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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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The Sheas; New Orleans, new start.

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

Chuck Barris

Chuck Barris

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.

Beryl and Ken Nordine visit Nocturnal Journal May 2, 2015

Beryl and Ken Nordine visit Nocturnal Journal May 2, 2015

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.

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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.

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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 and Ernie Banks  (Courtesy of Irene Brower)

Bob Brower and Ernie Banks (Courtesy of Irene Brower)

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.”

Coach House 1962 (Courtesy of Irene Brower)

Coach House 1962. Bob and Mary Brower in the white. (Courtesy of Irene Brower)

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.”

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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.

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Irene Brower (D. Hoekstra photo)

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.”

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Staff Sergeant Alfred Hoekstra, Jr. at age 25 on furlough in Paris.

 

 

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.

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Mom & Dad’s 65th wedding anniversary, February, 2015

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.

(L to R) Doug, Irene, Dave  and Alfred Hoekstra among the rose bushes of Ohio

(L to R) Doug, Irene, Dave and Alfred Hoekstra in Ohio

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

De Jon Watson, a baseball lifer.

De Jon Watson, a baseball lifer.

 

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

Johnny "Guitar" Watson in 1987.

Johnny “Guitar” Watson in 1987.

 

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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Mark “Max” Brumbach has a gift for me.

Because of that he has a gift for you, too.

As I walk into Brumbach’s new version of the music room-cafe Township, 2200 N. California Ave., he hands over a copy of the Images of America book “Chicago Entertainment Between the Wars 1919-1939.” The picture book is filled with stuff like an ad for Bert Kelly’s Stables, 431 Rush St.: Free Drinks Every Nite As Many As You Wish–no charge for dancing. Our waiter sings. Our Cook Dances. NOW FREDDIE KEPPARD World’s greatest colored jazz cornetist and his great dance band….

Brumbach is a fine musician, keyboardist with soul legend Otis Clay (1973-78) and a cultural preservationist. In 1993 he opened Smoke Daddy, 1804 W. Division St. when Wicker Park was a no man’s land. He outfitted that music room-restaurant with booths and bar stools he bought at an auction from Chic Rick’s social club on South Michigan Avenue. Brumbach saw jazz organist “Brother” Jack McDuff three times for no cover during the late 1970s at at Chick Rick’s. In 1998 Brumbach restored and opened the California Clipper, 1002 N. California in Humboldt Park.

Brumbach took over Township around Thanksgiving and has partnered with previous Township co-owner Tamiz Haiderali to recalibrate and repaint the entire place. Gone are all the stickers, graffiti and stench that resembled the Empty Bottle.

Max and Tamiz at their diner counter (Photo by Erica Corniel)

Max and Tamiz at their diner counter (Photo by Erica Corniel)

The new Township retains the front diner that still serves excellent French Toast with honey chevre mousse and the Saag Paneer Scramble (spinach, paneer, potato cake, almond sauce and two pooris, which are an Indian fried flat bread.) Haiderali brought over the paneer scramble and a couple of other items from his excellent Treat restaurant, 1616 N. Kedzie. Haiderali sold the restaurant in April, 2011.

The Woodlawn Four (Scott Dirks, Willy Greason, Justin O’Brien, Dave Waldman) will migrate up from Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park to play blues alternate Sunday afternoons in the 80-seat Palmer Room and dining area (as it faces Palmer Street). The main “Jungle Room” holds about 120 people for live music.

“We’re going to have one of the best sound systems this side of Lincoln Park,” Brumbach says in a lunch time conversation. “The best sound I’ve heard in town is Lincoln Hall. Genius. Here, you’ll be able to every instrument, every word somebody is singing.” The sound is being designed by Matt Edgar of AIS (Audio Integration Services) in Chicago. Brumbach says, “We are going to have a mixed array of music. Its going to be hard to brand this place. It is no longer going to be a rock place.”

