'Sights, Sounds and Soul' of the Twin Cities

PETER S. SCHOLTES , Vita.mn | Updated 4/28/2014

Minnesota History Center reveals an insider’s photos of the world that birthed Prince.

She has the exhilarated smile of someone being swung through the air by her dance partner. A disco ball reflects the flash of the camera. It’s around 1979, and Cyndy Booker is dancing at the Taste Show Lounge.

The man taking the photograph is Charles Chamblis, a familiar figure at this Minneapolis club. During the 1970s and ’80s, “the Pictureman” was rarely seen without his camera. Yet he was “always everywhere,” snapping moments like this, according to Thornton “T.J.” Jones, then of KUXL’s “Pharaoh Black Show.” “He was an integral part of our community.”

Today, with the ubiquity of cameras, it’s hard to grasp the importance of Chamblis, who died in 1991. The Pictureman performed a service now taken for granted: preserving the happiest moments of leisure and music. In “Sights, Sounds & Soul,” an exhibit opening Saturday at the Minnesota History Center, you can see Prince with an Afro, Terry Lewis in a homemade superhero outfit and Cynthia Johnson in the same photo (in her band with Lewis, Flyte Tyme) before she recorded “Funkytown,” in a green headdress cut from her Miss Black Minnesota USA gown. You can also see kids wading in Lake Calhoun, fashion models walking and men laughing over barbecue.

Chamblis’ legacy, which includes more than 2,000 photographs in the Minnesota Historical Society archive, is nothing less than a document of the Twin Cities African-American community at play during the heady decade before Prince’s “Purple Rain.” It’s a window on creativity in de facto segregation, when interracial bands such as Paul Johnson’s Runway couldn’t get gigs at clubs catering to whites. Instead they turned to a circuit that included the Taste, where the group, in one Chamblis photo, jumps and cowbells in matching shiny uniforms.

“The perception is these are really rough places,” says Jon Kirby of Chicago’s Numero Group, which released the 2013 box set “Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound,” with a Chamblis photo (at the Taste) on the cover. “I think the photos dispel the wrong-side-of-the-tracks notion.” Ø

With another recent compilation featuring Chamblis photos, “Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves From Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979” (on Secret Stash Records), the scene he loved only grows in fascination. The Pictureman was as much a part of this world as Prince, whose gap in the archive can be explained by the fact that, at one point, the musician bought all the pictures of himself from Chamblis.

The cameraman was familiar with everyone, and made everyone look familiar. “We were so comfortable with him that it felt like we were doing a family photograph,” says Cynthia Johnson. “I know he wasn’t making a good living at it. He was doing what he loved, just like the rest of us.”

One reason there are so many Charles Chamblis photos is the unusual business model he used, before Polaroid instants. When he wasn’t freelancing for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Chamblis would take pictures, develop them, then track down the subjects to sell them. Which meant plenty of leftovers. The Chamblis archive is largely what he didn’t sell.

“I just thought he was a very poor businessman because of the way he was doing things,” says his youngest daughter, Reva Chamblis, who donated the photographs and has an equal number at home. “Little did I know he was creating a huge collection.”

Chamblis was born in Pittsburgh in 1927. He received an honorable discharge from the Marines after serving in World War II, and settled in Minneapolis with Reva’s mom and two siblings. Though the parents divorced, Charles was still invited over to take pictures.