Names like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Shirley Caesar are not among those typically associated with Forest Park. Unless their tour buses pass through to refuel on the way to Chicago, it’s doubtful that they’ve ever heard of this village.
Their influence, though, is alive and well in town, transmitted through the music of gospel great Darius Brooks. Brooks, whose record label, Journey Music Group (JMG), has its offices and recording studio at 7630 Madison Street, has embarked on a solo career after years playing in the background, collaborating with the aforementioned legends and many other heavyweights in both the gospel and R&B scenes.
“With our music, we’re not necessarily sharing religious beliefs,” said Brooks of himself and the artists signed to JMG. “What we do share is inspiration. We sing songs of hope, love”songs that motivate and help us.”
Brooks got his start in gospel as a youth growing up in Chicago, singing with the choir at Pentecostal House of Prayer, 4143 Madison St. His late mother soon introduced him to Rev. Milton Brunson of the famed Thompson Community Singers.
Brunson recognized Brooks’ talent, and he regularly appeared on the “Tommies” hit songs in the ’80s and ’90s, contributing his songwriting and singing talents to gospel chart toppers including “Safe in His Arms,” “My Mind’s Made Up,” and “He’ll Make it Alright.”
The acclaim Brooks garnered from his affiliation with Brunson led to collaborations with some of his heroes, such as Caesar, Franklin and jazz legend Ramsey Lewis, as well as newer artists like R&B star Avant.
He has toured everywhere from Germany to Brazil, and later this year he will be the only artist from out of town to perform at the first New Orleans Jazz Festival since Hurricane Katrina. He has served as musical director of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and has won three Grammys and several Stellar and Dove awards for gospel music.
Brooks lived in Forest Park several years ago, but temporarily relocated to New York to further his music career. When he moved back to the Chicago area, he said, he remembered the sense of security he felt living in Forest Park, in no small part due to his friendship with a former neighbor, Sgt. Michael Keating of the Forest Park Police Department. In 2000, he decided to open his label offices and recording studio in town.
“Darius is a good man. I’ve known him for at least 15 years. When I see him, it’s like running into an old friend.” said Keating. “I’m glad to have a guy like that opening a business in the village.”
Brooks’ new album, released April 4, is titled “My Soul,” and follows his first major label solo album, “Your Will,” released on EMI Gospel in 2004. Before that, he had recorded three solo albums for JMG. He estimated that 95 percent of “My Soul” was recorded in Forest Park.
Also recording in town are JMG artists like former Thompson Community Singers member Tina Watson and 12-year-old gospel prodigy Najiyah, as well as a group called The Reunion, which features several members of the Thompson Community Singers, according to the label’s website.
“We are definitely an upcoming, growing label that’s looking forward,” said Brooks.
Brooks said his new album, like much of his work, is set apart by its universal themes and uplifting messages.
“I would have to say it’s the unique authenticity of real-life experiences put to melodies. At the end of the day my music helps people relate to where we are and how to get somewhere.”
More information about Brooks and JMG is available at www.journeymusicgroup.com. He can be seen live on Sunday, May 7 at 5 p.m. at the Power Circle Center, 9350-64 S. South Chicago Ave.