MAZOMANIE, WIS.—Every kid who grew up playing Wiffle Ball understands how the game shapes your imagination. You can create a field anywhere. For me and my brother it was a Cul-de-sac in suburban Chicago. For others the game was played under the blue heavens of a soybean farm.
You can play the game by yourself. The plastic ball is light and can easily be tossed in the air with one hand while swinging a plastic bat with the other hand. Flying solo it is difficult to swing and miss ( “a whiff”), which is how the game got its name. The batter narrates the action with the scat like voice of his or her favorite baseball announcer.
I still have a Rick Sutcliffe- endorsed Wiffle Ball and there’s eight perforations in the plastic ball, about the size of a baseball. The box says, “It’s Easy to Throw Curves with Wiffle Ball.” And it is spelled “Wiffle,” not “Whiffle.”
Wiffle ball is about escape and improvisation.
It is the jazz of the toy world.
Many years ago on a long night at the Old Town Ale House in Chicago, jazz bassist John Bany told me, “Jazz is the idea of human freedom applied to the laws that govern music.” That is a metaphor for Wiffle Ball.
Nov. 5 is Election Day.
On line voting concludes for the National Toy Hall of Fame, located at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. Wiffle Ball is one of 12 finalists competing for induction, including Super Soaker, Twister, the American Girl doll and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–really? Wiffle Ball is something we all can take a swing at.
To drum up support for the Wiffle Ball I recently drove from Chicago to Rookies Sports Bar & Grill on U.S. Highway 14 in Mazomanie, about 25 miles south of Madison. Owner Steve Schmitt built a huge Wiffle Ball field behind the bar and people can play 365 days a year, weather permitting. The field is 105 feet to right field and 85 feet to left field.
I asked Schmitt to talk about Wiffle Ball on my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal show.
Schmitt is also owner of the Madison Mallards baseball team in the collegiate Northwoods League and the Shoe Box, the Midwest’s largest shoe store just up Highway 14. His inventory is 750,000 pairs of shoes including the beloved Hush Puppies I can’t find in Chicago.
Schmitt has the go going.
He opened Rookies in 1998 when the Governor’s Bar was put up for sale at the corner of Highways 14 and 78. Schmitt built the field at the same time as he opened the bar. He owns the rolling farm land that is the southern backdrop for the field.
An enclosed dining area overlooks the field where customers eat pulled pork pizzas and grass fed burgers with organic ground beef from Black Earth. The cedar ceiling is plastered with baseball cards and posters.
Rookies features more than 6,000 baseball cards, seen throughout the complex including the men’s bathroom.
Downstairs, the entrance to the field includes an original turnstile from Comiskey Park in Chicago.
“I wanted a safe family place for kids to come,” Schmitt said during a rainy afternoon tour of the Shoe Box, Rookies and the Wiffle Ball field. “And be able to hit the ball over the wall where it wouldn’t land in the highway.
“I wanted guys or gals be able to come out here at the spur of the moment and have a ball. It’s the only artificial infield Wiffle Ball field in America. We light it up at night like a Christmas tree so you can play all night long. We’d play in the snow if people want to. People have had birthday and bachlorette parties here.”
Rookies deploys a plastic 12-inch ball, larger than the 9-inch traditional size most kids grew up with. “That’s a perfect size because it doesn’t carry over too often,” he said.
It’s always the notes you don’t play.
Schmitt, 68, grew up playing Wiffle Ball in neighboring Black Earth. His parents Bill and Janet Schmitt ran a shoe store in downtown Black Earth (pop. 1,400) where they sold guns, lures, night crawlers and sporting goods on the side. Schmitt bought out his parents in 1974 and specialized only in selling and repairing shoes.
“Growing up we did our sandlot thing six against five,” he said. “We had a little Wiffle Ball stadium in a field. Then, in 1960, the back of our house we found the porch and dimensions were a perfect fit for a ground rule double, the home run. My buddy and I would play.
“He was a big Milwaukee Braves fan. I was a Cardinals fan and was (St. Louis announcer) Harry Caray of course. I’d lead off with (Julian) Javier, (Curt) Flood, Joe Cunningham. I’d mock Bill White’s stance. I was fascinated. I was up 29-26 games that year, but my buddy beat me 32 to 30 games. We played a full nine innings, foul balls and everything, day and night. Those games probably lasted two hours at least. Off the porch was a ground double.
“It was the best years of my lifetime.”
This was before Game Boys.
