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Printer's Alley, 1960s (Courtesy of Skull's)

Printer’s Alley, 1960s (Courtesy of Skull’s)

NASHVILLE, Tn.–The joke about Nashville’s rapid growth is how the city skyline consists of tower cranes.

Traffic is a major issue. Former Mayor Karl Dean was so concerned about the city’s outdated public transportation system he tried to take buses to work–but locals stopped to pick him up in their cars.

Things in the rear view mirror are larger than they appear.

“The preservation of historic landmarks in Nashville in crisis mode,” said Robbie Jones, past president and board member of Historic Nashville,  Inc. told me in a January 2016 interview. “The city is growing so fast developers are tearing down historic buildings as quickly as they can and they’re replacing them with condos and office towers. We are under assault.”

The recent reopening of the historic Skull’s Rainbow Room in the once seedy downtown Printer’s Alley is major cultural news that incorporates country music, murder, speakeasies, burlesque and a carnival worker.


David “Skull” Schulman opened his nightclub in 1948 in Printer’s  Alley, once the ribald shadow of Nashville’s publishing and printing  businesses.

The narrow two block jaunt stretches from Union Street to Church Street. Andy Griffith was a house comedian at Skull’s and the club featured exotic dancers in the Bible Belt hometown of Bettie Page.

Printer’s Alley nightclubs populated the Bourbon Street- like strip and entertainers on the circuit included Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams and the Supremes. In 1963 Jimi Hendrix played with bassist Billy Cox at the Jolly Roger, next door to Skull’s.

Schulman was born in North Nashville, several blocks from the since-razed Sulphur Dell ballpark. As a teenager he froze baseballs in the meat freezer at the nearby Swift & Company to deaden the rubber inside. He once was locked inside the freezer on the Fourth of July.

Schulman was known as “The Mayor of Printer’s Alley” and later became a semi-cast member on the “Hee-Haw” television series. He liked to wear his faded blue “Hee-Haw” overalls behind his beloved bar. Skull also loved poodles. During Christmas Skull would dye his poodles red and green Elvis Presley once sent him a poodle and Skull insisted on naming every poodle “Sweetie” or “Sugar.” He was often seen walking his poodles on a rhinestone leash down Printer’s Alley.

On Jan. 21, 1998 Schulman was murdered during a robbery inside the club.

A cigarette vendor found Schulman lying on the floor. His latest “Sweetie” was wandering around the bar. Schulman’s throat had been slit and he had been hit over the head with a liquor bottle. He died the next day. He was 80 years old.

Skull and friends (Courtesy of Skull's)

Skull and friends (Courtesy of Skull’s)

The horrific murder shook the Nashville entertainment industry to its soul. Country singer Tanya Tucker rushed to Schulman’s bedside before he died. Skull’s friend Willie Nelson  appeared on “America’s Most Wanted” in an effort to catch the killer (s). And in 2001, American drifters James Caveye and Jason Pence were charged of robbing  and murdering Schulman.

Pence was working a carnival at the Tennessee State Fair and Schulman once hired him for part-time help. Pence told police he knew Schulman carried large wads of money in the bib of his overalls.

Caveye got a life sentence while Pence pleaded guilty to facilitating a murder, which carried a prison sentence between 15 and 25 years. Skull’s Rainbow Room closed several months after Schulman’s death.

I was fortunate to have met Skull during visits in the late 1980s and 1990s. My friend Angelo Varias, former drummer with John Prine, took me there for the first time. We saw burlesque comedian Joey Gerard who had cut his chops in Calumet City, Ill. strip clubs. A few years later I adjourned to Skull’s after the Country Music Association (CMA) awards and had a couple beers with a young Shooter Jennings.

I only spoke with Skull a little bit. He loved baseball and worked as a batboy for the Nashville Vols minor league team. I later learned that Vol players gave him the nickname “Skull” after he suffered a fractured skull in an automobile accident. On May 24, 1935 Skull flipped the switch for major league baseball’s first night game at Crosley Field with Cincinnati Reds General Manager Larry MacPhail. MacPhail had operated a department store in downtown Nashville.

Country saxophone player Boots Randolph ran a club down the alley from Skull’s.  Before my time, country-jazz guitarist Hank Garland (Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline) was the headliner at the nearby Carousel Club. All those joints have since closed.

Printer’s Alley became old news.

Lower Broadway Avenue is just a few blocks away from Printer’s Alley and that nightlife strip with honky tonks like Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World was reborn after the 1996 opening of the Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.

Even most locals thought Printer’s Alley was extinct—until June of  2015 when Skull’s Rainbow Room quietly reopened.

The 140-seat club is all dressed up and retains none of the funky aspects of the original place, which included mildewed carpet on the walls. The restaurant and bar features heartfelt homage to Schulman.

Skull's Rainbow Room, 2015

Skull’s Rainbow Room, 2015

Two of his classic Manuel western jackets and one Nudie jacket are framed and hang on a wall over a dining area. The small black and white television set where Schulman liked to watch wrestling matches is in a nearby case.

The original checkerboard stage is still in use, and yes, tasteful burlesque dancers still perform twice nightly. Executive Chef and business partner Gannon M. Leary trained at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and his lobster bisque is the best in the region.

Skull's Rainbow Room, 1980's (Courtesy of Skull's)

Skull’s Rainbow Room, 1980’s (Courtesy of Skull’s)

The new ownership group is led by David Wileman, a 40-year-old native of Manchester, England. One of his four partners is Vincent Polizzi, a former bodyguard for Brazilian soccer legend Pele’.

“Glory days and bad times in Printer’s Alley,” Wileman said during a recent lunchtime interview at Skull’s. “And David ‘Skull’ Schulman was there all the way through it. He was here rain or shine. It was his life. He never married. He had a sister who auctioned off all the music memorabalia and we actually bought some of the stuff back.

“The club had been empty for 16 years when we got it. It had flooded, it had been on fire. The only thing missing was a plaque of locust. The damage was almost Biblical. But certain things were ridiculous like the original stage. And learning who all played here. Willie Nelson was part of the house band. Elvis, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan all played on that stage. Paul McCartney wrote songs here when he moved to Nashville (in 1974 to record his “Junior’s Farm” album) He took a shine to a girl who was on stage and that was ‘Sally G..”

Courtesy of Skull's

Vince Gill photo courtesy of Skull’s

“Sally G” was the flip side to the Paul McCartney and Wings hit single “Junior’s Farm.” The country-tinged ballad featured Nashville session players Vassar Clements and Johnny Gimble. Wileman said, “Linda McCartney got pissed and he had to change the name. It was originally ‘Diane G.’ Johnny Cash was a good friend of Skull’s.

“When they were filming “The Johnny Cash” television show, Johnny would bring down whoever had been on the show. One night Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were all on that little stage.” Michael McCall, Museum Museum Writer/Editor of the Country Music Hall of Fame verified the fact that Dylan and Mitchell were guests on Cash’s premiere show. The series began on June 7, 1969 as a summer replacement show. It was taped at the Ryman Auditorium, just a few blocks from Skull’s.

Jimi Hendrix, (left) in Printer's Alley 1963 (Courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Jimi Hendrix, (left) in Printer’s Alley 1963 (Courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark, “Hee-Haw” was a country version of the popular “Laugh-In” comedy series and Schulman liked to create his own version of the show in his club. “Skull had dancers,  comedians, singers and bands,” Wileman said. “He’d be on the show from time to time popping up in the cornfields. He wore the Nudie and Manuel Jackets with the rhinestones. We have two sets of his ‘Hee-Haw’ overalls. He was famous for wearing elaborate outfits. I tried them on. They’re horrible.”

Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy was musical director of  “Hee-Haw” between 1969 and 1987. The new Skull’s honors McCoy with a vintage poster promoting a live appearance from McCoy with Monument Recording artist Laney Smallwood. McCoy has not been to the new spot, but he gave the lay of the land of the original place.

“It was the 1960s,” he said. “The Rainbow Room was upstairs. That was the strip club. We played downstairs at the Black Poodle. We became friends with Skull because he hung out on the ‘Hee-Haw’ set. Skull was a character. He was on Printer’s Alley a very long time. He had live country music and there was no country music in the alley.”

Printer's Alley 1963 (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Printer’s Alley 1963 (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

After Skull’s Rainbow Room closed, the next door Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar rented the space for storage. That plan stopped after employees refused to go in the 3,000-square foot vacant club because they saw an eerie shape that resembled Schulman. Nashville ghost tours now stop at the club.

