Saturday, October 19, 2013
This year will be no exception.
On Wednesday, November 27, my buddy Steve Doyle and I will once again set up shop at McKellin's Pub in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood for (at least) three hours of old-time rock-n-roll and honky-tonk classics. We fully expect to be joined by any number of special musical guests.
All the fun starts at 6:30 p.m., parking is a snap, and there's no cover charge. Hope to see you at McKellin's, 2800 W. Touhy, as we kick off the long holiday weekend among friends.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
First, the Bears don't play on Sunday, October 13.
Second, I'm not running the 2013 Chicago Marathon, which also takes place that day. Truth be told, I swore off marathon running at age 8, after watching an impostor steal Frank Shorter's thunder at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
So when a friend recently asked me to play music on October 13 in conjunction with "Art Round Trip," a Sunday afternoon tour of Rogers Park studios, galleries and exhibitions, I signed on.
But I did so only after enlisting an actual artist, my friend Brian Wilkie, to play this "arts" event with me. ("Art Round Trip" is sponsored by the Rogers Park Arts Alliance.)
Brian's one of Chicago's in-demand, A-list guitar players and it's always a treat -- and a learning experience -- for me to play music with him. Over the years, the man's shared stages with musical heavyweights from A (Alison Krauss) to Z (Zoot Sims). In his younger days, he worked professionally in Nashville with folks like Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan.
In any event, Brian and I will set up shop on the street in front of Xoro, a gallery located at 1228 W. Loyola Avenue, near the Loyola El stop. Should the weather look dicey that day, we'll play inside Xoro.
We'll be rockin' and rollin' from noon until 2 p.m. There's no cover charge. We may have some special musical guests, and we certainly hope to see you out and about.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
In fact, just by typing those names, I can instantly conjure up the sounds of their singing (and, in some cases, speaking) voices.
But I realized today that I'm having a hard time remembering what my dad's voice sounded like.
Carla Thomas? I last heard her voice -- on record, mind you -- probably a month ago. My dad's voice? I haven't heard it since the morning of September 25, 1978.
Unlike Carla, my dad wasn't a recording artist, so I can't pull a CD off my shelf when I want to hear his baritone. And YouTube is no help because my dad died before we became a nation that videotaped everything.
I can't remember what we said to each other on that warm September morning, but I'm sure we had some rushed conversation while he got ready for work and I got ready for school. Had you told me then that it was going to be the last time I got to talk with him, rest assured I'd remember our exchange 35 years later.
I am still able to revisit many of the conversations that we had over the years; it's just the distinct tonal qualities of his voice I'm struggling to recall.
Johnny Hartman? I can hear his voice in my head in a split second. My own dad? That's a different story.
Luckily, though, I still remember tooling around Alsip, Illinois with him on a Saturday morning back in 1972. We were listening to the AM radio in our white 1965 Ford Galaxie 500. I was in the front seat (no seat belt) singing along with Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." When the song ended, my dad gently told me, "Matt, it's 'I can see all obstacles in my way.' It’s not 'all popsicles in my way.'" That, of course, launched him into an entertaining talk on oft-misunderstood lyrics in pop music.
I remember being 9 or 10 years old and sitting with him on a Saturday morning in a booth at a diner in Burlington, Iowa. He explained the pick-and-roll to me using salt and pepper shakers and a ketchup bottle. Our waitress walked by the table several times and seemed to have no idea what my dad was doing.
I also remember talking to him a year or so later while we drove home from a Hy-Vee grocery store in Burlington. My then-unemployed dad explained to me why he had just paid for our family's groceries using something called "food stamps."
That stuck with me -- the same way I hope a similar conversation I had 7 or 8 years ago with my now 21-year-old daughter sticks with her. She and I were discussing the need for certain government programs that had recently been in the headlines. Until that particular conversation, she'd had no idea that she was a public aid baby. Neither her mother nor I had health insurance -- or even incomes -- when she was born. I wanted to provide my teenage daughter (by then, the child of two practicing lawyers) with some perspective. Did it sink in? Time will tell.
