Bernard Dean Moten / Photography Dean-Moten

On another occasion, Parks said, Ms. Wooten arrived at a party at a mansion where guests included singer Melba Moore and Joe Jackson, father of the Jackson musical dynasty.

“Helen knocked on one of the doors and a young man said, ‘This is for VIPs only,'” Parks said. “She said, ‘I’m Helen Wooten, and if you don’t know who I am, you better ask someone.’ She just she opened the door and put her head down.”

Miss Wooten had what people in the music industry call a “golden ear”: the ability to pick out a hit. When En Vogue was starting around 1990, she correctly predicted that “Hold On to Your Love” was going to be big.

“She told them exactly which song to pick,” her son said, telling the group, “’That’s the hit for all of you.’ ”

Parks said that Miss Wooten listened to her sing and offered sound advice, such as, “You’re singing well, but I need you to use your top pitch.”

While in town, she often wore custom clothing by designer Barbara Bates, who called her “a boss.”

At home, “you would see Frankie Beverly and Maze eating vegetables,” Money said. “You would see Will Smith.”

“One time, I came home and Lionel Richie was sitting in my living room,” said McFerren, who raps under the name Charlieon.

He was a familiar figure at Black Radio Exclusive conventions.

In the late 1980s, his 18-year-old daughter Toyia Nikole Wooten was found dead in Texas. Ms. Wooten named her record label Toinik in her memory, according to her son.

Ms. Wooten is also survived by her sisters Jean Merrell and Lois Smith, her brother Ray Saffold and a grandson, said her son, who is planning a celebration of his life in June.

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