The house that Jesse built

You can learn plenty about a guy's interests from the contents of his wallet. Most single young men I know pack condoms. But yours truly? Moist towelettes. Because the grime on your hands after flipping through the average used-record bin is enough make even slovenly Oscar Madison types appreciate Felix Unger's fastidiousness. Not that I'm complaining. Two of the finest vintage techno jams in my DJ crates—Eddie Flashin' Fowlkes' "Goodbye Kiss" and "R-9" by Juan Atkin's Cybotron outfit—were both obtained for pennies in thrift stores.

Last year, while flipping through the stacks at Goodwill, I stumbled across an unfamiliar single on Trax Records, one of the earliest, most influential purveyors of Chicago house music. For 95 cents, I took a gamble on "Way to Go, Homer" by Bart Starr. As soon as my stylus hit the groove, the title and artist made sense. "My name is Bart Simpson," announced a familiar voice, introducing a four-and-a-half-minute mishmash of drum machines, piano riffs, the "strike a pose" hook from Madonna's "Vogue," and a slew of suggestive samples pirated from The Simpsons.

Somewhere in Southern California, Jesse Saunders gasps audibly. "I forgot all about that!" But the red label of "Way to Go, Homer" credits Saunders as co-writer, along with Trax impresario Larry Sherman, the creative catalyst for this forgotten novelty track. "When The Simpsons became this big, huge thing, he was going to capitalize off of the publicity. I just did a track for him, basically," admits Jesse. "I don't even have a copy. Can you make me a dub?"

Fortunately, Saunders, who started DJing at parties in the Windy City back in the late '70s, has much more impressive credits to his name. The most recent is his book House Music—The Real Story (available for $20 via his Web site: http://www.justsaypro.com).

As readers learn, back in 1984, Jesse released what is recognized as the very first house record, "On and On," on his own Jes Say Records label. But history is rarely as cut and dried as textbooks make it out to be. Other records brought house music out of the underground: "Love Can't Turn Around" by Farley "Jackmaster" Funk (assisted by Jesse and vocalist Darryl Pandy) and "Jack Your Body" by Steve "Silk" Hurley were no. 1 UK hits in 1987. And other Chicago jocks were crowned with laurels for their contributions: Frankie Knuckles (first-ever winner of the Grammy Award for Best Remixer) and Marshall Jefferson.

Saunders doesn't shy away from shattering established myths. "Frankie Knuckles had nothing to do with the birth of house music," insists the author. "That was the first mistake people made." But because Knuckles was inextricably linked to the seminal underground dance club the Warehouse, from which the genre took its name, lots of fans and journalists assumed he was ground zero for the sound.

Fifteen years later, dissecting the history of house's Chicago roots is nearly impossible. Almost every major player claims to have "invented" house. The amount of misinformation isn't astonishing to Saunders. "Like in any other culture that's progressive, you have a lot of people who, at different times, through different degrees of success, got thrown to the forefront." Thus everyone's version of events is different.

"The biggest problem for the past 10 or 15 years has been that nobody speaks the truth, right from the heart," he says. This spring, he'll be hitting the road to spread the gospel via DJ sets and promotional appearances for the book and a forthcoming album. Meanwhile, start watching your mailbox for that tape of "Way to Go, Homer," Jesse. We don't want such an essential artifact from the canon falling through the cracks.

 
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