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

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

And not just for her flamboyant red hair, her sharp way of dressing and the golden Rolls-Royce Corniche she drove.

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

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 has booked or boosted the careers of artists including 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.

“So many people got started because of her,” said singer Tomiko Dixon, granddaughter of blues legend Willie Dixon.

Helen Wooten (right) and Da Brat.

Bernard Dean Moten / Dean Moten-Photography

“If they came from [music labels] Motown or Brunswick or Vee-Jay, anything to do with soul, blues, doo-wop, R&B, hip-hop, Helen got her hands on 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 they needed a drummer, a vocalist, any type of musician, if they needed a venue, Helen was there for you.

Miss Wooten, 72, died on May 5 at Wentworth Rehabilitation & Care Center on the south side, according to singer Scarlett Parks, whose career she managed.

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

Helen Wooten (right) clubbing in the 1970s, as seen in the photobook by Michael L. Abramsom

Helen Wooten (right) clubbing in the 1970s, as seen in Michael L. Abramsom’s photobook ‘Light: on the South Side’. The book was accompanied by blues recordings by the group Numero.

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

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

Helene Wooten.

Helene Wooten.

Bernard Dean Moten / Dean Moten-Photography

“She had a great personality, just down to earth,” 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 to the chorus of “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

Miss Wooten wouldn’t put herself in front of people – unless she thought she needed to.

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

“Sometimes she would do a little bit of screaming and screaming,” said promoter-agent M’Buzi Levine. “As women, you had to take a stand because they were like, ‘Oh, you don’t know what you’re doing. ”

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

“If you were her artist,” Parks said, “she’d be like, ‘I won’t 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 the gangsters,” Parks said. “But they knew she was very powerful and influential. They knew Helen called a lot of punches. She got a lot of people started, and they respected her.

“She would put new artists in shows with established artists, and she would force them to do it,” Mhoon said. “If Helen Wooten was booking the show, until the end, she was nurturing new talent.”

He was only 16 when he worked as a house drummer at High Chaparral.

“Every time the authorities came – and I was a little guy – she would say to them, ‘No, he’s my son, leave him alone,'” Mhoon said.

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

Born Helen Saffold, Miss Wooten went to 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 then worked 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 booker, manager and club investor. by night.

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

Bernard Dean Moten / Dean Moten-Photography

People she worked with attributed her success in part to her 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 got Miss Wooten into trouble because she had booked the band to play the High Chaparral.

So she contacted Marshall Thompson of The Chi-Lites.

“She called me and said, ‘Marshall, I’m in trouble,'” Thompson said. “She said she asked Teddy Pendergrass to do the show for her, and he canceled. She had all this cash sold out and she said, “I really need someone.” ”

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

“I said, ‘Helen, we’re going home and we’ll do the show,'” said Thompson, who said her favorite song was her band’s 1971 hit “Have You Seen Her.”

In addition to ingenuity, the concert testified to his determination. She was determined to be there even though she had been shot days before during a robbery at her home, she once told the Chicago Reader.

“I came out of intensive care to watch this show,” she said.

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

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

Bernard Dean Moten / Dean-Moten Photography

Another time, Parks said, Miss 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 go ask somebody. He just opened the door and looked down.

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

“She told them exactly what song to pick,” her son said, telling the band, “‘That’s all you hit right there.’ ”

Parks said Miss Wooten would listen to him sing and offer sound advice, like, “You sing it well, but I need you to use your top tone.”

When out on the 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 greens,” Money said. “You would see Will Smith.”

“One time I walked into Lionel Richie’s sitting in my living room,” said McFerren, who raps as Charlieon.

She was a familiar figure at Black Radio Exclusive conventions.

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

Miss Wooten is also survived by her sisters Jean Merrell and Lois Smith, her brother Ray Saffold and a grandchild, said her son, who plans to celebrate his life in June.

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