Greer Stadium, June 2014

NASHVILLE, Tn.—The guitar shaped electronic scoreboard always struck a chord with me.

It was a sweat-crawling evening in 1993 when I saw my first game at Herschel Greer Stadium, the home of the Class AAA Nashville Sounds. The 53-feet tall, 60-feet wide guitar scoreboard offered an immediate sense of where you were.

Music City. Big dreams.

The big ax in center field would be like having a handgun shaped scoreboard in Chicago. Or a parking meter.

On my first visit to Greer I heard about Conway Twitty being a part owner of the Sounds and that resonated with me. I liked country music then more than the pop stuff I hear on the radio today.

Well, now Conway is dead and Greer ain’t feeling too good either.

After 37 years, Greer is making its last call. A new downtown stadium is being built on the historic site of Sulphur Dell (Athletic Park) where baseball was played between 1870 and 1963.

Greer is the third oldest Class AAA ballpark in America, behind McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I. (1942) and Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash. (1960).

Greer is going out quietly. There is not a lot of fanfare and farewell promotions. I planned a late June Nashville trip to get a commemorative Greer Stadium giveaway. Something went wrong in production and I walked away with a Don Mattingly Sounds tee shirt. He played for the Sounds in 1981.

My favorite minor league baseball scoreboard was not up to par. The temperature section of the scoreboard did not work because old parts are hard to find. At one time a Jack Daniel’s logo adorned the pegheads on the neck of the guitar. Now there are yellow smiley faces.

Die-hard locals talk about the ramshackle condition of the stadium (cap. 10,300) as if it were a crazy uncle. Bleacher seats are weather beaten. The concourses are Greer are moldy and rusty. That’s why I find Greer so beautiful.

Everything doesn’t have to be clean and pretty. The best country music is ragged but right.

Honesty was in the air when I visited Greer and that is a good thing.

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I met Farrell Owens, the first Sounds general manager (1978-82). His father Leonard was a Church of Christ minister and Owens speaks with the deep and pure rhythms of a preacher. I met Sounds historian Bill Traughber, a thorough man who sends me background stories in the middle of the night. Memories always come alive in the dark. I watched the game with my brother Doug, who lives in Nashville. We kept score.

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes – not that you won or lost –

But how you played the Game.”—Grantland Rice.

Doug and I discussed the idea of writing this dispatch in the overly poetic style of Tennessee sportswriter Grantland Rice. It was Grantland who tagged Athletic Park with the name Sulphur Dell. Athletic Park was built in an area known as “Sulphur Springs Bottom” because of a natural sulphur spring.

Sulphur Dell (Courtesy of the Nashville Sounds)

Sulphur Dell (Courtesy of the Nashville Sounds)

“The story goes that in 1908 ‘Dell’ made it easier for him to find words to rhyme with,” Traughber said.

And during my June visit a gentle rain came over Greer towards the end of top Brewer prospect Jimmy Nelson’s 5-0 masterpiece over New Orleans.

Evoking the spirit of Grantland, I told my brother the raindrops were honey-soaked tears in my beer at Greer. He did not walk away.

Before my final game at Greer I met Owens and Traughber in the grandstands behind home plate.

Owens looked out at the stadium and said, “It’s changed some but the guts are the same. We didn’t have suites.”

Owens pointed to a cluster of faded blue seats behind the first base dugout. “We got those seats from the (Fulton-County Stadium) outfield from the Atlanta Braves,” he said.  “We were not a new stadium when we were new. We didn’t have electricity 30 minutes before the game. But people came, drank their beer and ate their hot dogs. We won. Everyone was happy.” Nashville beat Savannah 12-4, even though Sounds relief pitcher Larry Rothschild gave up three runes in one-third of an inning.

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Herschel Greer (1906-1976) was a successful Nashville financier and huge baseball fan. He served as the first president of the Vols, Inc. which kept professional baseball alive in Nashville.

The Vols (Volunteers) were the name of the team that played in Nashville between 1901 and 1963 and included alumni like Kiki Cuyler and future Cincinnati Reds Jim Maloney and Jim O’Toole. Greer Stadium was built for $780,000 in seven months on the site of four church league softball fields.

 

Larry Schmittou was the original owner of the Sounds. He operated the team from its 1978 beginning until 1996 when he retired from minor league baseball. “It was the mid-1990s (1993) when he wanted to do that scoreboard,” Owens said. “At the beginning Larry and I thought we were going to sell enough season tickets and we couldn’t. We decided to form a partnership.”

The major investors included country stars Twitty, Larry Gatiln, Cal Smith, Jerry “Amos Moses” Reed and Richard Sterban (bass singer of the Oak Ridge Boys). This is why they are called the Sounds.

“(Bill Anderson, Dottie West drummer) Snuffy Miller liked the idea,” Owens said. “He talked to Conway about it. Conway loved baseball. Conway said he’d get Cal Smith, the country bumpkin. Know him? Conway took 20 per cent. Conway would call wanting to know what the score was. I don’t know where he was calling from.” Miller retired from the music business and became a bus driver for the Sounds.

Owens said, “Richard Sterban started coming to every game. He kept wanting me to sell my seven and a half per cent. So I sold him two and a half. He was in until this new regime (East Coast real estate developer Frank Ward bought the Sounds after the 2009 season.) A couple years ago the Sounds had a Richard Sterban bobble head night. “National Anthem” guests have included country stars Lorrie Morgan and Boots Randolph.

Sounds fan Barbara Mandrell and Farrell Owens. (Courtesy of Nashville Sounds)

Sounds fan Barbara Mandrell and Farrell Owens. (Courtesy of Nashville Sounds)

 

“Roy Acuff just loved coming here,” Owens continued. . I remember seeing Emmylou Harris and NRBQ’S Joey Spampinato  (who was married to the late Skeeter Davis) sitting behind the Sounds dugout during one visit. “Emmylou is here a lot,” Owens said.

“Barbara Mandrell was here all the time. She’s a sweetheart. Loretta Lynn. Charley Pride (former Negro League player) was here, not as much as the others. We don’t think anything about it. But Jimmy Bragan (late Southern League president) and his brother Bobby would get star struck if they saw country stars in the stands. When we got ready to bring pro ball back to Nashville that really helped us. They would say, ‘Do you know Roy Acuff? We didn’t but after the first pitch we got to know him. It was a place to be seen. Hopefully when we get the new stadium it will get back like that.”

Some beloved ghosts will be left behind at Greer.

Joe “Black Cat” Riley was the colorful type of fan who stands out in the intimacy of ramshackle minor league ballparks. “He went back to Sulphur Dell, selling programs, whatever,” Owens said. “He had some intellectual disabilities. A loveable guy. He thought he could put the black cat on you. When George Steinbrenner came here in 1980 (as a Yankees affiliate) they became instant friends.” Riley told Steinbrenner he always wanted to be a Yankees bat boy. For the next few years Steinbrenner brought Riley to spring training in Florida to serve as the team’s bat boy, wearing the classic pinstripes.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter was the Sounds 1980 opening day DH when they were a Yankees affiliate. Showalter was more reserved than he is today and shyly told Owens he was interested in dating a “Soundette” cheerleader named Angela.

