Steve Liacopoulos of Rite Liquors helps launch Isaac’s art.

When you show your art on the outside border of the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, you must really be a renegade.

That is where I found Isaac G. Abarca last month. He was propping up his oil on canvas paintings on a sidewalk near the entrance to the popular arts and crafts fair. He also hung his paintings like Christmas ornaments in a large honeylocust shade tree in front of Rite Liquors, 1649 W. Division.

“Hanging paintings in a tree is a beautiful thing,” Abarca said during a Sunday alcohol free conversation at Rite Liquors. “People had a lot of questions. The next day we released a painting on a (500 helium) balloons, which is even better. But no one has called me to tell me where it landed. It’s become like an urban legend. Someone said it is in a potato field in Ohio.” The lost painting was Abarca’s portrait of a half woman and half violin. Abarca attached three one dollar lottery tickets to the painting. “Next year we will release one painting an hour,” he continued. “If you have inspiration you have to use it.  It is a good thing I have friends like (owner) Mike Liacopoulos at Rite Liquors. When I have ideas they say, ‘Go with it.’ I need people like that.”

The sky is the limit.

In June Isaac had permission from the city to hang his art from a bridge.

In June Isaac had permission from the city to hang his art from a bridge.

In fact, I bought Abarca’s painting of a firey Malyasian jet liner flying into the mouth of a shark. It is a sure conversation starter for quiet nights in my living room.

“I did that painting five days after the plane went missing,” he said. “Every channel on television was talking about the plane in Spanish, in English. I don’t want to hurt people in my paintings. But it is easy to me because it is happening.”


Abarca is self-taught, although he did study the brilliant colors of Dutch impressionist Vincent van Gogh. “I love oils so I looked at his techniques and his strokes,” he said. “His message is right to the point.”

Abarca is 37 years old. He is from the state of Guerrero, Mexico where his grandparents were farmers. He moved to the U.S. when he was 12. Abarca grew up in Gurnee and Highwood, north of Chicago. His mother Maria Isabel and father Isaac have been married 38 years.

When Abarca isn’t painting, he is a bartender who has worked at Wishbone in Chicago and at Chicago catering companies. “Everything brought me to America,” he said. “The way that art is required. Art is a statement of why we are here.”

Abarca moved to Chicago in 2001 and lives in Wicker Park. He used to ride his bicycle around Rite Liquors, a bar and package liquor store on the ground floor of a 117-year-old building. Regulars are lined up like weary checkpoint travelers along the maple bar that seats about 78 people. North to south, the original bar is one of the longest bars in Chicago. The bar back is at least 110 years old. “I always found this place interesting,” Abarca said. “It is like candy for adults. Look at all this liquor. You can meet interesting people here. Engineers. Police officers. Gangsters. Alcoholics.”

He found it so interesting, he once lived upstairs.


Mike Liacopoulos is a fan of Abarca’s work and shows his art in the bar. His sons Steve and Ted help run the bar and Steve was helping Abarca decorate the Division Street tree with paintings. No other Chicago artist has his work on display at Rite Liquors.

The tavern’s art history includes painter Robert Guinan, who in the early 1960s would pay customers $20 an hour to be subjects for his work. Guinan loved the once lonesome grit of Wicker Park and Maxwell Street. Unknown in Chicago, Guinan’s work has sold for as much as $30,000 a piece in France. He is included in Alex Kotlowitz’s fine book “Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago.”

“Photography students ask me if they can come in and take pictures,” said Liacopoulous, a down rite friendly gentleman who opened the original Loop Tavern at 518 S. State (now at Chicago and Ashland).  “We have a colorful crowd. When I came in here I used to sell about six barrels of draught beer a weeks. Now the house drink is Jameson’s and I have at least 62 different microbrews. When the condos came in 15, 20 years ago everything just changed.”

Abarca said, “Rite Liquors is where everything happened for me. Even if the Renegade Fair had invited me I would have said no. In the winter I hang three paintings a week here. We sell them starting at $91. I send  some of the money of my sales to Children’s Memorial Hospital.  (I paid $150 for the Malyasian jet painting) If I dedicate myself to it, I can do 11 paintings a day. ”

But Abarca’s crowning achievement is his El Dorado Project.

This piece of art is not on display at Rite Liquors. It is in a safe deposit box at a Chicago area bank.

“It is a real human skull, based on the way the Aztecs decorated skulls in gemstones,” he said. “It is the shell of one of the most beautiful things ever created: the human brain. I decorate that in respect of it.”

Abarca has been decorating the skull with gold nuggets since 2001. He said El Dorado is currently adorned with anywhere between 50 and 70 ounces of gold.

This thing has a lot of bling.

El Dorado (Courtesy of Isaac Abarca)

El Dorado (Courtesy of Isaac Abarca)

He purchases the gold from miners in Arizona and California. “It is not done,” he said. “I’ve spent $350,000 and I still need $150,000 of gold. I sent a photo of El Dorado to the miner in California. He doesn’t want to work with me any more. He’s a very religious person and I understand that. I have a key to the safe deposit box. I take it our, work with it and put it back. When I’m done I will present it in Chicago. A human skull decorated in gold nuggets? No one has done that.”

Abacra said he purchased the male skull from the University of California. “He died in a hit and run accident in the 1970s,” he explained.  “They used the body for medical purposes because no one claimed it. I was very curious what happened. I said, ‘Nobody claimed you when you were dead on the floor, but when I am done with you everyone is going to want you because you are covered in gold.’ I’m not  dealing with a spirit. That’s a different thing. Energy is energy and I don’t want to mess with that. A human skull is a beautiful masterpiece  itself. It is another reason I live in America. Religion is so powerful in Mexico they don’t allow you to work with human remains.”

Liacopoulous has owned Rite Liquors since 1984. “Isaac used to be my tenant,” he said in a separate interview while distributing biscuits to the tavern’s dogs. “I like the guy. He’s always happy, you never see him sad. He is fearless. You don’t meet people like him very often. And he has dreams. I came here 45 years ago from a farm in the south part of Greece. I know what is is not to have money and to have money. Isaac dreams of one day being successful. I try to cooperate with that.”

Dreams are made from this: Isaac  (left), Mike and Steve Liacopoulos

Dreams are made from this: Isaac (left), Mike and Steve Liacopoulos (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Lou. Enough said.

Lou. Enough said.

CUBA, Mo.—-Lou Whitney was proud to tell tourists and visiting musicians that the Carter Family lived in a two story Victorian brick house in 1949-50 when they appeared with Red Foley on the radio version of the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo.

That was Lou; talking about Springfield history before he would talk about himself.

In July we took Lou to the empty lot off of old Route 66 where Mother Maybellle, Anita, Helen and June Carter once lived. Lou stood tall, like a mountain in a meadow. His eyes squinted into the Ozark evening sun. He had his hands tucked in the front pockets of his blue jeans and he looked around the calm landscape. His feet were firmly planted on the ground. As always.

There were no airs about Lou Whitney.

I talked my friend and award winning CBS-TV cameraman Tom Vlodek into driving from Chicago to the Ozarks for the July weekend. Lou’s rock n’ roll band the Morells were reuniting to play a high school reunion in Springfield. We wanted to film the concert and interview band members for a possible prose-documentary that uses the acclaimed Morells/Skeletons as a window into the lost history of Springfield music. I’m glad we made that trip.

Lou died Oct. 7 at his Springfield home from complications of cancer and a fall he took in his home in late September. He was 71 years old. Lou never stopped playing and recording other voices.

He never stopped honoring the power of music.

Dave Alvin, Eric Ambel, the Del Lords, Robbie Fulks, Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, the Bottle Rockets and Wilco are among those who made the pilgrimage to record with Lou and emplloy the Morells/Skeletons at Lou’s studio in downtown Springfield.

I hear Lou just about every day.

The lineage of his own best known recordings dates back to 1979 when the pop-rock Skeletons were created as a back up band for singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Lou had been bassist-vocalist for the Symptoms (think Ramones meets rockabilly cat Billy Lee Riley) who had been playing six nights a week in the Pub Mobile bar in Rolla, Mo., halfway between Springfield and St. Louis. Lou would remind you the bar was part of an automobile museum on a plot of land owned by a guy who dated “Elly Mae Clampett” of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Donna Douglas, upper left. The Beverly Hillbillies jalopy is on display at the Ralph Foster Museum, south of Springfield.

Donna Douglas (Ellie May Clampett) , upper left. The Beverly Hillbillies jalopy is on display at the Ralph Foster Museum, south of Springfield.

The Morells followed around 1981, the Skeletons returned in 1992 when the San Francisco Chronicle named “Waiting” one of the top 10 albums of the year. In May, 2004 the Morells were the band playing behind Bo Diddley at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. Back and forth, restless hearts. The Skeletons 1991 track “Outta My Way” got major airplay on WXRT-FM in Chicago and porn star Seka used it as a dance number when she appeared at the Admiral Theater in Chicago.