Skull sculplture of Skull by Sonny Behr near the club entrance. (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Skull sculplture of Skull by Sonny Behr near the club entrance. (Dave Hoekstra photo)

 “The walls are nearly two feet thick,” Wileman explained. “Solid stone. When we were doing renovations there was no air conditioning, no heat in here. Pretty much what the temperature was outside is what the temperature was inside.

” There were nights when it was 80, 90 degrees outside and the temperature would plummet in here. It was very strange.”

Wileman’s partner Phil Martin has taken over Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie, across the street from the New Orleans influenced Printer’s Alley Lofts. Each of the nine high-ceiling lofts can be rented by the day or the week.


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Skull’s Rainbow Room is actually in the basement of the Southern Turf Building, constructed in 1895. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and Historic Nashville Inc. owns a preservation easement on the building.

Skull’s had to work with the non-profit group to restore the space with integrity.

“We consider Skull’s a success story,” Jones said. “They’ve done it the right way. In 1982 (Nashville attorney)  Bob Tuke invented the first preservation easement program in Tennessee. He has his offices in that building, so that building is protected. We’re so excited about this positive development we’re holding our annual meeting January 28 at Skull’s. The city historian is going to speak.”

Schulman would be speechless.

David Schulman and his beloved Nudie & Manuel jackets (Courtesy of Skull's)

David Schulman and his beloved Nudie & Manuel jackets (Courtesy of Skull’s)

The original turf building included a  bordello on the third and fourth floors and the office of The Tennessean newspaper faced 4th Street on the opposite side of Printer’s Alley. The alley is actually subterranean at the bottom of a steep hill.

“This area was big during Prohibition,” Wileman said. “There was a famous bar upstairs called The Southern Turf Saloon. This was the gentleman’s quarter, a place where the ‘nice ladies’ never came. Skull’s had been a casino. There’s bootlegging tunnels underneath here and catacombs that go down to the Cumberland (River). The club that Boots Randolph had, there’s an actual entranceway into the tunnel system. The Underground Railroad ran around here.”

Vice raid at Skull’s, 1962 (Courtesy of Skull’s)

Printer’s Alley thrived in part, because cocktails didn’t become legal in Nashville until 1967. Turkish baths and funky pawn shops were part of the Printer’s Alley landscape during the early 20th Century.

McCoy laughed and said, “In the mid-1960s we played at the Captain’s Table, downstairs in the alley. I was in a band I had with Kenny Buttrey and Mac Gayden (Nashville session players).  It was the funniest thing, at that time liquor by the drink was illegal in Nashville. And four blocks from the state capital they’re selling booze down there it was going out of style. Someone got paid off.”

Wileman said, “Printer’s Alley didn’t really close down during Prohibition. High-end politicians drank down here. It was off the radar. But in the last few years the word got out Printer’s Alley was closed. It’s kind of bizarre. They’re rebuilding the Utopia Hotel, a famous hotel at the corner of Printer’s Alley. A couple bars and restaurants are closed while they are doing renovations. It looks kind of decrepit leading up to Printer’s Alley.”

The six-story Utopia, 206 Cherry St., has a stone facade that was designed by the same architect who worked on the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. The Utopia was a hangout for horse racing fans and in the late 1800s was known as the “resort of the sporting classes.”

Jones added, “We need to balance redevelopment with the preservation of historic landmarks that make Nashville unique, the very qualities of the city that make people want to come and visit and work here. We can’t lose our character as we grow. We’ve already lost a lot of buildings on Music Row. Recording studios and publishing houses. As a result of all the demolitions, in January (2015) Music Row was designated as a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

Historic Nashville, Inc. maintains an annual “Nashville Nine” of the nine most endangered properties in Nashville. The properties are nominated by the community. The Colonel Tom Parker House, 1215 South in Madison is on the 2015 list. Elvis Presley’s manager lived in this home from 1908 until 1986.

Keeping historic burlesque was a no-brainer for the new Skull’s ownership. Rotating pianists play supper club era music on a black Baldwin Baby Grand during dinner time. Evanston native and former Musician magazine editor (1995-98) Bob Doerschuck is part of the piano rotation.

“It ties in nice with the whole place,” Wileman said. “We lean more towards jazz although there is a country music influence at times. We wanted to do something different than Lower Broadway. We wanted to roll back the  years, a speakeasy, jazz-burlesque. Even the menu reflects that. We got our hands on some of the menus from the old alley restaurants and we did a twist on that. Prime rib. Escargot.” I loved the crawfish tomato risotto with gorgonzola cheese and Aborio rice ($13).

Kitana Louise is a regular Skull’s dancer who moved to Nashville in 2005. She left her native Houston, Tx. to be a country singer. In 2012 Louise began studying burlesque under Freya West, the Headmistress of Nashville’s only burlesque finishing school. West learned her craft under the legendary Michelle L’amour at Studio L’amour in Chicago.

Kitana Louise was not on "Gilligan's Island."

Kitana Louise was not on “Gilligan’s Island” (Photo by Stephanie May of La Photographie)

Louise met Skull’s partner Phil Martin at a 2013 private singer-dancer gig for Prince’s horn player.

Martin told all five showgirls at the party that Skull’s was going to reopen. “It’s an amazing thing to be part of this movement of empowering women to own their sexual experience and have fun with it,” Louise explained.

“Bringing Skull’s Rainbow Room back has definitely helped solidify the burlesque presence again in Nashville. Printer’s Alley was always intriguing to me. When you walk down the alley there’s a big mural with the picture of a showgirl. This is Bettie Page’s hometown, this is Music City.

“Live dancing belongs here.”

Louise has seen all kinds of reactions as she dances to Big Band and classic blues on stage and atop a runway adjacent to the dining area. The runway pays homage to the original Skull’s, where strippers danced on tables.

I’ve had people walk out,” Louise said. “People say things that I would consider inappropriate. They don’t know. A lot of people don’t know whether they should clap, if they should holler. The tipping thing is interesting as  well. ‘Do I put a tip in her bra?’ ‘Do I put a tip in her underwear?’ Do I throw some money on the stage?'”

Tips for Skull’s show girls are accepted in a large glass jar.

Louise explained, “It’s different than a strip club experience. It’s different than a drag queen experience. Here you are in a club that serves escargot and foie gras, and there’s a person taking off their clothes. How do you socially behave?”

Wileman said, “The burlesque show is a very mild, fun show. It’s a throwback to that whole Sally Rand era with girls and the feather downs. It’s tasteful.”

Skull (right) and Sally Rand (Courtesy of Skull's)

David “Skull ” Schulman (right) and Sally Rand (Courtesy of Skull’s

*                              *                                      *                                            *

David Wileman  left England for America to play soccer at Hofstra University in New York. His aunts and cousins ran bars and restaurants around England and he grew up in the hospitality environment.

Wileman’s historic eye was developed in part by managing The Beekman Pub, established in 1936 near Wall Street. Wileman’s American born wife works for the federal government and was transferred to Nashville in 2010.

Wileman said, “I’ve been a big fan of preservation and restoration. I salvaged what I could do. We redid the drains, the electric, the plumbing then brought a lot of pieces back in and tried to put the puzzle back together. It took us 18 months to redo it. There was water damage behind the stage. I took the back of the stage off and found the original food menu, five feet by eight feet. It was actually patching a hole behind the wall. Why go buy good wood when you can use that?

“We brought back the (25 seat) bar. The basic layout of the room is very similar to what it was. The location of the stage is in the same place. About two weeks before we opened this lady walks in with a box. She was a bartender at Skull’s for 27 years. She gave us all these photographs. Skull lined the walls with pictures of everyone who had been through here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Paul McCartney, Elvis (Presley).”

“We had a party for Tim McGraw. He got his break in here. Apparently Tim McGraw was ready to throw in the towel and Skull gave him some money and told him to ‘stick around.’ He brought some record guys to come see him and the rest is history. Skull touched people on all levels from the top to the bottom. People still talk about him and it was nearly 20 years ago this place closed.

“This guy was obviously something very very special.”

(c) Dave Hoekstra, January 2016

Skull says good night (Courtesy of Skull's)

Skull says good night (Courtesy of Skull’s)



Just when Chicago needed him the most, Otis Clay traveled to a higher ground.

