Everyone has soul.
If you don’t believe that, just listen to the resume of the Grammy-winning vocal group Soul Children of Chicago. Based out of the city’s South Side, they have performed with the late Harry Belafonte, Garth Brooks, and even on a Neil Diamond Christmas album. Holly Holy Hanukkah!
Last spring I had an idea that was generated by the Doane School of Music in Toronto. The school had seen my 2020 Newcity story on the Chicago history of the Five Stairsteps’ 1970 hit “O-o-h Child.” The school decided to do a children’s sing-along of the song with ukuleles. The heartfelt performance became a YouTube hit. The Five Stairsteps were a South Side precursor to the Jackson 5. Their father Clarence Burke, Sr. played bass and managed the group. He had also been a detective for the Chicago Police Department.
On Saturday, September 23 at 4:30pm, The Soul Children of Chicago are performing at the Navy Pier Wave Wall as part of the pier’s third annual Chicago Live! concert series. Everyone’s friend Mavis Staples headlines at 8pm September 23 at the Peoples Gas Lake Stage.
The Chicago Live! concerts coincide with the last weekend of our “State of Sound: A World of Music from Illinois” music exhibit presented at Navy Pier in partnership with the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. I thought a great sendoff would be to have the Soul Children of Chicago sing “O-o-h Child” in tribute to a socially significant Chicago song. The thirty-piece choir has been rehearsing the song for a month and the Pier audience will be encouraged to sing along. Group members range in age between seven and seventeen and they represent the city as well as the suburbs.
The Soul Children had no problem tackling a 1970 soul standard like “O-o-h Child,” says the group’s founder and director Dr. Walt Whitman. “Our kids are more old-school than I would think,” Whitman, sixty-two, says in a Labor Day weekend conversation at a South Loop deli. “They are more mature musically. Their mind is open to a lot of things.” Whitman is arranging “O-o-h Child” with a gospel choir feel and R&B-rock flair. “The sound of the song is not touched,” he says. “Just updated. They liked the song and they knew it because the song had been redone. I’m taking a page off of Kirk Franklin’s  version of it. He did it with [gospel artist] Donnie McClurkin. It has more of an urbanist feel and I’m pushing the envelope a little more.”
Whitman doesn’t call the Soul Children a gospel group because they perform at so many corporate and international gigs. “It is inspirational,” he says. “We recorded ‘The Climb’ [the 2009 Miley Cyrus song] and [the 1969 Jackie DeShannon hit] ‘Put a Little Love in Your Heart.’ It’s a high-energy dance set. Last year people were dancing all over the Pier.”
In 2010 the Soul Children won a Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album when they were included in the “Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration” album with Al Green, Mavis Staples and others. The Soul Children collaborated with the post-grunge group Three Doors Down on a cover of Eric Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord.” And in 1994 the Soul Children sang “Oh Holy Night” with Staples on a Jerry Springer holiday special. (It’s verified on YouTube!) In the mid-2000s the Soul Children performed before 1.6 million people in Nigeria.
A Soul Children alumni reunion group is called OneSoul. Notable alumni include Dr. Marcus Campbell, superintendent of Evanston Township High School District 202 and singer Dave Hollister [former member of the 1990s R&B quartet Blackstreet]. Whitman often combines the groups for projects such as their fortieth-anniversary recording “Still Standing,” streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube. There have been more than 3,000 Soul Children of Chicago.
“Kids find us by word-of-mouth because of the history,” Whitman says. “We’re celebrating forty-two years now. Parents have been in the group over the years. We currently have three in the choir whose parents were in the choir.”
Potential choir members go through an application process. There also is a dress code for performances. Tattoos are not permitted. Boys are not allowed to wear earrings. “This is the Soul Children, not the Soul Adults,” Whitman says. “I try to maintain an innocent look even though times have changed.” The Soul Children of Chicago sang at the 2013 Kids’ Inaugural Concert for President Obama’s second inauguration. A year later Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush invited the Soul Children to perform at the Kennedy Center for the first ladies of forty-seven African nations.
During that event the Soul Children and Whitman met Neil Diamond. When Diamond recorded “Joy to the World” for his 2015 “The Classic Christmas Album,” he recruited the Soul Children for vocals. “We’re more connected to the Jewish community than anything,” Whitman says with a smile. “I’m halfway Jewish. They support us. We have a Jewish CD project we did [at the Am Shalom synagogue] in Glencoe. We haven’t really promoted it.”
In 2019 Am Shalom and the Soul Children released “Soul Shabbat” featuring the children’s choir and the congregation’s rabbis and cantors. That same year the Soul Children were featured performers at the Union for Reform Judaism (URI) Biennial, the largest Jewish gathering in North America, which was held in Chicago. And Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf invited the Soul Children to sing the National Anthem at last season’s Bulls-Lakers game because he is a member of Am Shalom.
The choir also sang at the inauguration of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who often talks about “growing the soul” of Chicago.
