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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
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.”
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.
Joe Cambria charmed an island that is used to bewitching moments.
Once the owner of the largest laundry in Maryland, Cambria scouted Cuba for the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins from 1934 to 1962. He is known for tooling around pre-Castro Cuba with a loaded cigar and his chauffer, a retired highway patrolman who drove a big fat Lincoln.
Cambria was in the business of importing dreams. He held court with a female correspondent from Minnesota who followed him in search of something that reminded her of home.
Cambria lived at the American Club in Havana. He leased a restaurant and tavern, the Bar Triple A, over the right field fence of the Estadio Lationoamericano ballpark (opened October, 1946) in downtown Havana. There was always music as there always is in Cuba. He loved the beat of the rumba which Congolese slaves had taken to Cuba so long ago.
Cambria connected with the resilient spirit of the Cuban people, who gave him the nickname “Papacito” (“Papa”) Joe. They even named a “Papacito Joe” cigar after Cambria. His face was round and jolly, just like something the natives would see on welcoming Yankee currency.
The effervescent Cambria signed more than 400 Cuban ballplayers in 25 years.
He scouted Fidel Castro. His Cuban major league alumni includes Camilo Pascual, Tony Oliva, Preston Gomez, Pedro Ramos, Zolio Versalles, Julio Becquer, Sandy Consuegra and Willy Miranda. Cambria also discovered the first Venezuelan major leaguer, Alex Carrasquel, whom he saw pitching in Havana in 1938. Cambria signed Venezuelan outfielder Vic Davallillo and his older brother Yo-Yo, as well as American players Early Wynn, Mickey Vernon and Eddie Yost.
Papa Joe unearthed Joe Krakauskas, surely professional baseball’s only Canadian-Lithuanian. A southpaw, Krakaukas topped out with an 11-17 record for the 1939 Senators, with 110 Ks (and 114 walks) in 217 innings. He plucked Allen “Bullet Bob” Benson from the House of David barnstorming team and Benson made his 1934 major league debut with the Senators. His career lasted two games.
Papa Joe was dispatched to Cuba because of the tightwad mentality of the Griffith family who owned the Senators and the Twins. When Camilo Pascual arrived in the major leagues with the 1954 Senators he discovered his pitching coach was ex-White Sox pitcher Joe Haynes—the brother-in-law of future senator owner Calvin Griffith.
That’s cutting corners.
During a 1991 interview in his Florida condo Griffith said Cambria scouted Fidel Castro, a somewhat effective left handed sidearm pitcher, who at the age of 18 was proclaimed as “Cuba’s outstanding athlete.” Castro once swam more than seven miles in the ocean to escape an assassination attempt. He may even still be alive today, at the age of 88.
Cambria first saw Castro pitch when Castro was a teenager in the center of Havana and he followed his career until Castro enrolled at the the University of Havana, where politics took precedent over sports. “Joe got in good with Castro,” said Griffith, who kept an autographed baseball from Castro in a trophy case next to an autographed baseball from fellow chairman Frank Sinatra. “Papa Joe told him, ‘Your fastball isn’t fast enough.’ But he still pitched in college. A sidearmer? I don’t know what the hell he was. But Joe Cambria and Fidel Castro got to be buddies. About the only Cuban he missed was Minnie Minoso.”
“Baseball was in Joe’s blood. He lived on olive oil and garlic. Every time you cooked, you had to have olive oil and garlic for him. He was a one-man show. You don’t get to be called ‘Papa Joe’ unless you are a good citizen. He did everything in the world for the Cubans. He literally was their Papa. He gave them things they never had before. Whatever he had in his pocket. Money, clothes.”
Who was Papa Joe?
* * * *
Joseph Carl Cambria was born in Messina, Italy on The Fifth of July, 1890.
His family came to America when he was eight months old and he was reared in Boston. Cambria was an outfielder for Newport in the Rhode Island State League and barnstormed with St. Louis Browns pitcher Urban Shocker. Cambria retired after breaking a leg in 1916.
After serving in the military in World War I, Cambria relocated to Baltimore and opened the Bugle Laundry. By 1928 it was the largest laundry in Maryland. The laundry supplied jackets and towels to Baltimore business houses.
The Bugle Laundry also sponsored a semipro team and played under temporary lights on a diamond Cambria named “Bugle Field.” Calvin Griffith was a reserve member of the team. His uncle Clark G. Griffith owned the Washington Senators. When Clark died in 1955, Calvin inherited the Senators. He moved the team to Minneapolis in 1960.
Clark Griffith had paid close attention to Cuban pitcher Dolf Luque, a major influence on future Senator and Twin Camilo Pascual. Luque helped Pascual master his wicked curveball. At age 42, Luque joined the New York Giants in 1932 and helped them to the National League Pennant. Luque pitched four scoreless innings in the 1932 World Series.
After that performance, Clark Griffith got the idea to dispatch Cambria to Cuba.
“By that time Joe ran several ball clubs himself,” Calvin Griffith said. “Hagerstown (Blue Ridge). Albany (International League). Salisbury
(Eastern Shore), Greenville (Sally), Youngstown (Middle Atlantic, where Cambria also was a manager).” In 1933 Cambria also owned the Baltimore Black Sox of the fledgling Negro National League. He took players off salaries and operated on a percentage basis to remain fiscally solvent during the Depression.
“He has been called a sharpshooter and fly-by-night operator,” Frank O’Neil wrote in the Jan. 18, 1945 edition of The Sporting News. “He has been indicted as a man who could squirm out of an eel trap, and discredited as a hazadorus risk to any league in which he might obtain a franchise.”
But by mining Cuban talent, Cambria was setting the stage for the integration of baseball in America. Until Cambria’s arrival, the only
Cubans in the major leagues were Adolfo Luque and Miguel Gonzalez.
People don’t realize the Cuban prelude to integration.
Jackie Robinson broke through major league baseball’s color line in 1947. But, between 1911 and 1947, about a dozen guys in the major leagues had played in the Negro Leagues. They were Hispanic. They were black enough to perform in the Negro Leagues and white enough to play in the Major Leagues.
John “Little Napoleon” McGraw would do anything to win. He was always looking for the edge when he managed the New York Giants between 1901-1932. [Bill Veeck’s midget at bat was inspired by a little person named Eddie Morrow that McGraw kept in the club house as a “good luck charm.”] McGraw knew there were players of color in Cuba. He had no racial agenda. He just wanted to win.
