A couple weeks ago I saw my pal Jimmy Rittenberg at Gibson’s Bar and Steakhouse, 1028 N. Rush for an interview on the most comprehensive book about Disco Demolition you will read.
Rittenberg was the impresario of Faces, 940 N. Rush, arguably America’s best known disco. It certainly had a longer run (1971-89) than Studio 54.
Like a Frank Sinatra ballad, our conversation floated off into the dreamy 1970s memories of Rush Street; a time when footsteps were lighter and the Jack was stronger.
Soon we were joined at our table in the bar by comedian Tom Dreesen.
This guy is everywhere.
He was on my WGN Nocturnal Journal radio show in May and now he was in Chicago to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs-Dodgers game.
Dreesen told a few good stories at Gibson’s but I loved his recollection about his bit role in the 1971 movie “T.R. Baskin,” which starred Candice Bergen as a young woman from rural Ohio who meets sleazy guys in the big city.
The mostly panned movie was shot in Chicago and included scenes at the now-gone O’Connell’s Coffee Shop on Rush street. The coffee shop wasn’t far from Punchinello’s, 936 N. Rush, a popular after-show spot for acts at the Shubert Theater and Mr. Kelly’s—now Gibson’s. The second floor Punchinello’s is also where comedienne-singer Pudgy got her big break.
“I just had a couple of lines,” Dreesen said. “But in the movie with me was a gay kid who worked at Punchinello’s. He was one of the first gay guys back in those days who buffed, who wore the tight shirts and everything. And his name was Bon-Bon which I thought was the greatest name for a guy in a movie. Everybody liked him and he was a likeable kid.
“George Maharis was working at Mister Kelly’s. He goes down to Punchinello’s and he likes Bon-Bon. But George wasn’t out of the closet in those days. I don’t if he ever was out of the closet.”
Rittenberg leaned over and said, “He is now!”
Actually, Maharis was arrested in 1974 for on a sex perversion charge with perfectly named male hairdresser Perfecto Telles in the bathroom of a Los Angeles gas station. Just a year earlier Maharis posed nude for “Playgirl” magazine.
“George Mahraris was (Buz Murdock) on Route 66,” Dreesen continued. “So Maharis sees Bon-Bon and makes a move. He says, ‘Would you like to go out later?’ Well Bon-Bon says ‘Yes!, are you kidding?’ Bon-Bon tells Maharis he’s going to get off in five minutes and Maharis says ‘I’m going to leave, meet me on the corner.”
Dreesen looked over his shoulder to distant characters on a different Rush Street.
With impeccable pacing he continued, “Bon-Bon was disappointed because he wanted his friends to see him. So Maharis is walking through the restaurant going out and Bon-Bon starts walking behind him.”
And Dreesen started tip toeing around the crowded restaurant bar, smiling with sealed lips as he pointed to an imaginary Maharis. “All the other gay guys are applauding Bon- Bon,” Dreesen said. “ And Maharis is beaming and going ‘Thank you, thank you!’
“It was a scene I could put in a movie.”
Rittenberg and I took it all in.
Rittenberg was born in 1943 and grew up in West Garfield Park. His father James, Sr. was a Jackson Boulevard bus driver for Chicago Motor Coach, his mother Lucille was a telephone operator. “My Mom was a music buff but I hated a lot of her music,” he said. “I remember breaking ‘Sentimental Journey’ by accident on purpose. Then when ‘45s came out I ruled the roost, ‘Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard was my favorite. I played ‘Lucille’ and my mother hated it.”
He broke onto the Rush Street scene tending bar at the original Store, 1030 N. State, which previously had been the Gate of Horn, where in 1962 Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were arrested on obscenity charges.
“Rush Street was different than State Street,” Rittenberg explained. “Rush Street was a little dressier. I made $6 a night in tips bartending at the Store, when I moved to Jay’s (1026 N. Rush) I was a school teacher so I only worked Friday and Saturday nights. I made a $150 a night.”
Rittenberg taught sixth and seventh grade and coached baseball and basketball for six years at St. Francis Cabrini at Sacramento and Polk. “I go back to the Marienthals, Chez Paree,” he said. “I learned from those guys.” George and Oscar Marienthal owned Mr. Kelly’s, the Happy Medium and the London House in the north Loop. Rittenberg declared, “ Rush Street has been destroyed. I tell (Gibson’s owner Steve) Lombardo that all the time. No more hookers, no more jazz joints. Its turned into restaurant row and now clothing.”
And life is more fun when you peel back the layers.
NASHVILLE, Tn.–Bob Dylan began recording “Blonde on Blonde” in the fall of 1965 with the Hawks, the Ronnie Hawkins band that was still navigating the departures of Garth Hudson and Levon Helm. The sessions were sluggish and producer Bob Johnston moved the show (with Robbie Robertson and keyboardist Al Kooper) to Nashville, Tn.
Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy became the connector.
The Nashville session player was visiting New York in the summer of 1965 to see the World’s Fair when Johnston invited him to play acoustic guitar on the 11-minute “Desolation Row” for Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album. McCoy helped open the doors to one of the most prolific eras of Dylan’s career. Dylan recorded “Blonde on Blonde” “John Wesley Harding” “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait” in Nashville with generous session players that became known as the “Nashville Cats.”
Dylan also buddied up with Johnny Cash, which is the point of the new “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City” that runs through Dec. 31, 2016 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. The cats were popularized in the 1966 Lovin’ Spoonful hit “Nashville Cats.” Cash taped his ABC television series “The Johnny Cash Show” between 1969 and 1971 at the Ryman Auditorium.
McCoy had been a member of the Escorts that also featured ‘Nashville Cat’ drummer Kenny Buttrey. Dylan likely heard the root source of the Escorts that he was looking for in the Hawks. Dylan also found a recording process that was more democratic and less rigid than New York studios, which begins to explain how the double-album “Blonde on Blonde” zig zags through country, rock, folk and rhythm and blues.
During a charming interview in late April at the Country Music Hall of Fame (the same day Dylan appeared with his pop combo a few blocks away at Andrew Jackson Hall) McCoy figured Dylan knew of his harmonica playing on the 1962 Escorts hit “Harpoon Man.” The exhibit companion CD was released this week and includes “Harpoon Man” as well as a previously unheard Dylan outtake of “If Not For You.”
“Somehow I didn’t see Bob Dylan checking out the country charts,” McCoy said. “It was a strange deal. He never talked in the studio. And I’m the leader so I’m supposed to be the go between between the artist, producer and musicians. Every time I asked him his thoughts about what we’re going to do, his answer was, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’ I told Bob Johnston, ‘Listen, I’m not getting any answers from him so I’m going to quit asking. If he doesn’t like something, maybe he’ll speak up. He never said a word. Ever. So that’s what we did.“Maybe I should have been paid as producer.”