Over the past 50 years Mr. Clay became the city’s greatest soul singer, one of the last of America’s pure soul singers and a cultural ambassador. Mr. Clay died of a heart attack Friday night. He was 73 years old.

What is soul?

Soul is eternal love, soul is brotherhood, soul is empathy.

Take notes.

Mr. Clay must be on a mission to get things straight in the city he called home since 1956.

Of course Bob Seger had a smash hit with Mr. Clay’s 1972 regional  hit “Trying to Live My Life Without You” and Mr. Clay was always a riveting performer at his Liberty Baptist Church, 49th and King Drive.

In the summer of 2005 Robert Plant took time out from his tour to catch Mr. Clay’s set at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Folk &  Roots Festival. He knew Mr. Clay was essential soul.

But most important of all there was Mr. Clay’s smile that stretched like a ribbon of understanding. No dark days here. Mr. Clay was a decent man whose warmth touched all those he met.

He was always ready to assist a needy musician, organizing benefits and concerts for his compatriots like the late Tyrone Davis and former Koko Taylor guitarist Vino Louden. When it wasn’t so  popular, he was  chairman of the non-profit Tobacco Road, Inc., which managed the ill-fated Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville. He was a passionate advocate of Bronzeville arts. I would see Mr. Clay in the audience of countless funerals for Chicago gospel greats.

He represented.

I knew Mr. Clay for 33 years. He was always willing to help me out. On Oct. 29 Mr. Clay and his band headlined our book release party for “The People’s Place (Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscenses From the Civil Rights Era to Today)” at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. He did not ask for a cover charge and many guests attributed the feeling of fellowship that night to Mr. Clay’s songs and civil-rights era  stories. He knocked out the house with covers of Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” and the extended version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” The show, which attracted a large black and white audience, turned out to be Mr. Clay’s final Chicago area appearance.

Otis Clay at FitzGerald's, Oct. 29, 2015

Otis Clay at FitzGerald’s, Oct. 29, 2015

Earlier in 2015, Mr. Clay and keyboardist Max Brumbach brought in a nine-piece band to play on my WGN-AM Saturday night radio show. Mr. Clay still holds the house record for cramming musicians into the station studio.

Mr. Clay was a willing participant to sing in the annual Buck Owens birthday tributes produced by my friends John Rice and John Soss and Mr. Clay was one of the first in line, along with Paul Cebar and Mavis Staples 

birthday tributes produced by my friends John Rice and John Soss, and Mr. Clay was  was one of the first in line, along with Paul Cebar and Mavis Staples to appear at my 2000 “Ticket To Everywhere” book party at FitzGerald’s. 

At that event he delivered a saucy version of Don Covay’s “I Was Checking Out, She Was Checking In,” and true story: My Mom name-checked Mr. Clay’s performance almost until the day she died.

Mr. Clay was born on Feb 11, 1942, the youngest of 10 children raised in Waxhaw, Miss. His father was a farmer whose nickname was “Sing” Clay, although Mr. Clay admitted pops wasn’t such a hot singer.

At night Mr. Clay liked to listen to the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville. During the day the Clay children sang in a family gospel  that patterned themselves after the Dixie Hummingbirds.

In 1956 Mr. Clay left Mississippi to live with his aunt and uncle at  119 E. 45th St. in Chicago. Mr. Clay first went on the road as professional singer in 1960 with the Famous Blue Jay Singers, who recorded for Trumpet Records out of Jackson, Miss. Mr. Clay had been drafted from the Golden Jubalaires, a group of young Chicago-based gospel singers. In 1964  Mr. Clay began singing with the Sensational Nightingales and remained with them until the middle of 1965, when he crossed over into soul.


Stepping out as a lead singer in a gospel group, Mr. Clay embraced harmony. By the 1960s gospel harmonies became more robust, accenting the role of lead singer. Strong voices emerged such as falsetto Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones and Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers.

“My first professional gig was 1960 in Ludlowville, New York,” Clay told me in a 2010 interview commemorating his 50 years in the music business. “The Blue Jays were singing a capella and that’s where harmony really paid off. Everybody can’t do harmony, We used barbershop quartet chords. Everyone was thinking about the weirdest chord to get people standing on their feet.”

Because of Chicago’s profound blues imprint, Mr. Clay’s soul and rhythm and blues could be taken for granted in his hometown. During the mid-1990s a regular group of us got together on the last Thursday of every month to see Mr. Clay’s residency at the tiny B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. At the same time, he was playing 50,000 seat arenas in Japan. Mr. Clay championed other Chicago soul singers like Cicero Blake and the late Lou Pride. In May, 1996 when the mysterious Memphis soul singer James Carr made his final mesmerizing appearance in Chicago at Rosa’s, he used Mr. Clay’s backing band. Mr. Clay was in the audience, cheering Carr on.

One of the last times Led Zeppelin played Chicago Stadium, soul singer Bobby Bland was headlining the Burning Spear nightclub at 55th and State. Mr. Clay was a few miles away at a small West Side social club. After the 1973 Zeppelin gig, Robert Plant led a fleet of six black licorice limousines to the Spear to catch Bland’s late set. Mr. Clay drove his midnight blue Mark IV to the Spear. Mr. Clay and Bland jammed together, accented by the Burning Spear chorus line. Plant was star struck about meeting Mr. Clay. He emulated Mr. Clay’s gospel vamp in numerous covers of Mr. Clay’s 1966 hit “It’s Easier Said Than Done.”

After telling me that story in 1988, Mr. Clay stopped and smiled.

“What is it that makes a man rich?,” he asked.

“You’ve contributed something. Somebody liked something you’ve done.”

Mr. Clay sang the slow blues number “This Time I’m Gone For Good” at Bobby Bland’s 2013 funeral.

After scoring a 1968 rhythm and blues hit with a straight no-chaser cover of Doug Sahm’s “She’s About a Mover” on Cotillion/Atlantic Records, in 1970 Mr. Clay met the late Hi Records producer  Willie Mitchell (Al Green, Syl Johnson and O.V. Wright) . Cotillion had dispatched Mr. Clay to Memphis to record “Is It Over”. By 1971 Mr. Clay signed with Hi snd Mr. Mitchell produced most of Mr. Clay’s biggest hits, “Precious, Precious,” “Holding on to a Dying Love” and “Trying To Live My Life Without You.”

Otis Clay in the WGN-AM studiios four days before his 73rd birthday (Dan Long photo)

Otis Clay in the WGN-AM studios four days before his 73rd birthday (Dan Long photo)

In the summer of 1983, Mr. Clay was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident. He suffered nine broken ribs and spent 15 days in the hospital. People told him he would not be able to sing again. “But my whole style changed after the accident,” he told me in 1991. “I was able to do peaks. My earlier records sounded strained.”

Not long after the accident, he was reunited with Mitchell and they recorded 1988 tracks at Mitchell’s Waylo studio in Memphis. In an interview later that year, Mitchell said, “Otis is singing better than he did 10 years ago. He’s mellowed with the times. See, Otis sings songs. Gospel songs, country songs, rock n’ roll. I just set up the mike and let him go.”

In 1991 Mr. Clay went to Memphis to record the underrated “I’ll Treat You Right” album for Bullseye Blues Records that featured the Hi Rhythm Section and the Memphis Horns  (Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson). The album is a stunning mix of secular and gospel music, including Johnnie Taylor’s “Love Bones” and a  searing version of the Salem Travelers “Children Gone Astray.”

Mr. Clay’s deep soul was not lost on Chicago blues guitarist Dave Specter, who featured Mr. Clay on three tracks from his 2014 “Message in Blue” project for Delmark Records, including “This Time I’m Gone For Good.” They also locked in with a spine-tingling cover of the 1965 Wilson Pickett hit “I Found a Love.”

Dave Specter & Otis Clay

Dave Specter & Otis Clay

“Otis had such a giving spirit,” Specter said on Saturday. “He was  such a sweet, humble guy. Patient. (Specter’s voice broke.) He had this deep intensity on stage that gave you goose bumps and made you cry. Then, when you talked to him, it was like talking to a family member. I was going through a bad breakup of a relationship when I was recording with him. I leaned on him for help sometimes. And he was there for me.”

So, what is it that makes a man rich?

The answer is not found in ambition and glory. It is not found under the lure of a spotlight. It is about knowing who you are, a life tethered into meaning. Mr. Clay lived that life well. He was a true soul and a true friend.

And soul is a guiding star that never dies.


