Our Gary, Indiana spotlight starts in 1954 with the Spaniels’ third single “Goodnight Sweetheart,” released on Vee Jay records. Vee Jay, founded in Gary in 1953, would go on to become one of the most important r&b labels in the nation, paving the way for the rock ‘n’ roll explosion in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Early examples of rock ‘n’ roll can be heard on The El Durados’ “At My Door (Crazy Little Mama),” released in 1957. Vee Jay was also home to Jimmy Reed, who moved from Mississippi to Gary in the 1940s. Reed brought with him the sound of delta blues and combined that with the sound of early rock ‘n’ roll acts on Vee Jay’s catalogue, creating a unique and driven version of the blues that would influence countless rock ‘n’ roll acts into the late 1960s, as heard on tracks like 1958’s “Ain’t That Lovin You” and 1960’s “Big Boss Man.”
Moving into the late 1960s, we see the emergence of Gary’s most notable stars, the wildly popular Jackson 5. The child soul group quickly rose to international fame and created the star that was Michael Jackson. Provided here are the original 1967 recordings from the group, the first known studio sessions actually recorded in Gary. Known as the Steeltown sessions, the band’s harmonies backing Michael’s already powerful and distinct voice can be clearly recognized on tracks like “Big Boy,” the band’s first successful single, which received considerable airplay in the Gary and Chicago area. Gary is also home to r&b legend Denice Williams, whose landmark single “Free,” released in 1976, is a significant contribution to the genre. Williams would go on to have a successful solo career that would last well into the 1980s with the single “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.” The 1980s would also see Michael Jackson rise far above the commercial success he had with his brothers on his solo release Thriller in 1982, an album that would go on to become the best selling album of all time. Though the Jacksons had left Gary for the west coast by this time, the monumental success of their collective careers make them perhaps the most significant Indiana artists with regards to international cultural impact.
By the 1990s, r&b had evolved to incorporate elements of 1980s pop and the increasingly popular hip hop movement. Janet Jackson made significant strides in pioneering this genre-blending type of r&b, as heard on 1993’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” Janet became an icon upon the release of this album, exploring sexuality from the female perspective and setting herself apart from her brothers and their musical legacy to create her own. The album’s sound was fully evolved on her 1997 follow up The Velvet Rope, featuring some of Hip Hop’s biggest names. Though Janet left Gary in her earliest years, her sound was massively influential to a number of artists in Gary during the 1990s. Among these artists is r&b duo Trina & Tamara, whose 1999 eponymous debut had all the makings to be a chart topping hit, as heard on the single “What’d You Come Here For?” Equally inspired by the Jackson’s legacy was Trina and Tamara’s older brother Jesse Powell, whose 1996 single “You” would rise to critical acclaim, topping the r&b charts and earning him a grammy nomination.
Gary is now home to several torch bearers for the region, particularly in the world of hip hop. Freddie Gibbs has perhaps received the greatest amount of recognition, emerging in the early 2010s with tracks like “Eastside Moonwalker” that explore life in Gary. Gibbs carried the representation of his home city into commercial success on his revolutionary 2014 release Pinata. The collaboration with producer MadLib contains tracks like “Harold’s,” a partial ode to Harold’s Chicken in Gary, Indiana, and “Thuggin,” an ode to Gibbs’ upbringing in the city. Gibbs’ 2019 effort Bandana evolves the artists sound further, and tracks like lead single “Flat Tummy Tea” firmly establish Gibbs as one of the most important names in contemporary hip hop. Gary is also home to Will $crilla, whose 2017 Fresh Out the Joint Buzz Builders recounts the artists arrest and release from prison and explores life in Gary. Keeping in the tradition of experimentation and genre-expansion, Gary footwork artist Jlin releases works that fuse dance, techno, and hip hop into unique instrumental compositions. These artists carry the city’s tradition of pioneering artists into the 2020s, maintaining Gary’s legacy of being a hot spot for inventive artists with the potential to impact the international music scene.
Resources for Further Exploration
The Rise and Fall of Vee-Jay Records – NPR article on Vee-Jay Records, founded in Gary, Indiana
Interview with Freddie Gibbs – interview with the hip-hop artist on his hometown of Gary
Interview with Jlin – interview with the footwork artist on Gary
Jackson 5 Homecoming – news story about the Jacksons returning to Gary