They have now been married 31 years.

The new Sulphur Dell stadium will be called First Tennessee Park. It is scheduled to be completed by opening day, 2015. First Tennessee Park is just north of downtown and along the Sulphur Dell banks of the Cumberland River. Ironically, Nashville is a member of the Pacific Coast League.

Sulphur Dell’s right field fence was only 262 feet from home plate and the base of the fence was just 25 feet above the infield. Pitchers called the place “Suffer Hell.” In 1954 future Chicago Cub Bob Lennon hit 64 home runs for the Nashville Vols, establishing a Southern Association record. Lennon, who was left-handed, smacked 42 of his taters at Sulphur Dell.

Farrell Owens, June 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Farrell Owens, June 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Owens, 70, grew up going to games at the Dell. “I thought every field was 262 to right and had a dump in right field,” he said. The sulphur spring beyond right field was stinky but that didn’t prevent residents from filling up buckets of spring water for medicinal purposes. Hee-Haw!

“We heard stories that when Babe Ruth came here they wouldn’t let him play right field.,” Owens said. “They moved him to left. My Dad would hold summer time revivals to get us through school, buy our clothes I guess. The revivals would start at the same time the ball game did. But when church was over, we’d go to Sulphur Dell. Because you could always get in by the seventh inning stretch. It was free. I remember hearing Jim Maloney throwing the ball. You could hear the pop in the catcher’s mitt on the radio.”

Archaeologists are monitoring the building of the new ball park.

Earlier this year Native American pottery, ceramics and animal bones were discovered while unearthing the site. No human remains have been found. First Tennessee Park is not the first baseball stadium to be built on an ancient burial ground. Many reports say Wrigley Field is “an ivy-covered burial ground,” as late Chicago songwriter Steve Goodman put it in “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

No one is sure what will happen to the dying guitar scoreboard at Greer. It was estimated to cost nearly $1 million to move and restore it to the new stadium. But a new, 4,200- high definition scoreboard will be featured at First Tennessee Park. It will be one of the largest scoreboards in minor league baseball.

“That is an  absolute must,” Toronto pitcher and Nashville native R.A. Dickey said in the Nashville Tennessean. “I might have boycotted all future games if they changed it. I grew up with that scoreboard. So many great memories.” Shredders unite. As Grantland Rice might write, it’s a new highway to Dell.

 

 

 

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Jim Brosnan pitched for the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals. He was a fearless craftsman. He once struck out Willie Mays three times in one game. Between 1956 and 1963 Mr. Brosnan compiled a lifetime ERA of 3.54. He was also a splendid writer.

In the summer of 2004 I took Mr.  Brosnan to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Chicago-based publisher Ivan R. Dee had just reissued Mr.Brosnan’s groundbreaking 1959 diary “The Long Season” and 1962’s “The Pennant Race.” These honest accounts of the game and the business of baseball would become the template for best sellers like Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” and Bill Veeck’s “Veeck as in Wreck.”

Writing is not the best way to make money.

I told him if he played baseball today he would be a multi-millionaire.

“Quitting didn’t bother me,” he said. “I was a writer. I was going to be a writer.”

Conviction is  the first step to being a writer. Incongruity is the second step. Humility isn’t bad either. Mr. Brosnan touched all those bases with dignity and eloquence.

Mr. Brosnan died June 28 of complications from a stroke in Park Ridge, according to the July 4 New York Times.com.  He was 84. His passing has been ignored by Chicago media.

Mr. Brosnan quietly kept notes on a pad while sitting in the bullpen during a game. He never showed his manuscripts to anybody. Not even his roommates. Besides writing books, Mr. Brosnan wrote book reviews for the New York Times and the Chicago Daily News. For 25 years he was the baseball writer for Boy’s Life magazine. In the spring of 1968 he wrote articles for the Chicago Tribune magazine like “Moe Drabowsky Leads the League in Supernonproductive Outs,” and the eternally hopeful “Bonehead Baseball is Out, Out, Out at Wrigley Field.”

On road trips Mr Brosnan would pack books by Dostoevsky (not Drabowsky) and John Updike. He also carried a blue-gray 1960s portable Olivetti typewriter.

The typewriter broke in early 2004 when it fell off a shelf. He did not own a computer. He did not have e-Mail. Mr. Brosnan said he stopped writing after his typewriter went down. I wish I had made the effort to stay in touch with him.

Jim Brosnan (Associated Press photo)

Jim Brosnan (Associated Press photo)

Mr. Brosnan liked to zig when the others zagged. He was friends with S.I. Hayakawa, who was teaching at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950s. Hayakawa, who died in 1992, moved to San Francisco in 1955 and was later elected to the U.S. Senate from California.

“In 1958 I was with the Reds and we were in San Francisco,” Mr. Brosnan told me as we watched Cubs pitcher Mark Prior (Mr. Brosnan complained about Prior bugging the plate umpire for missing pitches.)  “He [Hayakawa] calls me on the telephone and says we’re going to see [jazz great] Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. He was a big baseball fan, too. I gave him a baseball cap.”

This, of course, is before ball players were addicted to Game Boys.

Mr. Brosnan’s book collection included all of Ogden Nash’s poetry books and the entire 17-volume edition of Mark Twain’s writings, which he inherited from his wife’s family.

In 1958 Mr. Brosnan wrote a diary piece about his season with the Cardinals. He sent the story to a new magazine called Sports Illustrated. An editor at Harper & Row saw the article and asked the pitcher if he could expand his text. “Win or lose, it didn’t make any difference to him,” Mr. Brosnan said. A good editor is about latitude.

And with that, the seeds of “The Long Season” were planted.

The baseball community did not like the book. Cardinals broadcaster Joe Garagiola called Mr. Brosnan a “cooky beatnik.” Mr. Brosnan’s St. Louis manager Solly Hemus offered this blurb: “You think Brosnan’s writing was funny? Wait until you see him pitch.’ Future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson  nicknamed Mr. Brosnan “The Professor,” due in part to his Coke-bottle glasses.

In “The Long Season” Mr. Brosnan wrote about scheming with fellow pitcher and future Cub Ernie Broligio on how they would soft toss to each other so they could get some base hits. Mr. Brosnan was called into Commissioner Ford Frick’s office for that passage. Frick wanted to ban “The Long Season.”

Writers loved “The Long Season.” Iconic New York columnist Red Smith wrote, “A cocky book, caustic and candid, and in  way courageous…he doesn’t hesitate to name names and employ ridicule like a stiletto.”

Mr. Brosnan was born on the west side of Cincinnati. His Irish father John was a lathe operator at the Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. His German mother Elizabeth was a piano teacher and nurse. Between the ages of 10 and 15 Mr. Brosnan divided his time between ball fields and the library. “I read whatever my mother told me to read,” he told me. “Until I got a hold of Joseph Altsheler’s early 1900s novels. Nowadays, I can’t find him in the Morton Grove, Evanston or Niles library. From him, I learned how to distinguish the good words from the bad words. I learned about voice.”

