Patti Drew  Photo courtesy of Shorefront

Most any resident of Evanston will recognize the name if not the face of actor John Cusack in the new movie,”Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Fewer may realize that Patti Drew, who recorded the song “Tell Him,” which is featured in the movie, and Carlton Black, who wrote the song, are Evanstonians as well.

Trained at Piven Theatre, Mr. Cusack appeared first in John Hughes’ “16 Candles” in the 1980s. A few years later he starred as Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything,” followed by the edgy “The Grifters” with Anjelica Huston.  Last year he played Edgar Allan Poe in “The Raven.” He is currently working on the biopic “Love and Mercy,” in which he plays Beach Boys’ founder Brian Wilson.

The son of peace activist Nancy Cusack and actor and film maker Richard Cusack, Mr. Cusack has been public about his opposition to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration, and this country’s drone policy in the Middle East. He plays Richard Nixon in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Ms. Drew and Mr. Black are familiar faces and voices to Morris “Dino” Robinson, founder and director of Shorefront Legacy Center located in the Family Focus Building. He shared some of their history with the RoundTable.

While she was still attending Evanston Township High School in the early 1960s, Ms. Drew, her sisters Lorraine (“Micki”) and Erma, and her brother-in-law, Carlton Black, formed the Drew-Vels.  Under an agreement with Carone Productions, Capitol Records released and marketed the Drew-Vels’ recordings. “Tell Him,” written by Mr. Black, was immediately popular, both locally and nationally.

Ms. Drew signed with Quill Records and later with Capitol Records and has four albums to her credit.  In the early 1970s, she quit recording and returned to Evanston, singing occasionally in local bands, such as Front Line, for the next few years.

Mr. Black wrote most of the songs for the Drew-Vels, including “Tell Him,” the song featured in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” In addition to the Drew-Vels, Mr. Black was a member of the all-male singing group the DuVals in the 1960s. He continued his singing and song-writing career even after Ms. Drew left the recording industry.

Two separate recordings of “Tell Him” exist – the original with the Drew-Vels and Mr. Black and a later one with just Carlton Black and Patti Drew. While Mr. Black may receive some royalty payments from the movie, Ms. Drew’s previous contracts prevent her from receiving anything for the re-airing of her early work, Mr. Robinson said.

Mr. Robinson wrote the Shorefront story “Carlton A. Black – Always Sheddin’’’ in his home after a 2008 interview with the musician. In the article Mr. Black said he discovered music when he was working at a glass factory on Emerson Street: “While working at the factory, I would always come with a pen and a pad of paper. …In no time, I had one hundred songs or more.” Mr. Black also said in the “Sheddin’” article, “I never thought any of the songs I wrote would go anywhere. Some I threw out, some were prose or poetry, some I wrote for other groups.”

Five years ago Mr. Robinson wrote that several contemporary music groups were “covering the songs Black penned more than 40 years ago.” Last Saturday Shorefront posted an article on Patti Drew. Its title, “Now…‘Everybody Knows’ Patti Drew…in ‘The Butler,’” was a play on a Shorefront article on the singer as well as a play on the title of one of her songs, “Everybody Knows.”Mr. Robinson’s interviews with Mr. Black and Patti Drew, along with sample selections from the Foster Brothers, the Naturals, the DuVals, the Drew-Vels and Patti Drew are archived at the Shorefront Legacy Center in the Holmes Weissbourd Family Focus Building, 2010 Dewey Ave.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...