The cats were led by McCoy but also included Charlie Daniels, guitarist-producer Norbert Putnam (J.J. Cale, Linda Ronstadt) and many others. McCoy did the arrangements on “Blonde on Blonde.” “You listen to ‘Blonde on Blonde’, there’s not a lot of solos,” he said. “A lot of songs are real long, too. It was just another session. But it was a strange session for us. In the country world, nobody had budgets to have a room full of musicians sitting around all night.”
McCoy’s favorite track remains “Lay, Lady Lay.” “The (Pete Drake) steel on it was magical,” he said. “Many people swear we overdubbed, he did not over dub. I sat there and watched it.” McCoy went on to play bass on “John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait.”
Michael Gray, museum editor and co-curator of “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” said, “When Dylan and others were coming in the late 1960s they were working with that second wave of studio musicians. Bob Dylan was 24 when he first came to Nashville. The musicians he was working with were about that same age. ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is a much different record than ‘John Wesley Harding’ or ‘Nashville Skyline’. It’s more of that R&B based rock n’roll. I think Dylan was impressed with the fact Charlie McCoy and the Escorts, the core band on that album were a white R&B band.”
Dylan, McCoy, Johnston, Robertson and others began recording in Columbia Studio A, 34 Music Square East. Cash, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline found magic in the studio walls and relaxed atmosphere that includes a living room.
In 2014 the studio was restored and reopened through an estimated $10 million donation from the Curb Family Foundation. Studio A is closed to the public but in recent months Ben Folds and Kacey Musgraves have recorded there. After hosting Dylan, Studio A became home to folk-rock artists.
“The great thing about Dylan is that it exploded the town,” McCoy said. “The ‘A’ team guys (The Nashville “A-Team” session players included Floyd Cramer on keyboards, Bob Moore on bass) were as full as they could get. They couldn’t do anymore. All of a sudden there’s this new volume of recording. There became a need for a lot more players.“The studios started springing up right and left.”
This is where “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” gains traction.
For example the exhibit pays homage to Paul McCartney, Neil Young and others who came to Nashville to record as well as the outsider’s Quadrafonic Studio, a.ka. “The Quad” where Steve Goodman’s self-titled 1971 debut album was recorded with Putnam and Kris Kristofferson.
“Quad” co-owner Putnam produced the early hit records of Jimmy Buffett at the studio that also attracted Jerry Jeff Walker and J.J. Cale. “They built that studio thinking they would be the home for hippie artists with their ‘alternative’ lifestyle,” McCoy explained. “Because smoking grass and all that was absolutely not allowed in mainstream studios here. Although I did not agree with it I think David (Briggs, co-founder) and Norbert were smart in they let guys do what they want.”
The Nashville A-Team had already sat the bar so very high.
“Pursuit of excellence,” McCoy said. “Those guys were doing three or four sessions a day, cutting hit after hit. When I started playing in 1961 my first session was with the A team. I was inspired by their work ethic–in a relaxed way. And it was all good. Of course the music was relatively simpler then. It was incredible.
“One day on three back to back sessions for Mercury they cut three number one records with three different artists: “Ahab the Arab” for Ray Stevens, “Wooden Heart” on Joe Dowell and “Walk on By” for LeRoy Van Dyke. In the same day.”
Bob Johnston’s name appears as producer on Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen records, but he did not have the high profile of a modern day Don Was or Joe Henry.
“Bob was a songwriter from Texas who came to Nashville to demo songs to get into Elvis movies,” McCoy said. “That’s how he and I knew each other. I was leading sessions for him with Kenny, Pig (Robbins, keyboardist)–that group. He took songs they turned down for Elvis to New York. The Columbia producer said, ‘These are great demos. Where did you record these?’ He said he did them in Nashville. He then asked the age old question, ‘Did you produce these?’ And he said ‘Yes.’ Don’t say ‘no’ to a question like that. Say ‘yes’ and figure it out later.”
So Johnston was assigned to produce Patti Page in Nashville. He later became the head of Columbia’s Nashville division. “He revived Patti’s career and made him the golden boy for Columbia Records,” McCoy said. “That’s when they offered Dylan to him, after the Patti Page record. Bob (Johnston) was a smart guy. He wasn’t totally musical but he had a good instinct for tempos and grooves. He could converse with these artists and make them feel like they were in the right place. He stayed out of the way of musicians, too.” Johnston, now 83, went on to produce Jimmy Cliff’s 1978 “Give Thanx” reggae record and Carl Perkins’ 1996 all-star record “Go Cat Go.”
Chicago artist-country-rock musician Jon Langford contributed the exhibit’s artwork, CD cover and the engaging rustic atmopshere of the museum rooms.
Gray said, “We considered different artists and painters. The staff here knew Jon Langford had done paintings of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. We knew he understood the story and had a love and appreciation for it. We called him out of the blue and said, ‘Would you be interested in creating the art for this exhibit?’ The primary piece we commissioned is a picture of Dylan and Cash together and the names of the Nashville cats are scrawled all around it. Shortly before the exhibit opened he sent us another painting he did on his own because he has a passion for this, and that one was of all the Nashville Cats that we feature in the exhibit.” The museum took Langford’s look and style to the exhibit graphic designer who used the same feel and fonts to create the rest of the exhibit.
Langford, country singer Deana Carter and others were guests in a Nasvhille Cats band led by McCoy during the exhibit’s opening weekend in late March.
McCoy was born on March 28, 1941 in Fayette County, W. Va. “The same town Hank Williams died in,” he said. “I got my first harmonica when I was eight years old. I saw an ad in a comic book, 50 cents and a box top for a harmonica. So I conned my mother out of 50 cents. After about a day she said, ‘Could you take that thing outside?’ That same year I got a guitar for Christmas.
“My Dad lived in Florida. My Mom lived in West Virginia. I was kind of an anemic kid and they figured the warmer weather would be good for me. I went to school in Florida in the winter and went back to West Virginia in the summer.”
On one lonely night at the age of 15 McCoy heard the grinding blues of Jimmy Reed on WLAC out of Nashville. “It was so strange,” said McCoy, who was also listening to Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. “My father didn’t like rhythm and blues music. So there was a kid in the neighborhood whose Dad was a ham operator. He took my clock radio and put an ear phone jack on the back of it. So I could listen to WLAC late at night and my Dad wouldn’t hear it. I’d hear Howlin’ Wolf. All the blues stuff. Then I discovered Little Walter and that was it. He’s still the greatest for blues harmonica.”
McCoy came to Nashville in 1960, the day after he graduated high school and by May, 1961 he was hired for his first session. McCoy played harmonica behind singer-starlet Ann Margaret. “It was like I died and went to heaven,” he said. “There’s God. Chet Atkins. His disciples, the Nashville A-Team. There’s the heavenly choir, the Anita Kerr Singers. And there’s an angel–an 18-year-old Ann Margaret. The bass player on that session asked me if I was free Friday. I was free the rest of my life. He said, ‘Come back to the studio and record Roy Orbison.’ So we did ‘Candy Man.’ (Elvis Presley sideman) Scottie Moore was playing guitar. Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph were on it. After that record became a hit my phone started to ring.
