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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
A couple weeks ago I saw my pal Jimmy Rittenberg at Gibson’s Bar and Steakhouse, 1028 N. Rush for an interview on the most comprehensive book about Disco Demolition you will read.
Rittenberg was the impresario of Faces, 940 N. Rush, arguably America’s best known disco. It certainly had a longer run (1971-89) than Studio 54.
Like a Frank Sinatra ballad, our conversation floated off into the dreamy 1970s memories of Rush Street; a time when footsteps were lighter and the Jack was stronger.
Soon we were joined at our table in the bar by comedian Tom Dreesen.
This guy is everywhere.
He was on my WGN Nocturnal Journal radio show in May and now he was in Chicago to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs-Dodgers game.
Dreesen told a few good stories at Gibson’s but I loved his recollection about his bit role in the 1971 movie “T.R. Baskin,” which starred Candice Bergen as a young woman from rural Ohio who meets sleazy guys in the big city.
The mostly panned movie was shot in Chicago and included scenes at the now-gone O’Connell’s Coffee Shop on Rush street. The coffee shop wasn’t far from Punchinello’s, 936 N. Rush, a popular after-show spot for acts at the Shubert Theater and Mr. Kelly’s—now Gibson’s. The second floor Punchinello’s is also where comedienne-singer Pudgy got her big break.
“I just had a couple of lines,” Dreesen said. “But in the movie with me was a gay kid who worked at Punchinello’s. He was one of the first gay guys back in those days who buffed, who wore the tight shirts and everything. And his name was Bon-Bon which I thought was the greatest name for a guy in a movie. Everybody liked him and he was a likeable kid.
“George Maharis was working at Mister Kelly’s. He goes down to Punchinello’s and he likes Bon-Bon. But George wasn’t out of the closet in those days. I don’t if he ever was out of the closet.”
Rittenberg leaned over and said, “He is now!”
Actually, Maharis was arrested in 1974 for on a sex perversion charge with perfectly named male hairdresser Perfecto Telles in the bathroom of a Los Angeles gas station. Just a year earlier Maharis posed nude for “Playgirl” magazine.
“George Mahraris was (Buz Murdock) on Route 66,” Dreesen continued. “So Maharis sees Bon-Bon and makes a move. He says, ‘Would you like to go out later?’ Well Bon-Bon says ‘Yes!, are you kidding?’ Bon-Bon tells Maharis he’s going to get off in five minutes and Maharis says ‘I’m going to leave, meet me on the corner.”
Dreesen looked over his shoulder to distant characters on a different Rush Street.
With impeccable pacing he continued, “Bon-Bon was disappointed because he wanted his friends to see him. So Maharis is walking through the restaurant going out and Bon-Bon starts walking behind him.”
And Dreesen started tip toeing around the crowded restaurant bar, smiling with sealed lips as he pointed to an imaginary Maharis. “All the other gay guys are applauding Bon- Bon,” Dreesen said. “ And Maharis is beaming and going ‘Thank you, thank you!’
“It was a scene I could put in a movie.”
Rittenberg and I took it all in.
Rittenberg was born in 1943 and grew up in West Garfield Park. His father James, Sr. was a Jackson Boulevard bus driver for Chicago Motor Coach, his mother Lucille was a telephone operator. “My Mom was a music buff but I hated a lot of her music,” he said. “I remember breaking ‘Sentimental Journey’ by accident on purpose. Then when ‘45s came out I ruled the roost, ‘Razzle Dazzle’ by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard was my favorite. I played ‘Lucille’ and my mother hated it.”
He broke onto the Rush Street scene tending bar at the original Store, 1030 N. State, which previously had been the Gate of Horn, where in 1962 Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were arrested on obscenity charges.
“Rush Street was different than State Street,” Rittenberg explained. “Rush Street was a little dressier. I made $6 a night in tips bartending at the Store, when I moved to Jay’s (1026 N. Rush) I was a school teacher so I only worked Friday and Saturday nights. I made a $150 a night.”
Rittenberg taught sixth and seventh grade and coached baseball and basketball for six years at St. Francis Cabrini at Sacramento and Polk. “I go back to the Marienthals, Chez Paree,” he said. “I learned from those guys.” George and Oscar Marienthal owned Mr. Kelly’s, the Happy Medium and the London House in the north Loop. Rittenberg declared, “ Rush Street has been destroyed. I tell (Gibson’s owner Steve) Lombardo that all the time. No more hookers, no more jazz joints. Its turned into restaurant row and now clothing.”
And life is more fun when you peel back the layers.
Like petals in a basket, I carry so many shades of life from my mother’s gallant journey. One of the most emotional snapshots of Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra came on April 9, the day after my father died. Although my mother battled dementia she managed to find her gold wedding ring. She slipped it on her finger without any of us knowing about it.
And the gold ring remained on my mother’s finger until the moment she passed over from heart failure Friday night in her Naperville home.
Mom was 93 years old.
All moms are amazing and so was ours. She was placed into home hospice twice and discharged once. Last August the hospitalists at Edward Hospital in Naperville told me she had “two to three weeks” to live because of her congestive heart failure.
Later, a hospice nurse told me she would never walk again. Up until a few days ago her head was down with determination as she walked slowly on her walker with the assistance of our caregiver.
Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra was was tough that way, a plainspoken coal miner’s daughter from Carlinvllle, Ill.