Back to my dad. I remember sitting with him at our kitchen table in Villa Park, Illinois in 1977 or early 1978. We were eating breakfast and somehow we started talking about death. (This was just a random conversation. My dad wasn't sick, and his fatal heart attack months later at age 39 came out of the blue.) During our conversation he mentioned two books that I eventually got around to reading years after his death. One was Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One"; the other was Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death."
What I remember most about that conversation was my dad telling me that the funeral industry was a racket. Salesmen, he said, pushed people into making the third biggest purchase of their lives (behind houses and cars) at a point when buyers were least able to make rational consumer decisions.
He told me he wanted no part of that. "Put me in a pine box," he said.
Fast-forward to September 26 or 27, 1978. While my newly-widowed 37-year-old mom scrambled to find matching white shirts for each of her five boys to wear to the funeral later that week, I babbled to her about Jessica Mitford, pine boxes, and that relatively recent breakfast conversation I'd had with my dad.
I must have been a pain in the ass at 14.
Back when I could still remember the sound of my dad's voice.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
The good folks at Raise Your Hand, a grass-roots group of parents, educators and concerned citizens dedicated to ensuring their voices are heard on issues relating to public education, are hosting a fundraiser at Revolution Brewing, 2323 N. Milwaukee Avenue. (Disclosure: I recently -- and happily -- agreed to join RYH's Board of Directors, largely because I've been so impressed by the group's work in Chicago and Springfield.)
My guitar-slinging pal Steve Doyle and I are going to play music at the RYH event, and we hope to be joined that night by a couple of special guests -- Chicago harp guru James Conway and bassist Mark Blade, who many of us still remember from his work with the Crown Royals.
Tickets for the event are $40 in advance and $50 at the door. You'll get drinks, appetizers and great conversation from 7-9 p.m., but our makeshift combo will continue to play music until 10 p.m. Reserve your tickets here.
I'll be shocked if I ever learn that RYH's founders dug through their record collections before deciding to name their group Raise Your Hand, but rest assured that it's almost impossible to keep me from doing what I can to help any group that's named after a classic tune by Stax soul man Eddie Floyd.
Hope to see you at Revolution Brewing on February 21
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
The first group, now known as The Electric Rebel Monkeys, just completed their original song, "Stop Driving Us Crazy." The Monkeys are three CPS students (2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 6th grade) whom I had never met until they showed up at my house one day last spring.
Before they ever got around to christening themselves The Electric Rebel Monkeys, the kids spent a couple of Saturday mornings talking with me about songs, poems, and rock-n-roll. We listened to old records and talked about song structure. Most of all, we had fun.
Eventually, the kids put pen to paper and knocked out their song, telling their parents (in jest, of course) to get off their backs. As you can see from the video, these kids rock, and they had a ball rocking out.
Every time the Monkeys came to my house, I was reminded why we need to make sure we have music and art in our public schools. All kids should have the chance to sit around a table and brainstorm about song ideas. Not because they need to become musicians or songwriters, but just because it's a great way for kids to learn about teamwork, effective communication, storytelling, and constructive criticism.
Along the way, the Monkeys also needed to reach deep inside themselves to tap into vocal abilities they weren't sure they had at the start of this project. There's certainly something to be said for getting the opportunity to take those kinds of risks in a safe environment.
Finally, the kids learned that it's simply a lot of fun to create something from nothing. That's why "Stop Driving Us Crazy" by The Electric Rebel Monkeys is this week's "pick to click."
STOP DRIVING US CRAZY
Stop driving us crazy
We're doing our best
Quit saying were lazy
Just give it a rest
You give me spinach every night
To make me big and strong
I don't want another bite
The taste is so wrong
You make me study every day
Until my brain is gonna burst
But all I wanna do is play
'Cause homework is the worst
You throw me in the bath
To get me squeaky clean
I start to feel your wrath
Do you have to be so mean?
Sunday, January 1, 2012
I spend very little time listening to music on commercial radio, and that's been the case for years. Yesterday afternoon I was again reminded why I avoid this (generally) pre-programmed dreck at all costs.
Around 2:00 p.m., I found myself stuck in someone else's car for a mercifully short ride, listening to Chicago's WLS-FM, which is now an oldies station. After a few commercials and a station identification break, the instantly recognizable intro to "Bernadette" by The Four Tops blasted through the Mazda's speakers.
I was pumped.
Few singers can match the power and emotion of the late Levi Stubbs, and I consider his performance of "Bernadette" to be one of the most powerful three-minute songs ever committed to vinyl.
Levi's passion and desperation build throughout the recording, until the song hits its climax at about the 2:38 mark.
That's when time stops.
Levi then lets loose a final anguished cry for his woman, after which the band (led by James Jamerson's driving bass) and the background singers bring it all home during the record's last twenty seconds.
I've listened to this record hundreds of times over the years, and every time I hear it, I anxiously await that pause, that final roar, and that outro.
Lord only knows who was turning the knobs yesterday at WLS-FM, but just as Levi dug deep for his last plea to Bernadette, the radio guy abruptly faded out the song at about the 2:40 mark.
But this guy wasn't content just to paint his own musical mustache on a Motown "Mona Lisa"; he added insult to injury by hurriedly halting Levi's masterwork simply to get to the next record.
Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves."
Friday, November 25, 2011
Just before boarding, I got a phone call from Mark Morse. Mark is one of my youngest brother's buddies, and (like me) he's a music geek and a hack guitar player. He was calling to tell me that he was heading down to Memphis the following week to produce a record by Rockin' Billy & The Wild Coyotes, a top-shelf Chicago rockabilly band.
Mark had already blocked out studio time at the historic Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, and he now wanted to know whether I'd be interested in coming down there with a couple of my friends to check out the session. He knew that geeks like us consider Sam Phillips Recording Service to be sacred ground. He also asked whether I could coax my old Missouri-based horn section, The St. Louis Horns, into making the trip south down I-55, so that Rockin' Billy could put some horns on a couple of his tunes.
Mark didn't need to ask twice. The next week we were all there.
We hung out at the studio by day and had a ball. Since a few of the guys had never before been to Memphis, we also made it a point to hit some of the city's hotspots: Sun Studio, the Stax Museum, Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, etc.
I learned a lot about recording by watching Rockin' Billy and his boys cut a whole slew of great sides. And at some point, when their band was taking a break, my friends and I got behind the microphones and did our own quick take on an Eddie Cochran classic, which, thanks to the YouTube link below, is finally seeing the light of day. Rockin' Billy was even a good enough sport to play electric guitar on the track for us.
Did I mention that the man behind the glass working the faders while we recorded was none other than Roland Janes?
Mr. Janes is a rock-n-roll legend, having played guitar on most of the 100+ sides that Jerry Lee Lewis cut for Sun Records. It was a real treat to meet him and to talk with him about music.
But he wasn't the only heavy-hitter at the studio that week. We also got to spend some quality time with the late Dale Hawkins (whose "Susie-Q" has been a radio staple for fifty years).
In addition, we got to listen to and learn from Hayden Thompson, another of the original Sun rockabilly cats.
It was one of those strange, unplanned adventures that keeps life interesting.
Saturday, November 12, 2011
A few weeks ago, I walked out of my downtown law office at noon and saw that the company that manages my building was throwing a lunchtime party for its many tenants.
The complimentary warm lemonade and cold nachos on the building's south plaza weren't, by themselves, going to be enough to keep me around. But the party planners did see fit to hire one hell of a guitarist to play for the event, and that sealed the deal for me.
In any event, during a break I asked the guitarist his name. It rang a bell, though I couldn't quite figure out why. Turns out he's a longtime member of the faculty at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where I occasionally hang out.
After his set, he and I talked for a few minutes. Seemed like a real nice guy. One thing led to another, and I swooped in for the kill.
"I work in this building as a lawyer, but from time to time I play music in local bars. If you'd ever consider playing a gig with me . . . ."
Now the key to this deal is to let a musician know up front that you're gonna get him paid a decent wage. I've got a lot of friends who are professional musicians, and I know it's a brutal way to make a living. I assured him that if ever I called him for a gig, he'd get paid in U.S. dollars that same evening.
He graciously told me to call him anytime.
Two weeks later, while I was down in Atlanta taking a deposition, I did just that.
And that's why, come Wednesday, November 23, I'll once again be plugging in with a musician with whom I have absolutely no business sharing a stage. A Berklee-educated guitarist who toured the United States with soul great Otis Clay. A guy who's played with Percy Sledge, The Coasters, and The Platters. A guy who's jammed with Otis Rush and performed with the Wrecking Crew's Hal Blaine (the world's most recorded musician).
A guy who has assured me that he knows each of the three chords that I know.
This year, I'm excited to have Chris Winters joining me for my annual after-work, pre-Thanksgiving show at McKellin's Pub (2800 W. Touhy Avenue) in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood.
Chris and I will play from 6-9 p.m., and there's no cover charge. Stop by and request a song or two. Just make sure those songs contain the three chords that I know.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
The year is 1974. You're a hotshot executive with Chrysalis Records, and somebody's just handed you the finished mixes for "High Life," the upcoming second release by the soulful Scottish singer Frankie Miller. The singer's first album didn't make much of a splash, but this time around your label agreed to let New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint serve as Miller's producer. The new record features several of Toussaint's tunes, and the master's signature piano playing also graces the grooves.
You close your door, kick back in your office, and give the tapes a listen. You quickly decide the music lacks a certain sheen. You then make an executive decision to ship the tapes to a couple of guys in another part of the country and ask them to remix Toussaint's production.
And since you're a self-important record exec (who may or may not be able to carry a tune, write a lyric, or build a diminished chord), you don't bother to tell Toussaint or Miller that you're having their record remixed. In fact, the two of them don't find out about your decision until the album is in the stores.
Is it any wonder the record business self-destructed?
Sure, Miller was still a young gun in 1974 without a hit record to his name, but Toussaint was already a legend. He’d been writing, producing, and playing on hit songs for fifteen years. His credits included tunes like "A Certain Girl," "Mother-in-Law," "Working In The Coalmine," "Fortune Teller," "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)," and "Ruler of My Heart."
Even though he’d penned most of those tunes ten years earlier, Toussaint was hardly an oldies act in 1974. Just a few years earlier, The Band had asked him to arrange the horns for their live album, "Rock of Ages." And only a year before going into the studio with Miller, Toussaint had produced Dr. John’s album "In the Right Place," which featured the smash hit "Right Place, Wrong Time."
But that record exec knew better than the hit-making musical genius, so he ordered up a slicker remix of Miller’s "High Life," hoping to put a radio-friendly gloss on what was a gritty, soulful record.
The remixed "High Life" didn’t sell many copies, and Miller disowned the record after its release. Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, and the whereabouts of the record executive are unknown.
In any event, thirty-seven years after the fact, you can finally hear the original mix of "High Life." It’s been released as part of "Frankie Miller . . . That's Who!" It's a bargain-priced, four-disc Frankie Miller anthology, and it’s well worth checking out.
Here's one of the original mixes from the "High Life" record, and it's a stone-cold version of a Toussaint classic.
Post-script: Ten years after Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I made what will always be considered my greatest contribution to popular music. I was seated about fifteen feet from Toussaint and his piano at the second of his February 2008 concerts at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. Toward the end of the show, with the band still playing, Toussaint got up from the piano and walked across the stage, handing Mardi Gras trinkets to the fans in front. As he headed back to the piano, Toussaint lost his footing and fell off the stage. I jumped from my seat and caught him over my right shoulder in a make-shift fireman’s carry.
The band kept playing. I asked Toussaint if he was okay. He thanked me and said he was fine. The master then walked up the side stairs and headed back to his piano to finish the concert. After the show, he stopped by my table to thank me again. He gave me a kitschy Mardi Gras trinket, which I've kept to this day.
The following week, he headlined during half-time of the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans.
Long live Allen Toussaint.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Never underestimate the healing power of Elmo.
This afternoon I spent my lunch hour in a Roosevelt University classroom talking with 45 kids who, on the surface, seemed to have little in common with me. Few of them looked anything like me. Most came from neighborhoods far more rugged than the North Side bungalow belt in which I live. And the vast majority of them would have been hard-pressed to name even two of the four Beatles.
But as I told the kids, who ranged in age from 10 to 14, we did share one important bond. We belonged to a “club” that, for better or worse, will continue to play a big role in shaping each of our lives. It’s a “club” that no kid wants to join, but its members don’t have a choice.
We were initiated into that “club” when, as kids, we each experienced the death of at least one of our parents. For my money, I told the kids, that meant we had something in common that was far more important than, say, a shared love of the Chicago Bulls.
The kids and I met because they are taking part in a two-week day camp called “Hands Together, Hearts on Art.” The camp, now in its seventh year, uses the arts to help kids deal (at many different levels) with the loss of a parent. I had not heard of the camp until a few weeks ago, when one of my cousins, who happens to work at Roosevelt, suggested that I share my own story with the kids.
I’m a pushover, so I signed on.
I had thirty minutes to fill. I explained to the kids not only how I gained admission to the “club” – my 39-year-old dad dropped dead from a heart attack at work in 1978 – but also how I spent the next ten years living an aimless, day-to-day existence, all because I saw no point in planning for a future that could be so easily snatched away. When I asked the kids whether any of them had had similar feelings, a lot of hands shot up.
We then talked about how to recognize and hopefully move beyond such a highly negative world view. I didn’t profess to have a lot of answers, but I did tell the kids this much. At some point in my early twenties, I acknowledged that the life expectancy tables might be right, and there was a good chance that I might actually live to be an old man.
Having made that leap, I then decided to start living life with an eye to the future -- trying to set longer-term goals while still taking some pleasure in the moment. The kids then asked me a lot of great questions, and I answered them honestly. I know some of what they’re going through right now, and I’m rooting for all of them to enjoy what’s left of their childhoods.
Which brings me back to Elmo.
Since the camp is an arts-themed camp, I brought my acoustic guitar with me. I told the kids that my dad had sparked my love of music by spinning his old records for me when I was little, and then telling me tales about folks like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Little Richard when I was a bit older. To this day, a large number of the songs I perform in taverns are tunes I learned from my dad.
And I was all set to play one of those songs for the campers until I noticed two kids -- one boy and one girl -- on opposite sides of the room wearing Sesame Street t-shirts. The boy was sporting a blue Cookie Monster shirt; the girl had opted for a resplendent red offering from the Elmo collection.
So I called an audible: “Elmo . . . Cookie Monster. Come up here with me.” The kids grudgingly wandered up to the front of the room. I then channeled my inner Elmo and kicked into a rousing version of “Elmo’s Song.”
Ten seconds into the tune, every teen and pre-teen voice in that room was singing every word of “Elmo’s Song” along with me. Not something I’d normally expect from kids that age, but these kids appeared to have gotten comfortable enough with each other over two weeks that they weren’t afraid to get a little silly.
I then blasted through a quick version of “C Is For Cookie” for my buddy in the blue t-shirt, but he was less than impressed.
With the Sesame Street songbook out of the way, I moved back to my dad’s record collection. Before launching into the next tune (a #2 smash for both Bobby Day in 1958 and Michael Jackson in 1972), I told the kids that I’d be happy to have them as background singers and dancers if the spirit moved them.
And wouldn’t you know it -- halfway through the first verse of “Rockin’ Robin,” three of my background singers jumped to their feet, got behind me, and worked out their choreography on the spot. By the time I hit the first chorus, two-thirds of the kids in the room were “on stage” with me, entertaining their friends who were still sitting on the floor.
It was a heck of a way to spend my lunch hour.