“It was like a charmed, magic dream that I’m still in.”
McCoy played empathetic harmonica on the George Jones hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and in 1995 some of his fellow Nashville Cats (Pig Robbins, Buddy Spicher on mandolin, the Jordaniares singing group) backed alt rockers Ween on their excellent “12 Country Golden Country Greats” tunes that included “Piss Up a Rope” and the peppy “Japanese Cowboy.” The 10 song project was recorded at Bradley’s Barn in Nashville under the production of Ben Vaughn. “They did their homework,” McCoy said. “They came here and knew all about everybody which was amazing especially how young they were. Some of their lyrics were over the top, but musically it was good. And they were nice guys.”
McCoy also was the long time musical director for the hit Buck Owens-Roy Clark variety show “Hee-Haw.”
“First I was called in to play one show behind Ray Charles,” he said. “At that time they were filming in a television station in downtown Nashville. They would tape for a month and every time they would tape the City of Nashville police department had a field day writing department tickets. There wasn’t enough places at that station for their own employees more less 60 or 70 people that it takes to do a major TV show.
“A year later the producer called me back and asked me to consider playing in the band. I was working around the clock. I tried one shot and 18 years later I was still trying one more shot. It was such a great show and every day you went to work you were surrounded by legends. Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Grandpa Jones, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl.
“Later it became evident to me how important this show was to country music. Today, when I go out and play people say, ‘We miss ‘Hee-Haw’. It was our Saturday night routine. If you can’t laugh at yourself, that is too bad. That’s what we were doing. We were laughing at ourselves.”
No session player in Nashville had the gritty blues textures of McCoy, a fact that was not lost on Dylan. “In my formative years I was trying to play as much like Little Walter as I could,” McCoy said. “For a while here (in Nashville) that was a novelty. Then it started to wear thin. I’d get comments like, ‘Could you play maybe not quite so funky? That nasty tone and all that stuff.’ I realized if I was going to stick around I’d have to do something different. I started copying fiddles and dobros and cleaning up the sound. I tried to play melodies. You don’t hear many harmonica players play melodies. The combination of all that stuff together gave me a sound.
Bob Dylan? I didn’t realize he was playing tonight. The last time I saw him was when he did ‘Nashville Skyline’.”
Look at this resume of Charlie McCoy, (he’s playing the Hatfield-McCoy Reunion tonight in West Virginia.) McCoy took a long pause at the end of our conversation. He looked around the room, smiled ever so gently and added, “You know I worked with so many artists and Steve Miller (McCoy is blowing harmonica on Miller’s 1970 “Number 5″ record) was the only one who has given me a gold record.”
You set out on the road to get centered.
The loss of both parents within six weeks is hard to take, even when they were 93 and 94 years old. In their last weeks they asked for “one more day,” which is the gift given to all of you reading this.
On the day after my June 2 birthday I drove to see my brother in Nashville, Tn., I double shot over to listen to Beach Music in Myrtle Beach, S.C., watch the Pelicans lose a double-header and then headed back to Chicago through Asheville, N.C.
The birds chirped louder.
At night I walked alone in the Atlantic Ocean along North Myrtle Beach. The stars seemed closer. I drove and I swam. I tried to keep going.
But I stopped to pick wild flowers. My parents loved flowers. I’ve been looking at Kodachrome slides and discovered portraits of my father in fields of roses, tulips and marigolds. He was always smiling.
I teared up at seeing a Bob Evans restaurant sign and that came out of nowhere. My folks were Bob Evans regulars before we had to take away the car keys. This road trip presented the conflict of memory and being in the moment.
That all James Taylor station on Sirius XM is not a good idea in this condition.
Cemeteries aren’t as foreboding as they used to be. The first thing I did when I returned to the Chicago area was visit the Naperville Cemetery. The grass has grown over my father’s side. The other night a friend at the Cubs game told me you aren’t fully grown up until a parent dies. I get that now.
I waited for two hours to hear Marsha Morgan singer her Beach Music hit “This Girl Needs a Tune-Up” on a Sunday night at Duck’s Too in North Myrtle Beach.
I learned that my favorite newspaper writer Joseph Mitchell called depression “The Black Dog.” Joe was from North Carolina.
I brought along Van Morrison and remembered that “Enlightenment” is the end of suffering. I also thought of my Sun-Times editor and mentor Lon Grahnke and how Van’s “Full Force Gale” was played at the end of his memorial service.
I drove 1,900 miles but still have a long way to go.
In reality, the present is all you have.
Like petals in a basket, I carry so many shades of life from my mother’s gallant journey. One of the most emotional snapshots of Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra came on April 9, the day after my father died. Although my mother battled dementia she managed to find her gold wedding ring. She slipped it on her finger without any of us knowing about it.
And the gold ring remained on my mother’s finger until the moment she passed over from heart failure Friday night in her Naperville home.
Mom was 93 years old.
All moms are amazing and so was ours. She was placed into home hospice twice and discharged once. Last August the hospitalists at Edward Hospital in Naperville told me she had “two to three weeks” to live because of her congestive heart failure.
Later, a hospice nurse told me she would never walk again. Up until a few days ago her head was down with determination as she walked slowly on her walker with the assistance of our caregiver.
Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra was was tough that way, a plainspoken coal miner’s daughter from Carlinvllle, Ill.
Only six weeks separated the deaths of our parents.
They stayed strong for each other.
In recent years as the sun set, my dad would hold my mom’s thin hand, colored purple by Coumadin. She would look ahead, blinking her eyes into the approaching darkness. And he would kiss her good night. Every night.
They lived a deep love I may never know.
Mom and dad got hitched late in life, at least for their generation.
They were married 65 years. Their wedding dinner and honeymoon night was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the far north side of Chicago. The sunset pink colored hotel was pegged as the “Site of America’s Most Successful Meetings.” When my mom opened the door to her hotel room she found a surprise from my father–a bouquet of a dozen roses.
Our mom loved flowers and over the past six weeks we were bringing flowers to my dad’s gravesite. She sat in her wheelchair, gently twirled the ring around her finger and looked at the family plot. She always asked me when the headstone would be ready. It is not up yet, but it will be identified by a gold ring linking their names. Mom battled macular degeneration but that did not stop her from having me park the car in the driveway after our trip to the cemetery. She would blink repeatedly at the white magnolia in our front yard. It is an early and fast bloomer and you have to pay attention.
Mom often got a charge out of the short Zumba dancing sessions I’d throw down with our Ghanian caregiver. (I’d say we had about 30 caregivers over the past eight years.) Mom was lost in mid-stage dementia but when we started shaking our stuff she would smile, clap her hands and say, “Do it again. Do it again.” Who doesn’t want another dance? The power of music can cut through dementia.
Our mom secretly typed out her 26 page autobiography in 1989. I found it in the bedroom safe of their Naperville home.