Only six weeks separated the deaths of our parents.
They stayed strong for each other.
In recent years as the sun set, my dad would hold my mom’s thin hand, colored purple by Coumadin. She would look ahead, blinking her eyes into the approaching darkness. And he would kiss her good night. Every night.
They lived a deep love I may never know.
Mom and dad got hitched late in life, at least for their generation.
They were married 65 years. Their wedding dinner and honeymoon night was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the far north side of Chicago. The sunset pink colored hotel was pegged as the “Site of America’s Most Successful Meetings.” When my mom opened the door to her hotel room she found a surprise from my father–a bouquet of a dozen roses.
Our mom loved flowers and over the past six weeks we were bringing flowers to my dad’s gravesite. She sat in her wheelchair, gently twirled the ring around her finger and looked at the family plot. She always asked me when the headstone would be ready. It is not up yet, but it will be identified by a gold ring linking their names. Mom battled macular degeneration but that did not stop her from having me park the car in the driveway after our trip to the cemetery. She would blink repeatedly at the white magnolia in our front yard. It is an early and fast bloomer and you have to pay attention.
Mom often got a charge out of the short Zumba dancing sessions I’d throw down with our Ghanian caregiver. (I’d say we had about 30 caregivers over the past eight years.) Mom was lost in mid-stage dementia but when we started shaking our stuff she would smile, clap her hands and say, “Do it again. Do it again.” Who doesn’t want another dance? The power of music can cut through dementia.
Our mom secretly typed out her 26 page autobiography in 1989. I found it in the bedroom safe of their Naperville home.
Of her wedding day she wrote in part, “The bride wore a rose-pink satin tea length gown and carried a dainty bouquet of white roses. The groom wore a brown suit and a rose and brown striped tie with a white carnation boutonniere….The bride commented it was the happiest day of her life. The day was perfect–sunny, bright and happy.” The way my mom wrote in third person narrative illustrated her humility.
I also discovered a sidebar essay she wrote in 2000 after we celebrated our parents 50th wedding anniversary at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Mom began, “Once upon a time there were these two introverts who met, fell in love and got married…Well these two are still around today and you guessed, it, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on Feb. 11, 2000….After considerable time packing, as old folks are apt to do, they were off to the Drake Hotel. It was there that they planned to meet their two boys, one boy’s (my brother Doug) wife and the other’s (me) friend. You see, their sons had planned the celebration, and it was with their compliments. And of course, the parents were looking forward to “living it up” for the weekend.”
The weekend was full of surprises, including dinner at the old Jilly’s on Rush Street. “This is a well known night spot where Frank Sinatra and people of his ilk made famous,” my mom wrote. “It was fun to be in a place where the clientele was somewhat out of the ordinary.”
My mom was of very ordinary means.
Her Lithuanian parents came to America to work in the Union Stock Yards in Chicago and the Peabody Coal Mines in downstate Illinois. Mom was born on Dec. 10, 1921 in Carlinville, Ill. When the mines around Carlinville closed in 1925 the family moved 45 miles north to Taylorville, where my mom grew up.
She was a first chair clarinet player in the Taylorville High School Band and in her senior year was awarded first prize for an essay she wrote about her high school. This led to her interest in journalism, which she later studied in night school at Northwestern University in Chicago. During the day she worked as a stenographer at Gulbransen Pianos and as secretary at Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, which produced magazines like “Popular Photography” and “Modern Bride.”
In 1946 my mom met my dad at a dance at Northwestern. He was also attending night school at Northwestern. She wrote, “After all these years I can still recall that he was wearing a navy blue suit and that he made an impression on me because he was so witty and personable.”
Mom and Dad didn’t travel much when we were growing up. Dad was a purchasing agent for Swift & Company in Chicago and mom stayed at home. I’ve been listening to the oral history CDs Doug made in 1993, spending several hours interviewing my parents. I am forever grateful to him for doing that. My folks said they didn’t travel because they were saving money for a house. The first house they owned was a small ranch house which they purchased in 1952 in Westchester, Ill., just outside of Chicago.
In the early 1960s Swift transferred dad to Columbus, Ohio. I used to ponder the “Leave it to Beaver” dynamic of our household. We had two boys, no pets, a nattily dressed father heading off to work and a stay at home mother –who owned pearls but rarely wore them. Several years ago I talked to the creators of “Leave it to Beaver” and they said the show was indeed based on their experiences in “Central Ohio.” After my brother and I finished high school my mom found secretarial work at Amoco Research Center in Naperville and it was a job she loved.
This modest pedigree leads me to one of my favorite stories about mom. In 1993 the Chicago Sun-Times assigned me to shadow Frank Sinatra during his appearance at the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, Ill. I asked my mom to be my date. She was 72 years old. Frank was 77. We went to the concert where Frank told his fans he would do “nothing new because no one writes anything anymore.”
We followed Frank to a post-concert dinner across the street to the Cafe Harlow restaurant in the Hollywood Casino. Frank enjoyed sliced veal, onion rings and French Fries. He washed it down with Jack (Daniel’s) and ice water on the side. As he left the dinner table around midnight the casino security staff cleared a path by our table.
Although I was told not to bother Frank, I started to say hello. Frank ignored me.
Then he smiled and winked at my mom.
Now he did it.
Mom was not ready to go home. We all went to the casino’s Directors Lounge to hear the late great singer Frank D’Rone. The other Frank had another Jack. My mom was having a blast and my dad was getting worried.
