Should you believe that soul is an expression of freedom, spirit and wisdom, there was no more important 1980s soul band in Chicago than Third Rail. Their ride was short but fierce and significant. The multiracial band formed in 1979, broke through color lines on North Lincoln Avenue, navigated record-industry shenanigans, and performed before 25,000 people at the 1982 ChicagoFest on Navy Pier where the national exposure forced them to change their name to Maxx Traxx when another band using the same name threatened legal action.
The band recorded two progressive soul-jazz albums in 1982: “Third Rail: Reachin’ For It,” self-produced on their own Two-Twenty-Two label, and “Maxx Traxx,” released by Pulse Records. It was all over by 1983, just four years after it started.
The two albums will be rereleased on November 3 as “Maxx Traxx: Third Rail,” a double-album package from Numero Group, a Chicago label with multiple Grammy Award nominations. The project will be accompanied by deep-dive anecdotes and photographs. “It captures them in their moment,” Numero co-founder Rob Sevier says. “It helps people understand the context of the music. They were very well documented. They were promoting themselves.”
Though little remembered today, this was a band whose core members have pedigrees worth promoting:
Stevie Robinson, lead singer, guitar, songwriter and vocal arranger since the beginning. In the mid-1970s he recorded for Carl Davis’ Chi-Sound Records, toured with the brilliant soul singer Walter Jackson and co-wrote the 1981 Jackson jazz-soul hit “Living Without You.” (It appears on the “Third Rail” and “Maxx Traxx” albums).
Richie Davis, guitar and songwriting; his father was the late Chicago actor Nathan Davis and his brother is Andrew Davis, who directed “The Fugitive” and “Stony Island,” the 1978 film about a soul band trying to make it in Chicago. Richie was cast as the lead, Robinson is in the film and Robinson’s late brother Stoney plays the band’s singer.
Lee Gatlin, bass, was living in Minnesota in 1974 when he replaced Prince in the teenage band Grand Central that also featured Morris Day of The Time. When Gatlin returned to Chicago in 1979 he toured with punk provocateur Skafish. He also is the retired fire chief of Brooklyn Center, a suburb outside of Minneapolis.
Marvin Sparks, Jr., drums and percussion, whose credentials include Aretha Franklin, Chicago’s Jerry Butler and gospel great James Cleveland. Sparks is now an adjunct professor in music at Lone Star College-Kingwood in Kingwood, Texas.
Laurence Dawson, vocals, keyboards, who played in the Independents with the late Marvin Yancy and Jesse Jackson’s younger brother Chuck and later with the late iconic Chicago soul singer Otis Clay. Dawson is the co-writer of Walter Jackson’s “Living Without You.”
The late Terry Marshall, keyboards, who began his professional music career with the Chicago soul group the Emotions. He also produced the nascent 1980 rap record “Casper’s Groovy Ghost Show.”
Malcom Banks, drums, was the last member to enter the diverse conglomerate. Banks joined Third Rail in mid-1982 just before the name change to Maxx Traxx and played on the Maxx Traxx album. Prior to joining Third Rail, Banks toured extensively as drummer with the Chicago soul groups the Emotions and the Dells.
The band was created out of a friendship between Davis and Robinson, whose effortless and genuine vocals set the tone for the band. Many compared Robinson’s style to Stevie Wonder, but Robinson said he also learned his precise phrasing from listening to female singers ranging from Dionne Warwick to Chaka Khan.
“I knew Stevie since I was thirteen,” Davis explains. “I did ‘Stony Island’ that his brother Stoney was involved in. We wrapped the film, I moved to L.A. to do some of the voiceovers, went to music school, and started playing in bands with the Ball Brothers [blues musicians Leroy and Lewis]. Sadly, Stoney passed while I was in L.A.”
On April 7, 1979, Edward “Stoney” Robinson was found dead in his home at 739 West Belmont. He was twenty-six years old. The cause of death was determined to be a rare disorder involving coagulation of the blood. “I came back for his funeral,” Davis says. “It just felt right to stay in Chicago. At that time Stevie was in a disco band called Riff Raff. They needed a guitar player, so Stevie hooked me up. They used to play at the Prime-N-Tender at 63rd and Harlem.” In the spring of 1983, I saw Sly Stone play with the local band One-Eyed Jacks at the Prime-N-Tender.
The loosely formed group played its first gig in August 1979 at Dingbats, the popular dance club at 247 East Ontario that was known for having Mr. T as its doorman-bouncer. Stevie Robinson was the band’s guitarist-vocalist and Davis joined after the Dingbats show. Davis says, “The first lineup of Third Rail was me and Stevie, Margie Stroud [who went on to become minister of music at the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church Choir of Chicago], Marvin Sparks, Terry Marshall and Bob Halaj [Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows] on bass. That’s where we started. We were good. We played a lot of stuff. I remember doing Jefferson Starship’s ‘Jane’ with Margie, we did jazz. Lee got in the band and after Margie left we added Dawson. And that was the band that did the Third Rail album.”