Brumbach retained the Township name because of the cafe’s reputation for great neighborhood brunches. “To do what I’m doing is a huge undertaking,” he says. “And a very expensive undertaking. Even changing the name would be a lot. What we’re doing here is almost like building a club from scratch. But this is a great location. And we’re going to have entertainment seven nights a week.” DJs Frankie Vega, Gabriel Palomo and Eddie Riot “soft open” the Jungle Room with electro, industrial and techno dance music on Feb. 13. Nashville singer-songwriter Rorey Carroll appears Feb. 21 at Township.

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Township isn’t the first room Brumbach has brought back to life.

“I bought the building and was the contractor for Smoke Daddy,” he says. “I took a derlict space that had been a Polish bar called The Midnight Inn. You know who used to drink there? Your friend from Weeds (that would be Sergio Mayora). What a great guy. He would come in in his overalls with his sidekick Angel. At one time there were 50 taverns on Division Street between Ashland and Damen.” The strip was called “Polish Broadway.”

“I learned a lot from doing Smoke Daddy,” Brumbach continues. “I opened it July of ‘94 and sold it in the fall of ‘02. Then I bought the California Clipper from the old Italian brother and sister whose late brother had started it right after Prohibition. I found out that building was built in 1911 as a Nickelodeon.

“Humboldt Park was a Jewish-Italian-Scandanvian neighborhood. I always try to imagine a space. Smoke Daddy was all out of my head. The Clipper was already there. The murals, lights and booths were there.”

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Setting the stage in the new Township music room.

Although each space is now under different ownership, they retain Brumbach’s eye for evocative romantic lighting, Chicago muscle and a clear sense of mid-century history—and not nostalgia. It will be interesting to see how Township develops.

Brumbach, 63, is a native of near west suburban Franklin Park who began playing guitar and harmonica in 1963. His first gigs were with Chicago blues greats Wild Child Butler and Sunnyland Slim. He first recording was on the 1970 Darrel Fletcher ‘45 “Power to the People!” in a session that featured Chess Records session legends Phil Upchurch (guitar), Louis Satterfield (bass) and Donny Hathaway (keyboards).

Brumbach played a tour of Canada with the late great Jimmy Reed and has vivid memories of appearing at important Chicago clubs like Burning Spear with Otis Clay.

“Our home base was the Burning Spear,” he said. “That had been the Club DeLisa. It still had the elevator stage from the days of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. It was the premiere ‘Black & Tan’ club. The Club DeLisa wall murals were still covered with cigarette smoke and dirt.”

One of the frequent guest Club DeLisa artists was Hi-Fi White, a 300 pound transvestite comedian who wore a dress and sang. Hi Fi was a protoge’ of Redd Foxx.

“We had a good looking Iranian saxophone player named Fred for about a year,” Brumbach says. “Dark wavy hair, kind of a Romeo looking guy. Hi Fi would go, “That’s my husband, Fred.’ And Fred would get so embarrassed.”

After Brumbach sold the Clipper in 2002 he continued to play music and he built houses in the Chicago area.  He played piano alongside Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton and harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite on 2004’s “Back in the Saddle Again” from former Calumet City strip joint rockabilly singer Matt Lucas (Ten-O-Nine Records). “I’ve been trying to keep my nose clean,” Brumbach says as the rays of a promising sun slide through the windows of Township.

Max Brumbach portrait by Erica Corniel

Max Brumbach portrait by Erica Corniel

Thomas Sweets and a wayward brown pelican from the Carolina Coast. The bird was tagged as a baby in the Carolinas. (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Thomas Sweets and a wayward brown pelican from the Carolina Coast. The bird was tagged as a baby in the Carolinas and the young pelicans often get dehydrated on their first flight from home. (Dave Hoekstra photo)

KEY WEST, Fla.–The most serene spot in this once remote island on the southern tip of Florida is suddenly disturbed. Thomas Sweets is rushing through his small clinic carrying a large turkey vulture as if he was rescuing a baby from a fire. The bird’s squawking and the bitter stench recalls the halcyon ambiance at the Green Parrot, the former dive bar up the road.