Lou had vaudeville gumption.

He fought hard in his battle against cancer. He was given six months to live in February, 2013. Lou and his beloved wife Kay drove countless eight-hour round trips between Springfield and St. Louis for experimental therapies. He had a cancerous kidney removed on May 21, 2013. Lou bought extra time to be with his family and friends and  to continue to work with regional Springfield music in his studio.

In July we spent a Saturday afternoon with Lou. On Sunday we treated him at his favorite cashew chicken joint on the south side of town. Lou was sharing stories and they were good and some were spicy. Lou was an avatar of Springfield music history.

Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Brenda Lee got their starts on the Ozark Jubilee radio and television show. Chet Atkins was a studio guitarist for the Ozark Jubilee. Wayne Carson, who wrote the Box Top hits wrote the Box Top hits “The Letter” and “Soul Deep” in Springfield as well as the smash co-write “Always On My Mind,” recorded by Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. His father Shorty Thompson appeared on the Jubilee radio and television shows. Actor Brad Pitt is from Springfield. Lou always had something new to drop on you. In July he told us the Birdman of Alcatraz, a.k.a. Robert Stroud,  died in (a federal prison) in Springfield.

They all left.

Lou stayed.

Lou was rugged Americana before Americana got gussied up. Next fall’s Americana awards in Nashville needs to find a way to honor Lou. Like thousands of others who encountered Lou, I never grew tired of hearing his stories. Even the same story several times. Lou was the only guy I know who liked to borrow from Lil’ Abner when he talked about his adopted home town: “Springfield is more like it was the last time you were here than it is now.”

Scott Kempner of the Dictators and the Del-Lords wrote on Facebook, “Lou was a constant guide, friend, inspiration, hero and musical companion. Truly one of a kind, high-end, top shelf human being. I don’t think I could have worked with anyone else than Lou and the Skeletons, the best band in America you might not know…Taking a minute to remember them all at this time and a special salute to Lou, the greatest man I have ever known.”

The Skeletons sign a fancy pants record contract (L to R), Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou, D. Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown

The Skeletons sign and fax a fancy pants record contract (L to R), Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, D. Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown

In 2001 Springfield attorney and former music writer Dale Wiley started the Slewfoot Records label with Lou. They even went full tilt Alan Lomax and ventured into the field to record congregations singing hymns at rural churches around the Ozarks. In late September Wiley created “The Best Facebook Thread Ever” for favorite Lou quotes. Here’s some:

I’ve been around the world twice and talked to everyone once”—Trent Wilson

Did I ever tell you how to butcher a hog?”–Cecelia Ellis Havens

Americana radio’s like Spanish fly and a nymphomaniac: everybody says they exist, but you or I sure as hell ain’t seen one”–Dale Wiley

“Lou Whitney loudly at the restaurant at the Silver Saddle: ‘I’d like some ice cream. They got no ice cream in prison.”–Eric Ambel.

Cars are the art form of the working class”–Dave Hoekstra

My bad. One more time,” on about my 10th take he always acts like it is him who messed up, not me…even when we all knew it was really me. And theres the time he said of my southern gospel singing mama, ‘Man, she sang the hell out of that song!”–Robin Bilyeu Rees

I once had a felafel–I feltawful”–Rick Wood

Give me a little George of the Jungle on the rack tom”—Trent Wilson.

Lou was reticent about playing bass with his band at the July reunion show. He was weak and he didn’t want the attention. “If I felt better I’d play with them again,” he told me. “It’s an emotional thing. I didn’t want to be ‘That Guy,’ you know the guy you see on the television special, and you go, ‘Oh my God, he hasn’t retired yet.’ I was playing when I was 70 (see my January, 2013 birthday post).

My friend Lou Whitney (Dave Hoekstra photo)

My friend Lou Whitney (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Lou did not want a funeral. “And NO band jam memorial,” his long time friend and drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks wrote in an Oct. 2 e-mail. Lou did request that his body be donated to science. Transportation costs for a Springfield funeral home to take Lou’s remains to Washington University in St. Louis were $1,200. A “Send Lou to Camp” GoFundMe campaign raised $2,525 in one day. The extra money goes to Lou’s wife and family.

Doing some quick math, Lou figured he had been playing with some core of the Morells-Skeletons (Hicks, keyboardist Joe Terry, guitarist Donnie Thompson) for 46 years.

What did he learn about himself after all that time?

“A lot of it is confidence,” he answered in satisfied tones. “When you set yourself in the middle of those guys you look good. I don’t care who you are. You know that you’re knocking it out of the park. People dance. If you’re good enough to have that day in and out you can put up with a crappy day easy. A band is like a family. Even if we didn’t see each other for two or three years, we could just pick  up and go.

“That’s comforting to me.”

*                                                                *

Lou Whitney III was born in 1943 and raised in Phoenix, Az. Singing cowboy Gene Autry was in the Army Air Corps at Luke Field in Phoenix and visited the hospital where Lou was born. “Gene Autry got my attention,” he quipped in July.

Lou was the grandson of Louis B. Whitney, the former mayor of Phoenix and unsuccessful candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket. His son Harold Lou Whitney was a successful Phoenix attorney.

In a tender Oct. 2 Facebook tribute, New York singer-songwriter Mary McBride wrote, “Lou was a tried and true Democrat, one of the best, who infused common sense and utter hilarity into every argument and who could actually separate the good Republicans from the bad. A skill many of us sitting out in the political left field have still not developed. I know Lou will always somehow be watching the polls and trying to steer the vote to the right side of the aisle. I know he will always editing gratuitious lines from songs that think too much of themselves. And I hope he feels great satisfaction in knowing he made an enormous impact on so many people. I am just one of them. How lucky we all are.”

Singer-songwriter-producer Ben Vaughn made it big scoring music for film and television in projects like “That ’70s Show,” “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Psycho Beach Party.” On his Facebook page Vaughn said it it wasn’t for Lou, he wouldn’t have a career in the music business. “He was the first guy to deem my songs worthy of public consumption,” Vaughn wrote. “In 1982 the Morells recorded a tune of mine for their album ‘Shake & Push’. Without knowing it, I had touched the hem of the garment. Everything changed for me after that. I had no idea how much respect he commanded in the music world.”  The Morells amped up Vaughn’s “The Man Who Has Everything” and the Skeletons later did double keyboard justice to Vaughn’s “I Did Your Wig.”

The Morells had a hit with "Red's," a pre-Guy Fieri hamburger stand on Route 66 in Springfield.

The Morells had a hit with “Red’s,” a pre-Guy Fieri hamburger stand on Route 66 in Springfield.

Lou III left Phoenix by the time he was 16 to live with relatives in the mountains near Bristol, Tn. He was already following the path of the Carter Family. Lou obtained a degree in real estate at Eastern Tennessee University. “It’s a language, actually,” he said in our 2013 conversation. He started playing in tuxedo drenched show bands that were popular in the soul-driven Beach Music scene of the Carolinas, Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. Lou was also a sideman with Arthur Conley of “Sweet Soul Music” fame.

“The World War II and Korea party guys came home with G.I. benefits,”  Lou explained in July. “They went to school at the University of South Carolina. Partying every night. And going out to see these bands. Shag dancing got real big. If you wanted to play a fraternity party at the University of Alabama, you better know some Bill Deal and The Rhondells. Music trends didn’t happen all over the United States. You could go to Denver and never hear of Chairmen of the Board or the Tams. It didn’t get played. But down south it did.”

One of the Skeletons most endearing covers was the Swinging Medallions 1966 Beach Music classic “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).”

 In 1970 Lou moved to Springfield to sell mail order real estate to  folks in Illinois and Wisconsin who were dreaming of the wide open spaces of the Ozarks. “It was a dying art,” he said in July. “In fact I saw my first fax machine in a real estate office in Springfield. But I really came here to play in bands.”

More than once Lou told me that he and his “Wrecking Crew” Morells-Skeletons musicians were defenders of the song. That’s why songwriters loved working with Lou and it is why his bands did such pure justice with the hundreds of cover songs they did over the years. With Lou on my mind I read Ken Sharp’s Sept. 27 Q & A with former Rolling Stones manager and XM-Sirius host Andrew Loog Oldham in the Sept. 27 issue of Goldmine magazine. “The world is so noisy,” Oldham said. “Music has been wounded by Steve Jobs’ technology; greed and ego is fighting for survival. The main role of the artist is to serve the song, as opposed to him or herself. That is difficult to understand in a world where all technology supports the dangerous charade. Give me John Prine any day over what Simon Cowell barfs up. What’s the result? You’ve got Adele, who is great at receiving awards, but could no more put a set together than a politician could tell the truth.”

Lou was like a good editor. He was an advocate for his talent. He never got in the way. He maintained a dignified work ethic. Here’s Lou setting the table in 1991 on L.A. hipster’s “Art Fein’s Poker Party.”