The band’s music remains vital today. There’s some Cameo in the sound, some Prince and even some Lubriphonic, the 2002 funk and soul band made up of Chicago blues session players. But the Third Rail-Maxx Traxx sound captures the distinctive energy of Chicago, a town where every note is earned—and shared—until the early morning hours.
“Maxx Traxx is a band that played every single night,” Sevier says. “What you’re hearing is a wealth of experience of what can move a crowd. This is tried and true music. There’s a lot of music you can compare it to, but what I really hear is a reflection of what was happening in the crowd.
“I saw their calendar and they were playing four nights a week. That was the norm. And sometimes they played two gigs in a day. This was a band that worked it all out on stage. It is something so carefully honed and practiced. It is incredibly special. It sounds like the band that everybody in Chicago is going to see. That doesn’t help explain the sound, but it helps explain the excitement. When we were putting this together a year ago, I was at a Lollapalooza party with a law firm we work with. I was telling the older people we were working on Maxx Traxx. And they all knew Maxx Traxx. They were a big band in Chicago. I don’t think of them in terms of what else was going on and I don’t think they thought of themselves as what else was going on. It’s just music that works. Theoretically, they were competing against disco DJs and club culture and it didn’t matter because they were that big and that good.”
Third Rail/Maxx Traxx was also an immersive spiritual experience. In December 1982 I profiled Maxx Traxx for an Illinois Entertainer cover story. I caught them on a chilly November night at Wise Fools Pub. It wasn’t unusual to see Maxx Traxx members sharing a prayer with their business manager Murray Weiner before their show or to hear arguments about musical direction. At that point, thirteen members had filtered through Third Rail/Maxx Traxx in three years. Then the 1982 version clicked.
“If you went to each of our homes, you would find that each of us lives a different way,” Marshall told me in 1982. “We all listen to different things on the radio and records, but we’ve attempted to develop a band identity. Ever since we became conscious of our spirituality that has helped to identify us in the genre of where we are.”
Gatlin’s father Lee was Sunday School superintendent at the now-defunct St. John Church of God and Christ at 77th and Cottage Grove. Today Lee, Jr. plays bass at the Living Word Church in Minneapolis. “At the heart, all the guys were believers,” Gatlin says during a conversation in his Brooklyn Park, Minnesota kitchen. A verse paraphrased from Corinthians 13:7 hangs on a dining room wall: “Love Always Trusts.” Gatlin explains, “Praying before gigs—I play with a band now [Tight Fit, a local R&B group ] that prays before gigs. But I have a problem with praying for God to bless a band that does not glorify Him. I didn’t think about that back then.”
The final show Gatlin played with Maxx Traxx was on October 29, 1983 when the band opened for the Commodores at the Holiday Star Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana. “The church was always in my heart, but it came down on me that night,” he says. “I started going to church. I quit smoking. I quit smoking weed. Here’s the thing, in about the thirty-something years since I left Maxx Traxx, up until six years ago, I did not even play bass in public. And that was my main instrument.”
In the spring of 2023—some forty years later—Davis explains, “What was invaluable to me as a musician was that this band ate, drank and slept the band. Between seventy-nine and eighty-two, we were together twenty-four-seven, 365 days a year. Whether we were rehearsing or working. At the end of rehearsal we would write. We transitioned from one-hundred-percent cover band to eighty-percent original band. The workshop element of hashing stuff out with band members and then trying it that night on stage—that was so satisfying, but at the same time it was a burnout. I probably spent more time in three years with the Maxx Traxx guys than I’ve spent in thirty with the band I’m in now [Chicago Catz]. It’s a wonderful band but a different animal. We see each other when we’re working and that’s about it. My dad fought in World War II and he used to keep in contact with his war buddies. To me, Maxx Traxx is the same kind of vibe.
“Everyone from Maxx Traxx are my war buddies.”
In 1978, at the same time Maxx Traxx was in its embryonic stages, producer-director Andrew Davis released the film “Stony Island.” Iconic Chess Records session player Gene “Daddy G” Barge plays the mentor of the Stony Island band in the movie, which was a mesh of soul, rock and jazz—not unlike Maxx Traxx.
Stoney Robinson is the band’s charismatic lead singer and Stevie appears as the lead singer of his band THEM (The Higher Evolution of Music) in a montage of music clubs. The other band in the montage is the popular Chicago Latin-jazz band Chevere, which was formed for “Stony Island.” With a soft smile, Stevie Robinson says, “Stoney was a performer. Hardcore. All stage—give me a microphone, lights and two people to sit in front of me. He was like Otis Redding. ‘Stony Island’ was an avenue to express himself as an artist. He was an intense artist. He could take a song and make you forget about the original guy that did it.”
Richie Davis is the Stony Island band’s lead guitarist. “Stony Island” was made on a $300,000 budget and shot in twenty-five days. It is a precious kaleidoscope of a bygone, yet essential Chicago; Rush Street neon, red Magikist lips billboards along the expressways and the LaSalle Street Station, which was the arriving point for Southerners of the Great Migration.