I finally dropped mom off in her Naperville home in the wee, wee hours of 2 a.m. Every time I repeated this story over the years my mom scolded me for “not letting me talk to Frank.” My mom radiated measured class and even Frank Sinatra saw that. We played Frank Sinatra CD’s by her hospice bed.
The best way to conclude this essay is to use the end of my mom’s autobiography: “My parents came to the United States for better opportunities and a better way of life. They strived and worked hard for everything. I, too, have worked hard and tried my best to do things right and to make a good life for my family. “Perhaps one might call these memoirs ordinary and not too exciting–but just think. If these two people had not come the many miles from Europe, if their paths had not crossed, then I would not have the privilege to be here and write the tale of my life for you to read.” Her privilege will continue.
My brother and I have spent our lives making a living with words and now my mother’s nurturing spirit will inform all the words that follow. She is here.
She is the gold ring around my heart.
Deep thanks to all of you who have visited this website over recent years to help me navigate my parents journey. For more on music and dementia, listen to my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal show on the subject. Share it with someone who is traveling a similar path.
Services for Irene Hoekstra are at 10 a.m. May 27 at Grace United Methodist Church, 300 E. Gartner Rd. in Naperville. Visitation is 9 a.m. at the church, services are followed by a luncheon at the church. Burial immediately after the luncheon at Naperville Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
Our dad liked old movie palaces, stately passenger trains and the rewards of devotion.
He liked happy endings.
Our dad Alfred Hoekstra, Jr. died April 8 at JourneyCare Hospice in Barrington, Il. He was 94 years old. He was fortunate enough to see most of the 20th Century.
One of my last memories of dad came a week ago when we were moving hospital equipment in and out of his bedroom. A sepia toned wedding picture of dad and mom had fallen behind a mountain of gauzes, blankets and bottles of water. Dad saw something was missing.
He looked up from his pillow and suddenly asked what happened to the photograph.
Mom and Dad were married 65 years.
He always kept his eye on Mom.
They spent their final months together wheelchairs locked side by side watching the Turner Classic Movie channel. Mom has been in home hospice since August and dad understood every moment was precious. They were as tight as a bouquet of fresh flowers.
Our dad has a gentle soul. He raised beds of roses, he showed me how to open doors for women, he conducted himself with dignity and humility.
You hear stories of passages but now I have seen one. We got a call late Wednesday afternoon that dad had taken a turn for the worse. Our caregiver got mom in the car and we made the drive from Naperville to Barrington to see dad.
We settled in the room that was softly playing New Age music like Kim Robertson’s “Alayi.” Mom leaned over in her wheel chair, took dad’s hand and gave it a gentle kiss. We left them alone. Mom left the suite to return home.
Within the hour dad had transitioned.
He was waiting for her before he boarded his train.
I am proud of our dad. He was a Chicagoan to the core. Dad was born in Logan Square. His father Alfred, Sr. came to Chicago from the Netherlands where he opened a dairy delivery company. Dad spent his youth taking the trolley down Milwaukee Avenue to spend entire days in the vaudeville houses and movie theaters of the Loop. He loved to talk about the 1934 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago and somehow the calypso ballad “Yellow Bird” emerged as one of his favorite songs.
In 1939 he found work as a messenger boy in the Union Stock Yards that led to his 40 plus years as a purchasing agent at Swift & Company. My favorite story/life lesson from my father was his recollection of the foreboding goat on the livestock ramps that led sheep to slaughter. This strategy avoided deploying men with whips and other potentially gruesome tactics. Union leaders nicknamed the goat “Judas.”
My dad’s advice: “Don’t be like the sheep.“
His career was interrupted by a call from Uncle Sam. Dad was in the U.S. Army 106th Infantry Division from March 1943-January 1946.. The division was nicknamed “the hungry and the sick.”
Dad was awarded four battle stars on his service ribbon including the Battle of the Bulge. On Dec. 11, 1945 the division suffered 8,063 casualties—416 were killed, 1,246 were wounded and 7,000 were missing. Since dad knew how to type, he was in an office unit nicknamed “Typewriter Commandos” and was in an office during the battle. He credited the typewriter for saving his life.
Still, the war is what got him in the end.
In recent years dad dodged bullets of diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease and heart surgery. But Dad told the oncologist he started smoking when he was given free packs of cigs while in the Army. He quit smoking cold turkey by the time he was 50, but his cause of death is listed as lung cancer.
Swift & Co. transferred dad around the country; from Chicago to New Jersey to Columbus, Ohio and finally back to Chicago in 1967 where we became one of the “early suburban settlers” of Naperville. During a 1966 visit to Chicago to look for a new home dad took me to my first major league baseball game—White Sox-Yankees at Old Comiskey Park. His roots in the stock yards likely made him a Sox fan. I was captured by the 1969 Cubs and dad seemed to enjoy subtle pleasure in tweaking me about the White Sox 2005 world championship. I believe my love of newspapers comes from dad bringing home four Chicago daily newspapers after his commutes on the old Burlington-Northern railroad.
Until a few months ago, dad was full of discovery. My mom told us she wanted to see Bob Dylan before she died, so in August, 1989 we drove to the Illinois State Fair to see Dylan in concert. Dad had some trouble with the heat, but once we returned home his critique was, “He’s good, but he’s no Debbie Reynolds.”