Sweets is executive director of the Key West Wildlife Center.

The fenced park is on eight acres acres of land near the White Street Pier and the Atlantic Ocean on the south end of Key West. The park is landscaped with mahogany trees, gumbo limbos and indigenous plants that grow along winding walking paths.

The center rescues and rehabilitates sick or injured native wildlife from mile marker 0 to mile marker 15, towards Miami, including wild birds, sea turtles, land turtles and land and marine mammals. I’ve been to Key West at least 15 times over the past 30 years and never came across the center until last month.

I was interested in the learning more about the increase in pelican pouch slashings in the Middle Keys (not in Key West.) In January several brown pelicans were found with cuts down the length of their pouches and throats. This enables fish to slip out, leaving the bird unable to eat.

But by hanging around the center for an afternoon I also found what may be my new favorite spot on the island, the center’s quiet turtle pond enhanced by the Florida Keys Audubon Society.  The pond –which is part of a natural swale–contains gambusia fish, (they eat mosquito larvae),  a rare Florida mud turtle and a Peninsula cooter turtle. The pond is surrounded by Saw Palmetto palms and a majestic Pigeon Plum tree that was filled with white ibis (wading) birds. I sat on a bench and just took everything in. Stress floated out.

Key West Wildlife Center pond--I was so lost in the moment I forgot to take a pix so this is courtesy of Thomas Sweets

Key West Wildlife Center pond–I was so lost in the moment I forgot to take a pix so this is courtesy of Thomas Sweets

The center consists of more than 100 species of trees native to the Florida Keys. The center is a non-profit that consists of a two person operation: Sweets and certified wildlife rehabilitator Peggy Coontz, former director of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Millwood, Va (2004-08). They are assisted by dozens of volunteers.

The sunny center is on the Charles “Sunny” McCoy Indigenous Park. McCoy is a former mayor of Key West (1971-81), who in 1978 water skied from Key West to Cuba.

The land used to belong to the U.S. Dept. of Interior and they deeded it to the City of Key West with the provision that the park never would be sacrificed for development.

Sweets and Coontz came on board with the non-profit in 2011. The center does get funding from the City of Key West to rescue sick chickens, which are a protected feral population. There is no admission charge to the park.

The stressed out turkey vulture had been knocked into the water and rescued by a boater. Within 24 hours Sweets and Coontz dry out the bird, get him warm and give him food. Sweets is taking the vulture to the large wild bird aviary for flight testing as I stumble in the clinic. The aviary is covered with shade cloths because the center is not allowed to openly display birds they are treating to return to the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) want the birds to be as wild as possible.

“We focus on birds,” Sweets says with egrets fighting over territory in the background. “We get lots of raptors, songbirds in the spring and fall migration. The white crown pigeon is unique to the Keys. They move in a circular pattern throughout the Caribbean and Key West is sort of at the northern end. This park is the real jewel. It’s one of the last stands of upland scrub habitat left on the island. For birds coming through Florida south for the winter or north for the spring, the Florida Keys act like a migratory choke point. So this park sees a lot of heavy action. Through loss of habitat there’s not as many places for these birds to fuel up. From Key West they have 90 plus miles of open water to Cuba. Especially the hawks. You’ll see Cooper’s Hawks, Red Shouldered Hawks, Peregrine Falcons. We get a lot of those in the Keys. Listen. Now. You can hear a broad-winged hawk calling. That’s a hawk that’s actually moving through the park on migration. That’s what we’re talking about.”

Courtesy of Key West Wildlife Center

Courtesy of Key West Wildlife Center

Sweets, 47, looks like a smiling “Ghostbusters” era Bill Murray and his get-it-done energy seems familiar. It always comes back to Chicago.

Sweets graduated with a degree in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago. He worked as a paper conservator at the Graphic Conservation Company in Chicago. “I was actually sent to  Key West on an art related job,” says Sweets, who grew up in St. Louis. “And I started volunteering here. My real passion grew when I took over the rescues. It’s exciting. You never know where you’re going. One moment you may be on a Navy ship, the next moment you’ll be in somebody’s little shack.”