Besides Barge, now ninety-six, “Stony Island” features Rae Dawn Chong, Dennis Franz, the late, great Chicago jazz poet Oscar Brown, Jr. (who plays an alderman), Chess session guitarist Phil Upchurch, and future Bangles co-founder Susanna Hoffs. Her mother Tamar Simon Hoffs wrote and produced “Stony Island” with Davis.
“Stony Island” went unnoticed for decades. Then, in 2012 a DVD with a thirty-minute bonus chapter featuring Chuck D was released and the film was screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Since then, “Stony Island” has found a new audience that resonates with the film’s interracial milieu.
“In some ways that film meshes with our world,” Richie Davis says. “‘Stony Island’ was my brother’s first directorial project. Prior to that he was a cinematographer mentored by Haskell Wexler, the Academy-Award winning cinematographer from Chicago.” Andrew Davis was an assistant cameraman on Wexler’s cinema verité “Medium Cool” (1969), also shot on the streets of Chicago.
Richie Davis says, “It’s funny, I just watched ‘Is That Black Enough For You?!?,’ the Elvis Mitchell documentary on the Black-exploitation era. Four of the movies he filmed are referenced in that movie. He realized he was directing those movies as much as he was being the cinematographer, so why shouldn’t he just be the director?
“Andy and I are eleven years apart. He’s older but we were close when I was a little kid. He went away to college and had a life. We reconnected when I was in high school. He came back to the house we grew up in Jeffery Manor [a neighborhood on the far Southeast Side of Chicago]. When he left to go to college, the neighborhood was one-hundred-percent white. When he came back, the neighborhood was ninety-nine-percent Black. That’s where I met Stevie. My brother thought the story of being the last white kid in the neighborhood and his interest in being in a band [would be a good movie]; that is loosely what the concept of ‘Stony Island’ was.” Richie Davis was also interviewed by Studs Terkel for his 1992 book “Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession.”
“Stony Island” is very much a part of the Third Rail/Maxx Traxx DNA according to Sevier. “It’s a story of them putting a band together,” he says. “‘Stony Island’ gave them what it took to put the band together. That’s my perception from a distance, but there’s a lot of connection with that movie and them getting their start and being inspired to do it.”
The Numero Group, an empathetic and heartfelt Chicago label that was founded by Sevier and Ken Shipley in the summer of 2003, is a champion of overlooked artists and untold stories. Sevier learned about Third Rail in early 2003. “I was just working in record distribution and collecting soul records when I found out about Third Rail,” he says. “I gave Richie [ Davis] a call. Maybe I talked to a few other members first, but everyone agreed Richie was the guy. And Richie is the guy, not just in terms of Maxx Traxx and Third Rail but he is fascinating to talk to and he is a font of local music information and inspiration.”
Davis and Sevier got to know each other over time. “I had never heard of Maxx Traxx at that point,” Sevier says. “He turned me on to Maxx Traxx. At the time Numero started, we weren’t in a place to do anything at this scale. This is quite early in our history but we even attempted to do something with the ‘Stony Island’ movie. We ended up doing a few screenings of it, which was fun. We did one in L.A. that was incredibly special. We just stayed in touch over the years. This has been something we wanted to do for a long time and we’re excited it finally came together.”
This Numero release works not only in terms of incredibly strong music, but also as a historical fountain of Chicago rhythm and blues and soul music. Davis says, “The experience for me was priceless in that it accelerated my understanding of what was involved to be a professional musician by being able to watch drummer Donnell Hagan [Curtom Records], guitar player Criss Johnson [Otis Clay, Shirley Caesar], Larry Ball [Ahmad Jamal, Smokey Robinson], the bass player, Tennyson Stephens, the keyboard player [Stephens replaced Donny Hathaway in Phil Upchurch’s 1973 band and played with the Staple Singers. Check out the 1975 “Upchurch/Tennyson” LP with the jazz-funk take of Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good”] and Gene Barge—that was the Stony Island band. I was very green and those guys were fully formed session players. To watch them is something I still reference even today as I was able to create a career for myself as a studio musician and as a bandleader.”
Murray Weiner was manager/business manager of Third Rail-Maxx Traxx between 1979 and 1983. His life is a gritty dash of Chicago film noir, too. Weiner was born in 1944 in Chicago and grew up in Albany Park. His father Jerry was a men’s clothing buyer for Goldblatt’s department store and his mother Sylvia was a homemaker. Weiner was editor of the Roosevelt High newspaper, the Rough Rider Review. He dropped out of the Chicago branch of the University of Illinois at Navy Pier to play baseball in the instructional league of the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
Weiner left baseball in 1967 to major in journalism and minor in criminal justice at Chicago Teachers College North (now Northeastern Illinois University).
While in college, he got a job at The Chicago Parental School (on the site of what became the WTTW-Channel 11 studios) for delinquent CPS students. In the summer of 1967 Weiner began working at the Club Laurel on Broadway, just north of Foster. Weiner recommended a new band that ended up playing November 1 through November 5, 1967 at Club Laurel.
That band was Chicago Transit Authority, which would later shorten its name to just Chicago. Future Chicago vocalist Peter Cetera was in the band The Exceptions that played Club Laurel. Weiner also knew of the band The Big Thing that featured future Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm. Weiner went on to book Little Richard at Club Laurel.
Weiner established Entertainment Management Group (EMG) in 1986, a talent buying, promotion, production and on-site event logistics company. EMG has booked and promoted acts as eclectic as America, Bob Hope, Ray Charles and Koko Taylor.
In the late summer of 1979 Robinson was fine-tuning the band that played at Dingbats. Third Rail maintained double keyboards with Marshall and Stroud—Stroud had also played on Leroy Hutson’s 1976 album for Curtom Records—and added jazz-rock bassist Paul Merar post-Dingbats.
At the same time, Weiner was booking bands at Harvey’s on Broadway in Rogers Park. The club had open jams on Thursday nights and Third Rail showed up. Weiner immediately slotted them in at Harvey’s. “I was so blown away I asked if they had a manager or anybody handling bookings,” Weiner says. “They didn’t. They were special. We started working at a rehearsal space at 222 South Morgan, which was actually the name of the first record company—222.
“Harvey’s was an upscale, hip kind of place. I called it a fern bar. All seated tables. No disco or rock. Probably held a few hundred people. There was a magician walking around doing close-up tricks at the table, that kind of vibe. It was not very long-lasting.”
The Third Rail shows at Harvey’s were followed by appearances at the popular Biddy Mulligan’s in North Rogers Park. Weiner says that Biddy’s was more willing to book a Black band that wasn’t playing strictly blues music. “The decision the band made to play music that was popular by white pop artists like Hall and Oates and the Police helped a lot, especially in trying to break the color barrier on Lincoln Avenue,” he says. “It wasn’t so much a soul band as it was pop music.”
Davis says, “We were kind of a unicorn.”
Weiner says, “It was definitely diverse which worked to our benefit in one sense and was a detriment in another sense with record companies trying to figure out what to do with the band. The band was diverse and because of that the audience became diverse. I don’t think people viewed it as an R&B band.” Robinson says, “We were an oddity. We had an appreciation for clever arrangements, clever melodies.” Davis believes that audiences connected with the uniqueness of a mostly Black band covering Steely Dan and jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour. “It was almost a novelty but we pulled it off because the musicianship was at such a high level,” he says. “We made a lot of our versions of those songs sound more funky than they were. In terms of our covers we didn’t cover that much R&B. A little Michael Jackson. Earth, Wind & Fire. You could just as easily hear the Al Jarreau arrangement of ‘Spain’ as well as anything that was funk.” Davis adds, “There was also a little bit of Frankie Beverly and Maze.”
Sparks says, “We played all styles of music, rock, jazz and funk. Now a lot of that music is being sought after. We were at the beginning of the machines but when we wrote, it was live musicians writing songs rather than just following the general road map of computers.”
Maxx Traxx was a rarity due to its double-keyboards approach with Dawson and Marshall, who also played synthesizer. The only other band doing anything similar would have been the English acidjazz group Incognito, also formed in 1979. “No one was doing that,” Weiner says. “Some bands were doing double drummers like the Doobie Brothers. Another part of the appeal was the different writing, which included the two keyboards, and the vocal arrangements were one of a kind.
No bands had background vocals like that. Most don’t have them to this day. That’s a credit to Stevie for his philosophy about music and arranging the background vocals.”
Dawson recalls how he negotiated the double-keyboard arrangement with Marshall. “Terry was the more outgoing of the two of us,” he says. “When we figured out the two keyboards, Terry would play the chords and the meat of the song and I would do the tops, solos and the lighter stuff. When you listen to music, it is layers. Ninety-nine percent of the time the whole song hangs on the bass and drums. That’s your heartbeat. Then you start dealing with the chordal structure, which is what Terry would do. The chord structure tells the singer where he can and cannot go.”
Drummer-percussionist Sparks delivered a unique heartbeat of funk, jazz and gospel for Third Rail and Maxx Traxx. Between 1968 and 1971 he played with future Earth, Wind & Fire trumpet-flugelhorn player Michael Harris in the All-City Band in Chicago. “He was a euphonium player,” Sparks says. “We had memorable concerts at the Chicago Symphony’s theater. We were some of the few Black musicians in that band and I had more interaction with him after we developed our musical careers.”
Sparks met Marshall in the early 1970s while studying in Champaign at the University of Illinois. They formed an Ohio Players-inspired group called the Caution Band. “I got a chance to play a few gigs with Walter Jackson,” Sparks says. “There was a bus tour to Washington, D.C. The bus broke down before we got there. I had a chance to do two or three plays with Oscar Brown, Jr. in the beginning. Even before University of Illinois when I was living in Morgan Park we used to go to the Capitol Theatre on 79th Street [at Halsted] and see all the acts: Jackie Wilson, James Brown. When I was at University of Illinois they had a club on campus with everybody from Elvin Jones to Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Roy Ayers. Rock clubs had Rufus and Chaka Khan. So I had a varied experience. I later did the ‘King and I’ with Yul Brenner, and ‘The Wiz.’