Lock myself out, the first time in 20 years

Am I becoming my parents, losing my memory

Bit by bit like the drip from an unforgettable icicle

Outside of the house I grew up in.

I wait for the locksmith on the back steps.

A cardinal stops on along the driveway

I see my Mom who grew up near St. Louis

Until the man arrives with his box of magical tools


The man says it will not take long and begins to chip away

The cardinal, she flies way into a winter without snow

I complain about the wood that falls onto the floor

The man says those are the consequences

Suddenly I am in my house and nothing has changed

Christmas cards as futile as the newspapers I have yet to read

I find extra keys hanging from a Florida flamingo souvenir

Maybe they open the door to a new light.


The Matchbox: Room with a view

These are the darkest days of the year in Chicago.

And every winter I think of the abundant outdoor flower stands in rainy Seattle, San Francisco and New York City that illuminate the day and your thoughts.

The older I get, the more I appreciate flowers. For the last couple years of her life I would bring my Mom a small bouquet of fresh flowers for my weekly Sunday visit.

That made my Dad happy. As a middle-aged man he planted dozens of roses in our backyard.

Since my parents passed away this spring between the blossoms of promise, I’m compelled to pay something forward. 

I started thinking about this a couple weeks ago while walking around Santiago, Chile. I visited diverse neighborhoods where people were happy and peaceful. Yes, it was summer but I sensed a more pure and passionate happy than I’ve seen in recent Chicago summers.

Flowers were everywhere–except at the Colo-Colo soccer game attended. They slowed people down. Flowers lived  between the romantic  lines of a Pablo Neruda poem. I was inspired and wondered what would happen if, when I returned to Chicago, I would just order flowers to give to someone once week. Sometimes for a reason, other times for no reason at all.

But if I started offering flowers to strangers in Chicago I’d probably be tagged with a restraining order. Let’s see what happens.

I’ve always noticed the weekly fresh flowers behind the bar at The Matchbox, 770 N. Milwaukee Ave. The tiny bar is my neighborhood Chicago tavern. The flowers have been delivered every Thursday afternoon since I’ve been going  there, which is about 15 years now. I called Matchbox manager Colleen Bush to find out the history of the flowers.

Flowers outside the Matchbox, too

Flowers outside the Matchbox, too.

Colleen will always have a place in my heart because she shares her Dec. 10 birthday with my Mom. She also loves to tell the story about  my parents devotion, the one where they drove their car together at the end of their lives. Mom had macular degeneration so Dad provided the eyes. Dad had a bum knee, so Mom took the pedal and brake.

Nothing got in their way.

The Matchbox flowers are delivered from Anthony Gowder Designs, 2616 W. North Ave. 

“We’ve been doing that for 18 years now,” Gowder said in a Dec. 10 interview. “We opened our business right around the corner (from the Matchbox) at Chicago Avenue near Racine. We would go over there after work and that’s how  we met (owners) Dave and Jackie. They mentioned they wanted flowers  as part of their place. We’ve always had a free reign to do what we  want. The Matchbox is a cool Chicago haunt as opposed to the trendy places that come and go.”

Matchbox owners David and Jackie Gevercer operate Casa Jacqueline, an intimate Bed & Breakfast in Tulum, Mexico. In an e-mail David Gevercer wrote, “The flower tradition started as far back as The Gare St. Lazare (his 1980s Lincoln Park restaurant) where we rescued flowers from conventions I can’t think of any establishment I have managed that didn’t use fresh flowers. Just watch people’s expressions when they see fresh flowers, especially in taverns.”

“The Matchbox flowers originally came from across the street. The  ‘White Tower’ building had a florist in it in 1995. When they closed  in 1997, we spoke to Anthony.” Bush said, “He makes beautiful arrangements and its always nice stuff, not carnations. Its always seasonal. I don’t know of any bars like ours who do this, but fancy bars, sure. People always ask us, ‘Who brought you the flowers?’ ‘Is it your birthday?’ ‘Where are they from?’ They come every Thursday between 2 and 5 and it’s usually the delivery dude.”

Gowder does not know of any other Chicago bars that offer fresh flowers on a weekly basis. “Bar-restaurants do flowers, but the tend to be more upscale downtown places,” he said. “For Dave and Jackie it was part of the culture of the Matchbox, its own rhythm. They allowed us to put in the weirdest and most unusual blossoms. There’s been everything from hanging heliconia to fabulous orchids.  I never thought about the amount of time we put in flowers there until just now.

“They’re obviously our longest standing customer. We take advantage of what we find on the market and what they might dig. Because they’ve been with us so long we always have them at the top of our head when we’re shopping for product: ‘What are we going to ship to the Matchbox this week?’ There’s a service charge and its the same price they’ve always paid. We just like doing it.”

Gowder doesn’t visit the Matchbox as much as he used to.

“I’m over 50 and I’m one of those guys who started the rhythm of life a little later,” he said.  “I met my dream girl way past my twenties and now we have a six year old and 10 year old daughter. And we still drive a business every day trying to make this something special.”

Flowers have the power to uplift anyone. Get off my lawn! and get into my flower bed. You learn to be aggressive living in Chicago.  Here is a way to stop and smell the……No, I won’t go there. Gowder agreed with my premise that Chicago needs more public flowers–but then he is in the flower business.


“Actually we’re in the process of launching a retail operation,” Gowder said. Anthony Gowder Designs occupies the first two floors of a loft building in what I thought was Humboldt Park, but is now the “WOW” neighborhood (West of Western). Gowder said, We’ve done special events and social galas. We’ve gotten several large weddings from the clientele that goes to the Matchbox because they’re not pretentious and they just let the evening go by. Flowers should be part of our everyday living.”

Not many independent flower shops remain in Chicago. My neighborhood floral shop is Marguerite Garden Florists, 2444 W. Chicago. There’s also the long standing Barbara’s Floral & Gift Shop, 753 N. Ashland. I can’t think of any large sidewalk Chicago floral stands in good or bad weather.

Gowder said, “Most Chicagoans have relegated themselves to the supermarkets to get their product. There’s not an awareness in the midwest as to what flowers are about. In New York City, the Korean produce stands always have a huge display of flowers next to them. It is nothing fancy, but there’s a ton of gladiolas, carnations. Birds of Paradise. It just hasn’t come to the middle of the country yet. 


Chinatown, New York City

“I used to go to the wholesale floral market in New York and you’d see things that would never make it to the midwest like six-foot tall lily branches.

“We’re trying to show what floral art means. What we’re doing at the Matchbox is not just a bucket of mums every week.

“We are florally starved here in Chicago.”



SANTIAGO, Chile—Lavender petals of the jacaranda tree fall on an empty dinner plate in a bistro patio. Two petals float together like feathers in a dream. They land together where you are alone.

Symbolism is pondered for a few minutes but you cannot linger here. There are places to go. On a 2012 visit to Santiago, there was a climb up to the Cerro San Cristobal adorned by the snow-white statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion. This time you return to reflect on those you have lost while offering gratitude for all that they gave.


You walk towards the Lastarria neighborhood and head past the rushing Rio Mapocho river and Parque Forestal.

For the last four days young and old people have been sprawled out in the park grass and under lush trees, embracing each other, making out and being in love—for the moment or for years, what does it matter? The park is always quiet. No loud music. You can feel heartbeats.

And you smile.

Travel is being. You open up. You go to a Chilean soccer game with 37,000 crazy locals when the hotel staff says it is not such a safe thing to do. Is passion elevated from the length of the search or from the point of loneliness?


I have never been to neighboring Buenos Aires, Argentina, but I wandered through Bogota’, Colombia a couple times. Because of the fog, damp weather and rolling hills, Bogota’ gets compared to San Francisco. Santiago is cleaner and more modern than Bogota’ in architecture and landscape. Santiago is what would happen if you put bits of contemporary Los Angeles in wine country. I want to stay a bit longer. I do not want to face my first Christmas without my parents.


Bringing Wrigley vibe to Santiago. And Colo-Colo won 1-0


But home calls like a distant candor.

First there is a final return to the tiny piano bar Don Rodrigo.

The Don Rodrigo is on the first floor of the Hotel Foresta in central Santiago.

The no-frills hotel was built in 1920 and features a slow moving elevator that can hold no more than three people at a time as it chugs up to the seventh floor.

The bar  space is a maze of small rooms and dark corners. Wall size mirrors give the illusion something bigger is going on. The bar only seats five people. The romantic aura is like the park in the dark. The summer nights in Santiago are as crisp as mountain air and you feel it in here.

