Jun Mhoon started working at Brunswick Records in 1973 as a staff drummer at the age of 19. In Brunswick, Mhoon laid tracks and demos for several R&B and soul artists, many of whom were of Chicago, including the Chi-Lites, Jackie Wilson, Gene Chandler and Tyrone Davis, among others.
Mhoon, a retired musician and record producer, Columbia Music Business alumnus, and former faculty member of the music business program, said he hears hip-hop songs on the radio today that were taken from tracks he played years ago.
“That’s the power and influence that music recorded in Brunswick, and most of it on Record Row, has on young artists today,” said Mhoon, 67.
The history of Brunswick Records dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when the company began in the recording business inside none other than the building at 623 S. Wabash Ave. of Columbia.
Columbia records show that Brunswick Records resided in the building from 1913 to 1964, before moving to another South Loop location at 1449 S. Michigan Ave., where they remained in a area known as Record Row until 1976.
The Brunswick-Balke-Collander Company, founded in 1845, originally manufactured wooden entertainment fixtures including pool tables, bowling alleys and bars, but Prohibition shifted its business to records and the recording equipment, forming Brunswick Records in Chicago.
Mhoon grew up in Chicago’s West and South neighborhoods and got his start as a drummer for the Staple Singers at age 12 before working for Brunswick Records with producers Carl Davis and Nat Tarnopol. Mhoon described this period in Brunswick’s history as the “fertile ground” for future famed R&B and soul musicians, alongside Motown.
“Chicago was home. It was the basis of [music]and that was Record Row on Michigan Avenue, well, that was the core,” Mhoon said.
Despite their musical impact, Mhoon said the history of Chicago musicians was not widely known, with many coming from the South during the Great Migration in the 1920s.
“All of this talent and energy came from Chicago and these artists here who may have been born somewhere else, but they were nurtured and trained in Chicago Rhythm and Blues,” Mhoon said.
Mhoon said white record labels called R&B “race music” and refused to produce it, prompting the launch of labels for black artists like Vee-Jay Records, Chess Records and Brunswick Records.
“As we make music, our music reflects [the] the economic situation, in many cases education, the education we have and our environment,” said Fernando Jones, adjunct faculty member in the music department and founding director of the Blues Ensemble. “And so when you look at those three components, that’s why this music sounded the way it sounded unapologetic.”
Jones said there was an opportunity for black musicians in Chicago, but it still came with challenges, like a lack of access to sophisticated music equipment.
“You’re looking at music that was more than likely created by first-generation people from Chicago, so their fans were from the South. And those fans were probably sharecroppers, so it was an opportunity to get a first chance at education, a first shot at being away from the whole Jim Crow situation, but nonetheless de facto segregation,” Jones said.
Nathan Bakkum, senior senior associate and associate professor in the music department, said he studied Brunswick Record’s role in music-making in Chicago, particularly during the 60s and 70s soul and R&B movement.
Bakkum said Brunswick Records was a pioneer in an “explosion” of music technology in the late 1920s and beyond, fueling Chicago’s global music footprint.
“The number of legendary recordings of [the 1960s and ’70s] that were recorded, in part, produced, written along this stretch of Michigan Avenue, which I see as a sort of southern extension of the Columbia College campus, is just fascinating to me,” Bakkum said.
During the fall 2021 semester, Bakkum said he led a walking tour of Record Row as part of the “Big Chicago: Access, Civic Life and City Design” honors course to teach students about the rich history.
Willie Henderson, an R&B musician from Chicago, played on tracks at Brunswick Records like Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change my Mind” and recorded his own music there in the band Willie Henderson and the Soul Explosions. Henderson, a former music department faculty member, said working at Brunswick Records was never a dull moment.
“A lot of things we created back then are still being played now,” Henderson said. “You know, hip-hop basically came from the music that we made. It’s actually so similar, except some of the instrumentation is changed, but some of the other stuff basically tells the story in this group and it’s all still the same.
Mhoon said that when he was twenty, he wanted real-world knowledge from experts, and Columbia was the place for it.
A student at Columbia in 1982, he founded AEMMP Records, the first student record label in the United States. The label celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
Mhoon said he learned the most from his students when he taught at Columbia, helping to shape the music business program into what it is today and teaching students about music history and Of the industry.
“History is so important because young people who do hip-hop, and even pop, don’t have the time or necessarily know where they’re coming from, and they really came from,” said Moon.