“But the soul and funk music was in my heart the whole time.”
Gatlin was a member of Third Rail and Maxx Traxx between 1981 to 1983. He brought a profound Minneapolis funk-rock sound to the band that connected with Chicago audiences, especially since Prince’s “1999” broke through in 1982.
During the mid-1970s Gatlin was a struggling musician in Chicago. He was a switchman for the Chicago and North Western railroad. In 1975 his brother-in-law told him that a Minneapolis band was looking for a guitar player. Gatlin showed up for his audition at a house in North Minneapolis. “It was Morris Day, André Cymone [bass], his sister played keyboards,” Gatlin says. “William Doughty played percussion. They were all teenagers. It was Grand Central.”
The band was named as a homage to the Michigan rock band Grand Funk Railroad.
“And Prince was the guitar player,” Gatlin says. “He left to start his own thing and I replaced him. I could play, but he was on another planet. I knew him. I played basketball with him. [Twin Cities producer-songwriter] Terry Lewis could play ball, too. We did maybe three songs in the studio. Then when Prince got going, Andrew went with him. And that dissolved the band. I never saw them again.”
Gatlin has always kept in touch with Robinson, whom he has known since their late teenage years on the South Side. Robinson encouraged Gatlin to return to Chicago in 1979. One of his first encounters was with punk singer Jim Skafish, cousin of rock-radio-personality Bobby Skafish.
Gatlin was playing in a Hispanic band based out of South East Chicago. Jim Skafish knew the band’s organ player Javier Cruz (1951-2020). Besides touring with Skafish and Buddy Miles, Cruz performed on the Roger Ebert-Gene Siskel “Sneak Previews” theme song. “Skafish would come over and hang out,” Gatlin says. “Sometimes his band would play at Javier’s house. When he lost his bass player he asked me if I’d be interested in going on tour. And that was the 1980 I.R.S. Records label tour with the Police, UB40 and others.
“Well, his music was different,” Gatlin says with a smile. “It was the difference that made me try to learn to play it. It was punk rock, but his music was based on whole tone scales. It has a weird sound to it and I thought it was fascinating.”
Gatlin says the I.R.S. tour began in New York and Boston before heading off to the U.K. “Our first gig in London was a disaster,” he recalls of the July, 1980 show. It was a package show with Sector 27, UB 40, Squeeze and the Police at the Milton Keynes Bowl. “The fans didn’t like us and they showed it,” Gatlin recalls. “I don’t think we played half a song and we got run off the stage. They were throwing beer cans and they weren’t even open. Skafish got hit with one. I got off the stage fast.”
It wasn’t the first time Skafish failed to connect with an audience.
In February 1977, Skafish opened for the rock oldies band Sha Na Na at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. He wore a woman’s bathing suit and lipstick which prompted a chorus of boos and projectiles from the audience.
After the I.R.S. tour found its way through France and the Netherlands, Skafish’s band wound up playing the since-closed Mr. Nibs in Minneapolis. Gatlin had been with Skafish for two months. “That was the last gig for me,” he says. “I said, ‘Guys, I enjoyed playing with you, but this is a little much for me.’”
Within the year, bassist Reggie Gillerson left Third Rail and Gatlin replaced him and remained with the group as they became Maxx Traxx. Gatin brought the profound Minneapolis funk-rock sound with him and it played well in Maxx Traxx. The hybrid of Minneapolis funk, soul and jazz dates back to the early 1970s with the Prophets of Peace (who recorded for the Maxx Records label in Minneapolis). Prophets of Peace guitarist David Z moved on to engineer and produce Prince’s demos and his work at Paisley Park records.
And in 1982 Gatlin wrote “Pop Steady,” a hypnotic dance groove that is not on the Maxx Traxx album, but can be found on YouTube. Stevie Robinson had departed from Maxx Traxx so Gatlin sang with the late Chicago soul singer Donell Rush. “It was really a take-off of [ Prince’s 1979 tune ] ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’,” Gatlin says. “It was a Minneapolis-sound groove. Chicago is known for its blues. Minneapolis is not a blues town. Prince is a Minneapolis sound. The foundation is always the groove.”
From the foundation, Third Rail-Maxx Traxx established a spiritual business equity that remains today. “Nobody knew about our arrangement and it was done on a handshake,” Weiner says. “Traditionally, a booking agent takes ten-percent of the gross the band makes and the manager takes another ten-percent.” For example, if a club paid the band $100 per man, in Third Rail’s case that would have been $600. The booking agent-manager’s $120 would come off the top. The band would be left with $480 to split six ways. And then there were two roadies who received $30 each. That dropped the band’s scale to $420 net, or $70 each.