Of her wedding day she wrote in part, “The bride wore a rose-pink satin tea length gown and carried a dainty bouquet of white roses. The groom wore a brown suit and a rose and brown striped tie with a white carnation boutonniere….The bride commented it was the happiest day of her life. The day was perfect–sunny, bright and happy.” The way my mom wrote in third person narrative illustrated her humility.
I also discovered a sidebar essay she wrote in 2000 after we celebrated our parents 50th wedding anniversary at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Mom began, “Once upon a time there were these two introverts who met, fell in love and got married…Well these two are still around today and you guessed, it, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on Feb. 11, 2000….After considerable time packing, as old folks are apt to do, they were off to the Drake Hotel. It was there that they planned to meet their two boys, one boy’s (my brother Doug) wife and the other’s (me) friend. You see, their sons had planned the celebration, and it was with their compliments. And of course, the parents were looking forward to “living it up” for the weekend.”
The weekend was full of surprises, including dinner at the old Jilly’s on Rush Street. “This is a well known night spot where Frank Sinatra and people of his ilk made famous,” my mom wrote. “It was fun to be in a place where the clientele was somewhat out of the ordinary.”
My mom was of very ordinary means.
Her Lithuanian parents came to America to work in the Union Stock Yards in Chicago and the Peabody Coal Mines in downstate Illinois. Mom was born on Dec. 10, 1921 in Carlinville, Ill. When the mines around Carlinville closed in 1925 the family moved 45 miles north to Taylorville, where my mom grew up.
She was a first chair clarinet player in the Taylorville High School Band and in her senior year was awarded first prize for an essay she wrote about her high school. This led to her interest in journalism, which she later studied in night school at Northwestern University in Chicago. During the day she worked as a stenographer at Gulbransen Pianos and as secretary at Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, which produced magazines like “Popular Photography” and “Modern Bride.”
In 1946 my mom met my dad at a dance at Northwestern. He was also attending night school at Northwestern. She wrote, “After all these years I can still recall that he was wearing a navy blue suit and that he made an impression on me because he was so witty and personable.”
Mom and Dad didn’t travel much when we were growing up. Dad was a purchasing agent for Swift & Company in Chicago and mom stayed at home. I’ve been listening to the oral history CDs Doug made in 1993, spending several hours interviewing my parents. I am forever grateful to him for doing that. My folks said they didn’t travel because they were saving money for a house. The first house they owned was a small ranch house which they purchased in 1952 in Westchester, Ill., just outside of Chicago.
In the early 1960s Swift transferred dad to Columbus, Ohio. I used to ponder the “Leave it to Beaver” dynamic of our household. We had two boys, no pets, a nattily dressed father heading off to work and a stay at home mother –who owned pearls but rarely wore them. Several years ago I talked to the creators of “Leave it to Beaver” and they said the show was indeed based on their experiences in “Central Ohio.” After my brother and I finished high school my mom found secretarial work at Amoco Research Center in Naperville and it was a job she loved.
This modest pedigree leads me to one of my favorite stories about mom. In 1993 the Chicago Sun-Times assigned me to shadow Frank Sinatra during his appearance at the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, Ill. I asked my mom to be my date. She was 72 years old. Frank was 77. We went to the concert where Frank told his fans he would do “nothing new because no one writes anything anymore.”
We followed Frank to a post-concert dinner across the street to the Cafe Harlow restaurant in the Hollywood Casino. Frank enjoyed sliced veal, onion rings and French Fries. He washed it down with Jack (Daniel’s) and ice water on the side. As he left the dinner table around midnight the casino security staff cleared a path by our table.
Although I was told not to bother Frank, I started to say hello. Frank ignored me.
Then he smiled and winked at my mom.
Now he did it.
Mom was not ready to go home. We all went to the casino’s Directors Lounge to hear the late great singer Frank D’Rone. The other Frank had another Jack. My mom was having a blast and my dad was getting worried.
I finally dropped mom off in her Naperville home in the wee, wee hours of 2 a.m. Every time I repeated this story over the years my mom scolded me for “not letting me talk to Frank.” My mom radiated measured class and even Frank Sinatra saw that. We played Frank Sinatra CD’s by her hospice bed.
The best way to conclude this essay is to use the end of my mom’s autobiography: “My parents came to the United States for better opportunities and a better way of life. They strived and worked hard for everything. I, too, have worked hard and tried my best to do things right and to make a good life for my family. “Perhaps one might call these memoirs ordinary and not too exciting–but just think. If these two people had not come the many miles from Europe, if their paths had not crossed, then I would not have the privilege to be here and write the tale of my life for you to read.” Her privilege will continue.
My brother and I have spent our lives making a living with words and now my mother’s nurturing spirit will inform all the words that follow. She is here.
She is the gold ring around my heart.
Deep thanks to all of you who have visited this website over recent years to help me navigate my parents journey. For more on music and dementia, listen to my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal show on the subject. Share it with someone who is traveling a similar path.
Services for Irene Hoekstra are at 10 a.m. May 27 at Grace United Methodist Church, 300 E. Gartner Rd. in Naperville. Visitation is 9 a.m. at the church, services are followed by a luncheon at the church. Burial immediately after the luncheon at Naperville Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
It should not come as a surprise that Bob Dylan loved Calvert De Forest, a.k.a. Larry “Bud” Melman.
Melman was an everyman David Letterman character with jiggly jowls and huge Harry Caray glasses that blurred boundaries between image and reality, just as Dylan does.
Melman was often placed within an incongruous setting–always a key to a fun time. Something like Dylan doing an album of obscure Frank Sinatra songs.
In his 2009 memoir “We’ll Be Here For the Rest Of Our Lives–A Swingin ‘ Show-Biz Saga” “Late Show” bandleader Paul Shaffer wrote that Dylan was fascinated with Melman.
“He mentioned he always saw Larry Bud [walk on] with those gorgeous models,” Shaffer told me in 2009. “Dylan said, ‘Why is he with those chicks?’ It is as simple as that.”
Melman made his name during the 1980s “Late Night With David Letterman” run on NBC. Back then Dave had a bigger budget, sending Melman off to South America in a Winnebago to harvest his unfiltered observations on culture and food. Back on his home turf Melman once distributed hot towels to grimy travelers at the New York Port Authority bus terminal.
When Dave moved to CBS from NBC in 1993, NBC said “Larry ‘Bud’ Melman’ remained as their intellectual property. Dave simply continued to bring De Forest on stage at the same wide-eyed character, except he was “Calvert De Forest.”
On the May 13, 1994 “Late Show” Dave promised that Johnny Carson would deliver the Top 10 list. De Forest appeared as “Johnny Carson.” Just after De Forest waddled off the stage, the real Johnny Carson appeared. It would be Carson’s final television appearance.
De Forest died in 2007 at the age of 85.
I’m gonna miss you Dave. I’m pulling for “Like a Rolling Stone” tonight.
Or “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”
BOWLING GREEN, Ky.–The early spring afternoon in downtown Bowling Green dictates a stroll through Fountain Square Park. Daffodils and tulips are blooming between the Dogwood trees. Workmen are sprucing up the old fountain. Children are smiling at the glimpse of summer.