In July Lou reflected, “We played together in this tight realistic, no nonsense combo. Playing a bass part all the way through a song, the guitar rhythm and the drum pattern and singing the song. Playing the solos as they existed and getting the breaks rights. We drifted into that. We became popular. Roscoe (Eric Ambel) used to say, ‘When you play a Ramones song it sounds so perfect.’ Well, we couldn’t help it. We’re the best band in the world and we opened for this and we opened for that? I don’t know.

“We’re the band next door. Four guys you would never believe were in a band. We set up and play and if we’re having a good day you go, ‘Yow!’  Even we’re going ‘Yow!’ That’s a good thing. Being in a band is a job like anything else. We practice our songs, learn them and we get better on the job.”

Lou never stopped learning, teaching and sharing. During the rest of my visits to Springfield, I will tell tourists and visiting musicians about the benevolent magic of Lou Whitney. His humble glory roars across America.

Reply, Reply All or Forward | More

Click to reply all



Ilse in Albuquerque on her Route 66 road trip. (Used with permission.)

I wonder what my roadie friend Ilse would say about  Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece in Atlantic magazine where he wrote that he only wanted to live 75 years.

Ilse is 86 years old and just finished her solo Route 66 trip from Chicago to a photo conference in Albuquerque, N.M. Ilse is too busy to mope around and think about dying young.

Dr. Emanuel wrote, “The fact is that by 75, creativity, originality and producitivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us….People can continue to be productive past 75–to write and publish, to draw, carve and sculpt and compose. But there is not getting around the definition, few of us can be exceptions.”

Dr. Emanuel is the brother and health adviser to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

A few months before Rahm was elected mayor I had a beer with him at the Matchbox in Chicago. He was no sunburst of energy himself and he’s way younger than 75.

Here’s an edited version of Ilse’s last two installments from the Mother Road. Look! She know how to type, construct sentences and crack  jokes. I’d say she should  take Dr. Emanuel along on her next road trip. “Ilse and Ezeikel“–it has a ring to it. He should just leave his Smiths playlist at home.

RT 66 9/27/14:

“Good morning, it’s five o’clock, but I was too tired last night to go on. I almost cannot absorb what I all seem experience, remember and feel…and it goes on for 8 days!

“Along the way were many ghost towns, picturesque stations, abandoned motels, mom and pop diners with broken neon signs. Then I took on a hitchhiker! He must have slipped in, when I was photographing. There was a big grasshopper and I wanted a picture of him, but he hopped away before I could. When I was driving on, I felt him crawling along my pants–he was faster out, then in!

“There is a town named Pampa (Tx.) and Pampa it is (in German there is a saying that if you find yourself in Pampa, you are in the middle of nowhere.) There is nothing but red earth as far as you can see, twice the wind was blowing the sand over the streets and I had to turn on the lights. I could just imagine the dust storms of the past and understood ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ even better…

“So I went on and off and on interstate travel with thoughts of the German Autobahn with its unlimited speed limit (75 MPH allowed here), I opened the window, let the wind blow through my hair and imagined the Corvette of once upon a time. Not for long though, because all my papers and maps were blowing too!

The Big Texan Steak Ranch

The Big Texan Steak Ranch

“I stopped at the information station near Amarillo. A very nice girl gave me good advice, suggestion and help. I asked, “What about the cowboy who is inviting for the 72 ounce steak? All along the highways, like Wall Drug in the Dakotas.”

There apparently was a former ranch, who was side tracked when the interstate was built, so they made this honky tonk place with (in my opinion) tourists in mind (The Big Texan Ranch.) There is a long story about the guy who ‘ate the steak and all the trimmings in just one hour.’ Well, after she told me, ‘They even pick you up and bring you home,’ I had to see this for myself! First she gave me a coupon for the motel and then showed me the downtown area where the Route 66 history still lives and gave me a map of places I wanted to go.

“Is this Texas style? Room rate $36, plus tax with a King-size bed!

“At 7 p.m. I was picked up by a cowboy in a long, black limousine and driven to a place of really good food. They give you the tingling, lighting up thing (restaurant pager),  you wait and they get you to your table. I was told my waiting time would be about 20 minutes, so I walked around, listened to the one man band (he had all kinds of instruments including a washboard, guitar, harmonica and more) and watched kids in the shooting gallery. When I leaned on a saddle, a boy said to me, ‘You don’t do it right, see you have to swing over!’ I laughed and told him, ‘I cannot do it anymore kid, now I have to sit like the ladies of the long gone times,” and that gave some laughs.

“My food was excellent! I ordered 2 appetizers: smoked ribs and mountain oysters and a glass of Texas Red Amber Ale. At 9:30 p.m. the limousine brought me back to the hotel, and that’s the end of the story.”

RT 66 9/29/14:

“Last day on the road! My $29 bed was so good that I did not wake up until 8:10 a.m. After breakfast, drove and stopped and photographed slowly through Tucumcari (N.M.). Then I took the frontage road, following the Route 66 signs. There were many cattle guards and the landscape  has changed from the endless grass pampas of Texas to more mesas in New Mexico. The road had many dips and sometimes just gravel, but many flowers and even cactus alongside. On my right a railroad track with the longest line of freight trains and four engines waiting. Then I changed again to a long stretch of  interstate. Isabella (her car) liked it–she was like a racehorse and we made some time.

“Along the way I took some pictures, but I feel maybe I never took the time to MAKE the pictures. Soon I arrived in Santa Rosa, where the marker tells you that the explorer Espejo passed through here in 1583.”

Ilse's last portrait of her Route 66 trip (Used by permission)

Ilse’s last portrait of her Route 66 trip (Used by permission)

“I did make a stop at the famous stop for scuba diving in the desert, the Blue Hole. It is in the middle of town and I watched some swimmers jump in and some divers going down in the clear, wonderful blue water. A diver explained to me that it is fed by an underground river and that it is 80 feet deep, has a diameter of 60 feet, an outflow of about 3,000 gallons of water per minute and the water temp is 61 degrees at the top and bottom! The Blue Hole is such an amazing color blue, and I thought, sometimes the skies have the same color of this–almost turquoise blue, especially here in New Mexico.

“I drove until I could take the old 66 again near a once-upon-a-time Longhorn Ranch and drove on into my end station: Albuquerque  at Moriarty. My last stop before was  Clines Corner Cafe. Even though it said ‘Here since 1923’ it is nowadays a Subway, with a big souvenir store, where everything calls ‘Please buy me,’  I played deaf.

“Black clouds were hanging over the mesas and hills, soon the first drops came, but only for a short time a hefty rain shower just so that I had a fresh washed car to drive into a sunny town again. I followed the sign here and it must still be like the old times at night. Many neon signs, the old somehow revived, small hotels and inviting diners, looks a big funky, thought, here I would not like to be going alone at night….

The old, somehow revived. Beautiful.

Ilse at the Blue Whale roadside landmark in Caloosa, Oklahoma

Ilse at the Blue Whale roadside landmark in Catoosa, Oklahoma

She wrote, “To find the hotel, would have been easier to come in on the I-40, even at rush hour. After asking twice I found the Marriott and was greeted by photo friends right in the hall. I cannot believe, that only a week ago, I followed the blue and red foot steps in Pontiac (Il.)–and soon much lies in between!

“I had a great, sometimes a bit emotional, very rewarding trip, and thanked Isabella, too, that she was leading me safely to my destination. I will write the last letter when I am home in 14-20 days from now. (She is not driving home on Route 66) I had two great slide shows tonight, especially the Nature International, but I skipped the reception because I wanted to end the trip with you (her notes went out to other people besides me.)

 “Anyway, America’s ‘Main Street’ was a history book with many pictures and chapters for me and I am thankful I could still do it as the ‘Grandmother of the Mother Road’ as Dave calls me.

“Many greetings!”

Route 66, Seligman, Az. 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

Route 66, Seligman, Az. 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

Any doubts about the emotional power of Route 66 are cast to the wind when you read the road letters of my friend Ilse who is motoring west from the Great North Woods to a photo conference in Albuquerque, NM. Her words are butterflies, the modest car she calls Isabella is her net.

Ilse is 86 years old.

She has been to 140 countries. She is traveling Route 66 alone. (For details read the previous two posts on this site.) I asked her to stay in touch with us. Here is an essential take-away from her note of Thursday, Sept. 25—Ilse’s fifth day on the road. By then she had made it through Commerce, Ok., the birth place of Mickey Mantle.

I realize I have to skip a few things, eight days to do it all is too short. But I love this road and stories she tells me—so I take my time and listen. Not ‘have been there—have done it’  no, I want to live it, be a page of the book.

She gets it. This is exactly what happened to me when I traveled Route 66 in 1991. It was a time where I was moving too fast in my life. I, too was alone. Over my 12- day trip I learned how to become a better listener. I saw humility in dozens of small towns. I basked in warm neon sunsets and promising blue mornings.