Marco the piano player does not sing but he plays American standards like “My Way” and “Take Five,” the Dave Brubeck experiment in Stereo-phonic sound that now makes me think of Roger Ebert. Marco  does not talk and does not play Billy Joel songs.

The bartenders are round and jolly and they wear starched white shirts with black bow ties, just like in Humphrey Bogart movies. Few tourists are seen, and the night desk clerk has no idea who is this Don Rodrigo. But you guess he must be somebody to have a bar named after him.

Dave Hoekstra Don Rodrigo beer and portrait

Dave Hoekstra Don Rodrigo beer and portrait.


So you ask the shy woman from Northern Chile to press the bartender on your Don Rodrigo investigation in Spanish. She, too, is a journalist and her smile is like a butterfly unfolding its wings. She is the one who notices the bartender only has three fingers on his right hand.

It goes something like this: Guido Vallejos was the founder-illustrator of Barrabases magazine and owned the 50-seat bar. He was friends with a soccer player named Don Rodrigo, and/or Don could have been a cartoon character in his magazine.

Now, over a couple pisco sours, the woman from Northern Chile and I had fun channeling Bill Murray’s “Lost in Translation'” in hearing the stories of Don Rodrigo.

This  behavior later became worrisome when I returned to my hotel to research Guido Vallejos. In 2012 he was sent to prison as part of a child prostitution bust in central Santiago. He was 83 years old! Perhaps this is why no one at the hotel wants to talk about Don Rodrigo.

IMG_2548 (1)

Romance in the air at Don Rodrigo

There is no easy way to transition from that translation except to continue with journalistic flair of The Clinic.

The Clinic is a satirical newspaper in Santiago that also owns and operates a couple of bars and restaurants. It’s like going to a bar called The Onion in the states. The Clinic serves drinks like the Orgasmo Multiple (Johnnie Walker Red, Bailey’s, frambuesa) .

Obama and U.S.-Cuba relations as seen by The Clinic.

Obama and U.S.-Cuba relations as seen by The Clinic.

After hearing Dixieland jazz at the Club de Jazz de Santiago (established in 1943, but now part of a fancy shopping mall] we closed down The Clinic in Plaza Nunoa with a couple of mojitos.

We talked about the who, what, when, where, why and how of journalism over an introductory reporting textbook that was sitting on a library shelf next to our table.

We spoke of making every word count, the economy found in every Pablo Neruda poem.

A couple days later I wondered why two lavender petals tumbled through the summer sky. I kept the petals to place in a photo book next to my images  of snow capped Chilean mountains, fresh December flowers and dark piano bars. When I am gone, someone may look at that book and think what a special time it must have been.







The world keeps spinning.

And since the mid-1960s a group of socially conscious Chicagoans have met for dinner at the city’s soul food restaurants to talk about  politics, food and moving forward against strong winds. Many are gone now:  the restaurants and the members.

The survivors call the group “The Round Table.”

The unofficial leader of the group is Gene Barge, who was a spry 87  years old in November, 2013 when I was early into research on my book “The People’s Place.”  Barge has a remarkable pedigree. He was  arranger, producer and sax player at Chess Records, 2120  S. Michigan from 1964 until 1967, when Chess moved to a bigger space  at 320 E. 21st St. Barge continued with Chess, shaping Little  Milton’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries” album as one of the first hits out  of the new space.

Barge left Chess in 1973 to head the gospel music division at Stax Records in Memphis, Tenn. Director Andy Davis has cast Barge in the  edgy films “Stony Island,” “The Fugitive,” “Above the Law” and others. Barge was also leader of the late 1960s Operation Breadbasket  Band, the pre-Operation PUSH effort formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Gene Barge (L) at Pearl's Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Gene Barge (L) and Rudolph Brown at Pearl’s Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)

“When I got to Chicago (in 1964 from Norfolk, Va.) it was turbulent,”  Barge said over a 2013 Tuesday night Round Table dinner at Pearl’s Place,  39th and Michigan. “Dr. King had been in Chicago in 1963 and ‘64 and  declared Chicago as one of the most racist cities in America. There  was a revolution in society. When I started with the group (in ‘64), most of the guys belonged to the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership  Conference), various community groups. Some guys were dealing  with housing over on the south east side.”

Early members were late Breadbasket saxophonist Ben Branch, who was  with Dr. King when he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine  Motel in Memphis, late Bobby “Blue” Bland guitarist Wayne Bennett, who  also played in the Breadbasket band, Chicago police officer Howard  Brookins, Sr.  and Chuck Bowen, an administrative aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The discussions were hot and heavy.

“The soul food restaurants were scattered around the south side,” Barge said over a plate of fried catfish. “Army and Lou’s (gone),  Captain’s Table (gone). The civil rights preachers would have a whole  table. Some guys would drink coffee and have a sandwich. Other guys would be in the bar getting high. Entertainers would order cobbler from these restaurants and have them sent to their hotels. Edna’s in Garfield Park (still standing as Ruby’s) and Helen Maybelle’s  restaurant on Stony Island (gone, as is the one on 22nd and Cermak.)

“Helen became Jesse Jackson’s caterer. She would look out for him no  matter what. She would send food to his house, she would send food to  the meetings. Because when he was trying to start Breadbasket this  (Helen’s) was one of the places he would meet. There was no  Breadbasket. We would solve the problems of the day. Every once in awhile others would drop in, Dorothy Tillman, (future Chicago mayor)  Harold Washington went to every soul food restaurant in this city.  Branson’s. Bowman. The west side.”

Helen Maybell Anglin died in 2009 at the age of 80.

She was a coal miner’s daughter from Edgewater, Ala. Her mother Sarah cooked mixed greens, black-eyed peas and string beans for neighboring  construction workers in Alabama. Helen opened her first restaurant on  East 51st Street in Chicago in 1947 with her first husband Hubert Maybell. They called it the H & H Cafe.

When Helen opened the Soul Queen in 1976, she made sure everyone had the regal touch.

All waitresses wore gold paper crowns.


“I always try to see past what I think I see,” Helen told me in a 1994 conversation at Soul Queen at 9031 S. Stony Island. “I’m not  looking to find something. We’re not born equal, but we’re all  created equal.

“Everybody has soul. It’s just that it doesn’t always  come forth. If it hits you and gets to you, you’re going to respond.”

So “The Round Table” took its hits and bounced around. The group even met  at the now-defunct Wag’s, a diner that was part of a Walgreen’s drug  store on 35th Street east of old Comiskey Park. Rudolph Brown  remembered, “When they did away with Wag’s we had to leave. We went  to Sauer’s and that closed when they put up McCormick Place West.”

According to Barge, the Round Table was at its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s at Sauer’s, 321 E. 23rd St. Sauer’s, ironically was a building constructed in 1883 to hold a dancing academy for Chicago’s  hoity-toity, including Marshall Field. About a dozen “Round Table” members met weekly, today the number is half that many. Almost everyone is over 60 years old.

Sauer’s had considerable cultural weight because it was next door to Paul Serrano’s recording studio. The jazz trumpet player-audio engineer recorded politically charged artists like Jerry Butler,  Donnie Hathaway and Oscar Brown, Jr. on East 23rd St. 

Oscar Brown, Jr.

The late, great Oscar Brown, Jr.

Barge said,  “Army and Lou’s took over this place (Pearl’s) and then it was run by the wife of  (Chicago blues guitarist) Jimmy Johnson.”

A visitor looks around the table and listens to the stories from a not-so-distant time. The mind cannot make sense of the things the Round Table veterans have seen, the bitterness they have tasted. How  deep does the soul reach? How does soul really feel?

What is soul food?

Brown put aside his po-boy and answered, “It is the food my grandmother fed me on.  The greens, collards, chitlins from the south,  things that were basically given away because they didn’t think it had nourishment. Barge added. “I’m the oldest guy here. My  grandfather was a butcher in Fayetteville, North Carolina. People ate  to survive in the 1920s and 30s. Black folks were  just a few years  out of slavery. They couldn’t enjoy what was afforded to others. Even the plantation owners ate soul food themselves, the corn and the vegetables what we could get out of the ground, the slaughter of  the  hogs–but we ate what they threw away. We ate the feet of the hogs,  the ears. You understand?

“The expression was, ‘You’d eat everything from the snoot to the root.