So, what is soul?
“Soul is the mind ruling emotions,” Whitman answers. “There is spirit, soul and body. When you have the mind’s will with the emotions of people, you are creating the soul. It’s not a religious thing as much as it is an experience of what people feel. You transcend all cultural barriers. It is why when we perform, it doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Indian, white, Black, rich or poor, you can experience the energy of what we bring. That’s why people dance at our performances.”
In another unique cultural twist-and-shout Whitman has partnered with Chicago blues musician and orthopedic surgeon Daniel Ivankovich. Last October, Ivankovich purchased the 58,000-square-foot Preston Bradley Center in Uptown. He plans to reinvent the 1925 building as a cultural arts and community center that would be ready to roll by the end of 2025. Work crews have cleared eight thirty-foot dumpsters just to get a clear view of renovation needs. The Soul Children would be artists-in-residence at the Preston Bradley Center.
“He wants to combine Soul Children and a youth blues camp,” Whitman says. “There’s a [1,200-seat] auditorium and offices. He bought the building with us in mind. He’s got a lot of work to do there.” The six-story Preston Bradley Center was built by the Rev. Preston Bradley to house his People’s Church of Chicago. The Soul Children currently rehearse twice a week at St. Elizabeth Church, 41st and Michigan, the oldest Black Catholic church in Chicago.
Ivankovich is a six-foot, ten-inch former basketball player who also plays blues guitar under the name of “Chicago Slim.” He told me that “Dr. Walt and I have a relationship that is based on many things but what brought us together is a mutual love of blues and gospel in Chicago. The driver is our desire to use music as the carrot to mentor youth and bring people into a positive light. It’s a common thing we triangulate toward every time we talk. With the Preston Bradley Center, on the surface, everyone is, ‘Man, you’ve got a theater, an events room, five rooms in the building that have stages so it’s music, music, music. But we’re going to have programs, programs, programs for the community. We want to partner with organizations that are creating phenomenal art.”
Ivankovich is excited to see how the center and the Soul Children will blend into the neighborhood. Ivankovich doesn’t want the vocal group to leave their current South Side home, but he does want to offer them an expanded landscape. “This is the entertainment district,” he said. “There are five iconic music venues within a stone’s throw: The Green Mill, the Uptown [not open], the Aragon, the Riviera and the Double Door. You want to do something singular. We want to create a destination for youth during the day to come in and receive training and mentorship skills in addition to having medical treatment and other social programs. But the emphasis is going to be on youth.”
Kids have changed since Whitman started the group in 1981 when he was music teacher-choir director at St. John de la Salle Church. “Absolutely changed,” he says. “It’s a whole different breed of kid, especially post-pandemic. You have to keep their attention span, being online for three years, Zoom. There’s a lot of mental issues going on. It’s the world and not just kids. Some kids ask for a ‘mental stress day.’ We’ve never had that. We collect their phones [for rehearsals and performances]. But now you’re dealing with the Apple watch. We took their phones, so they go to their Apple watch.”
Whitman takes a bite out of his sandwich, then says, “I don’t like kids.” It sounds like he is kidding. Whitman doesn’t have kids of his own. Then he says it again. “I don’t like kids but I’ve had a children’s choir for forty-two years,” he says. The kids have immense respect for Whitman and he attributes that to the discipline he learned from his military background.
He is an Air Force brat who was born in San Antonio, Texas. His parents Walter, Sr. and Shirley were born in Chicago. They moved around the country and the world. He began to discover music when his father retired in Anchorage, Alaska. The family returned to Chicago in 1976 and Whitman, Jr. graduated Calumet High School in 1978. There wasn’t much music around the house. “My Dad can’t carry a tune in a bucket if you gave it to him,” he says. “And my Mom sings, but she doesn’t sing.” His parents live in the Chatham neighborhood. In 2015 Whitman, Jr. was presented with an honorary doctorate in sacred music from the GMOR Theological Institute of America.
“Dr. Walt is a brother from another mother and deserves every bit of acclaim that comes his way,” says Ivankovich, who owns all nine recordings the Soul Children have made. “He is a real star. The Soul Children need a broader appreciation of what they are in their home city. They are highly regarded worldwide, but within the city of Chicago the Soul Children don’t get a fraction of the accolades and respect they deserve.”
Soul Children of Chicago perform at 4:30pm with a presentation of “Ooh Child” at 5pm on Saturday, September 23, Chicago Live!, Navy Pier Wave Wall stage, 600 East Grand.
Dave Hoekstra is a Chicago author, radio host and documentarian. His latest book “The Camper Book (A Celebration of a Moveable American Dream) is available on Chicago Review Press. He co-produced the documentary “The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement,” nominated for a 2001 Chicago/Midwest Emmy Award. Dave was a 2013 recipient of the Studs Terkel Community Media Award. His work can be found at davehoekstra.com.