At age 94 he was on his computer daily, either looking up online bargains for his beloved grandson Jude or Googling about his latest ailment. We teased dad about the mysterious things we might find under his secondary account of “Naper Man.”
At one time Dad was a Republican and I recall getting into heated debates with him about the mysterious things of President Nixon. Dad abruptly left his conservative ways during the Reagan administration and never looked back.
I inherited my pack rat nature from my dad. I brought some of his old correspondence to the hospice. I forgot he had subscribed to Michael Moore’s Mailing List and I found a 2002 article he sent to my brother and myself. He wrote, “Boys, this is touching.”
Moore composed an essay about the sudden death of his mother. He had planned to show his mom a copy of his new movie. He wrote: “As the end credits would roll, she would get to see what she has seen at the end of all my work; her name along with my dad’s in that list of credits, and it’s the only real credit that ever mattered—because without them I would not have the life they gave me, the way they raised me…it is all a privilege I will never cease being thankful for.”
I’m thankful I saved that e mail as I write this in the early morning hours after my dad’s passing. I feel my dad. I will see him in the promise of the beacon of a train or the romance of a dark theater balcony. He shed light on all that is decent and happy.
Mark “Max” Brumbach has a gift for me.
Because of that he has a gift for you, too.
As I walk into Brumbach’s new version of the music room-cafe Township, 2200 N. California Ave., he hands over a copy of the Images of America book “Chicago Entertainment Between the Wars 1919-1939.” The picture book is filled with stuff like an ad for Bert Kelly’s Stables, 431 Rush St.: Free Drinks Every Nite As Many As You Wish–no charge for dancing. Our waiter sings. Our Cook Dances. NOW FREDDIE KEPPARD World’s greatest colored jazz cornetist and his great dance band….”
Brumbach is a fine musician, keyboardist with soul legend Otis Clay (1973-78) and a cultural preservationist. In 1993 he opened Smoke Daddy, 1804 W. Division St. when Wicker Park was a no man’s land. He outfitted that music room-restaurant with booths and bar stools he bought at an auction from Chic Rick’s social club on South Michigan Avenue. Brumbach saw jazz organist “Brother” Jack McDuff three times for no cover during the late 1970s at at Chick Rick’s. In 1998 Brumbach restored and opened the California Clipper, 1002 N. California in Humboldt Park.
Brumbach took over Township around Thanksgiving and has partnered with previous Township co-owner Tamiz Haiderali to recalibrate and repaint the entire place. Gone are all the stickers, graffiti and stench that resembled the Empty Bottle.
The new Township retains the front diner that still serves excellent French Toast with honey chevre mousse and the Saag Paneer Scramble (spinach, paneer, potato cake, almond sauce and two pooris, which are an Indian fried flat bread.) Haiderali brought over the paneer scramble and a couple of other items from his excellent Treat restaurant, 1616 N. Kedzie. Haiderali sold the restaurant in April, 2011.
The Woodlawn Four (Scott Dirks, Willy Greason, Justin O’Brien, Dave Waldman) will migrate up from Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park to play blues alternate Sunday afternoons in the 80-seat Palmer Room and dining area (as it faces Palmer Street). The main “Jungle Room” holds about 120 people for live music.
“We’re going to have one of the best sound systems this side of Lincoln Park,” Brumbach says in a lunch time conversation. “The best sound I’ve heard in town is Lincoln Hall. Genius. Here, you’ll be able to every instrument, every word somebody is singing.” The sound is being designed by Matt Edgar of AIS (Audio Integration Services) in Chicago. Brumbach says, “We are going to have a mixed array of music. Its going to be hard to brand this place. It is no longer going to be a rock place.”
Brumbach retained the Township name because of the cafe’s reputation for great neighborhood brunches. “To do what I’m doing is a huge undertaking,” he says. “And a very expensive undertaking. Even changing the name would be a lot. What we’re doing here is almost like building a club from scratch. But this is a great location. And we’re going to have entertainment seven nights a week.” DJs Frankie Vega, Gabriel Palomo and Eddie Riot “soft open” the Jungle Room with electro, industrial and techno dance music on Feb. 13. Nashville singer-songwriter Rorey Carroll appears Feb. 21 at Township.
Township isn’t the first room Brumbach has brought back to life.
“I bought the building and was the contractor for Smoke Daddy,” he says. “I took a derlict space that had been a Polish bar called The Midnight Inn. You know who used to drink there? Your friend from Weeds (that would be Sergio Mayora). What a great guy. He would come in in his overalls with his sidekick Angel. At one time there were 50 taverns on Division Street between Ashland and Damen.” The strip was called “Polish Broadway.”
“I learned a lot from doing Smoke Daddy,” Brumbach continues. “I opened it July of ‘94 and sold it in the fall of ‘02. Then I bought the California Clipper from the old Italian brother and sister whose late brother had started it right after Prohibition. I found out that building was built in 1911 as a Nickelodeon.
“Humboldt Park was a Jewish-Italian-Scandanvian neighborhood. I always try to imagine a space. Smoke Daddy was all out of my head. The Clipper was already there. The murals, lights and booths were there.”
Although each space is now under different ownership, they retain Brumbach’s eye for evocative romantic lighting, Chicago muscle and a clear sense of mid-century history—and not nostalgia. It will be interesting to see how Township develops.
Brumbach, 63, is a native of near west suburban Franklin Park who began playing guitar and harmonica in 1963. His first gigs were with Chicago blues greats Wild Child Butler and Sunnyland Slim. He first recording was on the 1970 Darrel Fletcher ‘45 “Power to the People!” in a session that featured Chess Records session legends Phil Upchurch (guitar), Louis Satterfield (bass) and Donny Hathaway (keyboards).
Brumbach played a tour of Canada with the late great Jimmy Reed and has vivid memories of appearing at important Chicago clubs like Burning Spear with Otis Clay.
“Our home base was the Burning Spear,” he said. “That had been the Club DeLisa. It still had the elevator stage from the days of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. It was the premiere ‘Black & Tan’ club. The Club DeLisa wall murals were still covered with cigarette smoke and dirt.”
One of the frequent guest Club DeLisa artists was Hi-Fi White, a 300 pound transvestite comedian who wore a dress and sang. Hi Fi was a protoge’ of Redd Foxx.
“We had a good looking Iranian saxophone player named Fred for about a year,” Brumbach says. “Dark wavy hair, kind of a Romeo looking guy. Hi Fi would go, “That’s my husband, Fred.’ And Fred would get so embarrassed.”
After Brumbach sold the Clipper in 2002 he continued to play music and he built houses in the Chicago area. He played piano alongside Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton and harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite on 2004’s “Back in the Saddle Again” from former Calumet City strip joint rockabilly singer Matt Lucas (Ten-O-Nine Records). “I’ve been trying to keep my nose clean,” Brumbach says as the rays of a promising sun slide through the windows of Township.
Early in his first term President Obama made noise about bringing back a new deal of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) as a method to resurrect the economy. It is too bad this never came to pass.
Writers, artists, former newspaper journalists and photographers could chronicle the green economy, foodways and stories of the scores of immigrants who are changing America’s landscape.
Engaging state travel guides were written between 1935 and 1943 through the Federal Writer’s Project of the WPA. I still use them today when I travel. The project provided a platform for emerging voices such as Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Eudora Weldy and Nelson Algren (1909-1981).
In the late 1930s Algren was supervisor of the WPA Illinois office. His assignment was to gather information for a national “America Eats” program where he was to produce a series of regional guides descirbing immigration customs and settlements as they related to food.
Algren honed his interviewing skills and surely learned the timeless power of food memory, which is a device I try to use in my conversations today.
In 1992 the University of Iowa Press published his work in “America Eats,” where Algren wrote:
“If each of all the races which have been subsited in the vast Middle West could contribute one dish to one great midwestern cauldron, it is certain that we’d have therein a most foreign and gigantic stew: the grains that the French took over from the Indians, and the breads that the English brought later, hotly spiced Italian dishes and subtly seasoned Spanish ones, the sweet Swedish soups and the sour Polish ones, and all the Old World arts brought to the preparing of American beefsteak and hot mince pie. Such a cauldron would contain more than many foods. It would be at once, a symbol of many lands and a melting pot for many people.
Many peoples, yet one people, many lands, one land.”
And many peoples will gather at 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at Lottie’s Pub, 1925 W. Cortland (at Winchester) to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Nelson Algren Committee. The committee has helped keep Algren’s work and life alive and in the public eye since it was formed in the basement of Lottie’s. For decades Lottie’s basement was the home of all-night poker games which were financed in part by Algren. One time Algren played a poker game fueled by advance money for an unwritten book. He lost the advance in the game.
Chicago theater veteran Donna Blue Lachman will be on hand as will former Saturday Night Live writer (1975) Nate Herman, who performed at the inaugural event. Archivist Tony Macaluso of WFMT will present rarely heard Terkel interviews with Algren and expect an appearance from historical re-enactor Paul Durcia. The group will also celebrate the upcoming release of “The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All,” the definitive documentary about Algren, which the committee helped produce. Co-creator Mark Blottner will be on hand to offer a sneak preview.
Blottner’s documentary looks at Algren’s political views while the previously released Michael Caplan biopic “Algren” focused on Algren’s literary career. “The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All” is inscribed on Algren’s headstone in the Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, N.Y. (John Steinbeck also lived in Sag Harbor from 1955 until his death in ’68). In his true independent style, Algren chose eternal words that were not his own. Great Plains novelist Willa Cather came up with the road quote.
Committee co-founder Warren Leming will be on hand and he has worked as a liasion with Seven Stories Press to get Algren’s work reissued. Previously unpublished works like “America Eats” and “Nonconformity” are now available to the public.
The committee celebration includes free pizza and a cash bar. Admission is just $10, $5 if you are a student, senior, cash strapped or all of the above.
You can keep the ball rolliing at 7 p.m. Nov. 28 when Firecat Projects, 2124 N. Damen, welcomes storied Algren photographer Art Shay as he opens an exhibit of his documentary photographs of Algren in Chicago. Shay will give a talk and there will be ample beer from Three Floyds Brewing and wine from Red & White Wines.
I was at the first Nelson Algren Committee event, Dec. 2, 1989 at Lottie’s and I’ll be at this one
Talk about food? The 1989 event was catered old world Polish style by the late great Sophie Madej, owner of the Busy Bee Restaurant, which was under the El tracks just a couple blocks away from Algren’s home, 1958 W. Evergreen. The Busy Bee is one reason I moved into a graffiti-laden shooting gallery at 1501 N. Wicker Park in 1979.
Food was always on Algren’s radar. One of his most popular lines comes from his 1956 novel “A Walk on the Wild Side,” (the template for the Lou Reed hit) where he wrote, “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”
Well, there was that one time I was playing cards with Doc at Mom’s and went home with the paroled waitress……
Proceeds from the $5 cover in 1989 that night were to be used to honor Algren with a work of art. The artwork or statue has never come to fruition. I loved Harry Caray, but if Chicago can have a statue of Harry Caray, there certainly should be a physical artistic tribute to Nelson Algren:
A wrinkled face with rolled up sleeves.
Former committee member Char Sandstrom advocated a memorial fountain to be dedicated to Algren at the “Polonia Triangle” park and subway stop at Division, Ashland and Milwaukee. The fountain with a plaque honoring Algren came to fruition in September, 1998 in a project by the Chicago Public Works Commission. The committee also worked with Chicago-based Seven Stories Press in promoting and re-issuing Algren’s books.
Algren was born as Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit in 1909 and moved with his family to the south side of Chicago when he was three years old. His mother ran a candy store on the south side. Algren left Chicago in 1975.
Through the early days of the committee I got to know founding member Stuart McCarrell. The Chicago playwright-electrical engineer died in 2001at age 77. Stuart was instrumental in getting a plaque in front of the Evergreen address. There is also a marker at the Evergreen site as part of the Chicago Tribute historical location project, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune Foundation.
McCarrell and Algren were die hard White Sox fans. During the mid-1960s they would stop at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap in Little Italy for a meal and a couple of glasses of tap beer before a game. The White Sox often would lose in their presence, which McCarrell said fit Algren’s under-dogged character. He had deep empathy for people oppressed by legal and political maneuvers.
“The great thing about Nelson is that he was a gut radical,” McCarren told me on the eve of the committee’s first event in 1989. “He would pay $65 a month for this working class apartment on the third floor of 1958 [Evergreen]. He always acted, dressed and lived as a member of the proletariat.
“Nelson was one of the first guests on [Sun-Times columnist Irv] Kupcinet’s program. What made it a good program was that Nelson represented the outsiders and the unknown point of view. He’d never dress up. Then, they’d say things like, ‘Mr. Algren, why is it you associate so much with that type of people?,’ meaning the poor and underclass. He’d say, ‘The strange thing is that I associate with people like you.’ He had a great empathy for the least of these.”
Algren biographer Bettina Drew wrote, “The gates of his soul opened on the hell side.”
Tributes will be paid to McCarrell and Algren friend Studs Terkel at Lottie’s. After Algren died of a heart attack, his body was taken unclaimed to Manhattan, about an hour north of his home. Studs was the first on the phone to get the body released.
Algren remains fiercely relevant with the great divide between the haves and have-nots in contemporary American society. He saw the deep end of a similar polarization in the diners, restaurants and kitchens of at the end of the Depression.
The long Midwest shadows of the late 1930s colored his words forever, just as the dry California fields influenced John Steinbeck. If he were alive today, Algren would have nothing to do with Chicago’s Michelin rated restaurants or fancy bars with $20 cocktails.
He would have something to do with you. And he does.
Jeremy Pollack lived in a black and white world which fit him just fine.
His love of noir’, a 1950s love song and the smell of fresh newsprint shaped a colorful life. Pollack died on Nov. 17 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 55 years old.
His death came just two months after he released “The Hard-Boiled Detective 1,” an acclaimed collection of pulp short stories set in Chicago that he wrote under the pen name Ben Solomon. The writing is tight and rhythmic which amplifies the drama.
Pollack’s characters zigged and zagged around the Panther Room at the Chez Paree, the Club De Lisa on the south side and some looked for clues at the Hart Schaffner Marx factory.
There is no answer for Pollack’s death.
I guess every death could be called untimely, but Pollack’s passing knocked me out.
He was on a roll. “The Hard-Boiled Detective 1 ” was getting good reviews. The self-published book is available on Amazon.com. On Oct. 19 he appeared on “After Hours” with Rick Kogan on WGN-AM. Unlike the majority of his characters, Pollack had a bright future. On Nov. 17 my friend Scott Momenthy told me the news from his home in Florida.
Pollack had finally left his job as department manager at Printing Arts, 2001 W. 21st St. in Broadview to devote most of his time to writing. Prior to Printing Arts, Pollack and Momenthy designed publications like “The Land Improvement Contractors of America” and “EcoLogic,” a conservative environmental magazine. While working his day shift Pollack was hard-writing at night from his Logan Square home that he shared with his partner Carolyn Smith. In Feb. 2013 he launched “The Hard-Boiled Detective” as a series of stories available through subscription.
“He wrote three stories a month and never missed a deadline,” Momenthy said Tuesday from Florida. “I was a subscriber. He was writing on the fly. He was that good. He wasn’t slaving over edits. He decided he would not name the detective. That was a big one for him. By the detective not havng a name his style grew around certain rules he set for himself about how he was going to write. He didn’t have to ponder it. He just had to adhere to principles and then naturally something unique would grow out of it. It’s a really interesting idea, a lot how you might live your life. You set up a principle, but you do go there according to what it is. It all came together in ‘The Hard-Boiled Detective,’ this guy who lived by a code. He had made up his mind before he walked into a mystery. He didn’t struggle with right and wrong. He knew.”
