Legacy: Horns to House is the story of a Chicago cultural evolution told through the eyes of a person who grew up during it. Fortunately for viewers, the eyes happen to belong to Vince Lawrence, the son of a Windy City record label owner who teamed up with his buddy Jesse Saunders to record “On and On,” a song widely regarded as the first House Music track in history.
“It basically traces the footsteps of my musical education,” Lawrence says. “I was fortunate enough to be like the Forrest Gump of Chicago Black Music — I happened to be at interesting places at interesting times.”
When he was 14 years old, Lawrence went on tour with the futuristic, psychedelic Chicago hit singer Captain Sky. He was an usher at Comisky Park when Steve Dahl hosted the infamous Disco Demolition. He produced the first record cut by Marshall Jefferson, who would later record the house music anthem, “Move Your Body.” He also “happened to be there” when his dad’s best friend (and future manager of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions) Eddie Thomas began promoting records in the 1970s.
These are key steps in the evolution of House Music, a genre that started as a do-it-yourself groove founded on disco basslines with a heavy dose of vintage funk, soul, and R&B inspiration. They unfold in a friendly voiceover provided by Lawrence, who does not mention his own contribution to the form until the end of the story.
“I just wanted to tell the story as if we were sitting in a bar,” he explains. “It starts off with, ‘Hi, I’m going to take you on a little trip.’”
The easygoing tone reinforces Lawrence’s personal definition of House Music as a groove that celebrates the joy he remembers while growing up in Chicago.
“We would hang out at teen parties and listen to our friends DJing,” he says. “My first venture as a musician was trying to capture the energy that came from those parties, to give people the same feeling, and that’s what’s in the insides of House Music to this day.”
Legacy began in late 2019 as a paper that Lawrence and the principals of ad aLegacy began in late 2019 as a paper that Lawrence wrote while consulting at ad agency OKRP. Titled, “The Center of Everything,” it was a boastful description about Illinois for the state Board of Tourism, and it mentioned Chicago’s influence on horn arrangements from the early 1900s to present.
One of the artists responsible for building that reputation is Tom Washington, who wrote the horn and string arrangements on a long list of hits including The Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.” Washington often worked with Lawrence’s father, who owned Mitchbal Records.
The OKRP paper inspired Lawrence to create a series of 30- and 60-second video mash-ups that were featured on the website 312Soul.com, which was released in February 2020 as a celebration of Black History Month. It also got him thinking about proper recognition for these greats in American music.
“The conversation started amongst our Slang music team about why isn’t Tom Washington in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” he recalls. “Then we started thinking about the fact that there were so many amazing Black artists who weren’t.”
After the release of 312Soul.com Lawrence was intent on creating a feature documentary about the evolution of House Music. He continued interviewing musicians at 1st and 15th, Lupe Fiasco’s studio near the Chicago-Oak Park border, and at Soundmine Studios, which was founded by Jesse Saunders at 8043 S. Stony Island Ave. He also started writing a script with Creative Director Jim Marcus.
After hearing Lawrence explain how the teen parties moved into independent dance clubs like The Warehouse on S. Jefferson St. and the Muzik Box on Lower Michigan Ave. in downtown Chicago, Marcus suggested that Lawrence write the script in his own voice.
Lawrence shared the microphone with many of the people who lived through the same experience including Tom Washington, Eddie Thomas, Captain Sky, Marshall Jefferson, Chicago DJ Wayne Williams and Metro Club owner Joe Shanahan. As he gathered more stories, he also started to accumulate “all these photos with friends and family.”
In post-production, Editors Hana Mitchell and Sandeep Pamulapati assembled the material in a confident and chronological flow that replicates the mood of the music itself.
Lawrence and Washington collaborated on the theme song, which they recorded at Soundmine with “the baddest musicians in the country.” The session band included drummer Khari Parker, who has toured with Destiny’s Child and George Benson; keyborardist Kendal Nesbit, who has toured with Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan; bassist Sharay Reed, who plays with Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles; and guitarist Al Willi, who has toured with the Isley Brothers.
The principals at OKRP provided support throughout the effort. “They’re music geeks just like me,” says Lawrence. “Tom O’Keefe (Founder, CEO), Matt Reinhard (Founder, Chief Product Officer) and Scott Mitchel (Head of Production) especially.”
Legacy premiered on WTTW in November, but Lawrence is working to book more screenings so that fans will be able to see and hear it in the near future.