The 1933 Albany Senators were one of the first teams Joe Cambria stocked with Cubans. A setting for the moody baseball novel “Ironweed,” Albany had the smallest population of any city in the International League. It was a no-win proposition, but Cambria used money from his Baltimore laundry to finance the operation.
Cambria took over the International League franchise from the Chicago Cubs. In 1933 the Cubs optioned Stan Hack to Albany to play third base. Hack was a colorful Senator. “Something about playing with the men of Cambria made him do strange things, especially like climbing the light tower in left field,” Joe Buchiccio wrote in the Nov. 1968 edition of “The Evangelist.” Despite being Cambria-ized, Hack still made the league’s all-star team that year.
Cambria thought outside the box.
His 1934 Senators featured outfielder Fred Sington, a former Alabama football star who led the league in RBIs (147) as well as Cuban imports who could neither read or write in English. Cambria gave them identification tags to wear around their neck in the event they became lost. The team’s future Cuban major leaguers included MIke Guerrera, Tommy DeLa Cruz, Bobby Estallela and Reggie Otero, who went on to coach for the Cincinnati Reds.
In 1935 Cambria signed Alabama Pitts to a contract, which forever made Papa Joe part of Albany sports lore. Pitts was a 25-year-old ex-convict with a honest-to-goodness baseball reputation. He had just been released from Sing Sing Prison in Ossing, N.Y., where he was doing time for armed robbery. Cambria instructed his general manager Johnny Evers to pay Pitts $200 a month. The acquisition was overruled in the courts and also by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. But Cambria and the Senators won out.
In June, 1935 more than 7,000 fans came to see Pitts baseball debut.
The field was flooded with water from an all-night rain. Cambria burned gasoline on the field to get it into playing condition. Pitts went
2-for-5, but finished the year hitting .233 in 116 at bats and striking out 24 times. He missed many games due to injuries. According to the Aug. 29, 1935 issue of the Sporting News, Pitts went down with blood poisoning which resulted when he “spiked himself and paid little attention….until his foot swelled.”
Pitts was done. He was released at the beginning of the 1936 season. Pitts died in 1941 from knife wounds incurred in a roadhouse fight after he had played in a game with the semi pro Valdese (North Carolina) mill team.
Cambria already had enough.
The 1935 Senators were dreadful, finishing in last place with a 49-104 record. They weren’t much better in 1936, finishing last again with a 56-98 record, despite having the league’s leading hitter in Smead Jolley (.373), who had flamed out with the Chicago White Sox. After the 1936 season Cambria sold the Senators to the New York Giants for $75,000. The Giants moved the club to Jersey City, where they finished last again with a 50-100 mark.
Helen loved to visit Joe at the American Club. She was a young feature writer for United Press International and had met Papa Joe down the road at the Tropicana nightclub. The American Club was a safe haven. The hearty food reminded her of the restaurant her parents ran back home in Minneapolis. She was supposed to work in that place, too. She grew up behind the counter and quickly came to understand the regiment of the working class. She heard the complaints. She saw the creases that ran across the faces of old men like threads in a quilt.
And she hated snow.
Joe took great delight in the American Club’s spaghetti and the spicy nature of the Cuban seasoning. He would talk about the discovery of another mediocre Cuban ballplayer that he could fly under the radar back to Washington, D.C. Helen would talk about the latest Saturday Evening Post that had landed at the club. There were stories about Wyoming and poems about broken music boxes.
Helen and Joe adored the artwork of Cuban Andres Garcia Benitez that adorned the covers of Bohemia and Carteles magazines. Garcia Benitez preceded the popular Vargas in the pages of Playboy magazine. Garcia Benitez also produced images of Cuban team pinup girls wearing colorful team jerseys.
Helen had a calming effect on Joe’s restless nature. Joe never married and he had no children. “My kids are on the fields of Cuba and Venezuela,” he would say. Joe was no longer a young man when Helen met him in 1944. They were an odd couple who were friends more than companions. Helen was tall and lithe and her Scandanivan complexion did not like the tropical sun. Joe was short and squat and he loved Panama hats that on occasion shaded his blue eyes. Their direct nature was their connective thread, their mojo that made them friends. Helen was straight-ahead in a practical Midwestern sense. Joe confronted everyone with his Catholic-Italian brotherhood. He would wrap his arm around the shoulder of a young ballplayer and sell him a dream. He did this thousands of times across the entire island of Cuba. Helen wondered what it was that drew him to the game of baseball like a match to a cigar.
Sometimes he wondered where the time went.
* * *
On Jan. 7, 1945 Papa Joe was presented with a gold watch by Cuban ballplayers who had reached the major leagues between games of a winter league double header at La Tropical Stadium in Havana. Cuban baseball writers gave Cambria a bronze plaque. More than 15,000 fans paid tribute to Cambria.
Tomas de la Cruz of the Cincinnati Reds—who earlier in the week had pitched a no-hitter for Almendares—made the player’s presentation with Papa Joe looking on. Speeches were given by Rogelio Valdes Jorge, president of Cuba’s professional league and Merito Acosta, who was a star for Louisville in the American Association. Helen was in the stands and began to understand the bridges Joe was building.
Riding high with the Cuban people, in 1946 Cambria founded the Havana Cubans of the Florida International League. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and moved spring training to Havana to escape the segregation of the United States.
The Cubans played their maiden season at the La Tropical Stadium. Bobby Maduro bought the team in 1954, renamed it the Sugar Kings and relocated it to El Gran Estadio del Cerro (a.k.a. Gran Stadium) in Havana. The Cubans delivered future major leaguers like former Cubs manager Preston Gomez and pitcher Camilo Pascual.
Pascual became Cambria’s best friend. Cambria was best man at Pascual’s 1958 wedding in Havana. Cambria discovered Pascual when he was a 16-year-old third baseman on Club Ferroviario (named after a Cuban railroad) in Havana. “He watched every game from a distance,” Pascual told me over a 2002 breakfast at the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, outside of downtown Miami. “He would sit in the stands, down the third base line. He wore white shirts with Panama hats. He told me I was going to be a pitcher. He knew.”