During the baseball season every team that visits the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League also visits the Wiffle Ball field at Rookies. Schmitt explained, “We’re obligated to feed them pre- game and post- game, put them up in a hotel and do their laundry. A lot of those guys come out here and burn themselves out.”
Schmitt smiled like a Wisconsin fox. He continued, “It’s the ego thing like they gotta hit the Wiffle Ball out. It throws their timing off for the Mallards game that night. We say, ‘Go out there and have fun and swing for the fences!’ The ball doesn’t travel out of here too many times unless the wind is coming from the north. It’s also in a hole (flood plain).”
Wiffle Ball history also exists at Bethel College Park in Mishawaka, Ind. where a Wiffle Ball field was built in 1980 complete with six- foot high home run fences. In August, 1980 the First Annual World Wiffle Ball Championships debuted in Mishawaka, where they remained until moving to Skokie, Ill. in 2013.
But the magical reach of radio across the central Wisconsin farm fields is what made Schmitt a Cardinals fan.
“I was walking around Black Earth on a late evening,” recalled Schmitt, who was wearing Red Wing work shoes. “I had been listening to Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd (out of WGN-AM in Chicago), Earl Gillespie (another “Holy Cow” announcer at WTMJ in Milwaukee). All of a sudden KMOX in St. Louis raises their wattage at a certain time and Harry Caray almost jumps out of the broadcast booth. Who the hell is this guy? So I send a letter to the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis, Missouri. No address. No zip code. ‘I’m Steve Schmitt, nine years old, I’m a Cardinals fan.’ They send me back four by sixes of Wilmer ‘Vinegar Bend ‘Mizell, Al Dark, Bill Virdon, Stan Musial. I was hooked.
“I’ve never said anything bad about that organization since.”
Besides Wiffle Ball, Schmitt has been involved in minor league baseball in Madison since 1994. The Springfield (Illinois) Cardinals of the Midwest League relocated to Madison where they became the Hatters. “I wanted to see baseball in Madison,” Schmitt said as he drove a green Land Rover affixed with the Madison Mallards logo. “I wasn’t sure at first. The franchise fee was $125,000. I thought I’d try it. Now its a million bucks. My theory is if you don’t try it, you’ll never know if it works.
“In 2000 I was involved with seven, eight other guys who brought a professional hockey team to Madison. They were the Madison Kodiaks. It was owned by the county so they took all the profit. We got out of it but I learned so much through the other owners. We could never come to a decision, we never did anything but I had a great time.”
“So I brought in the baseball team: first five games, 174 people then 250 people. The last game of the year it was 2,000. It jumped to 4,000. Now we average 6,285 people. We have a good front office. We treat it like a state fair. You come in the front gate and it’s a family thing. There better be something for you to do every 20 seats.”
In 1996 the Hatters became the Black Wolf of the independent Northern League. Jimmy Buffett was a part owner of the team during its inaugural season. When the Hatters left in 2000 for Lincoln, Neb. Schmitt struck a deal with the Northwoods League. The wood-bat league runs from June to late August.
Former major leaguers such as Ferguson Jenkins, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers have played in charity alumni games at Warner Park in Madison. Late greats like Robin Roberts and Andy Pafko visited the Shoe Box.
Jazz pianist Ben Sidran is from Madison. I bet he likes Wiffle Ball. In 1997 my pals The Skeletons closed out their fine “Nothing to Lose” CD with the love ballad “Whiffle Ball.” (“Anyplace..someplace..”)
Schmitt made many of his baseball connections through the late New York Yankees -Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ryne Duren, who was from Cazenovia, Wis.
“Ryne was a buddy of mine,” he said. “I was with him when he died in hospice in Florida. They called me down. He’d take me to the BAT (Baseball Assistance Team) dinners at the Marriott Marquis in New York. There was a ballplayer at every table. Then he’d have Pat Maris (Roger’s wife) call me. There’s no end to it. I just saw Maury Wills, what a good guy. Ron Kittle just bought a couple pairs of shows. He was on his way to Minnesota to see (Hall of Fame pitcher) Bert Blyleven and then on to Sturgis (South Dakota).”
“The day (Packers receiver) Robert Brooks decided to get out of football, he went AWOL. Nobody knew where he was. He suddenly walked in the Shoe Box. Someone asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘My family, my life… I had to go somewhere. I was in the parking lot of Lambeau Field (about 160 miles north of the Shoe Box) and just went for a ride. By the time I got to the Shoe Box I decided to retire. We love all these guys.”