Mr. Brosnan learned how to develop his conversational, yet direct style. He liked James Thurber. The only baseball-related momento Mr. Brosnan kept in his house was a Thurber sketch of a baseball catcher that he hung in his bathroom. Thurber had invited Mr. Brosnan to be a guest on his Sunday talk show in New York City.

Mr. Brosnan learned new word by playing crossword puzzles.

He liked one sentence paragraphs.

Mr. Brosnan saw the writing in the wall in 1963 when the Reds shipped him to the White Sox for the weirdly named pitcher Dom Zanni. “When I arrived at the airport, [Sox general manager] Ed Short met me and said, “You can’t write here either. Period.  I was hoping for a little better welcome than that. I responded with a four-letter word that begins with ‘F.’Hey, by that time I had sold two pieces, one to Atlantic Monthly and the other to Sport magazine.”

In March, 1964 the American Civil Liberties Union intervened and accused the White Sox of violating Mr. Brosnan’s rights. Short offered  Mr. Brosnan another contract in the spring of 1964 that included a drop in salary and a formal ban on writing without approval of management.

Mr. Brosnan retired from baseball.

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Mr. Bronsan and I stayed for the entire game on a sunny summer afternoon. The old 6’4″ pitcher had trouble standing up for the seventh-inning stretch. He grabbed a box seat for support. He had endured two knee replacement operations. I brought Mr. Brosnan’s “Pennant Race” to the game.  I leaned over and read Mr. Brosnan one of my favorite passages:

To get to [Cincinnati’s] Crosley Field, I usually take a bus through the old, crumbling streets of the Bottoms. Blacks stand on the corners watching their homes fall down. The insecurity of being in the second division of the National League–in the cellar-leaves me. For 25 cents, the bus ride gives me enough humility to get me through any baseball game, or season.”

Mr. Brosnan fidgeted in his seat. He looked away and then looked at me.

“That was one of the best writing days I ever had,” he said of that passage. “I finished that about 5 in the morning. Writing it over and over, trying to get in everything I felt, but also to stick it in somewhere. We were going to play a lot of games.”

Mr. Brosnan saw things in life that others missed.

His measured sense of perception is what made him a gifted pitcher and a precious writer.

Mr. Brosnan’s wife of  62 years– Ann Pitcher–true–died last year. They lived together for 58 years in the same house in Morton Grove. He is survived by children Jamie, Tim and Kimberlee, a brother Michael and four grandchildren.

A memorial visitation will be at  Simkins Funeral Home, 6251 Dempster St. Morton Grove, Sunday, July 20th from 1 p.m. until  4 p.m. memorial service.  In lieu of flowers, donations to Paralyzed Veterans of America 801 18th St. NW Washington, D.C. 20006.

 

The World's Largest Drive-In Loew's M & R Loew's Double Drive-In. Opened in 1950 and closed in the mid- 90s. It was at 2800 W. Columbus near Marquette Park  in Chicago. The drive-in had three screens and  could accommodate 1,800 cars. (Photo by Jim Indreika, Courtesy of Theater Historical Society of America)

The World’s Largest Drive-In 
M & R Loew’s Double Drive-In. Opened in 1950 and closed in the mid- 90s. It was at 2800 W. Columbus near Marquette Park in Chicago. The drive-in had three screens and could accommodate 1,800 cars. (Photo by Jim Indreika, Courtesy of Theater Historical Society of America)

One good thing about Jimmy Buffett’s “Drive-Ins Nationwide” concert is how much easier it will be to get in and out of the parking lot than at Alpine Valley, Wis. or the First Midwest Bank Ampitheatre in Tinley Park, Ill.

Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band appear at 8:45  p.m. (CST) June 19 at the Coyote Drive-In at Panther Island in Fort Worth, Tx. The concert will be broadcast live to 87 drive-ins across America. It is also a test run for the new Margaritaville TV  station Buffett launched a couple of weeks ago. He may plug the station tonight on television with Jimmy Fallon.

No music act has ever synched up a concert with drive-ins.

Not even the Cars.

The closest Buffett concert venue to Chicago is the beautiful 49er Drive-In, 675 N. Calumet in Valparaiso, Ind. The ‘49er was built in 1956 and has nearly 600 parking spots.

Beginning at 4 p.m. June 19, those 21 and older can enjoy food, drinks and the live Island 49 band play from 5 p.m.-7:30 p.m. at the ’49er.  Tickets are $18 each and can be purchased by visiting Live at the Drive-In.

I’m for anything that brings attention to the plight of the American drive-in. And with so many people talking at concerts these days, here’s a concert where you can gab loudly in the privacy of your own car.

In his 1973  hit “Grapefruit/Juicy Fruit” Buffett sings: “Grapefruit, a bathin’ suit, chew a little juicy fruit/ Wash away the night. Drive in, you guzzle gin, commit a little mortal sin/ It’s good for the soul.”

That song was inspired by the Islander Drive-In on Stock Island, adjacent to Key West, Fla. The Islander opened in 1953 and closed in 1984.

Jimmy Buffett during his drive-in days.

Jimmy Buffett during his drive-in days.

According to his live album “You Had To Be There,” Buffett took a date to see the 1972 Rip Torn movie “Payday” (about a country singer who tours around the country in a Cadillac that amplifies his tendency for extreme behavior), where they mixed up cheap Gilbey’s Gin with Welch’s Grape Juice to create Purple Passions, and then “had a good go at it.”

Music on the film was provided by Ian and Sylvia Tyson as well as late Key West/Chicago resident Shel Silverstein.

The drive-in theater debuted in 1933 when tinkering chemist Richard Hollingshead erected a 30-by-40-foot screen behind his shop in Camden, N.J. The Chicago area’s first drive-theater was built in 1941 in Morton Grove.

By the late 1950s more than 4,000 drive-in movies were part of America’s landscape.

Today there are less than 350 drive-in movie theaters.

The drive-in theater took on television, VCR’s and DVD’s, but the death knell came as movie distributors transitioned  from 35 mm to digital film. Many operators cannot afford the conversion which can cost between $80,000 and $100,000.

Proceeds from the Buffett concert will be used to help drive-in theaters make the change.

I have a place in my heart for the Theater Historical Society of America in Elmhurst, Ill.

I grew up in the long shadow of the Skylark Drive-In on the border of Aurora and Naperville, Ill. The Skylark opened in 1962 as the wonderfully-named Tee & See because it was adjacent to a golf course.

As the Skylark in the mid-1970s I remember watching mainstream porn while drinking Sloe Gin Fizz’s in Row 5. Ironically, I would see half of the varsity golf team in Row 5. The Skylark closed in 1987.

What happened to the Skylark happened to many drive-in theaters. The land value became too much to support the theater. Unbeknownst to me, in May of 1988  my father wandered around the weedy parking lot to take pictures (the dates are marked on the back of the photos) and to salvage a couple of drive-in car speakers.

That is the curator in his soul.

Those Skylark car speakers are now in the Theater Historical Society of America museum. The museum also has drive-in signage, drive-in movie blueprints and digital copies of intermission drive-in reels.