Brown said, “We came up with a lot of original things because of   necessity. My (African-American) pastor said that when he was a kid  in Virginia his mother worked for some white folks. They would eat  the greens, but they didn’t want to eat the pot liquor (the term for liquid left in a a pan after boiling greens). So she would take the pot liquor home and they would have cornbread and pot liquor. We knew  pot liquor was more rich in nourishment than greens themselves. 

That’s how she was able to feed her children. That happens throughout the south.”

Pot liquor was even used as a remedy and stored in Mason jars in the back of a refrigerator.

“My grandmother in Georgia had 16 kids, of which nine of them reached 80,” Brown said. “The oldest one now is 100.”

Barge interrupted, “Soul food won’t kill you.”

The Round Table enjoyed a healthy laugh before Brown continued, “It was a form of life. Somebody might have raised a cow.  You got the milk, you got the beef. We’d smoke it. I had corn, beans  and peas. I would trade that off for a piece of that cow. That’s how people survived. Poor blacks and southern whites are the same thing. If only one house had food, they would share with the other two houses. Color didn’t matter.

“Soul food was survival.”

Hilda Whittington was the only woman in the group of six at the Round Table. The 63-year-old Hyde Park attorney said, To me, soul food is  a throwback to the time of slavery. Our ancestors were cooking in the kitchen and given essentially, scraps. No one else ate chitlins, for  example. Our ancestors took them, cleaned them and seasoned the food. When I think of soul food, I think of spices, someone taking food no one wanted and making a delicacy.”

Helen Whittington at Pearl's, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)

Biamani Obadele listens to Hilda Whittington at Pearl’s, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)

She stopped and continued, “Soul food was served at the White House.”

In unison her comrades asked, “What?”

She answered, “Jimmy Carter was the first to bring chitlin’s in the White House. And then the price of chitlins went up! Who knows about  Barack (Obama)? Maybe he goes down to the kitchen at night and asks  for some chitlins.”

You can always learn something at the Round Table.

Long time Chicago soul orchestra leader-saxophone player Willie Henderson (Tyrone Davis, Donny Hathaway, Barbara Acklin) and Round Table member added, “The  menu today is basically the same. We’re all eating cornbread now.  Turnip greens. Butter beans.”

Pearl’s Place desserts are baked daily. 

They include red velvet, carrot and German Chocolate cake as well as banana pudding, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.

Biamani Obadele had the most diverse take on soul food on this particular Round Table gathering. At age 41, he was the youngest  person at the dinner. I didn’t come to the table eating soul food,”  he said over a plate of fried chicken and spinach. “Not that I’m against soul food. I come here for the political discourse and  community conversation. The food is a plus. What’s happening today is  a new generation has become more health conscious.

“Traditional soul  food restaurants are changing. You see more variety, fish, tilapia. Turkey products. My grandmother, god bless her soul, would cook ham  hocks and beans. We started convincing her to use smoked turkey.”

Barge reminded his peers that many observers put African-Americans “all in one boat.”

He elaborated, “It is not true because we are all culturally different. The islands on the coasts of the Carolinas, they call African-American geeches (or “Gullah,” Sea Island Creole; descendants  of African slaves). They eat a lot of rice. African-Americans who come from South Louisiana are very mixed blooded; Spanish, French and  their version of soul food is entirely different. They eat more sea  food. Inward, away from the ocean, people lean more towards animals,  the hogs. They go hunting and eat other animals, squirrels.”

Brown nodded his head. He has eaten squirrels. Of course he said they  taste like chicken.

And chicken wings are soul food, too.

“When I first came to Chicago there were no wing joints on the north side,” Barge declared. “White people never ate chicken wings. Wings,  chitlin’s and ribs became universal. Soul food is a blend of  cultures. Chicago is the end result of all these cultures coming  together.”

Whittington grew up in Opelousas, La. “There was boudin,” she said. “And there was blood sausage. I know a lot of soul food came from the  black kitchen. But the Germans make a blood sausage almost the same  as we made with boudin. You have all kinds of food that came out of  one little pig. Very little is said about how we grew up. I grew up where my neighbors weren’t all black. Some were white. We lived  together. This was before the 1960s.”

Barge said, “In the ‘70s the south was more integrated than the north. I’m just being honest.”

Brown said, “The movement north was for economics. There were more  job opportunities.”

Barge continued, “Boston, Chicago: segregated. Supposed to be free, but segregated. In the south we had white folks across the street. We  were segregated, not by sections of town (as in the north) but by the  system.”

Whittington chipped in, “Even the churches were segregated.” Brown smiled and added, “Still is. Eleven o’ clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”


Obadele retorted, “I know the stories my family told me and they are  nothing like this.”

Barge said, “Don’t get me wrong, now. We suffered from severe  racism. But the point was that we lived closer to white folks.”

Obadele put down his fork and said, “This city is still segregated. We’ve never had this kind of conversation. I’m only going by the stories  I’ve heard from my grandparents and great grandparents. Black women were domestics, but it was really difficult for the black male.”

The Great Migration of the 1940s brought black workers from Georgia,  Louisiana and Mississippi among other southern states to Chicago. Young men found work in the Union Stockyards, between 47th St. and Pershing Avenue. Brown recalled, “My grandmother would take us to the stockyards and get a hog head. There was Armour and Swift. You’d buy the whole head, yeah! Armour would  throw the chitlins in a barrel. People could come and get the chitlins for free because they saw no  commercial use for them. They saw all the black people coming go get  them and Armour became the first to come out with commercial chitlins, they were in buckets.”

The migration fed the Chicago blues and jazz scene, it fed the restaurant scene. “Soul food can be anywhere,” Barge said. “It depends on the quality of the cooking. I’m in Paris in 1982 and I’m  asking Mick Jagger, ‘Where’s a good place to eat?’ And he mentions a soul food restaurant. On his first visit to Chicago in 1963 (to record with the Rolling Stones at Chess) he had gone to soul food  restaurants in (Chess songwriter-bandleader) Willie Dixon’s neighborhood on Lake Park. And sure enough, an American went to Paris and cooked in a soul food restaurant.  He used to order the greens from America every week.”

Obadele asked, “Was he black?”

Barge answered, “Yeah, but the guy who owned the restaurant was white.”

Whittigton continued to take it all in. When there was a brief opening she looked around The Round Table and said to anyone who was listening, “Wherever you find blacks talking about looking for better solutions, you will find soul food.”


Allen Toussaint’s elegance and humility informed the beauty of all his music. Look no further than his recent cover of the late Jesse Winchester’s “I Wave Bye Bye” available on “Quiet About It,” from Jimmy Buffett’s Mailboat Records label.
I refrain from posting archived stories, but this one is almost 10  years to the day of his passing. From the Sun-Times.
Sail on Allen.
Nov. 20, 2005—
Allen Toussaint has taken New Orleans music all over the world.

He wrote New Orleans R&B classics such as Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” LeeDorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Southern Nights,” popularized by Glen Campbell. His “Whipped Cream” was recorded by Herb Alpert and became the theme for “The Dating Game.” There are many others, and you’ve heard more of them than you might realize.

 Born and reared in New Orleans, Toussaint, now 67, started playing piano at 7. His
father, Clarence M. Toussaint, was a railroad mechanic and a weekend trumpet
player. His mother, Naomi Neville, was a homemaker; Toussaint later would use
her name as a songwriting pseudonym (Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart”).
The songwrirter-producer-vocalist never left for Los Angeles or New York. Toussaint sacrificed business for the heartbeat of his hometown.
For years, Toussaint has lived in the shadow of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
fairgrounds. This is like Ernie Banks living across the street from Wrigley Field. But
his house was gutted by Hurricane Katrina at the end of August.

“All my stuff downstairs is destroyed,” Toussaint said last week from his temporary digs in New York City. “My Steinway piano. Equipment. My filing cabinets–with loads of handwritten music — is gone as well. It’s a disaster zone. But I’ve resolved it’s the rearview mirror. I’ll move back in the same neighborhood, but I will no longer depend on my lower level. I’m optimistic about the future. The city will be better.”

During the storm, Toussaint held out until the last minute, which for him, was Aug. 31, two days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Early reports had Toussaint missing and/or an evacuee in the Louisiana Superdome. He did leave his house and checked into the Astor Hotel on Canal Street.

 “By that time the water was seven feet high,” he said. “There was no hope. I was able to get on a charter school bus that night and get a ride to the Baton Rouge airport. I was safe at all times. The next morning I boarded a plane to New York.”