What’s not to love about Wiffle Ball?
MINNEAPOLIS—The legion of devotees to Nye’s Polonaise restaurant and piano bar form a neon ribbon that runs from Hollywood to Manhattan.
Albin “Al” Nye opened his Polish-American restaurant in 1964 at 112 E. Hennepin, just west of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Nye’s charms have been how it remained a period piece in a forthright Minnesota manner. Nye’s is Garrison Keillor with a lampshade on his head.
Earlier this year Nye’s announced it was closing in the autumn. The date keeps getting pushed back and now what Esquire magazine once called “The Best Bar in America” is slated to remain open until January, 2016.
Nye sold his restaurant in September, 1994 and died in 2004 at the age of 89. Brothers Rob and Tony Jacob bought Nye’s in 1999. In December, 2014 Rob Jacob told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, “We have made the decision to close Nye’s after careful consideration. In recent years, business has fallen off and it’s been difficult for us to stay competitive.” (The Jacob brothers declined further comment for this story and our Aug. 29 WGN-AM segment on Nye’s.)
Minneapolis media reported the brothers are working with a development company to build two fancy pants high rise apartments on the site. Updates can be found at the popular Facebook page Save Nye’s Polonaise.
How do you keep the music playing?
Something bigger comes into play when a mid-20th Century place like Nye’s goes dark. We lose our cultural memory. We lose track of gentlemen like Nye’s bartender Phil Barker.
“I’ve been here 46 years, three months and 20 days,” Barker told me on May 20 in a conversation at Nye’s “I had just gotten out of the Navy. I was sitting at home when Al Nye called me. He asked if I would come down and tend bar for him at lunches. The light went on. I thought, ‘Why get a job where I gotta’ behave myself?’ It beats the heck out of being stuck in some office where you can’t have any fun.” Barker was 22 years old when he started at Nye’s. He said he will find another bartending job in the neighborhood, but it won’t be the same.
Barker grew up in Northeast Minneapolis where his father worked for a burglar alarm company. Barker’s mother owned a grocery store. Nye’s is in Southeast Minneapolis. “The street out front, East Hennepin Avenue divides northeast from southeast,” he said as he peered out of the bar’s daylight darkness. “This used to be the Skid Row area of Minneapolis. In the late 1940s they tore down all the flophouses on what used to be called ‘The Gateway’ into Minneapolis.
Barker is a direct connection with Nye. He is the senior employee at the restaurant. Collecting voices like Barker’s is why I do this website.
“Al Nye was Polish and Austrian, “ Barker said. “He was born in north Minneapolis. His father moved to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, which is where he was raised. He moved back here during the Depression. He worked at Minor Ford before World War II and got a job at Northern Pump (company, established 1929). They made ordinates for the Navy there. He started out by owning a beer joint in South Minneapolis. Then he bought this bar, August 1, 1950 from Jimmy Heffron. This (bar) building opened in 1908 it was the Prince Street Cafe.“
Old regulars call the original bar “The Old Bar or The Old Side.” Newer folks call it “The Polka Lounge.”
“The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” plays on Friday and Saturday nights in the bar. The cozy bar with eight Naugahyde booths and a dance floor is open Tuesday through Saturday. The bar only opens during the day (at 11 a.m.) on Friday and Saturday, when Barker tends bar.
Barker looked toward the dining room and continued, “He added on the restaurant—the first room– that opened December 23, 1964 at four-thirty in the afternoon.”
Of course, old-timers call this “The New Side.”
But it is technically The Polonaise Room. Diners slip slide away into the past while sitting in the gold vinyl covers of large booths.
The iconic piano bar is part of the supper clubby room that serves Polish-American cuisine like cabbage rolls and pierogis along with strip steaks and walleye. Music starts at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Folks sit around a curved piano underneath a portrait of 18th Century composer Frederic Chopin.
In a folksy Northern setting where more people are familiar with Harry Chapin, Nye loved Chopin. He wrote his polonaises mostly for solo piano. “Chopin lived in Paris and that’s where the polonaise comes from,” Barker explained. “Chopin missed Poland so much he wrote the ‘Polonaise’ which means ‘Poland’ in French. So it’s Chopin’s Polonaise.”
And so it became Nye’s Polonaise.
Around Valentine’s Day 2008 I hung around the piano bar listening to the playful Sweet Lou Snider sing standards of the 1950s and 60s. She sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” for my date and I. Sweet Lou started at Nye’s in 1965 and health issues forced her to retire around Valentine’s day 2011. She had been coming to work on crutches.
