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Labels Lost: The Disco Roots of Gherkin Records

Champion producer Frankie Knuckles to the enigmatic Larry Heard; Prescription Records boss Ron Trent to techno demigod Derrick May. In just four short years the Gherkin Records discography reads like a Who’s Who of Chicago house history, yet the imprint shut up shop in 1991 and disappeared without a trace.

While the likes of Trax and D.J. International were in the sonic spotlight, Gherkin set about carving its own piece of Chicago’s musical history. It was in the beating heart of the city’s Uptown district that Brett Wilcots, an ever-present figure on the disco scene, teamed up with Jim Stivers and set about releasing a catalogue of now-legendary Chicago house.

The sheer volume of music pressed by Gherkin in such a short space of time commands some serious respect. “There are so many, I can’t remember them all” Wilcots concedes, “Inner City – Big Fun was one of them, Lil’ Louis – French Kiss and loads of the records Derrick May and Juan Atkins released over in Detroit – like Strings Of Life for Derrick’s Rhythim Is Rhythim project”.

"Minimalism, beats and bass were what others wanted to hear in a
house record, but we wanted to stay true to the disco sound...
It was the disco style orchestration of each track that made
Gherkin unique from the other Chicago labels."

It’s easy to underestimate the influence that Gherkin had in Chicago. A quick glance through the imprint’s Discogs page tells barely half the story – in fact none of the records that Wilcots mentions are on there. “We were behind plenty more releases as a distributor” he swiftly points out, “originally it was just the label work, but at the insistence of others I ended up being involved with many of the big records before they went to major labels.”

There’s a distinct modesty in the way Wilcots describes Gherkin’s successes. Aside from the many crucial records that he was involved in, it’s the disco DNA of Chicago House music that the co-founder continues to be most fascinated by. Gherkin’s core releases sound unmistakably like they’ve been injected with an early Tom Moulton feel – a heavy emphasis on vocals, diverse percussion and a move back towards a more well rounded sound from the predominant releases in Chicago at the time.

“Minimalism, beats and bass were what others wanted to hear in a house record, but we wanted to stay true to the disco sound”, Wilcots confirms. “We modelled Gherkin’s sound on classic labels like Salsoul, Prelude and Westend to name a few. It was the disco style orchestration of each track that made Gherkin unique from the other Chicago labels”.

Gherkin-Label

“I heard disco for the first time there: it was a marriage of
classical, R&B, soul, film soundtracks and jazz - a combination of
everything I enjoyed listening to. Looking back it was a real
precursor to house music.”

Hailing from Iowa, Wilcots was established on the disco circuit well before he made a break for Chicago in 1979 and was always infatuated by music growing up. As he recalls, “Early jazz records were a major influence – I listened to them all the time, then I started getting into labels like Stax – soul artists like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin”.

It was one particular night in Des Moines that a fellow musician and friend of Wilcots recommended him a gay bar called The M2. “It changed my life forever” he explains enthusiastically, “I heard disco for the first time there: it was a marriage of classical, R&B, soul, film soundtracks and jazz – a combination of everything I enjoyed listening to. Looking back it was a real precursor to house music.”

From that moment on, an obsession with the disco sound took hold. “I dedicated myself to learning how to DJ. A mentor by the name of John Alibizo taught me about selecting a mixture of music from Philadelphia, New York, California and some European stuff, as well as slip-cueing on the turntables.”

It was after he first visited the main record shops in Chicago that Wilcots decided to make his move permanent. As the second biggest city in the US at the time, the bright, utopian lights of Broadway Street were an unrelenting pull – clubs like The Warehouse and Broadway LTD were heaving with a diverse crowd of delirious disco heads losing themselves to Frankie Knuckles extended edits. “It was either Chicago or New York” he ponders, “but don’t underestimate how far the east coast is from Des Moines”.

Soon enough he could be found working behind the counter at records shops all over Chicago. The Iowan wasted no time in becoming a revered producer too and cut his teeth with remixes for the likes of September and The Salsoul Orchestra. But it was setting up Importes Etc. – the legendary Chicago record store – with fellow disco devotee Paul Weisberg that cemented him as an authority on the scene.

Souls-Orchestra

“I always had the idea of putting music out on my own label
as I didn't get the big bucks like my coastal peers did.”

The shop built a name for itself on a carefully selected collection of exclusive disco and house records; established selectors like Chip E, Tony Mundaca and Knuckles himself began to visit Wilcots routinely for the latest imports US-wide and from Europe. Eventually Knuckles became such a regular he was given his own section of the shop – labeled Heard at the Warehouse – where customers could pick up what the resident DJ had spun at the club that weekend.

Wilcots grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of recognition he was getting for his disco productions. “I always had the idea of putting music out on my own label as I didn’t get the big bucks like my coastal peers did”, he admits. While helping out at C.A.P. Exports, one of the main distributors in the city, he began drawing up plans for his own label.

“I had to turn The Beastie Boys down simply because I hadn’t
tapped into the rap market as a distributor”

However, he wasn’t prepared for what happened next. One morning, an unknown hip-hop group called The Beastie Boys turned up at C.A.P. HQ looking for promotion. “I had to turn The Beastie Boys down simply because I hadn’t tapped into the rap market as a distributor” WIlcots admits. “I suggested that Raymond Barney, owner of Dance Mania, had a better grasp of what was happening in that world. I’m not sure what happened after that”.

“That was a mistake but everyone has them, right?” he adds optimistically. As an opportunity missed, the setback was minimal – the Gherkin project was well underway and Wilcots began to prime the label for some of his own releases. In the tight-knit and relatively contained world of Chicago house producers, word quickly spread about the concept.