“I didn’t feel it was fair for me to make $120 and the band members to make $70 each,” Weiner says. “We were unproven and I thought we should function as one unit with one mission—all of us with an equal stake in success or failure. I suggested that we pay the roadies off the top and that left $540 to be split seven ways. We each got about $77. It was unprecedented. It still is.”
Maxx Traxx also became the first Black R&B band to play popular North Lincoln Avenue clubs like Orphan’s and Wise Fools Pub (though Wise Fools did book blues acts). “There were no Black bands playing the Lincoln Avenue circuit,” Robinson says. The Chicago R&B band Amuzement Park did play at Wise Fools. The seven-piece band was anchored by Paul Richmond, who wrote the 1980 Manhattans hit “Shining Star.”
Maxx Traxx eventually branched out of the city to play clubs in the west suburbs. “Even though the city was segregated, as it still is, I didn’t come up with too much resistance,” Weiner says. “Although when we started at places like Wise Fools and Orphan’s, they gave us a Tuesday, an off-night. Finally, we evolved to the point where we would play three nights in a row at Wise Fools.”
A pivotal point in the band’s career came after the 1982 ChicagoFest. Third Rail had appeared on the Olympia Blues Stage for the 1981 ChicagoFest and opened for Kool & the Gang at the 1982 event. Headliner Stevie Wonder had canceled because the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH called for a boycott to protest Mayor Jane Byrne’s nomination of three white board members to the Chicago Housing Authority.
“There was a sense there might be protesting,” Weiner recalls. “Kool & the Gang was supposed to open for Stevie Wonder. Stevie decided to pull out and the reason they gave was for safety concerns. That bumped Kool & the Gang up. At first they didn’t want to do it but their fears were allayed. Based on the popularity Third Rail was experiencing, we got a call from the festival asking us if we would open for Kool & the Gang. It caused a lot of discussion in the band. The whole ethical thing of Jesse Jackson calling for the boycott and a band that was primarily a Black band crossing the picket lines, so to speak, what the implications might be for the band in terms of publicity or their following. It came down to the personal issue of what was morally and ethically right and what would be best for the band at that time for their career. The decision was made by the band to play. There wasn’t much bickering over it.”
Davis says, “I took myself out of the vote. One of the turning points was Jesse Jackson saying he had no issue with performers honoring their commitments.”
Robinson adds, “That kind of made it okay. Musicians are not political. That doesn’t mean we don’t stand up for injustice or evil when it’s being perpetrated, because you have more strength when you have a platform to influence people. But those negatives are not a component of the art we do. To be honest, I didn’t have a problem crossing.”
Third Rail appeared with six pieces: two keyboards, bass, drums, guitar and percussion. Davis says, “We started to do our set and the reaction was so enthusiastic that it drew Kool & the Gang out of their dressing room to see ‘What the fuck is going on?’ We got an encore. We were at the peak of our powers at that point.” Weiner says, “Because of the notoriety, the band got on the story of crossing the picket lines and the performance, word got out in the media. One article appeared in Billboard magazine.”
As a result, the Chicago Third Rail was issued a cease-and-desist order from a band in Boston also called Third Rail. “That also happened in August 1982 while we were in the studio recording what would have been the second Third Rail album,” Weiner says. “We had to go through a name change which took a lot of explaining to the fan base.” Robinson adds, “It was a residual crossover that was very slow to happen. By the time it did happen, the industry was dead.”
A tug of war emerged during the production of the newly named Maxx Traxx and what would be the final Maxx Traxx album. Terry Marshall leaned into production duties under the guidance of executive producer Lou Simon. The record was released on the Pulse Productions label, which was owned by Simon.
Simon was previously senior vice president of the PolyGram Records group, a corporate umbrella that included the Mercury, Polydor, Casablanca and RSO labels. In 1978 Simon was vice president and marketing director when the Mercury roster included the Gap Band and Kool & the Gang.
When Simon established Pulse in June, 1982, he made Third Rail his first signing. He had them record in the iconic Universal Recording studios in Chicago. Weiner says, “I don’t think Terry shared the vision of what the band was about. Terry, with Lou’s assistance, had a hidden agenda to take over the future musical direction of the band. When we did those records we did the songs just like we did in the clubs. There was no producer that said, ‘You should double the chorus there or there needs to be a pre-chorus here.’ And the first move in that chess game was Lou firing Stevie and Laurence [Dawson], the main writers.”
In late 1982 Stevie and Laurence were sent letters informing them of their release. Weiner never saw the letter. He quit in mid-April 1983, because he knew there was collusion between Simon and Marshall to change the direction of the band. Only 300 Third Rail albums were pressed.
“And that’s where things started to implode,” Weiner says.
Stevie Robinson has a measured soul to navigate unmanageable waters. His release from Maxx Traxx hit him at an already vulnerable point in his life.