The move has not slowed him down. In the weeks since Toussaint relocated to New York, he’s become acquainted with Elvis Costello. Last week, they began recording an album together. Costello is following the lead of Paul McCartney, the late Robert Palmer and Paul Simon, all of whom have collaborated with Toussaint.  Toussaint is also the centerpiece of “I Believe to My Soul” (Rhino/ Starbucks Hear Music, Work Song), the Joe Henry-produced project that also features Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, Irma Thomas and Billy Preston. The album is a fund-raiser for Hurricane Katrina victims.

Toussaint plays piano throughout “I Believe to My Soul,” which was recorded in a week at Hollywood’s historic Capitol B studios, and contributes four new compositions to the project.
 “Joe gave me a call, but I had never heard of him,” Toussaint said. “I said yes
because of the way he described what he wanted to do. He’s also working with me
on the Elvis Costello project.”
Toussaint’s spiritual ballad “We Are One” closes the record. “It was a piece that I
had written to do at the end of New Orleans Jazz Fest a couple of years ago. I
never planned to record it, but for some reason it came up this time,” he said.

On “I Believe,” Toussaint even revisits the disco beat in “Mi Amour,” while his fellow Crescent City songbird Irma Thomas offers one of the most powerful pure soul tracks by wrapping her voice around Tom Jans’ “Loving Arms.”

 Toussaint cut his chops under the spell of Huey “Piano” Smith. At 17, Toussaint
was recruited to replace Smith in the late Earl King’s band for a show in Pritchard,
Ala. Smith went on to have hits such as “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and  “High Blood Pressure,” but in 1970, he banked the proceeds of a Coca-
Cola commercial and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Smith, 71, is now a preacher in
Baton Rouge. Rumors of a comeback appearance always float around before Jazz Fest, but nothing has ever materialized.
“He’s consistent,” Toussaint said. “He never looked back. He had a magical touch on the piano. When he was on Earl King’s 1955 hit ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights,’ he played fills on the piano that sounded like he was in a a saloon. His writing? Sheer genius.  If he stayed in the business, he would have come up with more magic. It flowed out of him.”

Toussaint has embraced all kinds of music throughout his life. The Gilbert O’Sullivan 1972 hit ballad “Alone, Again (Naturally)” is one of his all-time favorite compositions.

“When I first heard it, I loved the melody and the way he told the story,” Toussaint told me. “It was touching. The bridge went up to a nice level and came back to sit in a very good place. I liked that.  I know there was much more where that came from, but I don’t thik we heard many more things from him.”

Toussaint admitted he wrote the upbeat instrumentals “Whipped Cream” and its
predecesor, “Java” (a 1964 hit for Al Hirt), while trying to be humorous. “Al Hirt
came out with ‘Java’ while I was in the military,” said Toussaint, who was stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas.
“On weekends I played in a small band off-base. The other members knew I wrote that, and they thought that was outrageous. They associated me with R&B and K-Doe’s 1961 hit “Mother-in-Law.’ So  I wrote songs like ‘Java’ for that band to play, kind of like, ‘Well, take that.’ And ‘Whipped Cream’ was one of those songs.”
 Just before Toussaint was discharged, Joe Banashak at New Orleans’ Minit
Records took the band into the studio to record the Latin-tinged instrumentals.

(Toussaint had played on almost all the Minit hits before joining the Army in 1963.)

Toussaint later branched out to write the horn arrangements for the Band’s “Rock of Ages” album, and in 1983, he worked with New York percussionist Kip Hanrahan’s free-form group Conjure on “Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed.”

“When I write, I don’t usually hear a plot without a melody,” Toussaint said. “I might hear two people talking and that will inspire a story. But a little melody always comes with that. Always.”

Rookies Overhead

Wisconsin Wiffle Ball Field (Photo courtesy of Steve Schmitt)

MAZOMANIE, WIS.—Every kid who grew up playing Wiffle Ball  understands how the game shapes your imagination. You can create a field anywhere. For me and my brother it was a Cul-de-sac in suburban  Chicago. For others the game was played under the blue heavens of a soybean farm.

You can play the game by yourself. The plastic ball is light and can easily be tossed in the air with one hand while swinging a plastic bat with the other hand. Flying solo it is difficult to swing and miss ( “a whiff”), which is how the game got its name. The batter narrates the action with the scat like voice of his or her favorite baseball announcer.

thI still have a Rick Sutcliffe- endorsed Wiffle Ball and there’s eight perforations in the plastic ball, about the size of a baseball. The box says, “It’s Easy to Throw Curves with Wiffle Ball.” And it is spelled “Wiffle,” not “Whiffle.”

Wiffle ball is about escape and improvisation.

It is the jazz of the toy world.

Many years ago on a long night at the Old Town Ale House in Chicago,  jazz bassist John Bany told me, “Jazz is the idea of human freedom  applied to the laws that govern music.” That is a metaphor for Wiffle Ball.

Nov. 5 is Election Day.

On line voting concludes for the National Toy Hall of Fame, located at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. Wiffle Ball is one  of 12 finalists competing for induction, including Super Soaker,  Twister, the American Girl doll and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–really?  Wiffle Ball is something we all can take a swing at.

To drum up support for the Wiffle Ball I recently drove from Chicago to Rookies  Sports Bar & Grill on U.S. Highway 14 in Mazomanie, about 25 miles south of Madison. Owner Steve Schmitt built a huge Wiffle Ball field behind the bar and people can play 365 days a year, weather  permitting. The field is 105 feet to right field and 85 feet to left field.

I asked Schmitt to talk about Wiffle Ball on my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal show.

Schmitt is also owner of the Madison Mallards baseball team in the collegiate Northwoods League and the Shoe Box, the Midwest’s largest shoe store just up Highway 14.  His inventory is  750,000 pairs of shoes including the beloved Hush Puppies I can’t find in Chicago.

Schmitt has the go going.

He opened Rookies in 1998 when the Governor’s Bar was put up for sale at the corner of Highways 14 and 78.  Schmitt built the field at the  same time as he opened the bar. He owns the rolling farm land that  is the southern backdrop for the field.

An enclosed dining area overlooks the field where customers eat pulled pork pizzas and grass fed burgers with organic ground beef from Black Earth. The cedar ceiling is plastered with baseball cards and posters.

Steve Schmitt and his field of.....(I won't say it) Dave Hoekstra photo.

Steve Schmitt and his field of….(I won’t say it) 

Rookies features more than 6,000 baseball cards, seen throughout the complex  including the men’s bathroom.

Downstairs, the entrance to the field includes  an original turnstile from Comiskey Park in Chicago.

“I wanted a safe family place for kids to come,” Schmitt said during  a rainy afternoon tour of the Shoe Box, Rookies and the Wiffle Ball  field. “And be able to hit the ball over the wall where it wouldn’t  land in the highway.

“I wanted guys or gals be able to come out here  at the spur of the moment and have a ball. It’s  the only artificial infield Wiffle Ball field in America. We light it  up at night like a Christmas tree so you can play all night long.  We’d play in the snow if people want to. People have had birthday and  bachlorette parties here.”

Rookies deploys a plastic 12-inch ball, larger than the 9-inch traditional size most kids grew up with. “That’s a perfect size because it doesn’t carry over too often,” he said. 

It’s always the notes you don’t play.

Schmitt, 68, grew up playing Wiffle Ball in neighboring Black Earth. His parents Bill and Janet Schmitt ran a shoe store in downtown Black Earth (pop. 1,400) where they sold guns, lures, night crawlers and sporting goods on the side. Schmitt bought out his parents in  1974 and specialized only in selling and repairing shoes.


You’re in baseball heaven.

“Growing up we did our sandlot thing six against five,” he said. “We had a little Wiffle Ball stadium in a field. Then, in 1960, the back of our house we found the porch and dimensions were a  perfect fit for a ground rule double, the home run. My buddy and I would play.

“He was a big Milwaukee Braves fan.  I was a Cardinals fan  and was (St. Louis announcer) Harry Caray of course. I’d lead off  with (Julian) Javier, (Curt) Flood, Joe Cunningham. I’d mock Bill White’s stance. I was fascinated. I was up  29-26 games that year, but my buddy beat me 32 to 30 games. We played  a full nine innings, foul balls and everything, day and night. Those  games probably lasted two hours at least. Off the porch was a ground  double.

“It was the best years of my lifetime.”

This was before Game Boys.

During the baseball season every team that visits the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League also visits the Wiffle Ball field  at Rookies. Schmitt explained, “We’re obligated to feed them  pre- game and post- game, put them up in a hotel and do their laundry. A  lot of those guys come out here and burn themselves out.”

Schmitt smiled like a Wisconsin fox. He continued, “It’s the  ego thing like they gotta hit the Wiffle Ball out. It throws their  timing off for the Mallards game that night. We say, ‘Go out there  and have fun and swing for the fences!’ The ball doesn’t travel out of here too many times unless the wind is coming from the north. It’s  also in a hole (flood plain).”

Rookies Wiffle Ball Field

Wiffle Ball history also exists at Bethel College Park in Mishawaka, Ind. where a Wiffle Ball field was built in 1980 complete with six- foot high home run fences. In August, 1980 the First Annual World  Wiffle Ball Championships debuted in Mishawaka, where they remained  until moving to Skokie, Ill. in 2013.

But the magical reach of radio across the central Wisconsin farm fields is what made Schmitt a Cardinals fan.

“I was walking around  Black Earth on a late evening,” recalled Schmitt, who was wearing Red Wing work shoes. “I had been listening to  Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd (out of WGN-AM in Chicago), Earl  Gillespie (another “Holy Cow” announcer at WTMJ in Milwaukee). All of a sudden KMOX in St. Louis raises their wattage at a certain time and  Harry Caray almost jumps out of the broadcast booth. Who the hell is this guy? So I send a letter to the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis,  Missouri. No address. No zip code. ‘I’m Steve Schmitt, nine years  old, I’m a Cardinals fan.’ They send me back four by sixes of Wilmer  ‘Vinegar Bend ‘Mizell, Al Dark, Bill Virdon, Stan Musial. I was hooked. 

“I’ve never said anything bad about that organization since.”

Besides Wiffle Ball, Schmitt has been involved in minor league baseball in Madison since 1994. The Springfield (Illinois) Cardinals of the Midwest League relocated to Madison where they became the Hatters. “I wanted to see baseball in Madison,” Schmitt said as he drove a  green Land Rover affixed with the Madison Mallards logo. “I wasn’t sure at first. The franchise fee was $125,000. I thought I’d try it. Now its a million bucks. My theory is if you don’t try it, you’ll  never know if it works.

“In 2000 I was involved with seven, eight  other guys who brought a professional hockey team to Madison. They  were the Madison Kodiaks. It was owned by the county so they took all the profit. We got out of it but I learned so much through the other owners. We could never come to a decision, we never did anything but I had a great time.”

Steve Schmitt and his own bobblehead giveaway.

Steve Schmitt and his own bobblehead giveaway.

“So I brought in the baseball team: first five games, 174 people then  250 people. The last game of the year it was 2,000. It jumped to  4,000. Now we average 6,285 people. We have a good front office. We  treat it like a state fair. You come in the front gate and it’s a family thing. There better be something for you to do every 20 seats.”

In 1996 the Hatters became the Black Wolf of the  independent Northern League. Jimmy Buffett was a part owner of the team during its inaugural season.  When the Hatters left in 2000 for  Lincoln, Neb. Schmitt struck a deal with the Northwoods League. The wood-bat league runs from June to late August.

Former major leaguers such as Ferguson Jenkins, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers  have played in charity alumni games at Warner Park in Madison. Late greats like Robin Roberts and Andy Pafko visited the Shoe Box.

Jazz pianist Ben Sidran is from Madison. I bet he likes Wiffle Ball. In 1997 my pals The Skeletons closed out their fine “Nothing to Lose” CD with the love ballad “Whiffle Ball.” (“Anyplace..someplace..”)

Schmitt made many of his baseball connections through the late New York Yankees -Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ryne Duren, who was from Cazenovia, Wis.


“Ryne was a buddy of mine,” he said. “I was with him when he died in hospice in Florida. They called me down. He’d take me to the BAT (Baseball Assistance Team) dinners at the Marriott Marquis in New York. There was a ballplayer at every table. Then he’d have Pat Maris (Roger’s wife) call me. There’s no end to it. I just saw Maury Wills, what a good guy. Ron Kittle just bought a couple pairs of shows. He was on his way to Minnesota to see  (Hall of Fame pitcher) Bert Blyleven and then on to Sturgis (South Dakota).”

“The day (Packers receiver) Robert Brooks decided to get out of football, he went AWOL. Nobody knew where he was. He suddenly walked  in the Shoe Box. Someone asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘My family, my life… I  had to go somewhere. I was in the  parking lot of Lambeau Field (about 160 miles north of the Shoe Box) and just went for a ride. By the time I got to the Shoe Box I decided to retire. We love all these guys.”

What’s not to love about Wiffle Ball?


In the early afternoons of late autumn days, the shadow of a fading  sun creates a path from the cemetery driveway to the plot where my parents are buried. A little less than six weeks separated the deaths of my parents this spring.

My Dad died first and in the time my Mom  had left I would take her to the cemetery.

Every chance she got.

I pushed her wheelchair through tall grass to the gravesite where  seeds were waiting to sprout. Mom never got to see the headstone she was so curious about, but she did fire off a zinger to the headstone salesperson as we picked out the marble bookmark.

Although she was battling dementia, Mom said, “The next time you see me I won’t be here.”

My Mom never said much when she got to the place of her gravesite. 

She never wanted to stay too long. Was she thinking of the 65 years of marriage she spent with my father. Die she wonder where she was going? Was she in a hurry?

Sense of place is an important component of books I have written; soul  food restaurants on the civil rights trail, supper clubs and even minor league baseball in small town America. But place has grabbed my attention in the five months since my mother’s death.

Place seems to be all over the place.

This week we are getting an appraisal for the house I grew up in. My parents are buried within walking distance of my high school and the chapel where I was once married. On Sunday I sat on the back porch and saw red-breasted robins I do not see in the city.

My Mom loved birds, for their place is everywhere.

Mom died peacefully in my old bedroom. Not long ago I was stuck behind an ambulance on Western Avenue in Chicago. Suddenly my  thoughts jumped to the April morning when we put my father into an ambulance to take him to hospice care in Barrington. He died three days after the ride up Route 59. He never returned to the place he  called home.

 I didn’t think I would be a cemetery guy, but every time I travel to the western suburbs I check in at the gravesite. When they were alive I didn’t know where my parents had picked out their plot. I did know Mom was happy that it was by the shade of oak and maple trees,  so beautiful in the autumn.

This 173-year-old cemetery is a new place for me.

I meditate there. I thank my parents. With the diversion of baseball  over, I look at th charcoal clouds and brace myself for my first holiday season without them. I think how fortunate I am that they lived so long. My Dad’s 95th birthday would have been Nov. 17; my Mom’s 94th birthday would have been Dec. 10. Damn, they did everything together. Why am I alone in this place?

Backyard of our childhood home, Oct. 25, 2015

Backyard of our childhood home, Oct. 25, 2015

Suddenly, I see my parents in all kinds of places; the cemetery, back at the house, in Section 242 of Wrigley Field and the LaQuinta  between the Cracker Barrel and Waffle House in Nashville, Tn., the  motel where they stayed to visit my brother and nephew. George Jones loved that Waffle House on Harding Place. My Dad loved Shirley Jones.

My brother and I told our folks how lucky they were. Some markers for their cemetery neighbors read:

A candle that glows twice as bright burns half as long.” Dead at 30 years old in 1992.

I will always be a dreamer,” 1949-1999

“Chatter & Tank” (Chatter 1946-2005; Tank 1944-2007)

“Our beautiful baby girl” (April 15, 2003-May 4, 2003)

Do not stand at my grave and weep/I am not here, I do not sleep/ God’s angels have carried me to heaven above/and now I watch over the ones I love.

I am not here, I do not sleep.

A tree by the side of the driveway was planted in honor of one of my high school classmates. His small marker says he left this earth at  age 37. A silver water pump sits not far from the tree. Last week an  older man parked his car near the pump.  He got out of his car, filled up a plastic jug with water and walked over to a gravesite. He emptied the jug in front of the headstone and stood there for less than two minutes. He then walked back to his car, got in and drove away. Leaves fell  in unison and they made a crackling, rhythmic sound that soon  will be stilled, only to return next year.

People count on defined places: church, the neighborhood diner, Wrigley Field, a  corner bar and a grandmother’s home.

But every place has a path that once was new.