Pollack was born in Oak Park. His only sibling Jonathan is a classical pianist who lives in Rogers Park. His late father Sheldon was an advertising executive. During the mid-1970s his mother Lorel Abarbanel was a tireless advocate for Soviet Jews who applied to leave the USSR. She worked from her home and the Spertus College of Judica in Chicago. She was worried about the KGB, which clearly planted a few ideas in Jeremy’s mind.
Momenthy met Pollack in 1975 in an experimental alternative education program at Oak Park-River Forest High School where classmates included actor Amy Morton and Paul Mertens who went on to join Poi Dog Pondering. “I was writing songs and he was one of the few people who were listening to me,” said Momenthy, who for 20 years ran “The Rhythm and Rhyme Revue” at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. “I first got to know him as a great listener. He was taking improv classes at Second City. That was his primary interest at that time.”
Jonathan Pitts, Executive Director at Chicago Improv Productions and Improv Instructor at The Second City Training Center was in that experimental class at Oak Park-River Forest. On his Facebook remembrance Pitts wrote, “After I put together my first improv team at Triton College, Jeremy would meet me at Denny’s restaurant to drink coffee while I ate French Fries and we’d talk improv. He’d written some of his ideas into a notebook and he shared them with me. It was like learning the alphabet into a language that I’d been around but didn’t fully understand. I still use some of what I learned from him today when I improvise and when I teach.”
James Iska of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago was a member of the experimental program at Oak Park-River Forest. In a Wednesday e-mail he wrote, “I’ve never known a more naturally gifted person. By the time I met Jeremy at age 15, he was already an accomplished dancer (having performed with the Joffrey Ballet), painter and cartoonist. He made films and performed music, acted and even formed his own theater-improv company. But I think his greatest passion was movies. At the drop of a hat he could recite entire scenes from his favorite movies. He especially loved film noir which explains this last great pursuit, writing hard boiled detective stories.”
As a teenager Pollack was attracted to the joyful performance style of Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp. Gibson was the house act at the colorful Gate of Horn nightclub on the near north side. When they were teenagers Momenthy and Pollack hitchiked to the west coast to play folk music. Pollack played ukele, Momenthy played guitar. They sang in double harmony style on the streets of California. They were voices waiting to be heard.
“He began to get involved in noir’ back then, too,” Momenthy said. “He was dressing like that, writing like that, even the songs he was writing was a throwback style from the 1940s and 50s. That was consistent with him right from the start. He was always Chicago. ‘Chicago this, Chicago that.’ He took great pride in Chicago. For him to start getting recognized by Chicago people and to be thought of as a voice in Chicago was huge to him.
“He’s looking to what’s the next step. He doesn’t feel good. And ten days later he’s dead.”
In mid-August Pollack–as Ben Solomon–approached me for a blurb for his book. I saved his notes because I knew there would be more from this gifted author. “Very old-school stuff,” he wrote to me about his work. “Call it retro-detective. After 18 months with 54 stories in the bag approaching 400,000 words, I figured it was time to release a book. And volia….Merely your intention means a great deal.”
I had to deliver. I loved how Pollack put a face on sense of place.
His characters were able to breathe and move between his jazzy cadence. Pollack wrote with the detail and punch of a grizzled crime reporter.
Here is his scene from “G-Man” of walking down Lower Wacker Drive:
“Lower Wacker’s a cavernous throughway, a subterranean crazy house. For mirrors, chutes and rails, it’s filled with limestone, green lamps, echoes. You’re never certain about the reverberations you hear in Lower Wacker. Maybe they belong to you, maybe to something unseen up ahead, maybe something after you from behind. Or maybe something on another level. Or maybe it’s your pulse beating in your ears like an oil derrick from lugging a satchel filled with pig iron.”
“Jeremy was into newspapers very much,” Momenthy said. “In 1984 he published No. 1 of the Chicago Sheet literary magazine. It was called ‘Chicago’s Finest Print.’ He edited it. Ben Solomon first showed up there. It was a broad sheet. It was beautiful. He was a cartoonist and his first cartoon characters showed up there. (Songwriter) Dan Bern wrote a piece. Jonathan Pitts did a piece.”
At the same time Momenthy and Pollack were working at the Wednesday Journal, which was Oak Park’s alternative newspaper. Pollack did production work at the journal. “I was working the boards,” he recalled. “We did the Chicago Sheet on the side. We were practicing guitars in the offices of the Wednesday Journal at night. He was doing so much. He was always laughing off talent. He said, ‘It’s not talent, it’s work.’ Jeremy painted, he wrote, he designed, he edited. And he produced.”
Momenthy paused. The phone line crackled like the last sparks from a candle. “I’m really torn now,” he said. “He was very humble. I feel I should have just told the guy when he was 25, ‘Do you know who you are? Do you know how much ability you have?’
” I don’t know if he ever knew.”
A semi-private memorial service for Jeremy Pollack will be held Nov. 22 at his Chicago home.
When you show your art on the outside border of the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, you must really be a renegade.
That is where I found Isaac G. Abarca last month. He was propping up his oil on canvas paintings on a sidewalk near the entrance to the popular arts and crafts fair. He also hung his paintings like Christmas ornaments in a large honeylocust shade tree in front of Rite Liquors, 1649 W. Division.