He saw the national pride of the Cuban athlete.
Clark Griffith was a minority Havana Cubans owner which created the pipeline to the Senators. Conrado Marrero and Sandy Conseuegra all played for the Cubans between 1946 and 1950 when they won four consecutive Florida International League titles. The Class C league also had teams in Miami, Miami Beach, Tampa, West Palm Beach and rural Key West.
During the regular season Fidel Castro attended Sugar Kings games at Gran Stadium. Not long after assuming power he pledged to underwrite the Sugar Kings debts. During the Cuban Winter Leagues, Castro followed the Alamendares Club of Havana, whose heritage dated back to 1879. The Almendares mascot was a scorpion and the team motto was “He who defeats Almendares dies.”
Hall of Famer Monte Irvin played for Alemandares between 1947 and 1949. He batted against Castro, who pitched batting practice. “He would work out with us,” Irvin once told me. “He had a fair amount of speed, but his control wasn’t what it should have been. Marrero once said, ‘If we had known he wanted to become a dictator, we would have made an umpire out of him.”
* * * *
In the late 1940s Helen received an assignment from U.P.I. to write about the cigar factories in Pinar Del Rio. The fertile tobacco growing region was about two hours from Havana. She had no way to get to Pinar Del Rio. She asked Joe to accompany her. Joe liked cigars and Benny More’. The Cuban songwriter got his start in these factories, composing songs like “Sete Cayo’ El Tobacco.”
And Joe had a driver.
“There was a boy from Pennsylvania named Alex Kvasnak,” the driver told Helen as they waited for Joe to emerge from the American Club. “Joe called him ‘Squash-Neck.’ Not a bad hitter. Squash Neck had quite a reputation around his home town and word got out to the Red Sox that Joe was sniffing around. The kid’s father was a barber. He couldn’t make up his mind between Joe and the Senators and the Red Sox.” “Splitting hairs,” Helen said, adjusting her wide brimmed hat.
“So you know what Joe does?,” the driver said while looking at Helen in the rear view mirror. “He had a brand new barber’s chair delivered to his father’s shop. And Squash Neck signed with the Senators.”
Helen looked out at the American Club and wondered. Was Joe an operator? Or did he explore every possibility in life? Did his open spirit contrast her shadowed nature?
Joe rolled out of the American Club like a red carpet in Hollywood. He had the whole bit going on: Panama hat, light white shirt with a pocketful of cigars and a satchel with a bottle of Havana Rum sticking out from the top. He seemed excited about the day trip, but there was no way Helen could tell for sure. He was a scout. He knew about the music around the factories such as the percussive punto pinareno that was indigenous to Pinar Del Rio. Maybe he would find a baseball game along the way. This day trip was where Helen learned that Joe never liked to see the sun set.
Former Washington Senator/Minnesota Twin Julio Becquer was scouted by Cambria and kept in touch with Papa Joe his entire life. “Joe always knew what we were doing,” Becquer said in a mid-1990s conversation in his Minneapolis home. “We didn’t call him on the phone or things like that, but especially when we went to Cuba he would help us with accommodations. He would always inform the major league clubs what we were doing in Cuba.”
When Cuban ballplayers arrived in the United States, Cambria would take them to Spanish restaurants. After signing Carrasquel, the first Venezulean in the big leagues, Cambria gave him dozens of rumba records to keep him from being homesick.
Becquer played for Havana in the Florida International League (1953, 54), San Diego in the Pacific Coast League (1955), the Senators (‘55, ‘57 and ‘58) and Louisville in the American Association (1956). “There were so many Cuban players in triple AAA in 1956 it was unbelievable, nearly 100,” Becquer said. “ Philadelphia had Tony Gonzales, Cookie Rojas, Ruben Amaro, Tony Taylor. And that’s only a few. You go to Cincinnati and there was Leo Cardenas, Tony Perez.
“We always had a group and we stayed together. Cubans ate together, we slept together, we played together. We got along well. I knew there was racism. In Louisville I was called everything. I never acknowledged it, but we didn’t forget. I was trying to avoid confrontation. I came to the United States to play ball. But we protected each other.
“If you had to deal with one, you had to deal with the rest of us.”
“And you cannot win. The only way you can win is if you eliminate all of us.”
Becquer met his wife Edith in 1951 in Havana. She was studying to get her Pharmacy degree from the University of Havana. They got married in 1961, the year Castro cut off Cuba and ended professional sports. “After Cuba closed off, that was it for Joe,” Becquer said. In firm tones Edith added, “Papa Joe is the reason I am in this country.”
Joe Cambria died in 1962 in a Minneapolis hospital. Cuban balll players across America shed a tear for their papa. Joe had long lost touch with Helen, who relocated to New York before the 1959 revolution. She also had raised a family.
It will be 25 years ago on Dec. 27 that I first set foot in Cuba.
I gained entry on a journalist visa.
I took a midnight charter flight on a Haitian airline out of Miami into Havana. A few days ago I found my receipt from Marazul Tours in New York: three nights at the Habana Libre (the former Hilton) for $192. I was alone in a very strange place. I arrived at my hotel around three in the morning and the staff claimed the room wasn’t “ready” for this American. slept on a lobby sofa for the next five hours. When you are alone like that you are very much alive.
I wrote about baseball and music. I made two subsequent trips to Cuba, the final one in 1992 when I brought along Chicago Sun-Times photographer Bob Black. We went on our own dime. We walked around Havana for a few days and on one occasion officials told us we could not take photographs of young men repairing bicycles in a Havana garage. I have memories that no photograph can capture.
On my first visit I strolled along the seafront Malecon near Old Havana distributing American baseball cards to Cuban kids as a goodwill gesture. They didn’t care about the players. They loved the pink bubble gum. (I told Black to bring along chocolate candy bars and he made fast friends with the female elevator operators at the Habana Libre.) I still remember memorials to Abraham Lincoln that stood along the Malecon because many Cubans consider black slaves as part of their heritage.
In 1989 I interviewed German Mesa, a young shortstop who went on to manage the Cuban national baseball team.
Mesa had a rifle of an arm and hit with the control and range of Panamanian Hall of Famer Rod Carew.
Today his 18-year-old son Victor is a shortstop for Matanzas and in October, Baseball America wrote, “No young player in Cuba can match Mesa’s
combination of tools, athleticism and upside.”
