ROCKIN' IN CHICAGO BEFORE 1965
Lunch break at Kelly-Edwards High School, spring 1960. Kneeling girl is waitress from diner next door: she is holding the hand of her little brother.
by Art Fein
I was born in Chicago.
My rock 'n' roll world opened when I was 10 and a half. We were living in 3315 W. Palmer. My family was not an Ed Sullivan family, we watched Steve Allen, and I'm a better person for it. Allen was sidesplitting, spontaneously, intelligently funny (and from Chicago!). But this night, January 7th, 1957, we had Sullivan on for some reason, and there was Elvis Presley. It was the turning point of my life. When people say he is a deity, you don't hear any laughter from me. The sudden appearance of this creature was like what other people get from LSD: it opened another universe.
My habits changed immediately. I had been buying stamps, a dollar a week's worth, from a hobby shop which, ironically, had begun carrying records (78s) to supplement the meager stamp business. The second Friday in January, I pointed back to records instead of staring down at stamps. "I'll take that," I said, meaning Elvis' "Too Much," which he'd sung on Sullivan. I detected disapproval from the philatelist: I was joining the enemy. When he first started stocking records, my dad asked him what kind of people bought them and he rolled his eyes. Of course, I liked that too: it was my first step on becoming a juvenile delinquent. I say first step, but I never got any further, though I carried a knife.
"Too Much" was a disappointment: I liked it better when he sang it on TV. But I persevered. The next record that caught my attention was one I heard riding north on Lake Shore Drive in my parents' car. I was hooked by the guitar, then mesmerized by the drum and cowbell. It was James Burton's lead on Dale Hawkins' "Suzie Q."
My first album was a disappointment- Ricky on Imperial. It was softened rockabilly, not sharp-edged like Dale Hawkins. The version of "Be-Bop Baby," which I already had on a single, was even lame- they had used an alternative, weak take! My parents, who had paid $4 for it, were upset by my reaction, saying I should be careful what I asked for… as if I could know what the hell was on an album! But we were lower middle-class: dad worked at a printing place, mom in an office, so there were few dollars to throw around.
By June 1957, I was ready to go to a rock 'n' roll show. My mom took me. It was the Howard Miller extravaganza at the Chicago Opera House. For my first live music, I saw Chuck Berry, Little Brenda Lee, Tab Hunter, Charlie Grace, the Everly Brothers and several more, including the ultra-square Dan Belloc Orchestra, and the always-trying Nick Noble, a balladeer (he was one of the preceding generation). Chuck duckwalked, the girls screamed for Tab (mistakenly, as time would tell), the Everlys did two songs, and I had a ball.
As 1957 unfolded, more miraculous music tumbled my way by way of radio (WIJD and Howard Miller on WIND; also, occasional forays into WVON – the Voice of the Negro) and rarely, TV. It was a time of plenty: like heaven, really, with so many wonderful records spilling out from the radio. Every morning, you would awake to fresh, new incredible music.
In March 1957, we moved a "changing" Jewish neighborhood, Logan Square, to 4834 S. Kilpatrick, a Never-seen-a-Jew-but-they're-all-Devils area just north of Midway Airport. Everyone had a grandparent from a Slavic country in their home. From them, I learned I had a big nose and that I was good with money. At my new school, I learned that you should always pour a little of your Coke on the ground. These were "Jew Drops," to show you were not a Jew (a Jew wouldn't waste Coke). It was here that I mentioned to 14-year-old Leona Zajac that I had a Harry Belafonte album, and she said stiffly, "You know he married a white woman."
December 1957 was my next rock 'n' roll show. Howard Miller (what a square he was- for him to run those things would be like me hosting a rap show) with a hell of a line-up: Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price, many others and Jerry Lee Lewis. Well if I saw God in Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis was the Prince of Darkness. He wore a purple satin shirt and ripped it off to reveal a white one beneath. He pounded the piano and his lion's mane cascaded past his forehead to his mouth. This was pure animalism. This was IT. I raced to the front of the stage with the other kids, not knowing why but going there anyways. He was the mutha-humpin' Pied Piper, 21 years old and on a mission to… what's the opposite of "save" me?
Of course, all rock 'n' roll shows were disappointing after seeing Jerry Lee. A personal setback that still rankles me is that one week after that show, Alan Freed's Big Beat show came through Chicago featuring Jerry Lee Lewis (how could he do that, be on one show and then another?), Fats Domino and a few others, and Buddy Holly & the Crickets. As I had just been to a rock 'n' roll show, I didn't press my parents too hard, and I instead got a "best of" issue of "Mad" magazine for $2, the same ticket price as the show.
I kept buying rock 'n' roll records like they were going out of style (!). Like most superannuated '50's teenagers, I still concur with my choices from those years. One music incident stands as a model for life to come. There was a cool guy at my mom's office, who wore short-sleeve shirts with the sleeves rolled up, and had slick hair. He was a physical role model, someone any boy would admire. But he was a man, a Korean war vet, and the chasm between us was made clear by the new music. When I called my mom at work and asked her to pick up for my weekly allowance the new Del-Vikings record, "Whispering Bells," she said OK, but later called back worried. "Are you sure you want that record? Phil heard it on the radio this morning and said it was the worst thing he ever heard."