“Hanging paintings in a tree is a beautiful thing,” Abarca said during a Sunday alcohol free conversation at Rite Liquors. “People had a lot of questions. The next day we released a painting on a (500 helium) balloons, which is even better. But no one has called me to tell me where it landed. It’s become like an urban legend. Someone said it is in a potato field in Ohio.” The lost painting was Abarca’s portrait of a half woman and half violin. Abarca attached three one dollar lottery tickets to the painting. “Next year we will release one painting an hour,” he continued. “If you have inspiration you have to use it. It is a good thing I have friends like (owner) Mike Liacopoulos at Rite Liquors. When I have ideas they say, ‘Go with it.’ I need people like that.”
The sky is the limit.
In fact, I bought Abarca’s painting of a firey Malyasian jet liner flying into the mouth of a shark. It is a sure conversation starter for quiet nights in my living room.
“I did that painting five days after the plane went missing,” he said. “Every channel on television was talking about the plane in Spanish, in English. I don’t want to hurt people in my paintings. But it is easy to me because it is happening.”
Abarca is self-taught, although he did study the brilliant colors of Dutch impressionist Vincent van Gogh. “I love oils so I looked at his techniques and his strokes,” he said. “His message is right to the point.”
Abarca is 37 years old. He is from the state of Guerrero, Mexico where his grandparents were farmers. He moved to the U.S. when he was 12. Abarca grew up in Gurnee and Highwood, north of Chicago. His mother Maria Isabel and father Isaac have been married 38 years.
When Abarca isn’t painting, he is a bartender who has worked at Wishbone in Chicago and at Chicago catering companies. “Everything brought me to America,” he said. “The way that art is required. Art is a statement of why we are here.”
Abarca moved to Chicago in 2001 and lives in Wicker Park. He used to ride his bicycle around Rite Liquors, a bar and package liquor store on the ground floor of a 117-year-old building. Regulars are lined up like weary checkpoint travelers along the maple bar that seats about 78 people. North to south, the original bar is one of the longest bars in Chicago. The bar back is at least 110 years old. “I always found this place interesting,” Abarca said. “It is like candy for adults. Look at all this liquor. You can meet interesting people here. Engineers. Police officers. Gangsters. Alcoholics.”
He found it so interesting, he once lived upstairs.
Mike Liacopoulos is a fan of Abarca’s work and shows his art in the bar. His sons Steve and Ted help run the bar and Steve was helping Abarca decorate the Division Street tree with paintings. No other Chicago artist has his work on display at Rite Liquors.
The tavern’s art history includes painter Robert Guinan, who in the early 1960s would pay customers $20 an hour to be subjects for his work. Guinan loved the once lonesome grit of Wicker Park and Maxwell Street. Unknown in Chicago, Guinan’s work has sold for as much as $30,000 a piece in France. He is included in Alex Kotlowitz’s fine book “Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago.”
“Photography students ask me if they can come in and take pictures,” said Liacopoulous, a down rite friendly gentleman who opened the original Loop Tavern at 518 S. State (now at Chicago and Ashland). “We have a colorful crowd. When I came in here I used to sell about six barrels of draught beer a weeks. Now the house drink is Jameson’s and I have at least 62 different microbrews. When the condos came in 15, 20 years ago everything just changed.”
Abarca said, “Rite Liquors is where everything happened for me. Even if the Renegade Fair had invited me I would have said no. In the winter I hang three paintings a week here. We sell them starting at $91. I send some of the money of my sales to Children’s Memorial Hospital. (I paid $150 for the Malyasian jet painting) If I dedicate myself to it, I can do 11 paintings a day. ”
But Abarca’s crowning achievement is his El Dorado Project.
This piece of art is not on display at Rite Liquors. It is in a safe deposit box at a Chicago area bank.
“It is a real human skull, based on the way the Aztecs decorated skulls in gemstones,” he said. “It is the shell of one of the most beautiful things ever created: the human brain. I decorate that in respect of it.”
Abarca has been decorating the skull with gold nuggets since 2001. He said El Dorado is currently adorned with anywhere between 50 and 70 ounces of gold.
This thing has a lot of bling.
He purchases the gold from miners in Arizona and California. “It is not done,” he said. “I’ve spent $350,000 and I still need $150,000 of gold. I sent a photo of El Dorado to the miner in California. He doesn’t want to work with me any more. He’s a very religious person and I understand that. I have a key to the safe deposit box. I take it our, work with it and put it back. When I’m done I will present it in Chicago. A human skull decorated in gold nuggets? No one has done that.”
Abacra said he purchased the male skull from the University of California. “He died in a hit and run accident in the 1970s,” he explained. “They used the body for medical purposes because no one claimed it. I was very curious what happened. I said, ‘Nobody claimed you when you were dead on the floor, but when I am done with you everyone is going to want you because you are covered in gold.’ I’m not dealing with a spirit. That’s a different thing. Energy is energy and I don’t want to mess with that. A human skull is a beautiful masterpiece itself. It is another reason I live in America. Religion is so powerful in Mexico they don’t allow you to work with human remains.”
Liacopoulous has owned Rite Liquors since 1984. “Isaac used to be my tenant,” he said in a separate interview while distributing biscuits to the tavern’s dogs. “I like the guy. He’s always happy, you never see him sad. He is fearless. You don’t meet people like him very often. And he has dreams. I came here 45 years ago from a farm in the south part of Greece. I know what is is not to have money and to have money. Isaac dreams of one day being successful. I try to cooperate with that.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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