And the desire.
Cuba is an island of desire.
That is why I grew to love her so much. For me it’s not about the mystique of Cuban cigars (some of the most storied Cuban cigar makers moved to the Dominican Republic after the 1959 revolution) or the allure of things you can’t get (I’ve brought Havana Rum back to Chicago from Toronto). It always returns to desire of the heart.
I wonder about Ester deValle Campello, who in 1992 was in her 21st year as a gift shop clerk at the historic Tropicana nightclub in Havana. She was a writer. She was a graduate of the University of Havana, where she studied American, English and Spanish literature. She was a fan of William Shakespeare. Ester worked at the Tropicana from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. six nights a week selling programs, cassette tapes and cigars. She wrote during the day.
“I write about lives, I write about people and events,” she told me before a show. “I want to know about people. I’d like to know how they think, how they are, how they meet. I would love to travel. But Cubans never go anywhere.” I can only imagine the cultural power of a desire that will eventually will be released.
Cuba is the smile behind a window of tinted glass.
I will return to Cuba someday. Maybe it will be on a cruise ship. Even in the early 1990s research firms predicted that Cuba would become the world’s number one cruise destination. The Port of Miami had proposed constructing a downtown port annex for cruise lines and a Miami-Havana ferry service. Cruises make sense since most of Havana’s hotels are not in the best of shape.
It is unlikely the influx of Americans who inevitably will make the trek to Cuba will make an initial dent in the political atmosphere of the island, about the size of Tennessee. Tourism is already a big deal in Cuba. According to a recent Bloomberg News report, 2.9 million tourists visited Cuba in 2013, a 12 per cent increase from the previous year. I recall meeting many Canadians and tourists from the Soviet Union during my early 1990s trips.
The Tropicana will be on my list of encore visits.
The open-air nightclub began operation in June, 1939 on a tropical six-acre estate outside of Havana and en route to the Jose’ Marti Airport. Large banyan trees remain in the outdoor show area, framed by deco arches and glass walls.
During its hey-day the Tropicana chartered planes filled with dancers and musicians and a wet bar to fly in fun-loving tourists from Miami.
During my 1989 and 1992 visits to the Tropicana, waiters wore black ties and served tropical drinks. I wore my best pleated guayabera for the 50th anniversary revue in January, 1989.
Pretty cigarette girls
sold cigars and souvenir VHS tapes. The dancers “Las Diosas de Carne” (or “Flesh Goddesses”) shimmied from the stage doing the mambo and
cha-cha-cha into the aisles of the arena, which seated up to 600 people.
The cover charge was too expensive for most Cubans to gain admittance. Even today, the average Cuban takes home $20 (U.S.) a month–Cubans have free health care and subsidized rents. I heard that Cubans could attend Tropicana shows as a “reward” for their loyal work.
Locals told me that the Tropicana was one of the businesses that Fidel Castro did not fiddle around with, with the exception of removing gambling tables. The Cuban government lavishly remodeled the Tropicana in 1990, back in the days and nights when Fidel was known to drop in now and then.
John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ernest Hemingway were among hundreds of American high rollers who visited the Tropicana. I learned that Kansas City, Mo. born mobster Lewis J. “Mack” McWillie supervised gambling activities at the Tropicana in 1959 when he was visited by future Lee Harvey Oswald assassin Jack Ruby.
Long time Tropicana musical director and pianist Bebo Valdes (1918-2013) helped develop the mambo and played on Nat King Cole’s 1958 album “Cole Espanol.” Cole made annual visits to the Tropicana, usually around Carnival. Haydee Portuondo was a member of the Tropicana’s popular girl group Cuarteto D’Aida and her sister Omara went on to fame in Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club.
In 1989 I sat down with a translator and Joaquin Condal, who had been artistic director of the Tropicana revue since 1970. I had never written a story about our visit until now. Condal was born in the Cuban province of Matanzas and began dancing at age 15. He debuted as a Tropicana singer in 1958 before being promoted to choreographer in 1962.
“Nat King Cole, Liberace and Carmen Miranda were appearing here when I started,” Condal said.
More than 100 people were in the Tropicana revue, including dancers, singers, musicians and the jazz-influenced Opus 13 Orchestra. The Tropicana is where I first saw the five man rumba band Los Papines, who touched the stars with their intense African drumming.
The revue covered five acts, including “El Manicero” (“The Peanut Vendor”) “The Cha Cha Mulattas,” the traditional “Babalu,” first recorded by Cuban balladeer Miguelito Valdes and later popularized by Desi Arnaz, Jr. as Ricky Ricardo; the anthem
“Guantananera” (recorded by Pete Seeger in 1963 in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis) and “Chicken in the Pot.” The show concluded with the entire ensemble gathering on stage for “Tropicana in Havana.”
I was washed away by warm desires.
“We try to present the show in an international way through our music and our dance,” Condal said. “I danced at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas.” Condal taught ballet, modern and folk dance at the Tropicana. “The most important thing I tell my dancers is they have to feel the music inside,” he explained. “Then the people will enjoy.”
The Tropicana revue was making annual visits to Spain and in 1988 the Tropicana brought a 55-person revue to Los Angeles for two weeks and New York City for three weeks. “It was the first time since the revolution,” Condal said. “Maybe it will happen again. Maybe.”
For the definitive take on the Tropicana, check out “Tropicana Nights (The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub)” (2004, Harcourt Books) by Rosa Lowinger and Ofelia Fox. Fox (1924-2006) married Tropicana owner Martin Fox in 1952. They moved to Miami, Fla. in 1982.
Radio might be the last place you would find me.
I’ve liked being an observer. I’m uncomfortable at center stage. I’m the guy at the end of the bar. I’m the fly on the wall– behind the curtain.
I’ve been a guest plenty of times on radio and television, but to host a show–even for a couple of hours–seems daunting. Good radio is truth. And that’s the truth.
But I am curious.
I like to hear other people’s stories. I’ve been in print journalism for more than 40 years, dating back to my idealistic stint as editor of the Naperville (Ill.) Central High School newspaper (I had a column called “Writing Wrongs,” and that’s the truth.) Unless it is the New York Times, the daily newspaper format for regular storytelling has gone the way of fountain pens and film canisters.
