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Death of soul music collector, preservationist Bob Abrahamian “devastating to Chicago cultural history”
BY MARK GUARINO | FOR CHICAGO SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Bob Abrahamian, a Chicago record collector whose passion was preserving forgotten sounds from the golden era of Chicago soul music, as well as the stories of the people behind them, died Thursday. He left behind tens of thousands of 45-rpm records, but to those who knew him, it was the generous spirit in evangelizing the music that made the greatest impact.
“He was trying to bring notice to these people and really celebrate them,” says Kerry Tulson, a friend. “That was his passion — trying to bring recognition to these musicians in Chicago who he felt didn’t get the recognition they deserved. He didn’t do anything half way.”
Abrahamian was 35. His family said his death was suicide. The Cook County medical examiner’s office was to conduct an autopsy to determine the cause of death. His sister Jennifer Abrahamian discovered his body in his Logan Square condominium. Besides Jennifer, he leaves behind his parents, Vasken and Frida Abrahamian of Morton Grove, and Aron Pogos, a 103-year-old grandfather, also a Holocaust survivor.
Collecting vinyl was a passion Abrahamian discovered after graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in computer science and media studies. It was in Hyde Park where he hosted “Sitting in the Park,” a two-hour Sunday evening radio show on WHPK-FM that focused on Chicago area soul music between 1960 and 1980. Through online streaming, the show developed a worldwide audience over a 12-year span due to his comprehensive knowledge of performers, session musicians, label variants, and songs, many of which, despite their incredible artistry, were obscure because, due to various circumstances, were barely heard outside Chicago.
“The radio was his true passion … He would try to never play the same song twice. The radio show really drove a purpose to his collecting,” says Rob Sevier, a co-founder of The Numero Group, the Chicago reissue label that often relied on Abrahamian as a consultant.
As a suburban kid from Morton Grove who devoted his life to black soul music from the South Side of Chicago, Abrahamian discovered the music via samples on hip-hop records.
“He had this brilliant U of C mind for processing information and focusing on projects,” says Jake Austen, the publisher of Rocktober magazine who met Abrahamian at WHPK. “So he soon learned that Chicago didn’t make funk records, it made these sweet soul records and he became enchanted.”
The discovery led to the purchase of a turntable in 1995 and frequent excursions throughout the South Side where Abrahamian visited thrift stores for old records to start a collection.
“The records blew my mind as the Chicago sound was a totally unique thing that I had never heard before. The records were also made more ‘real’ by the fact that they were on tiny labels with local addresses. Just finding a rare local record, without even hearing it, was exciting, as it made me feel like I had some real connection to the music and even the people who had previously owned the record,” he told the UK website Soul Source in 2011.
Abrahamian soon acquired records by the thousands; Sevier estimates his collection could number 60,000 titles or more. His tastes and knowledge made him, “the preeminent group soul collector in the world,” Sevier says.
But amassing records was not enough. Abrahamian corresponded his collecting with the research of singers and musicians behind the music, creating an ongoing oral history that, to date, had never been documented with such precision. It was not uncommon for Abrahamian to dig through the phone book for names, phone numbers, addresses — anything he could find that would connect him to the people who made the records decades earlier. One day they might be living ordinary lives, far removed from their musical past, and soon, after a phone call from Abrahamian, they might be on his radio show talking about their glory days as young men or women once on the brink of stardom and glamour.
“He would get all these living members of all these old soul groups from all over Chicago and Gary. He was obsessed into locating background information,” says Ethan Powers of Out of the Past, a West Side used record store. “He was completely into the holistic aspect of it. It wasn’t just the song, it was the history, it was the scene, it was everything.”
Besides records, Abrahamian amassed ephemera involving the music, such as publicity photos, show bills, books, and more. He also dedicated himself to creating new techniques to preserve and mitigate the antiquity of the records themselves — fixing skips, easing scratches, restoring paper labels. “He was essentially doing Smithsonian-style restoration of records,” says Powers. “He was ridiculously meticulous.”
Abrahamian had the same approach to his weekly radio show: To prepare, he would conduct pre-interviews for hours with guests over the phone, and later hand them burned CDs of their entire catalog, plus original copies of the physical record.
“Almost nobody ever has a copy of their [own] record,” he told Soul Source.
For many of these artists — vocal groups with names like The Notations, Coffee, The Puzzle People, Sounds of Blackness, The New Concepts, The Conquistadors, and the Soul Procedures — hearing from Abrahamian was the first time in decades anyone cared enough to ask about their music. For both sides, a bond grew that was life affirming and lasted long after the interview was finished. He would do more than research their lives; Austen says Abrahamian often felt a “moral obligation” to play a caretaker role — Helping them move, teaching them computer skills, driving them to the doctor, listening to their stories.
“A lot of them were loners who were briefly successful in their music careers but then in old age were sort of sad and lonely. Bob would meet them and they were so excited to have somebody interested in the one success they had in their lives,” Jennifer Abrahamian says.
Because of Abrahamian’s efforts, many of their life stories and neglected musical histories are now preserved in the public realm. He also archived his interviews via his website, sittinginthepark.com, which he encouraged users to copy and distribute for free as long as it wasn’t for profit. Austen calls his loss “devastating to Chicago cultural history.”
“I think it is important to archive and save a lot of music that would be lost otherwise,” Abrahamian told WBEZ in 2009. “A lot of people from that era are getting older. There’s an urgency to documenting these stories while these people are still around.”
Abrahamian supported his passion by working as a computer programmer. According to Jennifer Abrahamian, he left his job four years ago and was largely housebound in his struggle with depression.
Yet Austen says Abrahamian “was not a person who was defined by depression.” Instead, he filled his days scouring the Internet for music, and dedicated himself to his research. “This is somebody who did not go a day without finding something that excited his brain,” he says.
Through a note he left behind, Jennifer says her brother expressed a profound sadness that his life’s work didn’t matter.
“He assumed he would be easily forgotten,” she says. “He was so wrong. He didn’t know how valuable everybody thought he was.”
A visitation for Bob Abrahamian is 6-9 p.m. Monday at Piser Funeral Services, 9200 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. His funeral is 11 a.m. Tuesday at the same location, followed by a burial service at Memorial Park Cemetery, 9900 N. Skokie Blvd.
Bob Abrahamian’s last show on WHPK-FM, broadcast May 4, 2014: