Sunday, April 22, 2018

Whitey O'Day: A Remembrance

“Matt, I’m having trouble remembering how to play a C chord on my guitar. Where do I put my first two fingers? And can you remind me how the first verse of King Of The Road goes?” When my cell phone rang on a Saturday afternoon last July, and I saw that it was my old friend Whitey O’Day calling, I did not expect our conversation to begin with those questions.

After all, when I first met Whitey, in a Lincoln Park tavern in the fall of 1982, I watched him hold a Saturday night barroom crowd in the palm of his hand, using only his acoustic guitar, his encyclopedic knowledge of old songs, and (of course) his captivating charm and wit.

I was a sophomore at Northwestern University at that time. I’d not yet started playing guitar, but I was already a music geek, who spent way too much time and money in local record stores. Walking into that bar in 1982 with several of my college buddies, I had no idea I was about to begin a friendship that would last 35 years, much less one that would inspire me to become an occasional barroom singer.

What I quickly figured out that night from my table ten feet from the stage at Irish Eyes was that Whitey O’Day knew how to work a room. He wasn’t a virtuoso guitarist, and he didn’t possess an other-worldly vocal range, but he definitely had a gift, and it was a gift I watched him employ reflexively at bars, festivals, and private parties over the years, even after recent health issues triggered a decline in his music skills.

If you were in the crowd at one of Whitey's gigs, he’d always make it a point to say hello during a break. He’d also remember your name, and he’d ask whether there was something he could play for you. If he knew the song you requested (usually a safe bet), he’d hit it early in the next set, and he’d generally give you a nod in the process: “Let’s do one for Jim over there, who wants to hear something by the late Don Gibson . . . “

And you could take it to the bank that the next time Jim wandered into one of Whitey’s gigs, Whitey would remember him: “Jim, good to see you, my friend; we’ll have to do some Don Gibson for you in a few minutes.”

And that, from my perspective, was the magic of Whitey O’Day. He made people feel at home in a tavern by making sure there was no wall between him and his audience. He was able to do that because he was a genuinely nice guy, who enjoyed the challenge of making a friend out of every stranger who entered the bar.

After my first night at Irish Eyes, my college friends and I continued to make the occasional pilgrimage to Lincoln Park to see Whitey. To eliminate our CTA commute, however, I made it a point to book some gigs for him on campus. He appreciated the work, and he and I often ended up grabbing a post-gig breakfast at 2 a.m. at a nearby pancake house. It was during those late-night chats that we got to know each other a little better.

About a year after I finished college, I told Whitey I’d recently started playing guitar. I’d been learning on a friend’s instrument, but I was now in the market for one of my own. As it turned out, Whitey was looking to unload one of his guitars, and he gave me a great deal on an Ovation Legend, which I played for many years.

In the mid-1990s, after I felt comfortable playing and singing in front of people, Whitey invited me to play a few tunes during a break at one of his gigs. I greatly appreciated that opportunity. I must have held my own that night because after my first mini-performance, he always invited me back to the stage, whenever I popped in to see him.

Years later, I began playing gigs of my own, eventually getting to work with some incredibly talented Chicago musicians. At that point, if Whitey had a night off and I had a gig, he’d frequently stop by and sit in, and I always got a big kick out of that. Unlike me, Whitey worked primarily as a solo act. And I’m confident he loved sitting in with me because it meant he’d be accompanied by my buddy Steve Doyle (pictured below, blonde Telecaster in hand), one of the city’s best guitar players, on whatever old tunes he sang for my crowd. Whitey absolutely loved Steve’s playing.

The years eventually caught up with Whitey, as they do with all of us. Problems with his feet made it difficult for him to walk and even more difficult for him to lug musical equipment, but it was a pair of recent strokes that made it increasingly hard for Whitey to do what he really loved to do — play and sing for people on barstools.

After his second stroke, in April 2017, I stopped by the Glenview rehab facility where he was staying. I brought a guitar with me because I wanted to test his memory and his motor skills. (After his first stroke, he began playing gigs with a songbook; the lyrics that had always been second nature to him were no longer on the tip of his tongue.) I wheeled him out of his room and down to the building’s lobby. We set up shop in a corner, I played my guitar — he was unable to do so — and we sang. I called out songs that he’d sung thousands of times before. At first, we kept our volume low. Finally, I said, “The hell with it, Whitey; let’s do this like we mean it.”

At that, he and I began singing like we were again entertaining at a local bar. The lyrics occasionally escaped him, but Whitey and I soldiered on, as patients and their families quickly gathered around to listen. They applauded and requested songs. We played and sang for almost an hour, and Whitey had a smile on his face throughout the afternoon. Over the next few months, he told me many times how much that day meant to him. I told him that I always enjoyed the opportunity to play music with him.

Then came the July phone conversation during which it became clear to me that Whitey’s guitar playing days were likely over. When he told me he couldn’t remember how to finger a C chord or sing King Of The Road, I told him not to worry. Recovery takes time, I said. It was only then that he explained he’d booked a three-hour gig at Hackney’s for the following week. Whitey had been playing at Hackney’s since Reagan was in the White House, and now that he was out of rehab he wanted to start working again.

Given our conversation that day, I knew he’d have trouble with even a fifteen-minute gig. I asked him if he’d like me to accompany him at Hackney’s. That way, he wouldn’t have to worry about playing the guitar, and he could focus on his singing and on his (still-adoring) fans. He told me that would be a big help. I brought my PA system because I didn’t want him to have to carry anything.

We ham-and-egged our way through the gig, but it was tough for me to see my friend struggle that night to do what he’d done so well for decades. We talked at length several times over the next few weeks about some strategies for relearning the guitar.

I did my last Hackney’s gig with him in January 2018, and it was a rough night. Whitey desperately wanted to be back on the circuit, picking and singing for his longtime friends and fans, but his battered body did not want to cooperate.

Whitey passed away on Saturday, April 21. He was 76 years old. There won’t be a gig I play, right up to the time someone takes the guitar out of my hands, when I don’t think of Whitey.

See you on the ice, brother.

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