Sweets says the center is set up as a field hospital for wild birds. He uses the same eye for landscape detail he learned in the art world to  help his animals. He explains, “We can handle basic stabilizations, broken wings, we get a lot of dehydration. Entanglement. If we get something that requires surgery we work with veterinarian clinics.

“The pelicans are an unfortunate situation. Some have been slashed in the  middle keys or even as far as Miami but we haven’t seen any here. It’s an open FWC case so they are trying to get leads. In the four years we’ve been here we’ve only seen a handful of cases like this. We do get a lot of pelicans that are fed bone and fish carcasses and that can tear up a pouch as well.”

No one knows who is slashing the pelicans. It could be frustrated fishermen, it could be a nut case or a bored kid. Pelicans do smash and grabs on bait fish. “Pelicans eat fish up to about eight inches long,” Sweets says. “We get a lot of pelicans migrating at this time of year. They’re hungry. They will dive on fishing lines repeatedly. Maybe someone gets frustrated about that and vents it, although I can’t say that for sure. We count on fishermen a lot. They’re out on the water and they bring us injured birds.

“People don’t understand that sometimes even a sea bird that gets knocked in the water can cause problems. They keep themselves covered in oil from their glands and that keeps them waterproof. But once even a waterproof bird is knocked into the sea water that will degrade the protective coating on their feathers and eventually make these birds waterlogged. At that point they can’t remove themselves from the water. They’ll just drift until somebody finds them or they wash up on a shore. We certainly don’t see a mutilation of birds on a regular basis.”

Our conversation is interrupted by a phone call.

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Key West Wildlife Center, Jan. 2015 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

A double-crested cormorant has been found on the side of U.S. 1, just outside of Key West. “Somebody stopped and picked him up and now he is inside a tattoo parlor,” he says. Sweets leaves, runs out of the clinic and jumps into his Ford F-150 rescue truck to fetch the bird.

Sweets first visited Key West in the 1970s when he was 11 years old. His family took a trip to the island. “My father was a closet writer,” he says later. “He liked to some down here and see where all the writers came (Philip Caputo, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, more recently the late Robert Stone). It was a real different place back then.”

Key West is now swarming with condos, fancy restaurants, big hotels and cruise ship visitors. A Waldorf Astoria has now opened next door to my beloved Southernmost Hotel in the United States. How does the growth on the two mile by four mile island effect the wildlife? “We’re fortunate we have the (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Florida Keys National) marine sanctuary,” he replies. “That does a good job of giving wildlife places to feed directly around the island.  There has been development and we’ve lost a lot of habitat areas but if you look at something like the raptors, our numbers are looking good at least in the last couple years. We hold the sea turtle permit for Key West as well and sea turtle hatchings are up.

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Dave Hoekstra photo

“One of the biggest issues we have here are the non-native species. A lot of animals like green iguanas that used to people’s pets were released and they cause a problem.” The green iguana, for example, will eat a lot of floral on the island, which decreases the number of butterflies. Sweets explains,   “We have a decline in butterflies and hummingbirds. We have to be careful that future planning takes all our animals in account. It is the future of the Keys.

“The economy is the environment.”

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Parking lot, Key West Wildlife Center, Jan. 2015

Frankie Knuckles

Frankie Knuckles

Most people don’t eat the same meal every day.

I search out different music to nurture my changing moods. Calypso for fun, old country for loneliness. My knowledge of house music is pedestrian but I’ve always been intrigued by its deep Chicago roots.

This became very clear on Saturday night when Chicago house music DJs Derrick Carter, Darlene “DJ Lady D” Jackson and Marea Renee “The Black Madonna” Stamper joined me live in studio for my Nocturnal Journal radio show on WGN-AM. The station’s Allstate Showcase Studio was filled with an expressive joy I won’t soon forget.

We explored the seed sounds of house in soul Chicago churches, Disco Demolition and the legacy of hearing music on Chicago streets, especially in the anticipated endless nights of summer time. We paid tribute to house pioneer Frankie Knuckles who would have turned 60 years old on Jan. 18.

On Martin Luther King weekend, we played Carter’s Cratebug Edit of  “Dreams,” an example of the technique that Knuckles used, where he mixed Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with house records and other sound effects. You hear part of Knuckles “The Whistle Song” that became part of a Lipton tea commercial and a portion of Knuckles final set at the Smart Bar, Thanksgiving 2014. Stamper is talent buyer and resident DJ at the Smart Bar.

DJ Lady D

DJ Lady D

 

I found out  just a couple of weeks ago that in 1995 DJ Lady D moved in with three other DJs to a 3,000 square foot loft space at 120 N. Green at Randolph (now restaurant row). Carter and DJ Mark Farina were also living in the 120 N. Green building during the early 1990s.

At the same time I was in a post-divorce bachelor loft across the street at 131 N. Green. I lived above the S&S Restaurant where the greasy scrambled eggs danced off the rye toast. My neighbors were also house music DJs and I bet I drove them nuts with my Martin Denny records blaring across my tiki bar.

A second or third version of the Warehouse dance club was just a block away on West Randolph and there was a club called Alcatraz on North Green Street. House music roared late into the night and then a new morning.

Always a new morning.

Derrick Carter

Derrick Carter

 

 

 

 

 

Bruce Rickerd getting certified by the Guinness Book of World Records for not missing a performance in 21 years (Courtesy of Mystere', Cirque Du Soleil)

Bruce Rickerd getting certified by the Guinness Book of World Records for not missing a performance in 21 years (Courtesy Cirque Du Soleil)

When I come home from my radio program I reflect on the show we made to share with you.

I consider questions I might have asked, a button I shouldn’t have pushed to aggravate my fine producer Dan Long  or maybe an anecdote I could have contributed to inject some of my personality. I had a hard time getting to sleep after the Jan. 3 Nocturnal Journal. I was thinking about the thread of purposefulness that connected my guests:

* At the end of December, Bruce Rickerd broke the record for most theatrical performances by a male musician in his role as guitarist in “Mystere” at Cirque du Soleil  at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.

His mark of 9,958 shows got him in the Guinness Book of World Records and as he told us, he is bearing down on 10,000 shows since “Mystere” debuted in 1993. Rickerd, 62, has not missed one gig playing prog-rock electric and Eastern European acoustic guitar.

* Nick Russo, the long time swinging piano player at Jilly’s on Rush Street is back in the game. You can hear him between 7 and 10:30 p.m. every Thursday at Zeal’s restaurant in the shadow of the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg.

I had heard Nick had been ill, but it wasn’t until I was helping him take his gear down after the show that I learned he goes to Dr. Vincent Buffalino in Naperville, the same heart specialist that has taken care of my parents. Nick was a great guest with great stories. “A month ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this show,” Russo told me as we rode down the Tribune Tower elevator. Russo, only 61,  has survived two quadruple bypasses and congestive heart failure. “Dr. Buffalino has saved my life three times,” Russo said on Monday afternoon.

The Four Hoarsemen: (L to R), Nick Russo, Dave Hoekstra. Jon Langford, Dan Long

The Four Hoarsemen: (L to R), Nick Russo, Dave Hoekstra. Jon Langford, Dan Long

* Jon Langford, Nan Warshaw, Rob Miller  and Bloodshot Records have been delivering real country music and rock n’ roll with consistent quality and utmost daring for the past 20 years. A Bloodshot Records anniversary celebration kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at Metro in Chicago. Langford made the radio show despite the recent sudden loss of his mum Kit. He told me he is headed off to his native Wales on Thursday for the seventh time in something like the last 30 days.

Langford showed up on Saturday and even jammed with Russo on a velvet-drenched version of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

I sort of made them do that.

Facebook has become repository for whining and complaining about the weather, but Langford’s FB message about his Mom’s passing was a keeper: “Thanks so much for all the messages of sympathy love and support. Kit wanted to keep going forever. No quarter given to miseries and moaners. A life well lived and well worth celebrating at this festive time of year. “

You can smile in the face of adversity.