“During the heart of that era I had a drug problem,” he says. “Cocaine. I was functional. But when I started making money from jingle work, the money became good and consistent. I was the Twix [candy bar] campaign guy. The drive I had for the band was not the same. The industry was changing and fading for what we were trying to do. Lou Simon was changing the look of the band. It was like spandex, Black Duran Duran, whatever. This was 1982. And I became unmanageable—like most good drugs will do. I didn’t realize how much the band depended on me to be what it was that I needed to be as an artist. They never told me that. Maybe they didn’t want me to get fat-headed. But I never wanted to have that sort of power.
“The construct of our band was something that I loved. I needed the group. It hurt bad when they let me go. It wasn’t even a mailed letter. They came by and put the [certified] letter in my mailbox. The letter was signed by the rest of the band. It wasn’t a formal letter and it wasn’t long. It was like a paragraph that said we couldn’t reconcile our differences. Bam. Thank you.” An identical letter was given to Dawson.
Davis says, “I honestly have no memory of a letter or how the parting of ways with Stevie and Dawson took place. Sparks says, “I can’t remember exactly what it was. It went in a different direction and that direction didn’t last too long. The band fizzled out.” And Dawson says, “Terry was always trying to take the lead on things whether we knew it or not. We wouldn’t have been opposed to change, it was just a matter of what direction. We were a commercial band, but we didn’t cater to one type of audience.” And with a hearty laugh, he adds, “But I don’t know about Duran Duran.”
Stevie Robinson’s birth father, Edward Otto Robinson, was a Little Rock, Arkansas shoe salesman and a guitarist who once auditioned for Muddy Waters. Stevie’s mother Faye Jones was a professional gospel singer. Robinson was born in Little Rock. When he was four years old the family moved to the South Side of Chicago with their three sons (Stevie and his since-deceased brothers Ricky and Stoney).
“My dad didn’t like the town because it was too fast for him,” Robinson says at Feed restaurant in East Humboldt Park. His father moved back to Little Rock while his mother stayed in Chicago with their children. “I became a street performer,” says Robinson, seventy. “When things were tight I was singing and dancing around 43rd and Lake Park. I was four years old. I’ll always remember people throwing money at me. I had four pockets and they were all full of silver. I would give the quarters and half-dollars, whatever to my mother. Music came naturally to me. Fast forward and my Mom started drinking and running with the wrong crowd. The three boys were put into foster care.”
Faye recovered and remarried. Her second husband Harvey Jones was also a salesman. “I call him my father because he did all the things a father does,” Robinson says. “My real father was a great guy too.” The new family settled on South Park Drive, a couple blocks from the original Regal Theater. “Every performer you could name came through there,” Robinson says. “There were three shows a day and there would be movies in between the shows. I remember buying my first 45, the Four Tops’ [1965 hit] ‘I Can’t Help Myself.’”
At age seventeen Robinson was in the Robert Taylor Youth Foundation, a nonprofit collective that used music and the creative arts to lead troubled youth down a positive path. He met Gatlin (then on keyboards) at the foundation. “I lived in the Robert Taylor projects,” Gatlin says. “Stevie didn’t. I met him toward the end of high school. We both went to Du Sable. He was doing Stevie Wonder stuff [at the foundation]. I was in the B band. Kenny Pickens [recently of Dave Weld and the Imperial Flames and the original Buddy Guy-Junior Wells band] was in the A band. Fortunately, for me, Kenny left and moved up.”
Robinson and Gatlin helped form the soul group Windy City. Other Windy City members included vocalists Raymond Bennett, Morris Butler, Darryl Butler and the Beasley Brothers. They were signed to Chi-Sound Records, an independent Carl Davis label that scored a hit with the Chi-Lites “Hot on a Thing.” Windy City had the 1969 hit “I Still Love You,” a smooth ballad produced by Davis and the late soul singer Otis Leavill.
Gatlin recalls, “I played with Windy City for about a year. I was young. The only thing that made me upset was when we did our album we learned all this music. And then they brought other musicians in to play it. Phil Upchurch played guitar on the sessions. But the harmonies that Stevie brought to Maxx Traxx were Windy City harmonies.”
Robinson says, “It was a singing group like the Dramatics. We signed a contract with Carl Davis, rest his soul, who was not the most equitable guy in the world. Business is business and music is music and artists never understood the disconnect. ‘I Still Love You’ did fairly well on the radio. But we didn’t know how many record sales we had.”
At the same time Robinson joined the touring band of the Chicago-based soul singer Walter Jackson, who was crippled by polio as a child. In 1962 Davis was head of A&R for OKeh Records when he signed Jackson. Davis brought him back to his Brunswick label from 1973 through 1975 and then Chi-Sound. Jackson died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1983. He was forty-five years old.
“He was handicapped almost all his career,” Robinson says. “He came on stage in crutches. He was such a great singer, a great song stylist. I knew Laurence Dawson before Third Rail. We were in the band THEM. Dawson and I hooked up as songwriters. We were asked to write a song for Jackson and we wrote ‘Living Without You’ which also happens to be on the Third Rail and Maxx Traxx albums. Then, THEM went on tour with Walter.”