“The Nocturnal Journal” debuts at 10 p.m. Dec. 6 on WGN AM 720. The show can be streamed on demand at wgnradio.com or subscribe through iTunes.
We will discuss roots music, musical road trips, foodways, tiki culture, oddball sports, flea markets and truck stops. We will observe and discover. If we learn one new thing on a Saturday night then the journal is a success.
I’ll curate a diary on this website.
Our first guests are the gracious L.C. Cooke, brother of soul singer Sam Cooke; Rick Wojcik, owner of Dusty Groove America and a show sponsor; tequila drinking Chicago raconteur Sergio Mayora and Don Luttrell calling in from Springfield, Mo. to talk about his Luttrell Auction and Live Music Barn, the greatest live music experience I have had this year this side of Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams.
Sergio will play an in-studio song and we will be giving away a few copies of the fantastic “L.C. Cooke–The Complete SAR Recordings” (ABKCO), featuring 18 tracks and the session work of Earl Palmer, Billy Preston and Bobby and Cecil Womack.
In one way radio is a happy full circle for me.
I grew up on Chicago radio. In the risk of sounding jingoistic, I can’t think of a better sound experience. I doubt I would have appreciated the boundless diversity of rock n’ roll and soul if I hadn’t listened to late 1960s, early 1970s AM radio.
In early high school we would take the Burlington Northern train in from Naperville to watch Larry Lujack work at WLS-AM and the more edgy WCFL-AM personalties at Marina City. Lujack, Clark Weber, Wally Phillips, “Chicago” Eddie Schwartz, Yvonne Daniels, and to this day Dick Biondi, Herb Kent and Bob Sirott weren’t disc jockeys. They were personalities. They were part of the community. They walked among our stories.
Other 1960s’ early 1970s personalities like Ron Britain (and his Psychedelic Circus), the late Barney Pip (who played a trumpet while telling listeners to ‘Turn Into Peanut Butter’) and Captain Whammo (a.k.a. Jim Chanell, who became a Christian disc jockey in West Dundee, Ill.) were about theater.
And there was Studs.
Studs Terkel blended storytelling and theater with a voice that sounded like a Maxwell Street push broom. “In creating radio documentary you’re much freer,” Studs said in 2001. “Voices, sounds, music. The rest is you and the microphone. The storyteller doesn’t need special effects, they’re supplied by the listener.” After we get our feet on the ground in 2015 we will take “The Nocturnal Journal” on the road and into the community.
What could be more kinetic than the energy of the Saturday night chorus? Musicians, bagmen, lost poets, bartenders, short order cooks, tall strippers, waitresses, newspaper reporters, truck drivers and stadium beer vendors. Many of them are my friends.
There is noise from this group, of course, but drama is found in the space between the voices. We hope to create that ambiance.
I’m a story catcher. Alan Lomax was a sound catcher.
In the fine 2010 biography “Alan Lomax–The Man Who Recorded The World,” Sun Ra biographer John Szwed wrote, “To those who knew Alan’s work only from his songbooks he seemed to be…a kindly guide for a nostalgic return trip to simpler times. But he might have thought of himself as a spokesperson for the Other America, the common people, the forgotten and excluded, the ethinic, those who always come to life in troubled times….”
Contemporary radio is fragmented, but for a few moments in the mystery of darkness, the audience can be on a level playing field. There’s beauty of a billion stars on a clear night. Even if you can’t see them you can listen.
You will hear the nuance of a voice, the curl of a phrase, the pitch of laughter. Life finds perspective.
And that is what good radio can do.
SPRINGFIELD, MO.–It is nearly an hour before showtime at Luttrell’s Auction and Live Music Barn on a recent Saturday night. An elderly woman in a purple sweater walks through four aisles of empty white plastic chairs to find a spot in the front row. This is her place in the world. There cannot be a sense of history without a place.
Peggy Mullins was married to country singer-songwriter Johnny Lafayette Mullins for 53 years.
He died in October, 2009 and that’s when she started coming to hear music in the former feed store.
Johnny Mullins is best known for the top ten hit “Company’s Comin,” recorded in 1954 by Porter Wagoner. Mullins met Wagoner at the Ozark Jubilee in downtown Springfield. That was a big place back then.
Mullins had a way with words and jingles. He grew up in Barry County, Mo. and taught himself how to play guitar by swatting wasps. Between 1957 and 1982 he was a custodian for the Springfield school system. He titled his 1983 autobiography “America’s Favorite Janitor.”
“I met Johnny in 1956 at the Ozark Manufacturing Company in Springfield,” Peggy says before the main show featuring “The Barn Band.” “He was a packer and I was upholstered chairs. He got fired (laughs) not long after we met. He got in trouble for fussing with his boss. We got married about six months after we met. Then he started working for the Springfield school system.”
Peggy, 78, is packing a lot in on this early November day.
She has caught a 9 a..m. show in Branson, about 30 miles south of Springfield. “I saw ‘Who’s Gonna’ Fill Their Shoes,” she says. ‘It’s about George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. Then I came here. I love this place.”
Her husband had the gumption Branson loves. “Johnny was mainly a one man show,” she says. “He didn’t have a band. He wrote his own songs and sent demos to people. He had written ‘Company’s Comin’ before I met him. Then Loretta Lynn did his ‘Success (Has Made a Failure Out of Our Home in 1961)’ and that was a hit for her. She called John for another song. That was an experience. I answered the phone because he was at work. Since she was from Kentucky and had blue eyes, he wrote ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ for her. Emmylou Harris recorded it 15 years later.”
Elvis Costello and Sinead O’Connor each recorded Mullin’s “Success.” The Ozark Playboys, a former Luttrell’s Auction Barn house band covered Mullins’ “Angel In The Hills” for Springfield’s own Top-Side label.
Long time Springfield guitarist D. Clinton Thompson (Morells, Skeletons, Park Central Squares) attended the Eugene Field elementary school in Springfield when Mullins was working there. “Mostly we just folded chairs and stacked tables,” he writes in a Friday email. “He was a nice man but I didn’t know he was a songwriter until I was told he was going to be on the Slim Wilson TV show (which aired 1964-75 from Springfield on KYTV-TV) singing songs he had written. I was only 11 and seeing someone I actually knew on TV was almost as exciting as seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. He wrote country songs and I was not interested in country music at the time.