He was soon approached by the musical duo North / Clybourn, named after the famous train station on Chicago’s L transit system. “They came to me with this demo based on a motif from Willie Hutch’s ‘Brother’s Gonna Work It Out’. Jim (Stivers) and I thought the message of the track was perfect. In order to give a nod to the original while keeping it very much our own thing, we went with the track title ‘We’re Gonna Work It Out. That was the first record we put out as a dry run.”

“I really got into the production side of the project.
The rawness of the chant in the Willie Hutch classic really inspired me,
so I orchestrated the record intensely and completely live in order
to keep the soulful feel.”

With a wealth of experience under his belt from previous projects and a serious eye for detail, Wilcots seized the opportunity to work closely with the duo in the studio. “I really got into the production side of the project. The rawness of the chant in the Willie Hutch classic really inspired me, so I orchestrated the record intensely and completely live in order to keep the soulful feel”.

But something was missing. The Gherkin boss had faith in the record but a fear set in about how successful it would be. As the release was delayed, the stage was set: enter Larry Heard – one of house music’s highest nobility. “When I wanted fresh ears on the North/Clybourn mix, I asked Larry to step in – he proposed a Walter Gibbons style rework that to this day still blows me away”. Heard deconstructed the original and gave it some much needed bite. “He brought each individual part in one at a time until the track reaches a climax of full instrumentation. The thing about Larry was that he was able to add his own touch and elevate a track in the same way that Frankie Knuckles could. He transformed the track to a house anthem.”

1500 records were pressed and Gherkin Records was born. “All those copies basically paid for the studio time, artist fees and cost of production”, Wilcots reveals, “then it was down to Jim who handled the hard business end and my sister Kelly who was one hell of a shipper. She made things move lightning quick.”

Indeed things started to move at warp speed for Gherkin and Larry Heard was at the centre of it all. The label started pressing up and shifting hundreds of records a week for fellow Chicago imprint Warehouse and Heard’s own venture Alleviated Records. “We became the sole distributor for Larry”, Wilcots beams, “one of my proudest moments was pressing up the mega hit ‘What About This Love’ – I hear the original copies fetch quite a price on the internet now”.

The-Gherkin-Jerks

Heard proved to be a major asset to Wilcots. The house heavyweight was always on hand at the studio and went on to produce some of his finest tracks in an accomplished body of work. It was Gherkin who gave rise to Heard’s most experimental project: Gherkin Jerks – two recently reissued EPs that are among some of the most innovative and collectable house records to have graced the Midwest. “An incredible combination of the standard house sound with jazz influences” as Wilcots puts it, the records continue to turn heads today, over 25 years after they were first put out.

The eternal Heard production ‘I’m Strong featuring singer Robert Owens was another building block release that Gherkin were responsible for distributing. While the vocal version was a hit in the clubs of Chicago, the track was later reshaped into one of the meanest instrumental house cuts ever pressed on R&S Records. Relentlessly processed and refreshingly unique, the record underlined Larry Heard’s credentials as a versatile producer.

"Relentlessly processed and refreshingly unique, the record
underlined Larry Heard’s credentials as a versatile producer."

With a wealth of releases stacking up and labels practically queueing to have their music prepped and dispatched, Wilcots was in demand. He was increasingly able to spend the lion’s share of his time working alongside the musicians, which was where he was most at home. “Frankie (Knuckles) and Larry (Heard) were the two I worked most with. It was great that we had a family of artists who all bounced ideas off each other and helped everyone. Derrick May, Ron Trent and Riley Evans were also major players in this. And then of course Mondeé Oliver, who was introduced to me by my partner Jimmie Lee. I loved her voice and style as a backing singer for Roy Ayers, so when I heard she was between record deals I signed her for the label straight away.”

Don’t Stop The Feeling, the masterfully funky Ayers hit from 1979, featured Oliver on vocals. She became part of the Gherkin furniture with a series of soulful performances but none more important than a record released over eleven years later – the seminal synth workout Make Me Want You – a track that captures a ghostly depth rarely replicated. As one of Wilcots’s finest productions, the track epitomizes Gherkin’s ideals and is a prime reminder of the sultry, disco-tinged vision that he had for the label before its eventual demise.

“I started to worry about how chancy the cost of each record would
be and such things really took over my own expression”.

The record was a massive success but things suddenly started to look more bleak for Gherkin. The unique darkness of Oliver’s track was a sign of things to come and the project began to crumble in the wake of a tectonic shift in industry finances. “The bubble began to burst”, Wilcots remembers, “I started to worry about how chancy the cost of each record would be and such things really took over my own expression”.

This wasn’t the only battle Wilcots was confronted with. “I lost so many friends and family to AIDS it was staggering”, he says solumnly, “it became a war I was deeply involved with. While I’m proud to say that I paid for health insurance for my employees at the label and took care of a lot of personal challenges, the cost was losing my artistic freedom. The toll these events took on Jim (Stivers) were very serious. After losing his partner, the label was left to take care of his mental and physical health.”

So demanding was the strain of these events that the label had to come to a sobering end. Yet Wilcots remains upbeat and with good reason – the label’s legacy is one that lives on. Gherkin remains a firm favourite with Chicago house fanatics and its contribution to the development of the genre deserves plenty of kudos.

“I’m looking to the future”, he states proudly, “as a piano teacher I want my younger students to continue the traditions and there’s plenty of talent among them. My focus is support for both mental and physical health in my community and teaching all I can”. Naturally it’s all about traditions for Wilcots – the disco heritage he restored in house music continues to be referenced in new releases today.

And there’s another, more immediate reason why he’s upbeat – “I’m currently in talks with Clone about reissuing some of the Gherkin back catalogue; I’m hoping the negotiations lead somewhere as I’ve got a few new artists in mind for the label reboot”.

Ewan Pearson
Ewan Pearson