Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis'

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'Sights, Sounds, Soul' book cover.
'Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

With the Super Bowl arriving in Minnesota this weekend, efforts to rethink our image are reaching a peak. The state often associated in pop culture with hotdish and ice fishing is now officially the "Bold North." Unofficially but much more importantly, Minnesotans are working to bring newfound visibility to communities that have been historically marginalized in the stories that are told about our state.

For music fans, this has meant the burnishing and reissuing of historic soul, funk, and R&B sides from the artists who gave rise to the 1980s' world-famous "Minneapolis Sound." The compilations Twin Cities Funk and Soul (Secret Stash Records, 2012) and Purple Snow (Numero Group, 2013) got this ball rolling, but many stories remained untold.

Last year, The Current's Andrea Swensson published the book Got to Be Something Here, chronicling "the rise of the Minneapolis Sound." That book is now among this year's Minnesota Book Award finalists, along with another new book about that era and those communities: Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis.

Chamblis, a Pittsburgh native who moved to Minnesota in 1958, became known as "Pictureman" among the predominantly black communities he photographed regularly in the 1970s and '80s. He sold his photos, and often gave them away, putting uncounted personal dollars into the documentation of people and events that often might otherwise have left no visual record.

Many of his photos are now at the Minnesota Historical Society, where a 2014 exhibit put his work in front of many eyes that had never seen it. That exhibit included one of the earliest known photos of Prince performing live, soundtracking a fashion show with his band Grand Central. "I'd like to see that," said Prince when Swensson told him about it that summer.

If only Prince could have seen Sights, Sounds, Soul. It would have been a trip down memory lane for the star who counted many of Chamblis's subjects among his mentors and peers. A chapter dedicated to music includes that early Prince photo, and also captures local legends like the Family, Wee Willie Walker, Flyte Tyme (costumed as P-Funk for Halloween), Alexander O'Neal, Cynthia Johnson, Jimmy Jam, Jellybean Johnson, Morris Day, and DJ Spider J. Hamilton. One group of guys, hanging out in front of a mirrored wall, made it onto the cover of Purple Snow.

Chamblis died in 1991, and Davu Seru contributes text that situates the photographer's work in the context of black history. Chamblis's Twin Cities were towns in transition: segregation was still rampant, but real gains were being made and there was a wide diversity of experience within African-American communities. White faces are not uncommon in these photographs: in integrated bands, and in audiences at venues like the Flame. That Nicollet Avenue establishment had two sides: one for R&B, and one for country.

Compared to the white man's lakeland depicted on the famous "good life" cover of Time magazine, these photos capture a Minnesota that's both worlds away, and poignantly, not that far at all. Chamblis shot much more than music: here are families picnicking and relaxing by the Minneapolis lakes. Here's the proud owner of a Red Owl supermarket: one who happens to be black, and located in North Minneapolis. Here are some old men, very possibly grumpy. 30 years before an African-American Santa made news at Mall of America, here's one handing out candy canes at an arcade.

Individual chapters are dedicated to fashion (with witty captions by Seru), to everyday life, and of course to music. Those who weren't there will find Swensson's book a useful companion in identifying the significance of venues like the Way community center and the Nacirema club. Chamblis documented an entire geography that's since been shuffled, but that gave rise to music that changed the world.

There's an intimacy to these photos: people knew the Pictureman, and they welcomed his work. (Anticipating Tyra, he'd advise, "Smile with your eyes.") Could they have guessed they'd one day end up in a coffee table book? They sure knew they were looking good enough for one — in matching powder-blue suits, in electric pink pants, sometimes in "Thriller" jackets — and that their lives were just as Minnesotan as any Lake Superior landscape captured by Craig Blacklock. In crucial ways, even more so.

Photos by Charles Chamblis will be on display at Mill City Museum through March 31.

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