“Little did I know it was already an inescapable part of my life.”
I’m glad our photographer Rene’ Greblo takes a distant picture of Peggy.
It says a lot about the power of connection.
In his 1989 collection of essays, humanist-farmer Wendell Berry wrote, “A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this.”
Living their entire life in this remote big place of Springfield, Mo. Peggy and Johnny had two daughters and two grandsons. In his later years Johnny liked to play horseshoes and he dabbled in organic gardening. He never strayed far from the music which is why Peggy comes back to this place, a pocket-sized throwback of the Ozark Jubilee.
She smiles and says, “The Jubilee was a wonderful place to go. It was clean. No alcohol. They started out with fiddle, guitar and banjo. They didn’t have drums years ago. Nothing was electric. They’re losing that now and it makes me upset. I went to the Grand Ole Opry recently and it was loud, loud music. I like to hear my music. I like to hear the words.”
When Peggy Mullins hears the words she knows she is not alone.
SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—–The sameness that shades popular culture in America has not arrived along the Route 66 bypass on the northwest end of Springfield. A white aluminum shack that looks like a large trailer sits a good distance from the road. A portable barbecue stand is sizzling adjacent to the gravel driveway.
You have arrived at an unfiltered destination:
Luttrell’s Auction and Live Music Show, 2939 W. Kearney.
And the new Blue Grass BBQ.
Auction house owner Don Luttrell claims his business is the only auction house-live music venue west of the Mississippi River. It is an amazing joint. I haven’t seen live country music in such an authentic setting since the 1970s and 80s nights of the Sundowners’ RR Ranch in Chicago’s Loop.
On Friday and Saturday nights the house “Barn Band” plays traditional country music on a small stage illuminated by trippy multi-colored floor lamps. The band features 76-year-old Ozark Jubilee veterans Roger Blevins (pedal steel guitar) and lead guitarist Jerry Menown (lead guitar) as well as country-rock drummer “Bobby” Llloyd Hicks (Morells, Skeletons, NRBQ and about 45 other bands.)
Fans sit on white plastic chairs and when someone like Merle Haggard’s ex-wife Leona Williams appears, the crowd overflows into five rows of wooden bleachers. The capacity of the room is about 200 people.
An early 20th Century wooden hand cranked phone hangs on a wall behind the stage. Almost everyone in the audience is over 50 years old. No alcohol is served and Luttrell promptly ends his three-hour revue at 9 p.m. so people can get home early to rest for church or hit the first set atany other Springfield live music club.
The Barn Band numbers between five and seven people depending on who is sitting in. They cover traditional country music like Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On the Road.” For ringers the band will throw in The Surfaris instrumental hit “Wipeout” where Hicks leaps up and plays his drums standing up. He’ll also contribute vocals on rhythm and blues chestnuts like LaVern Baker’s 1954 hit “Tweedle Dee.” Blevins will introduce the 1959 Santo and Johnny instrumental “Sleep Walk” as an “all-skate” for when people moved in more graceful circles.
Hundreds of items from the weekly Thursday auctions remain uncovered on tables near the rear of the seating area.
The items are not for sale during concerts, although I did barter a brown monkey flower vase from Luttrell for $20.
Yes, different is good.
The wood frame auction and music barn building dates back to 1930 when it was built as a feed store. In the early 1950s the Springfield based Consumer’s Grocery chain rented the old feed store to sell a few items and store fireworks. A June 29, 1955 Kansas City Star article reported that a fireworks display exploded and spread through the building. Two young sisters were in the store buying a bottle of milk along with another female shopper. All three women died of smoke inhalation. The City of Springfield soon banned the sale of fireworks and in 1955 the building was reborn as an auction house.
“I had a guy that came to one of my music shows and said they had a set up like this in North Carolina,” Luttrell said while taking tickets before an early November show. “That’s the only one I’ve heard of like this. And I don’t know if that still exists.”
The auction barn is on the Route 66 bypass. Luttrell said, “When you came into Springfield, 66 turned into Kearney Street. If you wanted to bypass the downtown you would come up here, turn and go south and be back on 66 again and go right into Mount Vernon and Halltown.”
Why, of course you would. Bob Wills had that hit “Big Ball’s in Halltown.”
Just last month Luttrell alllowed Springfield barbecue king Sam Ashley to pitch his “Bluegrass BBQ” food truck in his parking lot. The tricked out truck is custom built from a 1979 camper and serves Memphis style BBQ year round every day except Sunday and Monday.
“Everybody here has a wet rub,” said Ashley, 38. “I’m originally from southeast Missouri. Mine is a dry rub. I started about four years ago in my back yard with a little old smoker. It took me a few years to get it down. They’re smoked for 13 hours to get that smoked flavor.” His barbecue is tender and accented with a homemade sweet-with-heat sauce, rich K.C. Masterpiece sauce doctored up with pepper, cayenne, brown sugar, paprika and a bit of maple syrup. A pulled pork sandwich is $3.50. Homemade chili $2.50. “Everything is made from scratch,” he said. “My smoked beans is my own recipe. Nothing is bought in a can and poured in here.” Ashley’s wife Lydia helps him out in the truck. They have five children and they’ve purchased kid’s stuff and a generator across the lot at the auction.
One side of their kitchen wall is filled with yellow post-it-notes of different Bible scriptures.
“Every week we try to put up a new scripture,” Ashley said.
Not far from his reach a hand-scrawled note read: “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.”—Psalm 118:8
* * *
The lean and gentle Don Luttrell, 68, has lived in the working class barn neighborhood most of his life.
He likes to call himself “D.L.” and one of his favorite phrases is, “I’m not trying to shine my own apple.” Luttrell is a native of Lake of the Ozarks, about 90 miles from Springfield. His parents were farmers.
His brother Jim Luttrell, 86, is a former Springfield disc jockey who played guitar and mandolin as a member of the Ozark Playboys, another popular barn act. He also worked for Si Siman’s Top Talent booking agency. Siman (1921-1994) , a Springfield native and record executive discovered Chet Atkins and Porter Wagoner when he created the Ozark Jubilee radio show. Jim also gigged for 18 years in Branson, about 30 miles south of Springfield. Jim Luttrell recently retired because he is going blind.