* Gregory Warmack, a.k.a. “Mr. Imagination” encountered an uncanny amount of misfortune in his life but it didn’t stop him from dreaming. Warmack died May 30, 2012 of an infection in an Atlanta, Ga. hospital. He was 64 years old. He is the subject of a major retrospective that opens Jan. 9 at INTUIT–The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.

In the summer of 1996 I visited Warmack in his crowded studio-apartment near Wrigley Field. He told me how he became “Mr. Imagination.” In 1978 he was a hair dresser and clothes designer, but he had never been an artist.

“I used to give this guy nickels and dimes for wine,” Warmack said. “One day he turned around and said, ‘I want all your money.’ I had like 40 cents. I heard what sounded like two huge cannons going off. I saw sparks. I saw fire. I realized this guy had shot me. It felt like someone opened up my stomach and poured in hot coals. I ran into a bar and told someone I had just gotten shot. My eyes went dim and I was in a coma for six weeks.” Warmack said that while in the coma, he traveled back into the past through a tunnel of light. He then pointed to rows of Aztec-influenced sandstone faces in his apartment.

He saw the faces while he was in the coma. He saw himself as “Mr. Imagination,” an African king.

He was liberated.

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Mr. Imagination and his artwork in New York, 2009 in a show curated by the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md.

And he remained in the creative heavens despite the fact:

* His brother William broke his neck and died while trying to break into Warmack’s apartment. “It didn’t make Greg bitter or break his gentle spirit,” founding INTUIT member Cleo Wilson wrote in her notes to the exhibit. “In fact, he created an altar tribute to his brother at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.

* In 2000, Warmack became an artist in residence in Bethlehem, Pa. A January, 2008 fire gutted Warmack’s home while he was at an art show in Florida. He lost everything include his beloved dog and five cats.

Friends helped him rebuild and move to Atlanta in 2009 where he created an Angel Garden for children of the world to congregate.

Just like the fortitude I heard on Saturday night, there is no limit to imagination–especially when you nurture the kid inside of you.

“If there was a limit to using your imagination when they built the first buildings they would have all looked the same,” Warmack told me. “Architects had to use their imagination. Fashion is based on imagination. The whole world is built on imagination.”

Perseverance and imagination is what “Mystere” is built on.

“Being a musician, if you’re not a star, most of the times you’re not making a whole lot of money,” Rickerd said in a Monday evening conversation before his 90-minute show at Treasure Island. “And when you don’t play you don’t make an money. I was a band leader and lead singer back in the day. If somebody was out, nobody worked.”

What bands were those?

“I had a band called Equinox,” answered Rickerd, who grew up outside of Ottawa (On.) Canada. “And Hard Wood.”

Hard Wood?

Rickerd laughed and said, “I never thought of it like that. You just gave me a totally different perspective on it. But I was just being responsible with my work. Reputations get ruined real quick. If you’re a no show for a gig, they don’t call you any more. With Cirque du Soleil, it’s not the same thing. I could have taken a day off now and then, but it is a responsibility. If I can do the job I will.”

Over the years Eddie Van Halen, E-Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren and Michael Jackson have seen Rickerd perform at a Mystere. “Michael Jackson came here close to a dozen times,” said Rickerd, who also played behind John Lee Hooker as a 22-year-old in Canada. “Of course he was always incognito. We knew that because he was the only guy with a mask on followed by five seven-foot tall guys.

“Ronnie Foster (keyboardist George Benson, Roberta Flack and others) comes to the show. He’s a musical director at one of the shows here (“Smokey Robinson Presents: Human Nature”). Neil Merryweather is a bass player who produced Lita Ford records and played with Rick James. As a matter of fact I’ll be jamming with them after the gig tonight at a dive called Saddle n’ Spurs. After playing for 3,000 people I’ll go out and play for 30. It is way off the strip, a locals place.”

The work ethic never rests.