From the monthly archives: "September 2014"
Route 66, Seligman, Az. 1991 (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)

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

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

Ilse is 86 years old.

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

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

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

A road so narrow can open so many minds.

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

RT 66 9/25/14:

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

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

This seems to be a recurring theme for Ilse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Route 66, 1991 (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Route 66, 1991
(Dave Hoekstra photo)

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

Bonnie AND Clyde hit the road.

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

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

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

“Rooms “with names” were available.

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

RT 66 9/26/14

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

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

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

Clanton's Cafe, Vinita, Ok.

Clanton’s Cafe, Vinita, Ok.

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

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

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

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

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

Ilse is 86 years young.

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

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

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

RT 66 9.22.14.

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

Ilse elected to bypass the intensity of Chicago.

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

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

The Waldmire Bus in Rochester, Ill.

The Waldmire Bus in Rochester, Ill.

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

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

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

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

Bob Waldmire, artist and voyager, circa 1982

Bob Waldmire, artist and voyager, circa 1982

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

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

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

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

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

How great is that?

Rt. 66 9/23/14

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

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

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

Ilse told me she is a Willie Nelson fan.

I would get this story to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Ilse is 86 years old.

I had to find out more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-social media advertising, 1991, Route 66

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

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

Here comes the obligatory Vivian Maier alert.

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

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

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

What are her rewards of travel?

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Syl Johnson digs deep for his soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syl is truly growing organic.

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

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

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

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

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

Syl Johnson feelin' the fro.

Syl Johnson feelin’ the fro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ Dead tree.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L.C. Cooke portrait by Paul Natkin

L.C. Cooke portrait by Paul Natkin

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

There is light, but there are no shadows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Cooke in his Bob Dylan phase.

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

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

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

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