A new beginning is the air.
Greg and Theresa Shea know all about fresh starts.
In May, 2011 they left New Orleans, La. to open Tea Bayou, a New Orleans cafe and tea bar at 906 State in Bowling Green. Tea Bayou is on the ground floor of the historic brick Settle Building, constructed in 1890. Greg is a chef who was born and raised in New Orleans. Theresa is a native of Ottumwa, Ia. who had lived in New Orleans most of her life.
Tea Bayou serves more than 50 teas and organic teas along with beignets, bourbon bread pudding, shrimp and grits, catfish marigny (on jambalya, topped with crawfish etoufee and eight different po’ boys including the cochon (pulled pork, ham, bacon and provo cheese). Their timing is fit to a t.
The Tea Association of the USA has reported that retail sales of tea have jumped from just under $2 billion in 1990 to nearly $11 billion in 2014, according to a May 6, 2015 New York Times story on tea culture.
Welcome to the percolating North Coast of New Orleans.
“We stayed after Katrina, went through that mess and I ended up developing very bad allergies,” Theresa Shea says id after lunch hour rush. “It became bad for me to stay. Your lungs itch you can’t get away from it. Then after the BP Oil Spill (April, 2010), we could smell that in New Orleans. Things got worse. We looked around and planned retirement.”
Shea has a sister who lives in Bowling Green.
They visited the third most populous city in Kentucky (61,000 after Louisville and Lexington) on Thanksgiving, 2010. The Sheas liked Bowling Green so much they considered buying retirement property in the city about an hour north of Nashville. Tn. Shea, 54, checks out the cafe, smiles and says, “By the way, this is what retirement property looks like.”
The Sheas found downtown real estate so affordable they bought the building before having a business plan. “This was the only one on the square that was for sale at the time,” Shea explains. “There were a lot of lawyer’s offices. There were no eateries or fine shopping on this side (of the square.) Downstairs had to be completely gutted. It laid vacant for a while.”
Tea Bayou had never been a restaurant. The ground floor had been a jewelry store for most of the 20th Century. The upstairs once was a luxury hotel. Shea reflects, “We feel grateful to find a building that was in such good repair. Bowling Green allowed us to finance this building with both of us moving here with no real jobs. It only cost us $30,000 and we did a lot of work ourselves.”
Shea reclaimed more than a dozen mid-century school chairs and repainted them in bright spring colors. “I got them from the basement of a consignment shop right around the corner,” she says. “Bowling Green is the consignment capital of Kentucky. There are more consignment shops up and down Broadway. They specialize. Some are fine furniture, some are just clothing. We outfitted the entire shop from things we bought from old barns or consignment shops. We put it together in a look that we like. The chandelier is the only thing we purchased from a catalog.”
A cafe bench came out of a Kentucky barn. The beautiful new Amish pine floor was imported from nearby Caneyville, Ky. “Greg drove to pick up the wood and the owner’s wife came out with a cup of hot coffee and a homemade cinnamon roll,” she says. “We kept the costs down. Most of the furniture was made by a furniture maker in Scottsville, Ky., which is 30 minutes south of here.”
A gold Sputnik-era clock on the wall was salvaged from a nearby VSA (state organization on arts and disability) that closed due to lack of funding. Tea Bayou sells VSA artwork on walls and 100 per cent of proceeds go back to VSA. Tea Bayou shows more than 10 artists at a time in the store and more than 50 pieces adorn the walls.
Shea studied art at the University of Iowa and obtained a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a minor in business a the University of Wisconsin (La Crosse.) She moved to New Orleans right out of college and found a job at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).
Shea is still a graphic designer and the New Orelans Jazz & Heritage Festival is one of her clients. She designs the festival’s annual posters and souvenir shirts. The Sheas occasionally return to New Orleans to visit family.
The Sheas lived in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, which was hit hard by Katrina, the near suburban Metarie and finally Kenner. Greg was a chef at Tony Angello’s in Lakeview and later with the Loews hotel chain.
“And this year will be 10 years since Katrina,” she says with a lost sigh. “That is so hard to believe.”
Bowling Green is a thriving community known for the National Corvette Museum /GM Corvette Assembly Plant and a Fruit of the Loom plant. Bowling Green is the home of Western Kentucky University, where former Chicago Bull Clem Haskins played in 1972.
Film director John Carpenter is from Bowling Green as was Duncan Hines (1880-1959), the original road foodie. Hines maintained a test kitchen in Bowling Green. The kitchen has been preserved. It is in the Hardy and Sons Funeral Home on Route 31 W., the original Dixie Highway. Hines lived in the ranch house from 1940 until his death in 1959 when the Hardy family purchased the property. They kept the kitchen with original red and yellow checkered wallpaper and it can be seen by appointment only. During a 2007 visit to the kitchen/funeral home we quietly walked through a visitation.
“Duncan Hines’ great grandson lives here and works at the Hilton as sales director,” Shea reports. “Duncan is a good friend of ours and what is even odder is that he was born in Lakeview, New Orleans. We found an ex-pat New Orleans thing going on here and I think it has something to do with riverboats. His father was in riverboats.” The Green River in Bowling Green is a tribiutary of the Ohio River.
The young Duncan Hines was looking for a King Cake during Mardi Gras season. “We were advertising it and he called, thinking, ‘These people probably aren’t even from New Orleans’,” she says. “He ordered it and once he had it he was all over it. He ordered like 200. He’s in here all the time. We even have a pizza named after him.”
Shea glances out the window to Barbara Stewart Interiors on the other side of the square. She whispers, “There’s a lady there in her 90s and she still comes to work. She went to a party where the woman who played Betty Crocker was at a party in town. Betty Crocker got a little loaded and Duncan Hines was also at the party so she has this whole story about Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines in Bowling Green.”
And there’s more.
Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” and “Dating Game” fame lives five blocks from Tea Bayou. Barris, 85, also wrote the pop hit “Palasides Park” “His wife (a Bowling Green native) comes in often,” Shea said. “He’s out of town quite a bit.”
I ask for some high energy tea for the drive back to Chicago.
I get matcha tea, which is high in antioxidants. The leaves are processed as green tea, where they are steamed, dried and ground into a fine green powder. “The Japanese found they could cut high quality green tea with roasted rice to extend the tea,” Shea says. “Kind of like how New Orleanians use chicory to cut coffee. The result in both cases created a unique, regional blend. It’s like getting the benefit of up to 10 times a normally brewed cup of green tea. It provides vitamin A, B1, B2, C, E and minerals.”
Tea Bayou teas are available online at the store’s website.
POSTSCRIPT: In 2008 I got a Christmas card from the Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky Museum, who curated a Duncan Hines exhibit. The card contained this toast from Mr. Hines:
“Well, if the oysters had been as cold as the soup, if the soup had been as warm as the wine, if the wine had been as old as the chicken, if the chicken had breasts like the maid, and if the maid had been as willing as the hostess, it would have been a wonderful evening.”
Enjoy every sandwich.