A road so narrow can open so many minds.

Here’s edited versions of her two most recent letters from the road:

RT 66 9/25/14:

“On my map it always says ‘Scavenger Hunt’..then asks a question and one has to figure out something. Now YOU do: I stay in a “charming Route 66 Motel,” (as the book says), which I looked up last night–and  I sure “found it” and….have a companion tonight..who could this be?? (tell you later!). I drive along the road who tells of cowboys, settlers, Indians, bootleggers and more!

“Breakfast in my room: from my care package yesterday; yogurt and a muffin, and my own energy chocolate drink. When I gave my key back, the first long conversation of this day with the owner: ‘You should go to our museum!. They have a nice collection, I worked on the switchboard at the telephone company, and they gave it to me long after I retired. They now have it in the museum. They had the motel since the seventies.’ After more stories I finally left with a big hug from her…of course it was too early for the museum.”

This seems to be a recurring theme for Ilse.

The early bird gets the worm, but not the museum.

I visited this museum of pickled souls on my 1991 Route 66 trip.

I visited this museum of pickled souls on my 1991 Route 66 trip.

“My first place to visit today were the fantastic caverns near Springfield, Mo. because a car drives through it. There are only four of them in the world: America, Slovakia, France and the fourth I forgot. (See! she didn’t even bottle to Google it.) A long time ago 12 women discovered it. It is huge and many singers and bands performed here (I would guess Ozark country-folk singers.) It might be the last cave I will see, don’t think I could walk them anymore.

“Remembered the Salt Caves in Poland (Ilse was born in the Black Forest of Germany and came to the United States in 1962) where we had to climb  so many steps, and Nerja/Spain where we listened to classical music but walking through it for an hour.

“I drove around Springfield, so much traffic (Ilse does not like traffic) and I enjoyed the country road: rolling and winding,  mostly empty, only for  a while there were some farmers who were transporting their cows, who were holding me up a bit–they drove slowly on the small road, probably protecting their cows that they were not too much shaken and giving whipped cream instead of milk! It was so pastoral—-the many oak trees, the horses, the meadows.

“Yesterday was in and out of the car to take pictures here and there–today was even hotter than yesterday. Think of the people who came here in their wagons while I just turn on the air conditioner to feel more comfortable.

“So I lived into the day and was shocked when I realized it was Thursday already.

Route 66, 1991 (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Route 66, 1991
(Dave Hoekstra photo)

“I found this out in a hurry. A big sign: ‘This is the last Historic byways Route 66” by the border; then took it a while, till I found a little brown sign of Oklahoma. Followed it to Commerce, where I stopped for a milkshake, again in a converted Marathon station…and didn’t come out til almost an hour or more. Everywhere they want you to sign the guest book, telling that people from all over the world are visiting and they found out I came from Germany. He brought out a book from a photographer in Hamburg who had made some photos of the station, him and his mother. There were some cookies with the 66 sign on it, then the stories started, he has made the cutter, told me about the family, explained the Marathon sign, the civil war battles around here, President Truman and Bonny Clyde lived here, how they shot the policeman, so many more stories that time went by, of course I had the cookie and a big milk shake while listening, but now I HAVE to leave…

Bonnie AND Clyde hit the road.

Bonnie and Clyde hit the road. Criminals who were not camera shy.

“Following the sign, did not come far after Miami (Ok., which has a nine foot wide section of the original “Ribbon Road”) and ended up on a dusty road, asked a farmer if I’m ‘right’, go on, after three miles it gets better…But somehow the direction seemed wrong, I took the next paved road to where the Interstate was, of course there was no entrance but a bridge over it, then just drove along a side road, the next village will come.

‘There were three old timers (remember Ilse is 86) sitting by the table in the gas station. Instead of asking the young girl on the cashier machine, I asked them. Two just informed me ‘so and so tollway’ til the third one said, ‘You just confuse the girl Take this road, make a cloverleaf over the bridge and stay on HW 60 and HW69, they are HW 66-drive safely girl.’ I followed him and came exactly out by the Buffalo Ranch (opened in 1958 which featured the world’s largest western wear store)  where the charming  Motel Route 66 (in Afton, Ok.) was.

“Rooms “with names” were available.

“I choose John Wayne–and now ‘Gute Nacht!”

RT 66 9/26/14

“Since I was so tired last night, I didn’t go out for dinner, instead right to bed; slept til about ten and then wrote my log. It was close to one a.m. until I went to sleep again, John Wayne watching me all the time from all the walls!

“Now I am hungry! I have chicken-fried steak, eggs, biscuits and gravy and the coffee tastes good. Right now it’s 6:30 a.m. and the sun is still “down”–only making pink clouds. The Buffalo Ranch still blinking colorful lights….

“The landscape has changed, flat and many herds of cows and bulls grazing in the morning fog, and even a chicken running over the road. A reminder of my youth! I drove along some ghost (abandoned) stations and motels, too dark to photograph. In Vanita, Ok. I saw this broken sign EAT and stopped, had the best breakfast (again?) ate half and the  waitress packed for me too. Clanton’s Cafe owned by the same family since 1927! The best hash browns–I was ready for the road again.

Clanton's Cafe, Vinita, Ok.

Clanton’s Cafe, Vinita, Ok.

“In Claremore (Ok.) spent a long time at the Will Rogers Museum. Highlight of the day, but  really not enough time. Very nice displays and I remembered the cattle drive in Montana and me unsuccessfully trying to rope a wooden horse. Amazing how many tricks Rogers had! Along the road, near a little pond was the concrete blue whale. I think maybe a forerunner of the fancy art slides of the Dells. He has a big smile and a baseball cap on top.”

As does my friend Ilse. She is living in the moment as the moments come to her.

Reply, Reply All or Forward | More

Click to reply all


Sleep in a wigwam; Route 66 California, 1991 (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Sleep in a wigwam; Route 66 California, 1991 (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Route 66 is one of America’s most historic common denominators, but because of the road’s accessible depth each traveler sees it in a different light. My friend Ilse has set foot in all seven continents and 140 countries but she had never traveled the Mother Road until this week.

Ilse is 86 years young.

The German-born roadie is driving alone in her “Isabella,” a camel-colored Hunday that is named after the Queen of Spain. Ilse has attended a couple of National Hobo Conventions in Iowa where fellow hobos crowned her “The Great Northern Gypsy.”

I’ve shared a few road tips with the gypsy and asked her to stay in touch.

Here is Ilse’s first couple of observational letters from Route 66. The notes have been edited by her daughter Christine. The family does not want me to use their last name. I’ve thrown a few comments in for good measure.

RT 66 9.22.14.

“Started in Dwight and spent a perfect photo-light late afternoon in Pontiac and there were over 200 Pontiac cars here over the weekend! (I still drive my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire!)  I did not drive too many miles, only from Pontiac to Springfield, Ill.

Ilse elected to bypass the intensity of Chicago.

“Last evening I saw some red and blue foot steps—this morning I took them and ended up by “swinging bridges”–three of them over a little brook full of ducks. Later I ended up in the Route 66 Hall of Fame, which is in an old historic firehouse.” Ilse, this will be the first of several Route 66 museums on your eight-day trip to way to the 76th conference of the Photographic Society of America  in Albuquerque, N.M.

“I enjoyed looking over the VW Bus of Bob Waldmire, an artist who did a lot for Route 66 and had a wonderful drawing from beginning to end, a card for each state, took pictures of his “Road Yacht”–a school bus he remodeled as his home.”

The Waldmire Bus in Rochester, Ill.

The Waldmire Bus in Rochester, Ill.

Never let ego get in the way of the possibilities of travel. Only when you blend can you bend.

In November, 2009 I  visited Bob in downstate Rochester, Ill. as he lay dying on a futon on his bus. I brought him a sandwich from the Dixie Truck Stop up the road on Route 66.

I later  had a dust-up with a Chicago newspaper editor who insisted that Route 66 had nothing to do with Chicago, even though the route starts in Chicago. Keep an open mind.

Route 66 always gets framed by nostalgia, but the spiritual essence of the road is the promise of what is in front of us.

Bob Waldmire, artist and voyager, circa 1982

Bob Waldmire, artist and voyager, circa 1982

“There are more stories,” Ilse wrote, not even out of central Illinois. “I also stopped at the Strevell House. Jason W. Strevell was visiting there and prredicted that he would be nominated in January 1860–there is a “Lincoln Trail” which would be interesting to follow. “I missed the log cabin (? restaurant in Pontiac maybe?) but went to the southerly diction to Lexington and Towanda. I first stopped at an old graveyard and the other had about a mile and a half trail along the old, cracked and full of weeds Mother Road–in the beginning, they had painted the whole length of it and further there were all 8 states with pictures and explanations.