“Drive-ins are getting even closer to extinction,” Richard Fosbrink, Theatre Historical Society Executive Director told me on Monday. “The studios are stopping all print releases very soon. If people have not converted to digital now, they won’t be able to. Converting to digital was a cost saving measure for the film studios. It is much easier for them to ship a plastic box with a digital hard drive than an actual film print. And then there’s the decaying issue with film. When drive-ins closed at the end of last season many have not reopened in the last six weeks.”

Last year Honda launched Project Drive-In, which awarded nine digital projectors to vintage drive-ins based on over 2 million votes. Drive-in lovers Maroon 5 contributed an autographed license plate as part of the fund raising drive.

Visit Project Drive-In to see the interactive map of drive-ins across the country.

To make a real event out of the Buffett concert, fans can also trek to the Midway Drive-In in Dixon, Ill. or the Field of Scenes in Freedom, Wis. And should you miss the Buffett show, America’s greatest rock n’ roll band NRBQ with Chicagoans Scott Ligon and  Casey McDonough will be at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn  at 9 p.m. June 21.

No one has recorded a better drive-in song than NRBQ’s 1983 pop hit “Rain at the Drive-In.”

Find your partner on South Oakley Street. That’s my pal Jack D’Amico on vocals (Photos by Lou Bilotti)

Like a locket that hangs close to your heart, the Oakley Festa Pasta Vino Italian Festival  is timeless.

And it swings, too!

Taste of Oakley, as it is more commonly known, is my favorite summer Chicago neighborhood festival. It takes place Father’s Day weekend along the overlooked enclave of Oakley Avenue and 24th Street and incorporates superb family run restaurants like Bruna’s Ristorante, 2424 S. Oakley and La Fontanella, 2414 S. Oakley, a favorite of the late great Chicago Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno.

There is zero hipster factor at Taste of Oakley. People are wearing black, sure, but it is all in their hair. The tradeoff is families enjoying Italian Ice and ravioli on humble city stoops. Bookings include Frank Sinatra impersonator Jack D’Amico, who appears with a trio in a salute to Tony Bennett (7 p.m. June 13) and festival organizer Ron Onesti hosting a tribute to the late crooner Jerry Vale with Johnny Maggio and Jack Miucccio and Vale video clips (7:45 p.m. June 13 on the main stage.) Vale was the first singer to have a song inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame with his 1963 recording of  “The Star-Spangled Banner” that was played at Yankee Stadium.

At the trendiest Chicago festivals you will hear the Beastie Boys.

Expect lots of Jersey Boys at Taste of Oakley.

The long standing storefront restaurants and twinkling Italian lights of the Oakley neighborhood remind me of Arthur Avenue in the Little Italy section of the Bronx, N.Y.

It reminds Onesti of something much deeper.

Onesti grew up on Taylor Street, about 14 blocks north of Oakley.

His late father Alberto was a World War II veteran and a custom tailor at his father’s tailor shop, 1020 S. Western at Taylor. Onesti, 52, began his life in the same building where his father was born. His mother Gabriella is from Florence and Alberto was from Salerno near Naples, Italy. Alberto met Gabriella in Florence during World War II.

Ron Onesti

Ron Onesti

“My wife is from the Oakley neighborhood,” Onetsi said in a recent phone interview. “When I was in high school I came across that neighborhood…..

“Hello father…”

Onesti was talking while donating food to the Our Lady of Mt. Caramel Church in Melrose Park and Father Feccia of the Italian Cultural Center walked by.

Onesti stopped to spread the good word and continued, “In high school I took about 9 girls from Oakley Street to proms and dances. I happened upon those restaurants. About 10 years after that the neighborhood was going down and they wanted to establish a festival. I had been doing Italian festivals since I was 17 years old at Navy Pier and other places. The people on Oakley asked me to help them. And now this is the 24th year.”

The neighborhood is called “The Heart of Italy in the Heart of Chicago” and Bruna’s is the oldest restaurant on the strip. Bruna Cani opened the restaurant in 1933 and still features original oil-painted murals.

This weekend stop by the La Fontanella booth where owner-chef Franco Gamberale will be cheerfully dishing out arancini (rice balls), stuffed arthichokes, beef and grilled sausages.

Somehow I don’t see Grant Achatz doing this on a Saturday night in Chicago.

“The festival brings new blood to the area,” Gamberale said on Wednesday afternoon. “Otherwise people have no idea where we are at. It’s like a little island. Most of the old timers have moved out or died out. How are we going to replace them? At one time you couldn’t walk down the sidewalks of this neighborhood, but that was before the corporate honchos like Mia Franchesa and Rosebud. We don’t use steam tables. We don’t use deep fryers. We still cook the old fashioned way, everything fresh. We don’t have a frozen truck delivering anything here.”

Gamberale and his wife-chef Maria have owned La Fontanella for 28 years. The restaurant opened in 1971.

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Onesti said,  “It is a rare situation of the locals maintaining their ground. The (half-dozen) restaurants hanging around have a lot to do with it hanging in there. For the most part everybody who owns those restaurants lives there.”

About 20,000 people attend the three-day festival, which always concludes on Father’s Day with a special mass. (Suggested donation is $7)

“I try real hard to avoid the hipster thing,” Onesti said. “I didn’t create the feel of that neighborhood. That feel is there. I’m very specific on the vendors who come in. It’s all Italian style, but it is real good stuff–if you like that stuff.

“Being Italian-American in Chicago, the word ‘neighborhood’ is almost as close to the word ‘church’ Growing up, within walking distance of our block there was the butcher shop, the candy store, the pharmacy. Dante Peluso was the guy who owned Peruso’s Hardware Store. Bobby Botelli was ‘Bobby the Grocery Store.’ Cam’s was the restaurant on the corner, the guys from Superior Bakery at Western and Taylor. It’s always been about neighborhoods, unlocked doors and no T.V. People were out. People shared.”

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These days the President of Onesti Entertainment is best known as the owner of the beautiful 900-seat Arcada Theatre in west suburban St. Charles. The Arcada is to Cialis what metal was to the Congress (in Chicago).

The 1926 St. Charles Vaudeville house features upcoming headliners like Devo (June 21), the great Johnny Rivers (Aug. 30) and ex-Runaway Lita Ford (Sept. 12).

No idea is a bad idea for Onesti.

He is forming a volunteer “Rock n’ Roll Board of Directors” that will offer ideas on how to book the Arcada. There will be a board for the musical decades of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s that will meet monthly.

“I’ll have an open bar for the meetings,” Onesti told me. “I’ll give them something to eat from the Italian side of me.”

So I could be on the 1960s board and ask Onesti to book the remaining members of the Troggs–even though lead singer Reg Presley is dead.

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“Absoultely,” Onesti answered. “It is all a function of what they would want to charge. Or I  might have Eric Burdon call in on the speaker phone. I had Creed Bratton at the Arcada. People said, ‘Oh, he’s that crusty old man on (the NBC-TV hit series) ‘The Office.’ I didn’t realize it, he was a friggin founding member of the Grass Roots (he played on the band’s first four albums) . I looked into it and brought him in. He came acoustically and I did it cabaret style. He did some songs, storytelling, we did a Q & A about the Grass Roots and ‘The Office.’ It was friggin’ marvelous.