Bye, Phil. I can't get even with you now, but in ten years I'll burn my draft card.
In 1959, I took an after-school job with a friend's father. Looking back I cannot imagine it, but he would take a gang of 12, 13 and 14 year olds out to strange neighborhoods on the south side and let us out individually with a cart of ten boxes of cookies, which we sold door-to-door for $1.25 (Oreos sold for 39 cents at a store). Our spiff was 25 cents on a box. As a 'life experience,' I rank it somewhere alongside being tied in a bag and thrown in the lake: the dark nights in strange neighborhoods walking up to strangers' houses, getting incredulous responses to the price, nobody giving you a break, rejection everywhere, cold, cold, cold, fear, fear, fear. When people today look at my spotty employment record (last full-time job, 1987, before that, 1978) and ask me if I was ever "scared by a job as a youngster," I have to say, "Yes!" The point of this is that I DID make $5 or $6 a week, enough to move up to the album stage.
I faced physical and psychological hardships to buy records.
One record purchase was memorable. I'd go to a store on Archer Avenue each week to see what was in. They had me pegged. On one visit, I saw the owner shaking his head over a particularly obnoxious record. "Oh, HE's here," he said. "HE'll probably like it!" (being insulted in a store I accepted as a normal thing). So he puts on "Big Bop Boom" by Mickey Hawkes. It was the most thunderous record I ever heard. "I'll take it, you bet!" I said, eagerly forking over the dollar, to the chuckle of the owner.
But I ain't complaining. I kept chasing rock 'n' roll records in Chicago. At another record store further west on Archer, I ordered every Jerry Lee Lewis record as they were released on 45. "Big Blon' Baby"/"Lovin' Up A Storm" was one double-sider that really paid off, but "I'll Sail My Ship Alone" finally broke the string for me, it was too country. The people at that record store, to my displeasure, once talked me into buying Chet Atkins' "Teensville" because it had teenagers on the cover. What a disappointment. It made me leery of any record that featured teenagers on the cover (a good rule of thumb). There, I bought the Little Richard album on RCA Camden, but despite my love for things Penniman, it was a big disappointment, being a bunch of standard R&B blues from the mid-'50s, Richard pre-Specialty. In fact, I used it as a turntable protector, for the needle to drop on when the tone-arm jumped out of its seat.
OUT OF THE WILDERNESS…
But soon time was passing, and rock 'n' roll was getting rare. The fourth Howard Miller show (I can't remember the third) in May 1959 was symbolic of all that was going wrong. Namely the passage of control of music to girls. The acts were Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell, The Poni-Tails and a few other non-rockers. The only salvation was the band that closed out the first half, Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks. My God, out of the wilderness another living, fire-breathing demon. He walked out slowly, in slo-mo, while the band vamped. He went over to the guitar player and kissed him! Then he leaned into his mike and said "Ahmmmmm." Same situation. About four times he did this until finally he broke into the rest of "Mary Lou." It was tremendous, as was his entire performance. At some point, Levon Helm broke loose on a drum solo that shook the walls, but only provoked yawns from my 'date,' Elaine Gorecki, who was just there to see the Bobbys.
Interestingly, during Rydell's set in the second half (I actually like him), the Hawk drums with the flaming red hawk emblem, were wheeled onstage, and rockers like me started cheering, thinking Rydell were leaving and the Hawks were coming back and maybe there'd been a back-stage revolution. But when it turned out Rydell was going to play them you could hear sighs of disappointment.
It was my last live show for a while.
I was pretty acute in my record mania, but so was my friend Mike Marek, later to become an official at the World Bank in Washington D.C., who set me straight one day in 1960. Standing together at a subway station, talking about records, he opened my eyes when he said "You know, records aren't as good as they used be." I was stunned. I did a quick tally in my head: Yes, Ferrante & Teicher had hits. Pat Boone was riding high. Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis had all disappeared, but we had Dion didn't we? And Buster Brown?
Of course, he was right. In my family, I was the music nut, so relatives would humor me with questions like "Who's big now?" I would answer "Bobby Vee" without examining what I was saying: It seemed like this teenage thing was now an entity on its own, not a hodgepodge of mystery but a predictable ritual. Hmmm.
Around this time, I had a profound music biz experience. My friend Dennis Stafiej's aunt rented rooms in her house, and one day said, "There's a guy staying here who's gonna make a record. You oughta come meet him." I certainly wanted to meet ANYONE who was making a record, so we went and met the guy, a nondescript crewcut guy from Kentucky. He had a "track" on a 45 record, which was his background, supplied by the recording studio. He was practicing the song he wrote to sing over it. I remember the track went da-da-da-da, and then there was a pause, then went da-da-da-da again, all the way through.