Now, when I see old people together I see my parents with piercing clarity.
Chicago voiceover legend/word jazz poet Ken Nordine and his wife Beryl arrived a half-hour early for Ken’s appearance on my Saturday night radio show on WGN-AM. They drove downtown from their home on the far north side of Chicago. Ken and Beryl will celebrate heir 70th wedding anniversary this year.
Ken walks with a cane so I escorted him and his wife up an elevator to avoid the Michigan Avenue stairway to the Allstate Showcase Studio. They walked together. Moments in time.
We talked about moments in this Ken Nordine segment.
I thought of my Dad, who passed away on April 8. I thought about how old people do everything together and I smiled. My parents were married 65 years.
This is my friend Colleen Bush’s favorite story about my parent’s bond, one that I had forgotten about in the flurry of activity over the past few months. In the final days before my parents could no longer drive a car, my mother had Macular Degeneration. My father had a bum right leg. So on short spins through the neighborhood, my father provided the eyes and my mother took care of the pedal. I doubt this set up lasted very long, but they were a team with a scheme.
Old people always take care of each other. And that is beautiful.
SCOTTSDALE, Az.—The Coach House is the oldest tavern in Scottsdale.
It is as old as the Go-Go White Sox.
The easy going road house is celebrating its 56th anniversary in April. The Coach House is tucked away at 7011 E. Indian School Rd. on the outskirts of the trendy Old Town district filled with art galleries, high end cafes and the new Hula’s Modern Tiki restaurant.
[Old Town is also the home of the Rusty Spur, a cowboy joint that opened around 1951, making it the oldest “saloon” in Scottsdale–just covering all bases.]
When you get out of the desert sun and sit in a quiet corner of the indoor bar at the Coach House, light is shed on the benevolent soul of late owner and founder Bob Brower.
A faded black and white picture of members of the Boston Red Sox hang on a wooden wall. Pictured are Felix Mantilla, Dennis Bennett and Lenny Green, taking a break from spring training. Everyone but Mantilla is smiling.
Mantilla was Puerto Rican shortstop and roommate of Hank Aaron when they played for the 1953 Jacksonville Braves, one of the first two integrated teams in the southern United States. Green was a left handed hitting African-American outfielder from Detroit, Mi. The late Bennett was a white starting pitcher who played for the ill-fated 1964 Phillies.
The photo was taken in 1965.
Integration was not common around Scottsdale.
In 1959 the Red Sox became the first team to train in Scottsdale and just the fourth major league team to hold spring training in Arizona. The Cubs moved to Mesa in 1952, the New York Giants came to Phoenix in 1958. As early as 1945 Bill Veeck brought his Cleveland Indians to Tucson because he thought there was more racial tolerance in Arizona than in Florida.
By 1966 the Red Sox would relocate Spring Training to Florida.
“Baseball was a proving ground for civil rights in general,” Cactus League historian-journalist Charles Vascellaro said last week. “When black ballplayers joined white players it didn’t take long to win these guys over and to be treated as equals among their peers. That is what you see in looking at the Coach House picture. The (now-shuttered) Buckhorn Baths in Mesa (a favorite of Ernie Banks and Billy Williams) was also a fully integrated establishment at the time.
“In Florida, a lot of spring training facilities were segregated. The year (1957) Hank Aaron won the MVP award with the Milwaukee Braves he was not allowed to stay with the team in (Bradenton) Florida.”
Bob and Mary Brower were from Cleveland, Ohio where they ran the Silver Inn bar on the east side of the city. The Browers befriended former Cleveland Indian Roger Maris. The home run king broke in with the Tribe in 1957 before he was traded to Kansas City.
“My parents and Roger Maris had the same amount of kids (four boys and two girls),” their daughter Irene recalled last month after a Giants spring training game. “That’s how the kinship started. My dad was an Indians fan, but he loved all baseball. He had one radio downstairs and one radio upstairs and he would run up and down the stairs to hear the different scores. My Dad had such a relaxed atmosphere at the bar it reminded spring training players of home.”
Irene manages and operates the Coach House, which holds a cozy 175 people inside and out. Her father died in 1991, her mother Mary passed away in 2005.
The Coach House is open from 6 a.m. until 2 a..m, 365 days a year.
Irene is unsure how the Coach House got its name, but a couple of old timers told me the tavern is on the site of a former stagecoach house.
Bob Brower had asthma which is why the family relocated to Arizona.
“I was born in Ohio in 1957, but my parents traveled across the United States when I was one year old,” Irene said. “Growing up, my Dad would open, my Mom would bartend in the afternoon. All six kids cleaned on Sundays and helped with special events. I remember sweeping –outside on the sidewalk. I asked my Dad, ‘Why do you want me to sweep the sidewalk?’ He said, ‘People notice activity, anything to lead people here.’ There were a lot of dirt lots around here back then. A few businesses.
“When the Red Sox were here, they didn’t make a lot of money. My dad took them home, fed them lunch and took them under his wings. They would come to our house and play ball with my older brothers. (Cubs-White Sox-A’s announcer) Harry Caray came here. Ernie Banks. His kids went to Loloma (grammar) School.”
Between 1967 and 1969 the Cubs stayed at the now-renovated Hotel Valley Ho, an Art Deco treasure that is within walking distance of the Coach House. Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood got married at the Ho.
No word if they adjourned to the Coach House.
Modern day ball players do not come to the Coach House. “(Giants pitcher) Matt Cain comes in once in a while,” Irene said. “But today with social media everybody tries to slip under the radar.”
A fire slipped through the grand old Coach House in 1982. “It went more from a white building to the western facade you see today,” Irene said. “We still have the same Coach House tavern sign. The inside of the bar is exactly the same footprint. We extended the patio in the 1980s. People love being outside.”
In 1998 the City of Scottsdale named the Coach House an official landmark and in 2001 the city honored the Coach House as one of the city’s founding businesses. Irene explained, “In the 1990s the City of Scottsdale wanted to widen the road. They took businesses that had been here for years and gave them a few bucks to go away. We were destined to be gone, but hundreds of patrons of the Coach House went to city hall and said, ‘Not the Coach House.’ We won a huge battle and we became a landmark for Scottsdale.”
The Coach House is one of the most affordable watering holes in Scottsdale. There’s always $2 PBRs and $3 draught beer. A free barbecue is held every Sunday afternoon on the outdoor patio. The Coach House is also known for the thousands of Christmas lights, garland and 50 candy canes that adorn the bar starting in late November. The tavern is always rated as a top 10 destination in Arizona for holiday decorations. Irene figured the bar spends $1,500 a month to keep the lights illuminated.
Bob Brower was born on Christmas Eve. “Every inch of the inside is filled with a light, ornament or decoration,” his daughter said. “It literally is like being inside a Christmas tree. My dad was the original networker. Everybody came into this place. He knew city council people, government workers, business owners. If someone came in and needed work, he’d say, ‘I know so and so, he was just in here.’ At Our Lady of Perpetual Help church if someone new came to town, the pastor would send them our way. It wasn’t just a bar. It was really a home to a lot of people.” Bob Brower and former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and television announcer Joe Garagiola, Sr. were ushers together at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
So was the Coach House an inevitable path for Irene?