“I’m trying to foster a culture that loves this music. The guy who has $10,000 worth of Armani suits but comes to my show in a Who tee-shirt.

And its been working. People bring their concerns or questions about the music to me all the time. It happened so much I decided to organize it. It doesn’t cost anything, I’m not selling them anything. It gives people a forum outside of a bar situation to talk about their love of music of a particular era. If you’re a ‘60s guy, you’re a friggin’ 60s guy. You dress like it. You got some funky hair going and a big old bushy moustache. I love the classics. The people I’ve had at the Arcada like Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney, Englebert. I have Ed McMahon on tape going, “Heeeeere’s Ronnny!’ I mean, who has that stuff?”

Wild thing.

 

Steve Goodman's Wayne Avenue apartment circa 1972, L to R: Earl Pionke, Goodman, John Prine, Jimmy Buffett, Ed Holstein and Fred Holstein

Steve Goodman’s Chicago  apartment 1972, L to R: Earl Pionke, Goodman, John Prine, Jimmy Buffett, Ed Holstein and Fred Holstein

In 1974 Chicago club owner Earl Pionke partnered up with the late singer songwriters Steve Goodman and Fred Holstein (along with Bill Redhead and Duke Nathaus) to open the North Lincoln Avenue music room  “Somebody Else’s Troubles.”

The club was named after Goodman’s second album.

Although Earl died in April, 2013 at the age of 80, he is still playing that song.

Earl was a Type A pack rat. In 1993 Earl and his girl friend Sharon Biggerstaff moved into the former Landmark Inn, 111th and Langley in Pullman. Earl’s dream was to open an Earl of Pullman nightclub in the space, which dates back to 1880.

The three-story building has 13 individual bedrooms on the top floor, a two-bedroom apartment and one bedroom apartment on the second floor and a kitchen adjacent to the main floor restaurant.

“It was the second hotel (to the Florence) in Pullman,” said Mike Shymanski, President of the Historic Pullman Foundation in an interview earlier this year.

Sharon Biggerstaff at the Earl of Pullman, March 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Sharon Biggerstaff at the Earl of Pullman, March 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

 

 

The building was recently sold and  Sharon is holding an estate sale from 11 a.m to 5 p.m. this Saturday, June 7 at the house.

Please help her out!

Items include several juke boxes, including one from Somebody Else’s Troubles, a cigarette machine, a Victrola from the 1920′s, vintage sewing machines, furniture, many lamps, a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder with turntable, a short wave radio console and dressers.

Somebody else’s troubles, for sure.

Looking for a King Size bed from an Earl.

This is your place.

There’s also candleholders, a couple hundred ’78s,  and a vintage piano from the Sieben’s Brewery in Chicago. Sharon has the original Earl of Old Town sign (not for sale, paging the Chicago History Museum), and signage from Somebody Else’s Troubles. “Earl didn’t throw anything away,” Sharon sighed with a laugh.

Sharon even inherited the signs from The Sneak Joynt, (NFS) the private after hours club that Earl’s nephew and the late Steve Beshekas ran behind the Earl of Old Town, 1615 N. Wells, across the street from The Second City and That Steak Joynt. The Sneak Joynt morphed into the private after-hour swinging “Blues Brothers” bar operated by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. This was before Chicago became known for Divvy bikes.

June 16 is the closing date for the sale. Sharon is unsure who exactly purchased the building, only knowing it is a LLC partnership from California with Pullman ties.

“There was talk of a bed and breakfast,” she told me Wednesday afternoon. “There was talk of splitting it into four suites. They want to keep the bar but gut the rest of it.”

High-school-dance

 

The main floor is anchored by a mahogany and oak Brunswick bar that can serve up to 25 people.

Before becoming the Landmark Inn, in the early 1960s the bar and restaurant was the site of Stanley Jay’s, a live polka club that served the Eastern European population of the far south side.

“The new owners  have a lot of work to do, I’ll tell you that much,” Sharon said.

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Sky high on a steady beat.

A resplendent mural honoring Chicago house legend Frankie Knuckles was completed late last night atop a building that houses a European clothing store on 2958 W. Fullerton at Sacramento Ave.

Passengers on the El’s Blue Line can see a detailed portrait of the smiling DJ who died March 31 at age 59. It sure beats the picture of “Chicagoan” Chuck Berry who greets passengers of the El at Midway airport.

The Knuckles mural is between 30 and 40 feet long. The work of art was completed coincidentally in time for tonight’s Frankie Knuckles Tribute  and dance party at Millennium Park. Mike Winston, Knuckles’ original opening DJ at the Power Plant will deliver an 8:15 p.m. set.

“I knew this had to be done,”  Chicago born DJ/producer/graffiti artist Mike Tupak said in a Tuesday afternoon conversation on the hot rubber roof. “It was a matter of getting the right people together–and getting the wall, which was the most important thing. We actually had another wall lined up on Milwaukee across the street from the Congress (theater) and two days before we were supposed to start they pulled the plug on us, saying corporate was going to do advertisement.”

Chicago artist B-Boy-B obtained permission from the building’s landlord to use the wall, which faces downtown. The entire wall was done in spray paint.

Besides Tupak and B-Boy B, the collective included Skol, (Rahmaan) Statik, Mugs, Flash and Des. They started the work on May 30. “With this blazing sun killing us all day,” said Tupak, who lives in Jefferson Park. “Statik came Saturday night to do the portrait. We worked all day Sunday and put the finishing touches on it Monday.”

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It took between 18 and 20 hours to finish the mural. The artists were not paid. The group paid for the paint and supplies out of their own pocket.

The collective did not listen to much music while they worked.

“It was strange,” said Tupak, 31. “Normally the train is running but due to the Blue line work on the weekend it was closed. It was the most eerie feeling for a graffiti writer who comes at night and creeps around on these kinds of roofs. You’re used to that train passing by. We had a little bit of music (hip-hop, house salsa), but we had no power so it was not like we plugged in a radio or anything.

“But we all had Frankie’s beat in our head.”

Tupak never met Knuckles but he did attend Knuckles January 12, 2013  birthday party  at the Smart Bar. “That’s when I knew I wanted to play house music as a DJ,” Tupak said. “There was something in the room that night. I’ve been doing hip hop and house for a long time, but I learned that night what to focus on.”

Tupak is a member of Chicago Mural Works, the 14-year-old group who did the fireman’s mural at Addison and Lincoln and the Chicago mural off the Kennedy expressway near Ohio.

I could see the group doing other iconic music rooftops along the El.

Chicago artist-DJ Mike Tupak

Chicago artist-DJ Mike Tupak

Tupak looked at the Knuckles mural and then the El tracks.

He said, “If you’ve never been to Chicago what you see on these train lines is going to be your first memory of the city. I think when people who know Frankie and Chicago house music are going to relate to this. We did this for our love of Frankie and the city.

“This is something the city needed.”