“Then I found a nice place to rest. I hope I get the picture I took with the iPad. Yes, there are still rusted out and abandonend places. An old ice-cream cone still recognizable and I hear the echoes of  children asking, ‘Can I have one?’ I have the road practically to myself and am only separated by a short strip of grass and wire, with the many cars swishing by on I-55.

“Drove through Bloomington, but did not stop, just saw the sign, and after the heavy traffic , I took a side road through sunlit green quiet woods. I hoped to have lunch in Atlanta and the recommended (by me) Palms Cafe, but they are closed on Monday (sorry Ilse) and so was the museum. Across the street, there was only an antique dealer open, so I drove the couple miles back to the Dixie place (est. 1928, the oldest truck stop in America) and had a trucker’s lunch there.”

Dixie Trucker's Home back in the day when the house barber cut my hair.

Dixie Trucker’s Home back in the day when the house barber cut my hair.

How great is that?

Rt. 66 9/23/14

“Excuse the lengthy letters, but instead of making notes in my log book, I put everything in the computer and write up my story when home—

“Early rise, but a late start and there was so much again today. There are about three “Old Rt. 66″ signs around: 1928-30, 1930-40 and 1940-70 and  you need a map. On the other hand, it’s harvest time, and big machines were working–left and right were huge corn fields. Nothing but sky and fields and me.”

“Stopped for a longer time in Carlinville, a nice town with “Sears Roebuck mail order houses” (My Mom, born 1921, grew up in one of these Carlinville homes) and the only roundabout on Rt. 66 where once has to drive around the gazebo on the square! An interesting jail, where once a man broke out–had a beer-and walked through the door to be jailed up again. Believe it…or not stories!”

Ilse told me she is a Willie Nelson fan.

I would get this story to him.

“Also a great court house,” she wrote. “All these places have nice 66 descriptive signs.”

“Now comes the second adventure–looking for the Madonna, or “Our Lady of the Highways Shrine”–my only clue was (Dave’s) and Waggoner–exit 72–since coming from Carlinville took HW 106 over to Raymond and let Miss Garmin take over. (Editor’s note–Christine and I think that Miss Garmin is Ilse’s GPS.) Then stopped and asked in Waggoner and I must have passed her, without seeing her –imagined her in a wood cove, not in front of a farm house.

Our Lady of the Highways Shrine, Route 66 near Carlinville, Ill.

Our Lady of the Highways Shrine, Route 66 near Carlinville, Ill.

“Then I saw a Pleasant Hill Church and thought the shrine might be in their garden–‘come,’ said the Minister. “I will take you to her,” and drove all the way back, where I just came from: “You stand by her side and I take your picture, then you can have her with you…” Then he pointed out the “Hail Mary…” Staggered up like the Burma Shave signs along the brown cornfield.”

“After all this, I was ready for a hot dog in the Ariston in Litchfield, expecting a diner, instead I was led by an older gentleman to a booth and the table with linen napkins. Don’t know if it was the owner, but he was happy to greet me with “Guten Tag–do you want a brandy?’ I said, ‘I’m driving and only have water.’ Instead of hot dogs, I ordered Greek chicken liver. When I left the waiter brought me some tokens from the establishment to remember the place.”

“What an interesting day again, talked to bikers and a couple in a convertible. Sometimes you have the street all for yourself, then you are involved  in conversations and “where are you from?”

We are everywhere. Past and present. Here it is.

The Jack Rabbit Trading Post, Route 66, Joseph City Az., 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra_

Here’s a few tips for Ilse from my Facebook friends:

Michael Kandel: When she gets to sunset blvd there is a great burrito place on the corner Alvarado in echo park at the car wash there.

  • May Rose Goldberg Swan:  My son and I had a blast on our Route 66 trip. The Oklahoma City Memorial is amazing. Also, stopping at a steakhouse in Amarillo is satisfying.
  • Patrick Boyce: Reds for steak in Sedona .. The Lodge in Williams .. The “Blue Swallow” N.M. “Twisters” Ice cream in Williams Az .. The “Wigwam” .. The Big Texan Amarillo ..

The Jack Rabbit Trading Post, Route 66, Joseph City Az., 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

The author rarin' to go at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post in 1991 (Photo by innocent bystander)

The author rarin’ to go at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post in 1991 (Photo by innocent bystander)


Route 66, New Mexico, 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

Route 66, New Mexico, 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

The gentle tones of the dispatch were from another time, one of car hops and flat tops.

Ilse e-mailed me about a week ago after reading Route 66 stories on my website. On Sunday, Sept. 21 she embarked on an eight day trip down Route 66 from Chicago to the 76th conference of the Photographic Society of America  in Albuquerque, N.M. Ilse is driving her “Isabella,” a camel-colored Hyundai  that she named after the Queen of Spain.  She will listen to classic country music on satellite radio and German folk songs. She likes Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.

Ilse was looking for suggestions on safety and wondered,  “I’ll fulfill one of my bucket-list wishes, but can I stay in the “old” motels?”

Ilse is 86 years old.

I had to find out more.

“What story?,” she replied in one of our back and forth e-mails. “You are some-one-else and sound like a reporter!   I was delivering hot peppers and just got your e-mail.”

Ilse was a pleasant detour from the salty chest-thumping you see on the internet.

She does not want to be in the news and did not want to share her picture. Her family does not want me to use her last name.

I have left out her Midwestern home town in respect of her privacy. Ilse’s humble approach to the great American road trip mirrors the pleasures of driving Route 66. America’s red carpet is measured journey of clarity and dreams, especially when you check your ego to understand your place in the world.

The Route 66 community is a giving society. I know that fellow roadies will reach out for all sorts of great tips for Ilse. For starters, do not miss Atlanta, Illinois!  Safe, old motels? Don’t bypass the Wagon Wheel in Cuba, Mo. I’ll always be in debt to Lou Whitney (Skeletons,Morells) for hooking me up with the Rail Haven in Springfield, Mo.

Oatman, Az., 1991 (Photos by Dave Hoekstra)

Oatman, Az., 1991 (Photos by Dave Hoekstra)

Ilse has previously done the Kingman-Oatman, Az. section of Route 66. She wanted to drive the entire stretch to New Mexico because she is a history buff. She moves with a full throttle sense of wonder.

Ilse read a few Route 66 guide books, picked up tips on this website while “listening to others and follow maps and my feelings.” Yes, this gal knows how to travel.

I verified her journey in a phone conversation on the eve of her departure. Ilse told me she has visited 140 countries.

She pasted St. Christopher (the patron saint of travelers) on her dashboard for the Route 66 trip. Ilse, be sure to stop at The Our Lady of the Highways Shrine in downstate Raymond, Ill (near exit 63 on I-55). Late farmer Francis Marten installed the shrine and wooden grotto in 1959 along old Route 66. Marten also installed spotlights that illuminate the sign at night.

Ilse was concerned about her nocturnal safety. She said she stops driving around 4 p.m. and resumes early in the morning. I wondered about road food and told her how Diet Mountain Dew, tortilla chips and truck stop coffee keeps me going. In our Saturday morning phone talk she replied, “I. Do. Not. Eat. In. The. Car. I just drink water. I will have coffee in the morning, yes.”

Ilse was born in the Black Forest of Germany. She came to the United States in 1962. She met her husband in Germany. He later became an orthopedic surgeon in Urbana, Ill. Ilse was jet lagged on her first night in America when they were eating at a diner in Bloomington, not far off of Route 66. “I was proud to see my first cowboy,” Ilse said. “My husband said, ‘No, that is not a cowboy. That was just a tired state trooper’.”

She insisted she is not a professional photographer but she takes pictures as a hobby. “Im using a shoot and point for my Route 66 trip,” she explained. “Before I did slides. (I shot more than 200 Kodak slides of my 1991 Route 66 trip.) But I have nowhere to put them. I live in an apartment and I have about 40 apple boxes of slides. Each box has about 12 (slide) Kodak carousels in them. That’s a lot. I stopped with the slides when digital came. At first I fought it. I tried to transfer them to CDs but I don’t trust the CDs. One scratch and everything is done.”

Pre-social media advertising, 1991, Route 66

Pre-social media advertising, 1991, Santa Rosa, N.M.  The Club Cafe closed in 1992.

Ilse told me she was going to throw out most of her slides, which numbers into the thousands.

Here comes the obligatory Vivian Maier alert.

Ilse has two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren but she assumes they won’t be interested in the slides.

“I’ve been to all the continents,” she said. “I went to Chile and Easter Island on a (four-month Aegean cruise) Millennium trip. I’ve been to the Amazon. I went to Cuba with (National Geographic photographer) Bob Krist.  We flew out of Cancun. Africa was my favorite place. I went to Zimbabwe.” She went on her African trip in October, 2001, a month after 9/11 when Americans were warned not to travel.  Her husband died in 1988 after 36 years of marriage. “He left too early,” she said.