Don Luttrell recalled, “Around 1980 I was driving up the road one night and I heard music coming out of this little old building. I pulled in and it was Harold Morrison (banjo) and Jimmy Gateley (guitar), who used to be on the Jubilee (1956-57). Harold had a little band backed up in here. About two-thirds of the crowd was his family sitting in the bleachers. I remember walking in and Harold looked at me and said, ‘Hello Hoss!’ He called everybody ‘Hoss.’ One night after buying the auction house (in 2007) I was laying in bed thinking, ‘If Harold did it that one night, why don’t I do it all the time?’ The music here is almost like what Bill Monroe was with Kentucky bluegrass. It is very original. And Springfield didn’t have a family-friendly music show where there was no drinking or anything.”
Springfield’s legacy of family-friendly live music shows was popularized with the Ozark Jubilee television show, which attracted 25 million television viewers across America between 1954 and 1960.
Luttrell started the live music in early 2008. “Leona Williams has grandchildren in the area so she sings here when she’s in town,” Luttrell said.
A playful black and white photo of Williams and Haggard in front of their tour bus hangs in the small auction house entry way.
“Norma Jean, who used to be with Porter Wagoner has been here. Claude Gray (who had the 1967 trucking hit “How Fast Them Trucks Can Go” and whose “I’ll Just Have Another Cup of Coffee” was reworked by Bob Marley as “One Cup of Coffee”) was just here from Texas. Former Domino Kings singer Brian Capps is in regular rotation with the accomplished house band. The late Springfield producer-bassist Lou Whitney often did the sound for the barn shows and sang with Capps. Whitney loved the acoustics because of the former feed store’s low ceiling.
The “Barn Band” plays within strokes of history.
Blevins is regarded as one of the best steel players in the country and was a staff musician at KWTO, the Jubilee home radio station. Menown learned how to play Chet Atkins style while at the Jubilee and after the television show ended he played with Leroy Van Dyke and Patsy Cline. Hank Garland (1930-2004) became one of his favorite jazz-influenced guitarists so Menown made a similar seamless crossover move.
In the auction barn, Blevins and Menown form a modern day Jimmy Bryant (guitar, 1925-1980) and Springfield native Speedy West (pedal steel, 1924-2003) who recently have been popularized by Bill Frisell.
The connection makes perfect sense as Bryant played the Stratosphere Twin double-neck guitar, manufactured in the mid-1950s on Boonville Avenue in Springfield. Bryant’s adroit and fast picking delivered country hits like “Stratosphere Boogie” and “Caffeine Patrol,” both recorded with West. “People don’t realize it was tuned different,” Blevins said in an interview before their barn burning set. “It was tuned in thirds. That made the unique sound.”
Menown grew up with his mother and grandparents. His mom was a garment worker and his grandmother ran a dry cleaning business in nearby Nixa, Mo. Blevins’ father was a diesel mechanic and his mother worked at a furniture company south of Springfield. Blevins and Menown met in a 1954 fiddle contest in nearby Nixa. “And we’ve been playing together since we were 18,” Menown humble-boasted. “When I was a little boy I came to the barn with the neighbors to buy feed. Mr. Luttrell called us to play. We first played with fiddling bands then this band formed.”
Blevins added, “The Ozark Jubilee put Springfield on the map pretty good. There’s a lot of good musicians here and a lot of big name acts came through here.” Carl Perkins made his national television debut singing “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Jubilee.
The Jubilee television show was filmed live at the since-razed Jewell Theater in downtown Springfield. The show gave birth to a mid-1950s nightlife scene that was similar to the mid-1950 and 60s honky tonk scene of Lower Broadway in Nashville, Tn. Menown said, “It was very busy. I got to play on the Jubilee for three months with Porter Wagoner. There were three or four clubs on each corner. They’re all tore down now. There was a hotel. A nice lounge. A lot of musicians could find work in those four blocks there.”
Sometimes after Jubilee artists and staff musicians would adjourn to the Half A Hill Club, which ran from Prohibition through the 1970s.
Blevins said, “That was a set up club down on Long Pine. You brought your own bottle (of alcohol) and they sold drinks. It was a big place. Jerry and I worked there lots of times. There was dancing and a lot of drinking. It’s not there any more. There’s not as many live bands as there used to be. We still play what we call hard-core country music and Western Swing. It’s hard to find that any more.”
The Springfield musicians do what they can to bring back the spirit of that scene at Luttrell’s Auction Barn.
Jim Luttrell said, “The Ozark Jubilee did a lot of good for Springfield. People came in from different states. They would eat at our restaurants and buy stuff.” Don Luttrell leaned back in the front entrance against a wall of empty slots used for auction tickets. He recalled, “Growing up around here it seemed like every family had a music background. Churches. Pie suppers. Square dances. People entertained themselves.”
“A girl would bring a pie and people would bid on it,” he continued. “I bought my girl friend’s pie for 15 cents but was ashamed to go eat with her. So she ate it with somebody else I guess.” Jim looked at his brother and said, “He was born three months after I got married. So I know I’m older than he is. But he’s smarter than I am. It was rough for me growing up on the farm in the 1930s. Depression days. I worked for 15 cents a day and bought a package of king size cigarettes for 11 cents. I started out bad. But I made a career out of playing music. I played mandolin, guitar, harmonica, dobro, fiddle and ukelele. Besides Branson, I played 42 churches and 21 rest homes. And I enjoyed it.”
This music comes from deep within.
And it is sold to the highest bidder.
Bobby Lloyd Hicks (Drums) and Men at Work in the barn (Photo by Rene’ Greblo)
Early in his first term President Obama made noise about bringing back a new deal of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) as a method to resurrect the economy. It is too bad this never came to pass.
Writers, artists, former newspaper journalists and photographers could chronicle the green economy, foodways and stories of the scores of immigrants who are changing America’s landscape.
Engaging state travel guides were written between 1935 and 1943 through the Federal Writer’s Project of the WPA. I still use them today when I travel. The project provided a platform for emerging voices such as Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Eudora Weldy and Nelson Algren (1909-1981).
In the late 1930s Algren was supervisor of the WPA Illinois office. His assignment was to gather information for a national “America Eats” program where he was to produce a series of regional guides descirbing immigration customs and settlements as they related to food.