 

Birmingham066

All Montgomery photos by Paul Natkin

MONTGOMERY, Al.—The Malden Brothers Barber Shop has been in continuous operation since 1958 as part of the historic Centennial Hill neighborhood of Montgomery. The three-chair shop is around the corner from the Ben Moore Hotel, a shuttered four-story landmark where African American civil rights leaders stayed in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Montgomery was seriously segregated and the hotel was a safe haven.

The Rev. Martin Luther King had a lot of work to do in 1954 when he arrived in Montgomery to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He lived with his young wife Coretta Scott and their daughter Yolanda in the parsonage, which is walking distance from the barber shop at 407 S. Jackson St.

In 1955 Montgomery had a population of 120,000. More than 92 per cent of the city’s registered voters were white, according to a modest book “Touched By History” (A Self-Guided Tour to Civil Rights Sites in Central Alabama” I found at the independent NewSouth bookstore.

A couple weeks ago I got my hair cut by Dr. King’s barber (1954-60), Nelson Malden. His other brothers Spurgeon and Stephens are deceased. The trio opened their first store in 1952 in Montgomery before moving to the present location in 1958. I sat in the same chair that Dr. King sat in, the one closest to the window.

It is the chair that is nearest to the light.

I was in Montgomery gathering oral histories for my next book. I called an audible on visiting the barber shop since it was off my project’s subject. We had an appointment in Birmingham. But patience is lost in buzzfeed media. My photographer Paul Natkin suggested that I get a haircut. I didn’t even know if the barber shop owner would be around. When we arrived early on a Thursday morning the  black burglar gates in front of the barber shop were open.

If I could get just one good story in spending an hour or so at the shop, it would be worth the time. If not, it would be a cheaper hair cut ($13) than in Chicago.

I wound up with an experience of a lifetime.

“Dr. King and I talked about politics, sex, religion and food,” Malden said while clipping away. “One time we were in here alone and he said, ‘You know what barber? I’ve learned more in this barber shop than I heard in my life.’ He said, ‘Barber shop medicine will get you in the cemetery and barber shop law will get you in prison.”

A few weeks later Rev. King returned. Malden recalled, “I said I remember what you said about  barber shop law and barber shop medicine. What about barber shop philosophy? He said, ‘Barber shop philosophy will get you in the crazy house.”

Malden is 80 years old. His young face is chiseled with the promise of a distant force. The barber  shop is filled with family pictures,  a panoramic black and white 1960 shot of Alabama State students marching to the Montgomery courthouse to integrate lunch counters  and books like Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience and other essays.”

Get to know Nelson Malden

Get to know Nelson Malden

Malden started cutting hair in 1952 at Alabama State College (now University)  in Montgomery, where he was studying political science. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks also attended the Alabama State laboratory high school.

“And Reverend King used the Alabama State University library to finish his dissertation,” Malden said. Alabama State was founded in 1866 as a private school for African Americans.

In 1967 Malden ran for Democratic Executive Committeeman in Montgomery.

“Three years after the voting rights bill passed,” added Malden, a U.S. Navy vet. “In Alabama, you had the voting rights bill out of Selma, the civil rights bill out of Birmingham and a supreme court decision (that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws enforcing segregated buses were unconstitutional.) Alabama was the one that changed the whole dynamics of the country. But a white boy beat the devil out of me. He said, ‘My great grandfather was a colonel in the Confederate army!’ That was the end of my campaign.”

The Southern confederacy was formed in Montgomery.

The entire barber shop laughed. All his customers were African American men.

The barber shop always was a liberating space.

“Dr. King was a regular customer for six years,” said Malden, working near a cardboard sign that read “The Only Place You’ll Find Better Barbers is in the Next World.”  “I did not see the greatness coming. If I did I would have made a lot of pictures. [You can visit the Nelson Malden collection  at the Levi Watkins Learning Center Digital Library at Alabama State.] I was a big dog when I was started cutting his hair. I was cutting a lot of big people’s hair. He was just a little dog. It never affected our relationship. I gave him the mirror after his first haircut and asked how he liked it. He told me, ‘Pretty good.’ I said, ‘You tell a barber ‘pretty good’ and that’s kind of an insult. But he came back two weeks later and said, ‘You’re all right’.”

I don't have much to work with.

I don’t have much to work with.

Macon, Ga. native Little Richard lived in the Ben Moore Hotel. He was living in a penthouse suite at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Strip the last time I saw him . “We used to have a shoe shine stand in the corner,” Malden said. “Little Richard spent a lot of time in the barber shop. Little Richard scared away a lot of people. He’d be on the shoeshine stand with a barbershop full of customers and go, ‘Oooh, you’re all so pretty, man!.’ My brother said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t say that in here.’

Little Richard, always nice hair.

Little Richard, always nice hair.

Malden is a native of Pensacola, Fla. where he began cutting hair in 1944. He came to Montgomery in 1952 to attend Alabama State.  He has no idea how many haircuts he has given over the past 60 years.  “About five per cent of our customers are white,” he said. “Tourists like yourself.” Malden  has met with groups of political science and  sociology students from all over the United States. He said Chicago’s De Paul University recently visited the store.

The Ben Moore Hotel

The Ben Moore Hotel

I gave Malden a $7 tip (I’m off a newspaper expense account!) for sharing the stories.

He said the young Rev. King was not that good a tipper. Rev. King was 25 years old in 1954, the first time he came to Malden Brothers.

“I told him, ‘When you go to a restaurant and have a nice meal and the waitress gives you good service you give her a tip. Don’t you think it makes her feel good?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’

He got out of the chair and grabbed my hand and held it real tight. He asked , ‘Do you put 10 per cent of your earnings in church?’ I said, ‘Rev, I’m a student at Alabama State College I cannot afford to put 10 per cent of my earnings in church.’ He said, and maybe he used a touch of profanity, ‘And I’m the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and I cannot afford to tip you either.”

I shook Malden’s hand with a firm grip. This was a moment to hold on to.

 

Akron Rock n' Roll Bobble Head giveaways.

Akron Rock n’ Roll Bobble Head giveaways.

 

EASTLAKE, Ohio—With no surrender and lots of Mountain Dew I drove to Columbus, Ohio in mid-April to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. This marked my 30th Springsteen concert dating back to Sept. 6, 1978 at the Uptown Theater in Chicago ($7.50 ticket.) All those ticket stubs are bookmarks in my life.

The Holiday Inn in downtown Columbus was filled with Springsteen fans who were knocking around the region for his “High Hopes” tour. They had been to Virginia Beach, Va., they were heading to Nashville, Tn. for his next show.

I was surprised how many people were traveling before summer vacation. Maybe they were all out of work like me. Some fans were as middle aged as a slab of warped vinyl. Others were in their late 20s and early 30s. They carried coolers and bags of chips into the elevators. They shared stories in the lobby and at the small hotel bar.

The road is a thread.

Whether you are following a musician or a baseball team, travel is a colorful fabric of commitment, open minds and good spirits. Who was it that said “Life is sustained by movement, not by foundation?” I had to look it up.

It was French poet-aviator Antoine de Saint-Expuery.

My plan was to wake up the morning after the concert and catch three baseball games in one day.