Dawson was humble about his songwriting collaborations with Robinson. “He had what I didn’t have,” he explains. “He had quick melodies. When I would give him a chart: verse, chorus. He’d get on it.”
Robinson tells me he learned to play guitar by watching the Glen Campbell television show. “Glen Campbell was huge,” Dawson says. “All those musicians influenced us. Heck, I listened to polkas, I played with a band that did Frankie Yankovic polka music. We tried to learn what everyone did and maybe incorporate certain things. Eastern Indian music. The sitar was big in the sixties and seventies. Computer music wasn’t quite out yet, but the synthesizer was coming on with Herbie Hancock, George Duke and Chick Corea. George Duke played with Frank Zappa [in the Mothers of Invention], yeah. He stuck out with me. That made me expand my boundaries so when I did write with Stevie, I wouldn’t say it sounded like those things, but maybe some of my intent was to put those things in the background when I had a chance.”
Dawson grew up in Chatham and was inspired by his older brother Almond, who was a vocalist with the gospel-soul influenced Inspiration Singers. The Chicago-based group recorded for the Checker subsidiary of Chess Records.
Almond Dawson, Jr. died in November 2022 at the age of ninety.
Dawson has fond memories of his brother’s rehearsals at his home. “There was such a wealth of talent, he says.“ They would come to our house on Thursday nights and rehearse. There would be like fifteen, twenty singers in my front room. They would play our piano and sing gospel: The Caravans, the Barrett Sisters. I didn’t play. I just sang. In fact, Terry’s [Marshall] mother and my brother played at the same church. Most church musicians play from the heart. I gigged with Otis Clay for a while. He was another gospel singer and then he went to the blues. I always told Otis, ‘You’re not like the other blues singers [he chuckled]. You can sing! He had great cadence.”
Today Stevie Robinson is a minister for a nonprofit faith-based organization called PreacherHead Ministries, 7427 South South Shore Drive. “The two core initiatives are to preach the gospel according to the Bible and to help those who are poor in need, no matter where they may be,” Robinson says. “Right now we are creating conduits to provide clean water in areas of Zimbabwe.”
Robinson’s calling to a higher ground was due in part to his abrupt departure from Maxx Traxx. “I was already dealing with drugs, so if I needed something to push me over the edge further, well, here’s a ledge, jump off,” Robinson says as he carefully chooses his words. “I cleaned up. The grip, the vice and the bondage are more spiritual than physical. So I committed myself to God when I realized there was no flesh that could help me. No one could give me an answer. It was like, ‘I see you in bondage, but it is something I’m not acquainted with.’ I was told to go into treatment, but treatment is doing the symptoms and not the problem.”
Robinson is focused and filled with energy. Besides his faith outreach, he is a member of the fourteen-piece The Bad Sneakers Orchestra, a Steely Dan cover band. Sometimes he sings with Davis’ Chicago Catz and he occasionally plays with the Stu Hirsh Orchestra, a Chicago dance orchestra led by pianist Hirsh.
With the Third Rail-Maxx Traxx roots soaked in so much Chicago soul, it begs the question of how Chicago soul differs from New York, Los Angeles or Detroit.
Robinson explains, “The camaraderie here, even though the city is polarized, the music in this city does what I believe music should do: heal, bring folks together. It’s very spiritual. It’s a stew of different life experiences—being Black. Not to say it’s also that way in New York, but there are a lot of Stevie Robinsons in New York. When one won’t show up there’s another one standing in line. It may not be as easy for bands like ours to come together. Getting into a garage and sweating out changes. It’s an amazing thing that we’re still living, actually.”
Weiner adds, “New York and L.A. were always the business mecca. People gravitated there to find stardom. Chicago was where blues musicians settled and it always was a blues and jazz town, but it was Midwestern and gritty and real homey. It was real and not glittery.”
It may have taken more than forty years, but proper light is finally shining on the Third Rail-Maxx Traxx legacy. “I know Numero has been wanting to do this a long time,” Davis says. “Rob [Sevier] introduced himself to me and Stevie at least twenty years ago. He had been doing research. He even gave me a Windy City 45 that he had. Maxx Traxx and Third Rail have existed on social media, particularly YouTube. I’ve seen the Third Rail album go for over $1,000.” Some
Maxx Traxx material has been sampled. Sevier says, “ We would have loved additional material but there wasn’t any.”
The core band members are up for another ride. “If this does well, I’d love to see us go back and make a new album,” Davis says. “That would be a lot of fun after all we’ve been through. Go into the studio and write and record. Even if it’s just an EP.” Gatlin says, “I am all in on a reunion. I will always love those guys. We were brothers.” Robinson says, “Yes, that would be on my board. Of course, our ears have aged, but our musicology has also increased. Our playing has gotten better over the years. It’s something I’m up for if the others are willing.”
Weiner looks at his friends and says, “We can call it ‘Derailed.’”
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.