The guy had written something new called "I'm In the Mood For Love," and sang it for us, with the words going over the da-da-da-da music, then the pause, the more words over music. I pondered this a minute and said "Aren't you supposed to sing in the empty parts, and have the music answer you?" The guy seemed unsettled by my observation, and didn't sing again. We left, and a couple of weeks later, Dennis said "Remember that guy we met? Who was making a record? He hung himself last week." I hope it wasn't anything I said.
In the early 1960's, especially the final two years of high school (we moved to suburban Skokie in 1961), everyone seemed to be turning to jazz or folk music, following the college norm. I was alienated. I kept listening, kept looking, and did lean a little "that" way for Peter, Paul & Mary or whatever. In early 1964, I had a part-time job at the Fair in Old Orchard, and in walked Ronnie Rice, a friend of a friend, wearing a Beatle wig. This was just plain nuts. We became friends. He always had a record out, and I accompanied him to many shows, including a tour of R&B clubs in Detroit (I remember asking the promotion man who escorted us if we could PLEASE stop at the club where Nathaniel Mayer was playing, but he was in the record business so he didn't care about music) and Windsor when he had out "I Want You To Be My Girl," the old Frankie Lymon song. One show in Detroit was a full-on Motown review, with this one white guy from Evanston sticking out badly. The audience cheered him, not sarcastically but sympathetically. In December 1964, he took me over to Ral Donner's house way west on (off) Devon, and I was shocked. Donner lived with his mother in the oldest house on the block. He had a Cadillac up on blocks because he couldn't afford the insurance. His house was papered, wall to wall, with pictures of Elvis. Donner was particularly distraught because he thought "Can't Buy Me Love" was the worst song he ever heard, and he was going to lash out at college kids with a song called "Poison Ivy League" (not the Elvis song of the same name, surprisingly). You must recall that there were no greasers, but hoods, of which he was one. The opposing side were called, generally, Ivy Leaguers.
Oh yeah, almost forgot some shows. In "college" (Wright Jr. College), I went to several near-North side shows at a bowling alley on, I think, Kedzie. One night I saw Chuck Berry backed up by Lonnie Mack, and another night, Johnny & The Hurricanes.
Here I might mention the oddity of Chicago radio in the '50's. "Our" version of hits were often the wrong ones: Tab Hunter's "Young Love," Johnny Dee (John D. Loudermilk) doing "Sittin' In the Balcony" and Ronnie Height's version of "Come Softly To Me" on the Dore label.
I got the lowdown on the last one 35 years later when I had Lew Bedell, owner of Dore Records, on my TV show ('Art Fein's Poker Party' in Los Angeles). I asked him why I knew that song in Chicago while the rest of the country knew the Fleetwoods' original. "Hah, that's a funny story. The Chicago area distributor was about to lose Liberty Records, which had the Fleetwoods, so he called me and asked me to make a cover version and he'd flood Chicago with it. I did what he said, and we sold quite a few records on Ronnie. But only in Chicago."
I saved nearly all the WJJD surveys from 1957, and they hold archeological evidence of the uniqueness of our market back then. For instance, did Julius LaRosa have a hit with "Stashu Pandowski" in any town but Chicago? Nah. How about Will Glahe's "Lichtensteiner Polka"? What about the Ravens' version of "That'll Be the Day" on Checker? I remember it well, though I haven't heard it in 57 years.
There was a "Chicago Bandstand" in the late '50's and '60's with Jim Lounsberry. I remember Little Anthony lipsynching "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop" on that show, but not much else.
My '60's in Chicago include one memorable rainy Saturday afternoon at Old Orchard when I encountered Peter, Paul & Mary at the record store. I was the only customer, faced with living, breathing stars. I was tongue-tied, and was not about to buy their album, as I already owned it. So I bought Bobby Darin Sings Ray Charles and left, wondering what I should have done. When musicians talk about people bringing other artists' albums for them to sign, I sympathize with the autograph-seekers. In fact, my friend Ray Campi has an Ernest Tubb songbook with the wrong signature on it…it was all he had when he encountered Hank Williams!
Also, I know I saw the Animals and Herman's Hermits at some large convention hall. And I saw the Byrds at Arie Crown Theater. But neither much mattered. Also, I know I saw Bob Gibson in my first year of college and maybe Bob Dylan then – I don't remember! I know I saw Dylan twice in 1966, once in Denver, once in Chicago. But by then, my ties to Chicago were deteriorating as I followed my rock 'n' roll heart west.
During the years I spent in Chicago, I would always head for the basement photo gallery every time I visited the Museum of Science & Industry. There, I would stare at the picture of Elvis in his gold suit. Elvis debuted that Nudie suit in Chicago on March 28th, 1957. Why didn't I see him? Well, the Elvis Presley phenomenon was, at the least, suspect to the parents of America.
After all, juvenile delinquents liked it. Also, I probably would have been crushed by large girls. I was only 10. I had no context for what was occurring, less even than my parents. It was like the onset of puberty, a mystery as yet to unravel.
Also see Art Fein's website
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