I fact checked some numbers with Ilse’s daughter Christine who added that her mother also has attended two National Hobo Conventions in Britt, Ia. The fellow hobos gave her the handle “The Great Northern Gypsy.”

What are her rewards of travel?

“First, I learn something about myself,” she answered during our phone conversation. “How thankful I am that I can travel. Otherwise, I like to see if the things I read are true. This is history for me.”

Selfies and multi-posts a day will not be part of Ilse’s road trip agenda. She does have a traveling e-mail account which is how she will keep in touch with her daughter. I asked her to send us a couple of notes from the road. I hope she does. In one e-mail I asked Ilse what she did for a living. She replied, “I was lucky enough to be a mother and a housewife.”

And now this wonderful mother is on a trip of a lifetime on America’s “Mother Road.”


Syl Johnson in his garden, August, 2014 (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Syl Johnson in his garden, August, 2014 (Photo by Paul Natkin)



Syl Johnson digs deep for his soul.

Last month I visited the global rhythm and blues singer at his home, studio and garden on the south side of Chicago.

I’ve known Syl for 30 years and have great memories of his late 1980s days as owner of Solomon’s Fishery, a chain of soul fish restaurants in the Loop, west suburbs and Gary, Ind.

Syl was likely the first African-American chain restaurant owner in downtown Chicago and no one has disproved that statement.

Syl will tell you that when he appears with his big band in two sets starting at 8 p.m. Sept. 12 at The Promontory , 5311 S. Lake Park in Chicago. “I’m not African-American,” he declared in his living room that is adjacent to a kitchen with an autographed picture of Oprah Winfrey. “I am black, a descendant of the slaves.”

Last month Syl was tending to cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, butternut squash, zucchini squash and watermelon in his garden.

He started his garden four years ago in a vacant lot (50 feet by 125 feet) directly south of his home. He grows year round by deploying a canopy. Syl usually is working in his garden during the morning hours.

“I didn’t want anybody to build on the land next to me,” he said. “So I cut it down with a Bobcat (compact tractor). I get the topsoil, dig a hole, stick a plant in there, about ten inches in diameter and ten inches deep. The topsoil holds the moisture and you don’t have to put in fertilizer.” He keeps his garden healthy by watering with rain water.

Syl is truly growing organic.

He does not sell his produce. He gives away his food, and indeed, handed off cucumbers to me and my photographer  as we arrived at his house. He should be performing at Farm Aid this weekend. “Good God almighty, I grow more than I need,” he said. “I give some to the lady neighbors but the senior citizens don’t want nothing. I give some to my musician friends.”

Syl once catered a lunch at Harpo studios on the near west side of Chicago.

“I think about the business and songs when I am in my garden,” said Syl, who is 78 but looks like he is a healthy 48. “Want a watermelon?”

He suddenly looked down at a scarred cucumber. “Black ass crows pecked them when I was in Japan,” he said. “That’s why I put up the (artificial) owl. He don’t like that. The wind blew down my scarecrow.

Syl was interested in the book on civil rights and soul food that I had just wrapped (due October, 2015 on Chicago Review Press with portraits by Paul Natkin). Syl even wanted to write a song about the topic.

Syl Johnson feelin' the fro.

Syl Johnson feelin’ the fro.

He is no stranger to such fare. In 1969 he recorded the scorching 7 1/2 minute jazz-blues anthem  “Is It Because I’m Black” which peaked at number 11 on the Billboard rhythm and blues charts. The hypnotic arrangements were done at the Chess Studios by the late Donny Hathaway who used a similar motif for his own hit “The Ghetto, Part 1″

In 2013 Syl released the song-story “Carry On for Trayvon,” which he recorded with his daughter Syleena two days after the George Zimmerman acquittal was handed down in the Trayvon Martin trial.

“Let me tell you where soul food came from!,” he said. “The freedom riders. White people were hungry. They went down the street and found good food down at the ‘soul’ place. White folks named it soul food. It was just food. They had good black-eyed peas and neck bones and chitterlings. But soul people didn’t know anything about nutrition. They just cooked.”

Syl cooked up his own fish recipe from the Saturday night fish fries in his native Holly Springs, Miss. There is no starch and little cholesterol in the Johnson family recipe. The fish are basked in celery, garlic, onion and pure vegetable oil, using liberal amounts of whole- wheat flour and meal with “secret” health ingredients.

Syl Johnson uses rain water in his garden. (Paul Natkin photo)

Syl Johnson uses rain water in his garden. (Paul Natkin photo)


“Most doctors will tell you the oil from the salmon is the healthiest fish oil in the world,” he said. “Don’t take my word. We don’t cook with white flour, we cook with wheat flour. We don’t cook with corn meal.” Syl once told me he named his chain Solomon’s because he didn’t really want to name it Salmon’s.

Syl was excited about his Hyde Park gig and figured people will have a whale of a time.

“I don’t like playing with small bands anymore,” he said. “I’ll have five horns, four rhythms and three background singers at Hyde Park. This way I can put on a show. My songs are R&B not just blues.”

In the 1970s, when Syl was recording for Hi Records in Memphis, James Brown spun a hit off of Syl’s 1971 dance tune “Annie Got Hot Pants Power.” Foghat covered Syl’s “Back For a Taste of Your Love,” more recently tackled by Jonny Lang and in 1975 Syl had his own hit with a deep blues version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”

His down-to-the groove 1967 tune “Different Strokes” has been sampled by at least 50 artists including the Beastie Boys (“Desperado”), Michael Jackson (“Blood on the Dance Floor”), and Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”).

Expect to hear the new Bob Jones composition “I’m the Roots to the Blues” (now available on iTunes), which Syl sings in falsetto Marvin Gaye “Trouble Man” era tones. He recorded the tune in July, backed with a nine-piece horn section.

Syl’s garden is true to his roots. He lives in the same neighborhood where he landed in 1950 when he came to Chicago on the City of New Orleans train. He was 16. He still hosts an annual summer reunion fish fry with his brother, Chicago blues great Jimmy Johnson. The event takes place at his home, close to his heart.

“Here’s my story,” he said  as he leaned over from his favorite living room chair. “If you pull a tree out of the ground, the limbs, the branches and the roots look the same don’t they? But cut the branches and tree blossoms out and they are beautiful again. Cut the roots?

“ Dead tree.”












L.C. Cooke portrait by Paul Natkin

L.C. Cooke portrait by Paul Natkin

L.C. Cooke sits on a regal chair in the center of the pulpit of Christ Universal Temple church in Calumet Park, just south of Chicago. He is surrounded by an air of satisfaction.

There is light, but there are no shadows.

Cooke, 81, is the brother of  Sam Cooke, gospel icon and member of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

L.C. Cooke has released his first music in 50 years and he is here to share the good news.

“The Complete SAR Records Recordings” hit the streets a few weeks ago on ABKCO Records, the label of future Beatles manager Allen Klein. Fourteen  tracks were cut between 1960 and 1964 under the  supervision of Sam Cooke. The first ten tracks of the CD were planned for an L.C. Cooke solo album but the project was shelved after Sam  was murdered on Dec. 11, 1964 at the Motel Hacienda in Los Angeles. He was 33.

Until now, L.C.’s music has only been heard in snippets, on the 1994 “SAR Records Story 1959-65)” on ABKCO and with Clay Hammond, Willie Rogers and others on the 1990 P-Vine import “We Remember Sam Cooke.”

The "L.C." in L.C. Cooke sometimes stands for "Loads of Charm."

The “L.C.” in L.C. Cooke sometimes stands for “Loads of Charm.”

L.C. sounds a lot like Sam, except where Sam was a crooner, L.C. sings in more playful tones.

His sense of diction clearly comes from the pulpit and back in the day the purity of L.C.’s vocals were compared to Chicago jazz-soul singer Dinah Washington. Of particular note is the “session chatter” on “Gonna Have a Good Time” from the compilation. Sam tells L.C. to “remember our heritage” by pronouncing “before” and “fore.”

“That’s the only thing Sam ever told me,” L.C. says in a late August conversation at the church.  “I was saying bee-fore, which was the correct pronunciation.  But Sam wanted me to keep it black. “

“The Complete SAR Records Recordings” include Sam’s top of the line session players like drummer Earl Palmer, teenage organist Billy Preston and guitarist Bobby Womack. Sam Cooke wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 17 songs on the album.

A ringer is L.C. Cooke’s composition “Do You Wanna Dance (Yea Man)” recorded in March, 1965 at Universal Recording in Chicago. With an introduction reminiscent of the Isley Brothers “Shout,” L.C. takes call and response gospel to the dance floor. Background singers include two sisters of late Chicago soul singer Major Lance and David Cooke,  L.C.’s last surviving sibling.

If there’s Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” there can be room for L.C. Cooke’s “Heaven Tapes.”