“I graduated from the University of San Diego with a degree in sociology,” she answered. “About eight years ago my brother (Jim) called and said he needed some help. And I’ve been here since.
“I feel it is destiny. My dad and I were very close. He wanted me to have my education and a few other things, but it is an honor to be part of something that my mom and dad started.”
Our dad liked old movie palaces, stately passenger trains and the rewards of devotion.
He liked happy endings.
Our dad Alfred Hoekstra, Jr. died April 8 at JourneyCare Hospice in Barrington, Il. He was 94 years old. He was fortunate enough to see most of the 20th Century.
One of my last memories of dad came a week ago when we were moving hospital equipment in and out of his bedroom. A sepia toned wedding picture of dad and mom had fallen behind a mountain of gauzes, blankets and bottles of water. Dad saw something was missing.
He looked up from his pillow and suddenly asked what happened to the photograph.
Mom and Dad were married 65 years.
He always kept his eye on Mom.
They spent their final months together wheelchairs locked side by side watching the Turner Classic Movie channel. Mom has been in home hospice since August and dad understood every moment was precious. They were as tight as a bouquet of fresh flowers.
Our dad has a gentle soul. He raised beds of roses, he showed me how to open doors for women, he conducted himself with dignity and humility.
You hear stories of passages but now I have seen one. We got a call late Wednesday afternoon that dad had taken a turn for the worse. Our caregiver got mom in the car and we made the drive from Naperville to Barrington to see dad.
We settled in the room that was softly playing New Age music like Kim Robertson’s “Alayi.” Mom leaned over in her wheel chair, took dad’s hand and gave it a gentle kiss. We left them alone. Mom left the suite to return home.
Within the hour dad had transitioned.
He was waiting for her before he boarded his train.
I am proud of our dad. He was a Chicagoan to the core. Dad was born in Logan Square. His father Alfred, Sr. came to Chicago from the Netherlands where he opened a dairy delivery company. Dad spent his youth taking the trolley down Milwaukee Avenue to spend entire days in the vaudeville houses and movie theaters of the Loop. He loved to talk about the 1934 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago and somehow the calypso ballad “Yellow Bird” emerged as one of his favorite songs.
In 1939 he found work as a messenger boy in the Union Stock Yards that led to his 40 plus years as a purchasing agent at Swift & Company. My favorite story/life lesson from my father was his recollection of the foreboding goat on the livestock ramps that led sheep to slaughter. This strategy avoided deploying men with whips and other potentially gruesome tactics. Union leaders nicknamed the goat “Judas.”
My dad’s advice: “Don’t be like the sheep.“
His career was interrupted by a call from Uncle Sam. Dad was in the U.S. Army 106th Infantry Division from March 1943-January 1946.. The division was nicknamed “the hungry and the sick.”
Dad was awarded four battle stars on his service ribbon including the Battle of the Bulge. On Dec. 11, 1945 the division suffered 8,063 casualties—416 were killed, 1,246 were wounded and 7,000 were missing. Since dad knew how to type, he was in an office unit nicknamed “Typewriter Commandos” and was in an office during the battle. He credited the typewriter for saving his life.
Still, the war is what got him in the end.
In recent years dad dodged bullets of diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease and heart surgery. But Dad told the oncologist he started smoking when he was given free packs of cigs while in the Army. He quit smoking cold turkey by the time he was 50, but his cause of death is listed as lung cancer.
Swift & Co. transferred dad around the country; from Chicago to New Jersey to Columbus, Ohio and finally back to Chicago in 1967 where we became one of the “early suburban settlers” of Naperville. During a 1966 visit to Chicago to look for a new home dad took me to my first major league baseball game—White Sox-Yankees at Old Comiskey Park. His roots in the stock yards likely made him a Sox fan. I was captured by the 1969 Cubs and dad seemed to enjoy subtle pleasure in tweaking me about the White Sox 2005 world championship. I believe my love of newspapers comes from dad bringing home four Chicago daily newspapers after his commutes on the old Burlington-Northern railroad.
Until a few months ago, dad was full of discovery. My mom told us she wanted to see Bob Dylan before she died, so in August, 1989 we drove to the Illinois State Fair to see Dylan in concert. Dad had some trouble with the heat, but once we returned home his critique was, “He’s good, but he’s no Debbie Reynolds.”
At age 94 he was on his computer daily, either looking up online bargains for his beloved grandson Jude or Googling about his latest ailment. We teased dad about the mysterious things we might find under his secondary account of “Naper Man.”
At one time Dad was a Republican and I recall getting into heated debates with him about the mysterious things of President Nixon. Dad abruptly left his conservative ways during the Reagan administration and never looked back.
I inherited my pack rat nature from my dad. I brought some of his old correspondence to the hospice. I forgot he had subscribed to Michael Moore’s Mailing List and I found a 2002 article he sent to my brother and myself. He wrote, “Boys, this is touching.”
Moore composed an essay about the sudden death of his mother. He had planned to show his mom a copy of his new movie. He wrote: “As the end credits would roll, she would get to see what she has seen at the end of all my work; her name along with my dad’s in that list of credits, and it’s the only real credit that ever mattered—because without them I would not have the life they gave me, the way they raised me…it is all a privilege I will never cease being thankful for.”
I’m thankful I saved that e mail as I write this in the early morning hours after my dad’s passing. I feel my dad. I will see him in the promise of the beacon of a train or the romance of a dark theater balcony. He shed light on all that is decent and happy.
SCOTTSDALE, Az.—De Jon Watson is in his first year as Senior Vice-President of Baseball Operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He oversees the franchise’s professional, amateur and international scouting and player development functions including the hiring of minor league managers and staff.
It has been a bow-wow-wow-yippi-yo-yippi-yay ride for Watson, 48.
His father is the rhythm and blues guitar hero Johnny “Guitar” Watson, whose “bow-wow” poetry was borrowed by George Clinton and rapper Snoop Dog.
In 1996 Watson had a fatal heart attack after taking the stage in Yokohama, Japan. He was only 61.
Watson was a major influence on Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Sly Stone. Hard core music fans know this, but his son is working to help his father gain entrance into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
On an early March morning in his office at the D-Backs Salt River Fields spring training facilty, Watson has a lot more to do than field questions about his father being the father of rap with his 1980 hit “Telephone Bill.” Or, how Steve Miller covered and referenced the 1961 Watson hit “Gangster of Love.”
But Watson is a patient man.
Before landing in Arizona, his baseball journey took him to Los Angeles (The Dodgers Vice-President of Player Development), Cleveland (Director of Professional Scouting, 2004-06), Cincinnatii (Reds Director of Scouting during the Marge Schott era 1998-2000) and even the Midwest League, where in 1987 he was a first baseman (and teammate of former Cubs-Sox pitcher Greg Hibbard) on the Appleton Foxes.