I wanted to see the new wacky named Akron RubberDucks (Cleveland) host the Trenton Thunder (New York Yankees) in a noon Eastern League double-header in downtown Akron, just 126 miles from downtown Columbus. The Columbus Clippers were on the road.

The next move was to go to Eastlake, Ohio for a 6 p.m. double-header between the Midwest League’s Lake County Captains (Cleveland) and the Peoria Chiefs (St. Louis). I watched three games in roughly eight hours. I did not stay for the second game in Eastlake. I am not the hard working The Boss of Minor League Baseball.

Maybe it is because I was a kid –ages 3 to 12–when I lived in Columbus–but life still seems more gentle and fresh in Central Ohio than in my native Chicago.

Before the Springsteen concert in downtown Columbus I stopped at the new Grass Skirt Tiki Room, 105 N. Grant Ave., also downtown. The Grass Skirt is a humble but pretty hole in the wall bar and restaurant that pays homage to the since-razed Kahiki in Columbus, one of the greatest Polynesian restaurants in America. Here is my Kahiki Supper Club  link. A friendly customer gave me her plastic Grass Skirt membership card for another couple drinks but I had to get to the show.

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The Grass Skirt is adjacent to The Hills Market, a fine locally owned one stop grocery store which also features a coffee lounge, local magazines and a wide assortment of local beer. For my morning drive on a pothole free I-71 to Akron I stocked up on the market’s coffee, vitamin water and a bagel.

Springsteen’s “Stand On It” played out of my car radio as I headed north into the concentrated land of Chief Wahoo. If you are a fan of the Tribe you could play out a marathon baseball day, just as my friends in Baltimore did. The Columbus Clippers, Akron and Lake County are all Indians affiliates and easy drives from Cleveland.

The crowd was sparse as I arrived at Canal Park stadium in Akron.

In this overly politically correct era the noon game was promoted as a “Businessperson” special. The previous night’s game had been canceled due to rain and snow so the “Businessperson” special became the first game of a double-header for the Chief Native-American affiliate. It was a sunny 33 degree day. I hand -counted about 100 fans through the first three innings of the game.

I saw a few familiar faces on the field.

Trenton’s center fielder was Mason Williams, the 22-year-old grandson of former White Sox center fielder Walt “No Neck” Williams. Someone should do a Walt Williams bobble head. I had seen Mason Williams play a few months ago for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League.

Mason batted leadoff for Trenton and went two for three in the first game with a fly swatter bat approach similar to that of Ichirio. Williams has a good pedigree. He is also the son of former New England Patriots wide receiver Derwin Williams.

waltnoneckwilliams

 

 

I got a kick out of the new 23-seat “Tiki Terrace” in the far right field corner of Canal Park–even though the terrace was playing hip-hop music.

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But the best motivational tool to return to Akron this summer are awesome rock n’ roll bobble head promotions that honor the rich musical heritage of Akron:

* Devo, May 24, Reading Fighting Phils

* Joe Walsh, June 14 with the Portland Sea Dogs

* Chrissie Hynde (no hot dogs or hamburgers please), June 28 with the Harrisburg Senators

* The Black Keys (and a Black Keys fireworks show), July 5 with the Bowie Baysox.

Where’s Akron’s pure pop singer Rachel Sweet, who in 1978 had a hit record by reworking Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” ?

 

 

The Rubber Ducks have many other nutty promotions: There’s a June 13 Springsteen fireworks show combined with a salute to soccer moms, and Moustache Monday “When In Rome” Ron Burgundy Night on July 21.

The temperature had jumped to 40 degrees by the time I landed in Eastlake, just 50 miles north of Akron.

Of course I arrived in timely fashion because I burned rubber ducks.

The Lake County Captains are still playing up the nautical theme that I enjoyed on my last visit in 2011. The west side of Eastlake is actually on Lake Erie.

My old friend Jay the Bartender from the Matchbox used to talk about baseball road trips with women. A game is only a couple of hours (now over three hours in the major leagues). so there’s ample time to explore other things. With more than 30 species of sandpipers and other wading birds along the Lake Erie shoreline, Eastlake’s Lake County is a huge draw for birding enthusiasts. Must-see stops include the 20,000 red-breasted merganser birds at Headlands Beach State Park in the Cleveland section of Lake County. The park’s trademark is its mile-long natural sand beach, the largest in the state.

Headlands Beach State Park

Headlands Beach State Park

 

Classic Park opened in April 2003, when Lake County was a member of the South Atlantic League of all places. (Lake County joined the Midwest League in 2010). The men’s bathrooms at Classic Park are called the “Poop Deck” and the Castaways Bar down the left field line looked like an inviting port of call, although it was closed on my visit due to the cold weather.

Another  sparse crowd helped define the sea of empty blue seats. At the 6 p.m. start for the first game I counted about 150 people in the stands.

The most exciting player I saw was Peoria’s fleet center fielder C.J. McElroy. The fleet, left-handed hitter is Billy Hamilton without the hype. McElroy, who turned 21 on May 29, is the son of former Cubs reliever Chuck McElroy. He laid down a couple of beautiful bunts in the first game, manufacturing one drag bunt into a catcher’s throwing error and then a stolen base. McElroy is ranked 24th in the top 30 St. Louis Cardinal prospects for 2014. And the former 5’10” prep wide reciever was signed by Ralph Garr, Jr.

Baseball is so bunched up in this stretch of Ohio, fans could even parlay visit to the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame with a Captains game. Downtown Cleveland is just 18 miles northeast of Eastlake.

Many minor league teams have Jimmy Buffett nights but I imagine it plays well in Eastlake: Aug. 22 is “Margaritaville Night” with Buffett themed fireworks and a post-game concert by Happymon. The Ohio-based Buffett-Beach tribute band performs on a stage that looks like a boat and their drummer is named James Taylor. And thrill seekers may want to catch the June 7 “Hungarian Heritage Night” with a Hungarian Disco fireworks theme at Classic Field.

Wonder if that includes the Springsteen smash “Hungarian Heart?”

View from home plate, Akron, April 16, 2014

View from home plate, Akron, April 16, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Doors at Under the Hill, May 1, 2014

The Big Doors at Under the Hill, May 1, 2014

NATCHEZ, Ms.- It is hard to place a number on all the great things about drinking at the Under the Hill Saloon.

There’s the stunning sunset on the Mississippi River. The bar has a dwarf  bartender. As my friend Bill FitzGerald pointed out last night there likely is no other tavern so close to the Mississippi River.

Then there are the characters you encounter.

I meet them every spring on my way to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Last night was no different. (For my 2002 take on Under the Hill circle back to this site’s home page and click on the Mississippi River icon.)

Bill, his wife Kate and I had a few drinks with a posse from New Zealand who were exploring the American South.

They were excited to know that Sir Tom Jones recently performed at the Ryman Auditorium  in Nashville. They couldn’t wait to see  Bruce Springsteen Saturday at Jazz Fest and reassured us he is even “The Boss” in New Zealand.

They asked me why everyone in America talks about “The Cubs.”

I answered how it had a lot to do with hope.

We learned that one of the women is an attorney for News UK. That opened uo a can of worms. We talked about the difference between European newspapers and American newspapers, especially with the European commitment to long form storytelling. She seemed to be having a good time and said, ” I love talking to old newspapermen.”