Cooke’s long time wife Marjorie Cook (Cook is the family birth name) is assistant minister of Christ Universal Temple.L.C. and Marjorie’s first date was to see Jackie Wilson at the Regal Theater in Chicago. L.C. is a long time member of the church. His face is as smooth as his inner soul. Over the last couple weeks he has been asking about my mother’s illness and he sends prayers her way. L.C. is a good man.

L.C. Cooke was his own singer before September, 1960 when Sam ushered him into United Recording studios in Hollywood, Ca. In 1959 L.C. was recording for the Checker imprint of Chess Records in Chicago and two of those tracks appear here: the L.C. Cooke compositions “If I Could Only Hear” and “I’m Falling,” a cresting, hand-clapping soul rave.

“We didn’t allow Leonard Chess in the studio,” Cooke says with a firm smile.  “As a matter of fact we put him out. He couldn’t tell me how to sing. Sam told me I should be with his label.” In addition, L.C. would own publishing rights at SAR.

Here is L.C.’s “Put Me Down Easy,” which combines the honey soaked vocals of the Cooke family with my love of Carolina Beach Music. There are two versions of the track on the new CD:

Sam Cooke formed SAR Records in 1959. He was the first African-American artist to own his own record company and publishing. SAR stood for founders Sam Cooke, Alex (as in his manager J.W. Alexander and Roy Crain, Cooke’s road manager and the founder of the Soul Stirrers. Cooke also signed artists like Bobby Womack and bluesman Johnnie Morisette (“The Singing Pimp”) to SAR.

Image 1-2

“Sam wrote the songs for my personality,” Cooke says. ‘Take Me For What I Am.’ (a 1963 jubilee gospel-pop number that leads off the record)  ‘Put Me Down Easy’ (a swing tune cut in 1964)”

The dance track “The Wobble” is a fine companion piece to Sam Cooke’s 1962 hit “Twistin’ the Night Away.” The lush, looping strings and boastful lyrics of “The Lover” create more cheese than you would hear in a Sam Cooke song.

L.C. sang in a higher register than his older brother. He explains, “I had sense enough to know I couldn’t be Sam singing Sam. His wife could not tell me from Sam on the telephone because our voices were so much alike. I came up with my own thing. I sound like Sam, but I don’t sing like Sam.”

L.C. (which does not stand for anything) Cook was born Dec. 14, 1932 in Clarksdale, Ms. His family left Clarksdale when L.C. was two months old. “My mother (Annie Mae) brought all of us on the Greyhound bus,” he says. “My father (Charles Cook, Sr.) left Mississippi with 45 cents and preached his way to Chicago. He preached at mostly white churches. He would tell them the truth and they accepted the truth.”

L.C., his mother and father and seven  siblings settled at 35th St. and Cottage Grove on the south side.

“I have good memories,” he says. “We lived in a four-flat building. Two apartments in the front, two in the back on each floor. You could go from one porch all the way to the other.  Me and Sam were entrepreneurs as kids. Sam got his styling from (the pure, gliding tenor) of William Kenny of the Ink Spots. They sang all those pretty songs and that attracted Sam because he had the voice for it. So I would knock the (apartment) door and someone would come to the door. Sam would start singing. When he got through I would pass the hat. They couldn’t refuse us. I was 7 or 8, Sam was 9 or 10.  Sam had the personality that could charm a bird out of a bush. We made some kind of money. Imagine all the apartment doors we knocked on.”

L.C. Cooke fronting his group the Upsetters circa 1966 in a mid-south club.

L.C. Cooke fronting his group the Upsetters circa 1966 in a mid-south club. L.C. inherited the Upsetters from Sam Cooke.

Not long after settling in Chicago, Charles Cook, Sr. began a regular ministry in Chicago Heights. He drove 30 miles to the south suburb.

“We eventually started a family group called ‘The Singing Children’,” Cooke says. “I sang bass. Sam sung tenor. My sister Hattie sang baritone. My older sister Mary sang lead. Mt brother Charles sang lead. We sang in churches. At one time we were so popular we had our own limousine. My Daddy had a Dodge limousine and a Cadillac limousine.”

The Cook family lived well. As early as 1942 they owned one of the few wind up phonographs in the 3500 block of South Cottage Grove.

Away from the church, Sam and L.C. became part of the loosely formed “Dirty 30’s ” group  that sang along the sidewalks of 35th Street near Doolittle School. “Me and Pervis (Staples of the Staple Singers) sang in the same group,” he says. “He doesn’t live too far from me in Pops (Staples)  house. Lou Rawls. Johnnie Taylor came up with us later. Johnny Carter of the Dells. My group (the Nobleairs) was the first quartet he ever  sang with. After the family group broke up I got my own group and Sam named us the Nobleairs.” The group was singing in the Noble nightclub.  At the time Sam was singing with the Highway Q.C.’s. Rawls replaced Cooke in 1951 when he left the Q.C.’s to join the Soul Stirrers.

Cooke continues, “There was a streetcar line that ended at 35th and Cottage Grove. Everybody had to get off the street car. Ain’t  nothing but a crowd. Me and Sam were savvy enough to stand on the corner and sing when everybody was getting off the street car. Here’s what he told me when I was seven years old. He had 12 wooden popsicle sticks and he would stick them in the ground. And he would sing to these sticks. He said, ‘To me, they’re not sticks. They’re people. I’m grooming myself to sing to an audience.”

Sam Cooke in his Bob Dylan phase.

Sam Cooke in his Bob Dylan phase. Cooke thought he should have written “Blowin’ In the Wind,.” released in 1963. So he wrote the 1964 civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna’ Come.”

L.C. Cooke has no plans to perform the music live and discounts theories that the songs were lost.

“ABKCO was so busy putting out other  people,” he says.  “That’s all I can tell you.” In recent years ABKCO has released compilation projects of early Rolling Stones and Animals music as well as Herman’s Hermits and stuff from the Cameo-Parkway label (Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp and others.) “Allen Klein offered to give me the music in 1986. But I refused it. I just said, ‘When you put more stuff out send me some money.’ He said, ‘We don’t pay artists first.’ I said, ‘I’m L.C. Cooke and you’re going to pay me first and if you don’t I will come to New York. And if I come to New York you wouldn’t like it.

“That’s how me and Allen Klein got to be tight. He later sent me $20,000.  See how good God is? Ever since then ABKCO has been taking care of me. I get a check every month. They treated me fair. When Allen died (in 2009)  his son started the same thing. I get a new car every three years. One is sitting out there right now. I pay for nothing but gas, oil and to have it cleaned. That’s how good ABKCO is to me. Allen always said if he hadn’t met  Sam (Cooke), he wouldn’t be  where he was. I know that’s how he got the Beatles (in 1969). John Lennon said if he could manage Sam Cooke, he could manage the Beatles.”



Sophie (left) and Liz on the last day of the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chester Madej.)

Sophie (left) and Liz on the last day of the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chester Madej.)

Sophie Madej was always let down when one of her regular Busy Bee customers left the Wicker Park neighborhood. She uplifted spirits while serving pierogis, sour cream spinach soup and potato pancakes between 1956 and 1998 at one of Chicago’s most famous diners.

Mrs. Madej died on Aug. 21 in her northwest side home. She was 86 years old.

The Busy Bee, 1546 N. Damen, was defined by a shoebox shaped diner counter and bright yellow walls you would find in your Grandmother’s kitchen.

Many customers sat on old  stools,  faced each other and sometimes yelled at each other across a service area at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Urban intimacy  is why the Busy Bee was a honey comb for everyone.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington loved the Busy Bee’s oxtail stew, activist Abbie Hoffman recommended the budget conscious menu for anti-war protestors and the authentic Chicago vibe made the Busy Bee a photo-op for Hillary Clinton, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Dan Rostenkowski. At one time the Busy Bee sponsored a Damen Avenue bowling team and everyone along the counter read newspapers. That was a long time ago in heart and soul.

The famous Busy Bee counter

The famous Busy Bee counter (Photo by Dan M. Parker)

Mrs. Madej’s early years were directed by cruel winds, which is why she understood the importance of roots.

A native of Poland, Mrs. Madej was moved to Germany in 1943 under the Nazis forced labor laws. She met her husband Henry in 1947 (they divorced in 1985), where they remained until 1951 when Catholic Charities gave the couple $100 to sponsor their trip to America. The young couple came to America with two suitcases and two children. Henry worked on a cattle farm in Virginia for a year before they migrated to Chicago to settle in a larger Polish community. In 1955 Mrs. Madej found work at the Rose Packing House, originally at the Back of the Yards and later in Stickney.

“I worked on the slicing machine,” Mrs. Madej said in several conversations I had with her over the years. “We’d pack Canadian bacon and ham for the supermarkets. There were about 30 women in one room. They paid good, but I couldn’t take the cold anymore.” Mrs. Madej’s doctor told her to quit her job.

At the time Mrs. Madej was living at 18th and Damen in Pilsen. A friend told her that the Busy Bee was for sale. The Busy Bee had already been renamed from the Oak Room, which opened in 1913.


