I recently heard the song, “Bend Me, Shape Me” by a group called The American Breed, and the DJ mentioned that they were from Illinois. I am familiar with a lot of Illinois acts like REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, Styx, Chicago, Earth Wind and Fire, as well as some more obscure ones, Ides of March, Buckinghams, Shadows of Knight, but was not aware of the American Breed’s history. So I went to my favorite rock guides, Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles 1955-2012 and Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia to find out what the story was.
The band began in 1959, but had little commercial success until 1967 with their hit, “Bend Me, Shape Me”. I always thought of it as a nice bubblegum anthem by a bunch of white guys. (Wrong!) Even though they had several other top 40 hits, I cannot claim to have heard any of them. Roxon wrote, “They are typical of many hard rock groups that build huge regional reputations and then hit the national and international jackpots with one strong single.”
The surprising twist to their story came after the band split in 1970. Several members reformed into a group called Smoke, later renamed it Ask Rufus, and finally decided on the name Rufus. And if you are thinking of Chaka Khan, you would be correct. After several years of being a local bar band, their female singer left but suggested Chaka Khan as her replacement. A snowstorm paved the way for a stranded record producer to catch their act, and deals were signed. Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan, exploded with the Grammy Award winning song, “Tell Me Something Good” leading to a platinum album, “Rags to Rufus”, released in 1974. Another album in 1974 reached platinum and “Sweet Thing” a song in 1975 reached number 5 on the pop charts, their fourth gold record.
Rufus’ run in the 1970’s was phenomenal. They scored four consecutive number one R&B albums, ten top 40 pop hits and five number one R&B singles. They had established themselves as one of the top funk bands of all time and launched Chaka Khan to a successful solo career.
So what I always thought was a one hit wonder bubblegum group was actually an influential funk group that helped establish funk as a powerful and popular music genre. Not bad for a multi-racial group of guys (and later girls) from Cicero and Chicago.
How does Honest Abe fit into the story? I recently discovered that the Lincoln Museum in Springfield has a temporary exhibit celebrating Illinois’ contribution to the American music scene. Among the artifacts are musical instruments, Grammy awards, costumes, rare records, song lyrics and more, such as
- Benny Goodman’s clarinet
- Common’s suit from his 2015 Oscars performance.
- Howlin’ Wolf’s harmonica
- John Prine’s stage props
- A letter to Dan Fogelberg from his father, the “Leader of the Band”
- An Earth, Wind & Fire stage costume
- Curtis Mayfield’s paisley suit from a stage show
While I have not yet visited “The State of Sound” exhibit, I certainly will soon, and I encourage other music lovers from Illinois to likewise check it out. And get online and check out some video of The American Breed and Rufus…great music from Illinois.