Algren honed his interviewing skills and surely learned the timeless power of food memory, which is a device I try to use in my conversations today.
In 1992 the University of Iowa Press published his work in “America Eats,” where Algren wrote:
“If each of all the races which have been subsited in the vast Middle West could contribute one dish to one great midwestern cauldron, it is certain that we’d have therein a most foreign and gigantic stew: the grains that the French took over from the Indians, and the breads that the English brought later, hotly spiced Italian dishes and subtly seasoned Spanish ones, the sweet Swedish soups and the sour Polish ones, and all the Old World arts brought to the preparing of American beefsteak and hot mince pie. Such a cauldron would contain more than many foods. It would be at once, a symbol of many lands and a melting pot for many people.
Many peoples, yet one people, many lands, one land.”
And many peoples will gather at 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at Lottie’s Pub, 1925 W. Cortland (at Winchester) to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Nelson Algren Committee. The committee has helped keep Algren’s work and life alive and in the public eye since it was formed in the basement of Lottie’s. For decades Lottie’s basement was the home of all-night poker games which were financed in part by Algren. One time Algren played a poker game fueled by advance money for an unwritten book. He lost the advance in the game.
Chicago theater veteran Donna Blue Lachman will be on hand as will former Saturday Night Live writer (1975) Nate Herman, who performed at the inaugural event. Archivist Tony Macaluso of WFMT will present rarely heard Terkel interviews with Algren and expect an appearance from historical re-enactor Paul Durcia. The group will also celebrate the upcoming release of “The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All,” the definitive documentary about Algren, which the committee helped produce. Co-creator Mark Blottner will be on hand to offer a sneak preview.
Blottner’s documentary looks at Algren’s political views while the previously released Michael Caplan biopic “Algren” focused on Algren’s literary career. “The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All” is inscribed on Algren’s headstone in the Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, N.Y. (John Steinbeck also lived in Sag Harbor from 1955 until his death in ’68). In his true independent style, Algren chose eternal words that were not his own. Great Plains novelist Willa Cather came up with the road quote.
Committee co-founder Warren Leming will be on hand and he has worked as a liasion with Seven Stories Press to get Algren’s work reissued. Previously unpublished works like “America Eats” and “Nonconformity” are now available to the public.
The committee celebration includes free pizza and a cash bar. Admission is just $10, $5 if you are a student, senior, cash strapped or all of the above.
You can keep the ball rolliing at 7 p.m. Nov. 28 when Firecat Projects, 2124 N. Damen, welcomes storied Algren photographer Art Shay as he opens an exhibit of his documentary photographs of Algren in Chicago. Shay will give a talk and there will be ample beer from Three Floyds Brewing and wine from Red & White Wines.
I was at the first Nelson Algren Committee event, Dec. 2, 1989 at Lottie’s and I’ll be at this one
Talk about food? The 1989 event was catered old world Polish style by the late great Sophie Madej, owner of the Busy Bee Restaurant, which was under the El tracks just a couple blocks away from Algren’s home, 1958 W. Evergreen. The Busy Bee is one reason I moved into a graffiti-laden shooting gallery at 1501 N. Wicker Park in 1979.
Food was always on Algren’s radar. One of his most popular lines comes from his 1956 novel “A Walk on the Wild Side,” (the template for the Lou Reed hit) where he wrote, “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”
Well, there was that one time I was playing cards with Doc at Mom’s and went home with the paroled waitress……
Proceeds from the $5 cover in 1989 that night were to be used to honor Algren with a work of art. The artwork or statue has never come to fruition. I loved Harry Caray, but if Chicago can have a statue of Harry Caray, there certainly should be a physical artistic tribute to Nelson Algren:
A wrinkled face with rolled up sleeves.
Former committee member Char Sandstrom advocated a memorial fountain to be dedicated to Algren at the “Polonia Triangle” park and subway stop at Division, Ashland and Milwaukee. The fountain with a plaque honoring Algren came to fruition in September, 1998 in a project by the Chicago Public Works Commission. The committee also worked with Chicago-based Seven Stories Press in promoting and re-issuing Algren’s books.
Algren was born as Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit in 1909 and moved with his family to the south side of Chicago when he was three years old. His mother ran a candy store on the south side. Algren left Chicago in 1975.
Through the early days of the committee I got to know founding member Stuart McCarrell. The Chicago playwright-electrical engineer died in 2001at age 77. Stuart was instrumental in getting a plaque in front of the Evergreen address. There is also a marker at the Evergreen site as part of the Chicago Tribute historical location project, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune Foundation.
McCarrell and Algren were die hard White Sox fans. During the mid-1960s they would stop at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap in Little Italy for a meal and a couple of glasses of tap beer before a game. The White Sox often would lose in their presence, which McCarrell said fit Algren’s under-dogged character. He had deep empathy for people oppressed by legal and political maneuvers.
“The great thing about Nelson is that he was a gut radical,” McCarren told me on the eve of the committee’s first event in 1989. “He would pay $65 a month for this working class apartment on the third floor of 1958 [Evergreen]. He always acted, dressed and lived as a member of the proletariat.
“Nelson was one of the first guests on [Sun-Times columnist Irv] Kupcinet’s program. What made it a good program was that Nelson represented the outsiders and the unknown point of view. He’d never dress up. Then, they’d say things like, ‘Mr. Algren, why is it you associate so much with that type of people?,’ meaning the poor and underclass. He’d say, ‘The strange thing is that I associate with people like you.’ He had a great empathy for the least of these.”
Algren biographer Bettina Drew wrote, “The gates of his soul opened on the hell side.”
Tributes will be paid to McCarrell and Algren friend Studs Terkel at Lottie’s. After Algren died of a heart attack, his body was taken unclaimed to Manhattan, about an hour north of his home. Studs was the first on the phone to get the body released.
Algren remains fiercely relevant with the great divide between the haves and have-nots in contemporary American society. He saw the deep end of a similar polarization in the diners, restaurants and kitchens of at the end of the Depression.
The long Midwest shadows of the late 1930s colored his words forever, just as the dry California fields influenced John Steinbeck. If he were alive today, Algren would have nothing to do with Chicago’s Michelin rated restaurants or fancy bars with $20 cocktails.
He would have something to do with you. And he does.
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