Exterior photo by Dan M. Parker

Mrs. Madej did not know how the Busy Bee got its name. She did not know anything about the restaurant business. She sold her house in Pilsen. With that money she bought the entire Busy Bee building in the early 1970s, a deal that included 16 upstairs apartments.

While all the action was at the front  counter, the Busy Bee also included a more sedate dining room north of the diner area. A favorite dining room tonic was the “Busy Bee Stinger” (brandy, white creme de menthe and a dash of krupnik, a Polish honey liqueur.). The bees began buzzing after a few of these drinks.

In the early years her work day began at 4 a..m. and ran until 10 p.m. Mrs. Madej  rode the Damen Avenue bus north from her home in Pilsen to Wicker Park. After the 1968 Martin Luther King riots, the Wicker Park area took a turn for the worse and her older children started picking Mrs. Madej up at night. During the riots someone threw a brick through the front window of the Busy Bee.

All her children: Elizabeth, Hank, Chester and Robert worked at the Busy Bee. “She worked very hard to make all her customers feel like family,” Chester wrote in a Saturday e-mail. “It was her heart that made it work. We all worked there, the grand kids, because it was all about Sophie. She did a lot for the Wicker Park neighborhood. That took a lot of guts, courage and personal pride to make it happen.”

Few people said, “Let’s go to the Busy Bee.”

More people said, “Let’s go to Sophie’s.”

I moved to Wicker Park in 1981, which is Jurassic Park in hipster years. I left in 1986 for Ukranian Village, and although I lived close to the Busy Bee, Mrs. Madej still would scold me for leaving the neighborhood. I remained a regular devotee of the handmade meat, cheese and potato pierogis which Mrs. Madej said was her mother’s recipe. During the Christmas season the Busy Bee would sell 1,000 pierogi a week. The dough was the power point. Mrs. Madej kneaded the dough, striking the exact balance of flour, eggs and water. This ensured that the dough would enclose the filling and not break open while being boiled.

Hillary Clinton at the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chet Madej)

Hillary Clinton at the Busy Bee (Courtesy of Chet Madej)

In June, 1998 Mrs. Madej retired at age 70 and closed the Busy Bee .

Sophie was the last of a breed of old school female service industry entrepreneurs in Chicago that included Margie of Margie’s Candies, Phyllis of Phyllis’s Musical Inn and Marie of Marie’s Rip Tide Lounge. Shakespeare District cop William Jaconetti composed the prose for a historic plaque that community members put outside the restaurant, now the Blue Line Tap and Grill.

“Sophie is the pioneer of this neighborhood,” Jaconetti told me over lunch with Mrs. Madej. “They talk about community policing? It starts at a place like this. At tough times she was always here for the police. For every demonstration, for the Rolling Stones concert (at the Double Door across the street), she stayed open so the police would have somewhere to go. This didn’t happen because it was a business. She did something special. She opened the doors to everyone.”

Mrs. Madej had a triple bypass operation six months after selling the Busy Bee. She spent the rest of her life doting on her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Sophie with Chet Madej's daughter and her grandaughter on the grandaughter's 1st birthday on July 19

Sophie with Chet Madej’s daughter and her grand daughter on the grand daughter’s 1st birthday on July 19.

In 2003 I invited her back to her old place which was rebuilt as the Blue Line Tap. It was her first time in the building since she retired. She cried. “I spent my whole life here,” she said while sitting next to a jukebox stocked with Fatboy Slim and not Lil’ Wally.

I showed Mrs. Madej a copy of the book “The New Polish Cuisine,” written by former Chicago chef Michael J. Baruch. She was intrigued, especially by the angle that many Poles were vegetarians because of the abundance of religious holidays that required fasting.

In a subsequent interview Baruch called the Busy Bee “a very historical restaurant.” He elaborated, “The greatest lesson I learned from the Busy Bee was Polish peasant hospitality serving gourmet fare. Great chefs snuck in there. I was a sous chef at Le Francais, Jovan and Cafe Provencal and I’ve seen a lot of places close. It wasn’t until the Busy Bee closed that I saw people cry.”

The magic was simple at the Busy Bee.

“I often wondered what I got into,” she told me in 1990 over supper at the Bee. “I said, ‘Sophie, what did you do now?’ When I came in at six (a.m.) I used to do the register. Or at night I’d cook. When you’re here this much, people get to know you. Then they see you’re not a snob, but a plain working woman trying to make it….why that’s all it is.”

Besides her children, Mrs. Madej is survived by seven grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Funeral mass is 10 a.m. Aug. 25 at St. Monica Church, 5115 N. Mont Clare.  She will be buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice.



Former NBA Commissioner David Stern (L) and Joe Lee (Courtesy of Charles E. Newman)

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern (L) and Joe Lee (Courtesy of Charles E. Newman)

Any passionate Chicago Bulls fan would recognize the forever young looking African-American passing out towels and soaking up blood, sweat and tears  behind the home bench. I saw this gentleman as a fan in the 1970s and he was in the house in 1990 when I covered the Bulls for the Chicago Sun-Times.

In the early 1990s I had a chance to talk to Joe Lee, who was the Bulls equipment man since the franchise’s birth in 1966.

Wanting to sit down with Joe Lee is what made me “different” in the eyes of some observers. Wink-wink.

But I learned about Mr. Lee’s gentle soul and his love for music that went beyond doing post-game laundry with equipment manager Johnny Ligmanowski.

Mr. Lee died on Aug. 4, three days before  his 78th birthday. He had been battling declining  health.

During the 1990s Mr. Lee worked for the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. He had been a groundskeeper for the Chicago Park District. Mr. Lee was also a part-time mobile disc jockey known as “The Golden Lion” and worked all Bulls home games. “He hurled garbage during the day and comforted Michael Jordan in the evenings,” his cousin Charles E. Newman wrote me on Aug. 12, the day of Mr. Lee’s memorial service.

Music was the great common denominator for Mr. Lee.

Joe Lee 2

In an early 1990s conversation he told me he made a mix tape of Motown and jazz-organ music of Jimmy Smith for Bill Cartwright. Michael Jordan received a contemporary rhythm and blues tape featuring Whitney Houston and Patti LaBelle. He made a rap tape for Scottie Pippen.

A few days before I visited his home, Mr. Lee had spun records at a Bobby “Blue” Bland-Johnnie Taylor concert at the Sabre Room in suburban Hickory Hills. He loved James Brown and the JB’s and included the Godfather of Soul in many of his mix tapes.

Mr. Lee lived on the south side. His basement was jam packed with stereo equipment, blues and jazz records and speakers. An upstairs room was devoted to Bulls memorabilia: a couple of sets of gym shoes that were gifts from Jordan, his championship rings and five handmade cardboard scrapbook posters that traced back to the beginning of the Bulls franchise.

Mr. Lee was a fan, no doubt about it. He showed me snapshots of ex-Bulls Jerry Sloan, Randy Ayres, draft bust Tate Armstrong and even the original Super Fan who ran circles around the Chicago Stadium.

“I know I’m not one of the superstars,” he told me in soft tones. “I may not always know how to express it, but I’ m very thankful. When the Bulls won their 1,000th (franchise) game Scottie Pippen gave me his (game) shoes. He said, ‘They’re yours homeboy’.” Pippen is from Arkansas.

Mr. Lee was born in 1936 in Clarendon, Ark.

He was adopted as an infant to Frank and Viola Lee. His father died when he was four years old. Mr. Lee is survived by his long time companion Lorraine Williams,  a son Darnell, two grandchildren and several cousins.

No modern day figure spent more time involved with professional basketball in Chicago than Mr. Lee.

His hoops career began in the 1962-63 season for the now-defunct Chicago Zephyrs. He actually was a ball boy who retrieved loose basketballs in the stands. “The Zephyrs played at the Chicago Coliseum where there was a heat problem,” he told me. “I had to go downstairs two to three days before game day and fill up the radiators with pails of water to keep the building warm. And the players all had the same shower. I remember how (Walt Bellamy and others) had to yell out who would shower first before the hot water ran out.”

In the summer of 1966 original Bulls owner Dick Klein announced formation of the team. Mr. Lee wrote Klein a letter and became the Bulls’ first hire. Two weeks later Klein hired his head coach, the late great John “Red” Kerr.


There were no Bulls players at Mr. Lee’s memorial service at the W.W. Holt Funeral Home in Harvey, Ill. Newman reported “four or five” front office members attended and the Bulls organization sent a framed Bulls jersey with “No. 48, Joe Lee,” honoring the years he served the team.

One of Mr. Lee’s favorite songs, the Tamela Mann contemporary gospel ballad “Take Me To The King” was played at the service.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau sent roses and the Bulls also sent a floral arrangement of white roses and lilies. “Joe loved roses,” Newman said of a golden lion who could tame the giants.

Courtesy of Charles E. Newman

Courtesy of Charles E. Newman