“This is fun,” Watson says with a warm smile. “Working with Tony (La Russa, the D-Backs new Chief Baseball Officer) and Stew (Dave Stewart, the former A’s pitcher and new GM) and the dynamic of relationship we are growing and building here.” And some of the new building blocks are at Kane County, the D-Backs new affiliate.
Watson knows the Midwest League. He recalls, “My prior club we were in Midland, Michigan (the Great Lakes Loons Dodgers affiliate) so I know the competition. I don’t consider it a ‘Low A’ league. ‘A’ ball is ‘A’ ball. The pitching is very competitive and a little more mature than first year players are used to seeing.
“I remember the Midwest League. I just saw Greg Vaughn (former Brewers first baseman) in Tucson. The year I was there he hit .305 and drove in like 120 runs (105 with 33 HR) for Beloit. Chip Hale (new D-Backs manager) was in the league when I was in that league. He played for Kenosha. When I worked for the Marlins (as a scout), we opened Kane County so I know how well they draw. (Former Seattle Mariner-Detroit Tiger) Rod Allen who was the (Cougars) hitting coach (‘94 and ‘95). He’s my cousin and he’s now doing radio for the Tigers. I can’t wait to get back to Kane County and see how it has changed over the years.”
The D-Backs have as many Chicago connections as a cactus has needles: former White Sox GM Roland Hemond is a special assistant to the President & CEO, former Cub Joe Carter is Stewart’s new assistant, former Cub Mark Grace is assistant hitting coach, former Cub Mike Harkey is pitching coach, former Cubs manager (1974-76) is senior advisor for Pacific Rim Operations and even former Bulls GM Jerry Krause has surfaced as a part-time scout.
Watson was destined for baseball even though his Los Angeles home was filled with music. Watson played drums as a boy and his father wrote the instrumental “De Jon’s Delight” for his son. “Music was my dad’s passion,” he says. “I wanted to find my own path. Sports was my avenue to search and pursue.
“Not many people know who my Dad was and I usually don’t say much about him. But as a kid I loved instrumentals. I always wanted him to do a jazz album but he would never do a jazz album. (Jazz guitarist) George Benson came by the house. Marvin Gaye was a close family friend. Natalie Cole bought me my first guitar. Barry White was our neighbor. I played Pop Warner football and Pony League baseball with his son (Kevin White). Don Buford, Jr was on our team. He’s now an orthopedic surgeon (in Dallas). After he quit baseball he went back to med school.” Buford, Jr.’s number was retired by the Daytona Cubs and he is the brother of former Cubs outfielder Damon Buford.
Watson listens to his father’s music “often.” He draws from a personal catalog of more than 750 songs. “I Want to Ta-Ta (You Baby)’ is one of my favorites,” he says. “‘Superman Lover’ is a true classic. There’s some ballads I like, ‘Love Jones.’ He was under the radar for sure. Me, my sister and brother are working on getting him in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.”
A scout’s anthem would be Watson’s gritty “I Got Eyes,” recorded in 1953 in Los Angeles with session players like Harold Grant on guitar and T-Bone Walker drummer Robert “Snake” Sims. Watson was a musical pathfinder and also served up memorable album covers like when he was saluting in front of a jeep on “Funk Beyond The Call of Duty” and being pushed on a tricycle by three women in 1979’s “What The Hell Is This,” which included the comical pop-funk track “I Don’t Want To Be President.”
The musician taught his son to dream big.
Watson, 6’4,” 190 pounds, played baseball at Santa Monica High School and at West Los Angeles Community College. He was a third round draft pick by the Kansas City Royals and played minor league ball for five seasons. He retired in 1989 and returned to school when he got a call to work in MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).
“That’s how I got back into baseball,” he said. “Gary Hughes (the Marlins first scouting director in 1991) gave me my first job as a scout in the inner city of Los Angeles. That was during the (1992 Rodney King) riots, as a matter of fact. Some scouts were scared to go in the inner city. I said, ‘Come with me, we’ll be all right.’ You see guys getting chased through the parks but that’s just part of it.”
Watson is featured in the 2012 documentary “Harvard Park” with Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis and Frank Thomas. Between 1982 and 1994 the park was an urban training ground for baseball prospects and minor leaguers. The documentary debuted on BET.
“If you were playing professional baseball we all met at Harvard Park (in South Central L.A.),” Watson explains. ‘You’d hit in the order of where you were playing at that particular time, big leagues or Triple Guys would throw to each other. This was the grass roots of teaching. Shane Mack was there. Barry Larkin would come out, Kenny Williams. I was fortunate enough to go to scout school with Kenny.
“These guys would share their experiences. It helped us mature and grow to understand there were other young African-Americans going through the same struggles of trying to reach their goals. That’s where I got my passion for this. They kept pushing me to keep pushing forward. I still talk to Eric Davis three times a month. He played for Tony (La Russa) and I knew they had a relationship. I told him I was interviewing so I called him and got some background information.”
LaRussa heard many good things about Watson.
In a separate interview while looking for game tickets for his friend Bobby Knight, the Baseball Hall of Famer says, “It’s a new experience for me being in the front office. So I contacted people I knew over the years for recommendations and De Jon was guys recommended quite a few times. It was the first time I had been around him. I can see why he got all those recommendations. He’s smart. He has an extensive background from scouting director to player hard work. He’s energetic and he has personality. We want to make sure nobody beats us in hard work.”
Watson’s work ethic pushed him forward.
Just the day before our conversation Diamondbacks GM Stewart tells U.S.A. Today, “Baseball is the greatest game there is, but baseball has had a tough time dealing with minority issues. And it probably still does.”
The game has to reach out to minorities at a seed level. Watson says, “Today you have kids who are cookie cutter. They just play basketball. They just play baseball. Basketball, AAU, they’re taking our kids at 13 where they should be playing Pony and Colt league. We need to market the product. Major league baseball is opening up academies in different places. We’ll provide education and opportunity for work and be able to enhance your talent pool. Right now there hasn’t been a ton of ways for us to enhance the talent pool.”
La Russa was also attracted to Watson’s resume’ because of his work in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela with the Dodgers. Kane County fans may see Cuban right hander Yoan Lopez this year. Lopez, 22, starred in Cuba’s 18U national league in 2011 with a 1.74 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 78 innings. He signed with the D-Backs for $8.25 million. He told Baseball America that Arizona was his favorite major league team while growing up in Cuba. Lopez is 6’3” and weighs 190 pounds.
“He has a really clean arm and it works exceptionally well,” Watson says. “He’s up to 97. His first outing this spring he was 92, 93, but he was throwing strikes. He got hit a little and fiddled around a bit, but that’s okay. He was by far one of the more advanced pitchers in the international pool. It creates more depth and the more depth you gives you a better chance to sustain success. Mike Bell, our farm director does a tremendous job of putting together strong rosters. We had five teams in the playoffs last year so I look forward to us having another competitive ballclub in Kane County.”
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