From 1960 to the late 1980s, there was one man documenting the experience of black life in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Charles Chamblis was to the Twin Cities — in particular North Minneapolis — what Jamel Shabazz was to Brooklyn in the 1980s, or what Addison Scurlock was to Washington, D.C, for more than five decades: friendly, never without his camera and fluid enough to mix with any social setting, whether it was photographing a family barbeque along Lake Calhoun or the burgeoning music scene taking over the local nightclubs. Chamblis was affectionately known throughout the community as “the Pictureman,” and was never without his camera. His record of black culture and black life is a veritable who’s who of major music stars who, at the time, were up-and-coming stars of the funk and soul music movement.
Chamblis was born in Pittsburgh in 1927 and was honorably discharged from the Marines after having served in World War II. He decided to settle in Minneapolis and worked as a freelance photographer for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder for several years. He died of a rare blood disorder in 1991. His photos, now part of the Minneapolis Historical Society, always managed to show the upside of life: the candor of people on the backs of bikes, playing cards around the table in the front yard or dancing along Lake Calhoun.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, blacks made up nearly 16 percent of North Minneapolis’ population, and its music scene was never more vibrant. Funk music had exploded onto the scene, and with it a shockwave of flamboyant outfits and new artists being a revolutionary sound. The history of the Twin Cities’ contribution to black music is embedded in each of Chamblis’s photographs. He documented nearly every seminal artist who originated in Minnesota who helped birth funk music before they became major talents around the world: Prince, Jellybean, Morris Day (who played in a band with Prince during high school), Pierre Lewis of the Commodores, Terry Lewis and Cynthia Johnson. The latter, two started in the band Flyte Tyme, and Terry Lewis would go on to super stardom as one-half of the Grammy-winning production team that helped launch the career of Janet Jackson. Cynthia Johnson, who was crowned Miss Black Minnesota 1976, would go on to become an award-winning vocalist and was known for her 1980 smash hit “Funkytown.”
Similarly, Chamblis captured a moment in time for the music venues in Minneapolis that operated as the hub of the black music scene before some of their doors shuttered in the early 1990s. Places with sultry, enticing names like Taste Show Lounge, Lux Lounge, The Flame, The Jet-Away and P.J. Clarke’s all acted as “the spot” for communing on weekends for all-night dance parties.
A retrospective of Chamblis’s work, taken primarily between the 1960s and 1980s, was recently displayed at the Minnesota History Center exhibit: “Sights, Sounds and Soul: Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis,” and can still be viewed online.