Local soul sensation Jo Ann Garrett disappeared from the biz in her 20s

Jo Ann Garrett

Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

Sometimes the Secret History of Chicago Music reads like a novel, with an interesting origin story, lots of detail spanning the artist’s entire career, and a satisfying conclusion. But sometimes I hit a wall, and SHoCM feels more like a mystery story. Even when I don’t ask, those columns are essentially a plea to anyone who might have more information—and in this case, I’m explicitly asking if anyone knows what happened to supremely talented and distinctive soul singer Jo Ann Garrett. 

Garrett was a Chicago sensation in the late 60s and early 70s, but she didn’t break out nationally—probably the main reason I can’t tell what became of her after she left the music business in her early 20s. I consulted a few soul-music experts, and they were all just as stumped as I am. If you can help, write to me please: Steve Krakow, c/o the Chicago Reader, 2930 S. Michigan, suite 102, Chicago, IL 60616.

We do know that Jo Ann Garrett was born in Chicago on March 3, 1949, and grew up on the near west side, near Maxwell Street. After attending Carter Henry Harrison Technical High School in South Lawndale, she moved with her family (including seven brothers!) to the Robert Taylor Homes in Bronzeville, which had opened in 1962. (Other former residents include Mr. T, Minnesota Twins star Kirby Puckett, and rapper Open Mike Eagle.) 

Garrett’s next school was DuSable High, whose famous music department produced a long list of stars under the leadership of Captain Walter Dyett (who retired in 1966 after decades of service). Her reputation as a talented soprano singer caught the attention of her classmate Cormie Vance, who sang with R&B vocal group the Para-Monts (alongside her sister Earlene Vance Coleman, Rose Rice, and McKinley Norris). The Para-Monts released two singles in 1967, one for U.S.A. and the other for Olé Records; Cormie sang lead on the rollicking “Come Go With Me.” 

Vance urged Garrett to audition for WVON DJ and club owner Pervis Spann. Garrett passed the audition, which got her a spot at a talent show at the Regal Theater. She took second place, behind the Five Stairsteps (later of “O-o-h Child” fame), and both artists ended up with record contracts. Garrett was still just 16 or 17 years old, but already her music career was being managed by Spann and Robert “Bob” Lee, who owned a small local label called Hawk Records and worked in A&R for the short-lived but more successful Crash Records.

Spann had a long and colorful career on the front lines of Black music in Chicago—he worked with B.B. King, reputedly gave Aretha Franklin her nickname “the Queen of Soul,” and claimed to have helped discover the Jackson Five and Chaka Khan, among others—and he could immediately put Garrett onstage. Beginning in 1966 he co-owned the south-side venue known simply as “the Club,” formerly the famed Club DeLisa. (In the 1970s, still under Spann’s co-ownership, it would become the Burning Spear.)

“Stay by My Side” appeared on Jo Ann Garrett’s first single, released in 1966.

Garrett began performing regularly at the Club and around the city, and soon she booked time at the Universal Recording Corporation’s innovative studio. At those sessions she cut two dreamy soul ballads: “Stay by My Side” by Lee and Sherman Nesbary (aka Verble Domino, best known for writing “We Don’t Have to Be Over 21” for the Jackson Five) and “A Whole New Plan” by Maurice Simpkins (who’d also written for the Para-Monts as well as the likes of Mighty Joe Young and Darrow Fletcher). 

Chess Records picked up the recordings and released them as Garrett’s first single, and the record did well locally in spring 1966. She began recording in the Chess studios instead, and her output immediately benefited from the amazing talent in the label’s orbit. 

In 1967, Garrett released the driving tune “You Can’t Come In (Big Bad Wolf),” whose B side, “I’m So Afraid,” was arranged by no less a team than Charles Stepney and Gene Barge; both tracks feature backing harmonies by the Dells. Those harmony superstars also appeared on Garrett’s next single, the ethereal “Thousand Miles Away” (a remake of the 1957 Heartbeats hit), which was produced by R&B innovator Andre Williams. (Stepney also arranged its B side, “Just Say When.”) Flavored with doo-wop and bathed in gorgeous strings and reverb, “Thousand Miles Away” earned a lot of Chicago airplay and enough attention in markets outside the city that Garrett could tour.

In 1968, Garrett and Williams began working with a fledgling company called Duo, run by Jack White (not that one) and Seymour Greenspan, that also released sides by the likes of Sheryl Swope, Leroy & the Drivers, and Earl White. Garrett’s debut for Duo was the confident “One Woman,” a slow-burning groover cowritten by Williams that shows off her sensual and elastic voice. It also fared very well locally, and Garrett released several more excellent singles with Duo over the next few years, including “That Little Brown Letter” (a slamming bit of soulful funk) and “Can You Deal With That” (another Williams tune, slathered in fuzz guitar that makes it sound a little like early Funkadelic).

“One Woman” was one of Jo Ann Garrett’s many collaborations with Andre Williams.

Williams’s partnership with Garrett was central to her career and sound, and in 1969 they collaborated as artists on a Chess single under the name “Jo Ann & Andre.” They trade lines throughout the groovy tune “The Same Time, Same Thing, Same Place”; its lyrics reference “Light My Fire,” and its rhythm track includes twanging strings that sound like an electric sitar. 

That single proved that Garrett hadn’t burned any bridges with Chess by putting out music elsewhere, and in 1969, the label released her lone LP, Just a Taste (produced by Williams, natch). Garrett appears on the cover in a swanky purple hat and ruffly outfit, and the album contains a few tunes that had previously been local favorites—alongside the excellent psych-soul number “It’s No Secret,” a killer version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By” (with loads of wah-wah guitar), and a smoky, jazzy rendition of the Nat King Cole classic “Unforgettable.” 

Jo Ann Garrett’s cover of “Walk on By” borrows from the Isaac Hayes version, released earlier that year.

Chess released a single from the album that combined “Unforgettable” with the jaunty “We Can Learn Together,” but neither it nor the album made much of a splash at the time. Given the quality of the music, this was inexplicable, as far I’m concerned—and the passage of time seems to have borne out my viewpoint. Original copies of the LP are now rare enough—and prized enough—that they sometimes sell for hundreds of dollars.

In 1970, Garrett recorded “Goin’ Man Huntin’” for Twinight, a Chicago label best known as home to Syl Johnson. The song didn’t come out at the time, but it eventually appeared on the 2007 Numero Group compilation Twinight’s Lunar Rotation. The last Garrett release that I can find any evidence of online is an R&B-adjacent 1972 single for the Duke label, “I’m Under Your Control” b/w “Sting Me Baby.” After that point, it looks like she retired from music. If there’s any further documentation out there on Garrett, neither I nor my sources could find it.

This previously unreleased Jo Ann Garrett track appeared on a 2007 Numero Group compilation.

The Northern Soul crowd in the UK picked up on Garrett’s music in the late 70s, and she’s been reissued on a few compilations. Her version of “Walk on By” was sampled in 1996 by DJ Shadow, and as recently as 2017, the 1968 Duo release “I’ve Gotta Be Loved” was sampled by lo-fi hip-hopper Beressi.

It’s possible, even likely, that there’s no info on Garrett after 1972 simply because she values her privacy and is enjoying the life she’s made for herself over the past 50 years. But wherever she is, whatever plane of existence she’s on, I hope she knows that her music is still beloved.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.


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