She then blushed. Bill and Kate laughed.

This was the first time I really felt sort of like Studs Terkel. I had talked about wanting to embrace incongruity. I riffed on the common tactile thread in our DNA about reading printed books and newspapers and the undying love of vinyl.

The touch of real life.

We’ll be revisiting the conversation on storytelling May 9-11 at “Let’s Get Working: Chicago Celebrates Studs Terkel”  at the University of Chicago. This is a mind blowing tribute –can’t wait to see Manual Cinema’s new animation on StoryCorps oral history–and I’m humbled just to be a small part of this event. Please come by. Stories abound in high cotton. We pick them and pass them on with heart and dignity.

 

 

 

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MEMPHIS, Tn.—Some evocative field recordings were done in the South’s finest hotel.

A couple months ago “Peabody Blues” was released on the new Nehi Records label out of London, England. The Delta blues and string band  recordings were made Sept. 22-25, 1929 in a guest room at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis for the  Brunswick/Vocalion label.

Artists include Furry Lewis, Mississippi bluesman Charlie McCoy and Robert Wilkins, whose “That’s No Way To Get Along” was poached by the Rolling Stones for their “Prodigal Son” on the 1968 “Beggar’s Banquet” LP.

The 26 single-CD recordings were issued as ‘78s and it is from copies of those 78s that the “Peabody Blues” material was gathered. The ’78s were in the collections of blues enthusiasts.

Russell Beecher is the Nehi owner and “Peabody Blues” is his debut project. In an e-mail he explained, “The original recording equipment in 1929 would have been a  conventional microphone recording process, going onto an acetate  master that would then be used as the source for all of the issued  78s. The 78s were in varying shape but we tried our best to find the cleanest source and then put the versions we  had found through two different mastering processes to try and clean  them up as well as possible without losing any of the integrity of  the original recordings.”

A segregated Beale Street was jumping just a couple blocks from the Peabody.

The original Peabody opened in 1869. The current Peabody with its marble fountain and swimming ducks opened in 1925 in downtown Memphis.

Between 1927 and 1929 the Beale Street Shieks (Guitarist Dan Sane and Frank Stokes) were popular street performers on Beale and, in fact cut their 1927 debut record for Paramount Records. Paramount was based in Grafton, Wis. and last year was honored by Jack White in the 800-MP3 track “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records.”

Furry_Lewis

Furry Lewis performing in Memphis, circa 1960s.

Did any of the Peabody musicians come from the Beale Street scene?

“I wouldn’t say any were ‘discovered’ on Beale Street but plenty played there,” Beecher answered.

“Some, like Furry Lewis and Jenny Pope, lived in the city. Hernando, not far away, in North  Mississippi, provided quite a few of the artists such  as Robert Wilkins and Garfield Akers. The talent scout who arranged  the sessions, H. C. Speir, was based in Jackson, Mississippi, and so  some of the artists were known to him from there such as Walter  Vinson and Charlie McCoy. Jackson had a very vibrant blues scene.”

Beecher’s spinoff from “Peabody Blues” is “Jackson Stomp,” which features McCoy, one of the most important figures in pre-war Blues, via his own work or backing others. Beecher wrote, ” McCoy’s versatility meant that he was in demand from influential artists such as  Bo Carter, Johnnie Temple, Sonny Boy Williamson, Will Weldon, Memphis Minnie, and many others.” Furry Lewis delivers intense alternate takes of “John Henry *The Steel Driving Man) and country blues singer Jenny Pope begins “Whiskey Drinking Blues” by asking, “Have you ever woke up with whiskey drinking on your mind?” Her material is just as vital as today’s Fat Possum catalog from North Mississippi.

Peabody Hotel room, 1925, likely a corner room (Courtesy of The Peabody Hotel)

Peabody Hotel room, 1925, likely a corner room (Courtesy of The Peabody Hotel)

The new-fangled development of portable recording enabled companies to branch out into music.

The Vocalion label for which the Peabody posse recorded were also instrument makers. Paramount Records was born in 1917 as a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company. Wisconsin Chair also made wooden cabinets for Edison phonographs. Artists like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver recorded for Paramount and the chair company even built a pressing plant along the Milwaukee River, 10 miles southwest of Port Washington, Wis.

Beecher is 36 years old. He said he has been listening to blues since the age of 11. He has been  involved in the production of hundreds of albums for his  own labels, as well as for other companies, including assembling the Snapper Records ‘Complete Blues’ series that accompanied  the Martin Scorsese series of blues documentaries. Beecher also co-wrote “Barrett,” released in 2011, the definitive work on Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett.

The Peabody has a strong history with music apart from the rock n’ roll bands who stay there today.

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips engineered live broadcasts of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey from the Hotel Peabody Skyway from 1945 to 1950, when he opened a “very modest” recording studio called Memphis Recording Service in a former radiator shop at 706 Union in Memphis. That turned out to be Sun Records.

Elvis--Courtesy of The Peabody Hotel

Sleepy TIme Elvis at the Peabody–Courtesy of The Peabody Hotel

 

Once the studio was open, he would use the big-band income to stock his studio.  So the Peabody was the first Kickstarter campaign for rock n’ roll.

“I would buy a little piece of equipment at a time,”  Phillips told me in a 1987 interview in his modest Memphis home “Gosh, I had a little four-position mixer to begin with.”

Phillips was hooked.
“There was a religious fervor to experiment,” he said. [The full Sam Phillips interview can be found under the MUSIC tab of this website.]

In July, 1956, not long after Presley left Sun photos of the future king were taken in a 6th Floor guest room at the  Peabody. These pictures were part of a series of photos taken in Memphis for a story in “Parade” magazine.

Kelly Earnest, director of public relations for the hotel said, “According to journalist Lloyd Shearer, Elvis referred to them as ‘my first glamour pinups’ and asked not to be photographed while smiling.And the hotel’s recent research uncovered the fact that Elvis Presley signed his November, 1955 RCA recording contract in the hotel lobby.

The Peabody is still discovering archives from when the hotel was closed on April 1, 1974. There were 53 guests in 617 rooms on the final business day.  in the 1970s and slated for demolition. The restored Peabody reopened in 1981. I began hanging around the Peabody in 1985, even when I wasn’t a guest.

 

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Courtesy of The Peabody Hotel

The Peabody is offering a Summertime Blues & BBQ package that includes the CD, at $209 a night plus tax, double occupancy along with a downtown trolley pass, self parking and athletic club access. Call 1-800-PEABODY and ask for the package. The Peabody Blues CD is also on sale in the hotel gift shop.

Years ago I used to drive to Memphis to see the Memphis Chicks play Southern League baseball in Tim McCarver Stadium and then catch Booker T & MG’s offshoot The Coolers on the weekly rooftop party at the  Peabody. The traditional event is still going strong, and may I recommend the Molly Ringwalds on May 22. Here is the full Peabody Rooftop Party schedule.

 

1940s Peabody Rooftop Party

1940s Peabody Rooftop Party

 

 

 

 

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