Sweet Lou met her future husband David, on Labor Day weekend 1959 while she was playing with the rock band Lanny Charles and his Harem at the Casino Bar in La Crosse, Wis. David requested “It Had to Be You.”
“I had to look it up,” Sweet Lou told me as her eyes sparkled under multi-colored Flintstone-like lamps that were handcrafted in Winona, Minn.. What will become of these lamps when Nye’s goes dark?
Where will these stories go?
Daina De Prez now sings at the piano bar between 8:30 and 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
A second dining area opened in 1967 in a former sign shop, and the third area [The 80-seat Pulaski Room, east of the Polonaise Room] used to be John’s Café. “Everybody still calls it John’s,” Barker said. “ That opened in December, 1971, ” Finally, the open-spaced Chopin Room seats another 80 people between the piano bar and the Pulaski Room.
When I was working on The Supper Club Book a few summers ago I debated on whether or not to include Nye’s. It was a close call. I concluded the scene just seemed too large for a traditional supper club. Nye’s reminded me of Chicago’s Busy Bee restaurant on steroids.
“For the amount of food we serve and the number of people that come in here, it’s a supper club,” Barker said. “We still have relish trays. Family owners. Old Fashioneds are popular again, especially the Brandy Old Fashioned from Wisconsin. At one time like 51 per cent of every bottle sold in a Wisconsin liquor store was a bottle of brandy.
Barker said the Polish Vodka Martini is the most popular drink at Nye’s. “And our Polonaise (with Chopin potato vodka! served with dry Vermouth and an olive),” he said.
Vodka was outlawed in Minnesota until 1957. “They thought you couldn’t smell it on your breath,” he said. “And it smelled like lighter fluid. Another Minnesota spin is the addition of hazelnuts to a White Russian, another go-to drink at Nye’s.
Nye’s doesn’t ignore its imported Polish beer. You can find Zywiec, Okocim and Tyskie on a menu of 35 brews. “They’re basically all the same,” he said. “They have kind of a sweeter, hopsy after-taste to them from what I understand. I don’t drink. I used to drink, I was my own best customer. I made a deal with the state highway department years ago. They let me drive a car if I quit drinking.”
Barker has served several thousand people during his 46 years at Nye’s. But he has not taken care of Minneapolis notables like Prince or Jesse Ventura.
“I’ve served a couple vice-presidents,” he said. “I talked to Hubert Humphrey when he was vice-president. It was on a Monday. We used to have a Teamster business luncheon here and he stopped in to ask a question. He ran in and ran out. We’ve had (former Minnesota Viking) Bill Brown. (The late and rowdy New York Yankees-Minnesota Twins manager) Billy Martin had lunch here with (former Twins coach) Frank Quilici. Billy behaved himself.”
But is the everyday people who made Nye’s what it is. And it is the everyday people who will be missed.
Now, when I see old people together I see my parents with piercing clarity.
Chicago voiceover legend/word jazz poet Ken Nordine and his wife Beryl arrived a half-hour early for Ken’s appearance on my Saturday night radio show on WGN-AM. They drove downtown from their home on the far north side of Chicago. Ken and Beryl will celebrate heir 70th wedding anniversary this year.
Ken walks with a cane so I escorted him and his wife up an elevator to avoid the Michigan Avenue stairway to the Allstate Showcase Studio. They walked together. Moments in time.
We talked about moments in this Ken Nordine segment.
I thought of my Dad, who passed away on April 8. I thought about how old people do everything together and I smiled. My parents were married 65 years.
This is my friend Colleen Bush’s favorite story about my parent’s bond, one that I had forgotten about in the flurry of activity over the past few months. In the final days before my parents could no longer drive a car, my mother had Macular Degeneration. My father had a bum right leg. So on short spins through the neighborhood, my father provided the eyes and my mother took care of the pedal. I doubt this set up lasted very long, but they were a team with a scheme.
Old people always take care of each other. And that is beautiful.
Most people don’t eat the same meal every day.
I search out different music to nurture my changing moods. Calypso for fun, old country for loneliness. My knowledge of house music is pedestrian but I’ve always been intrigued by its deep Chicago roots.
This became very clear on Saturday night when Chicago house music DJs Derrick Carter, Darlene “DJ Lady D” Jackson and Marea Renee “The Black Madonna” Stamper joined me live in studio for my Nocturnal Journal radio show on WGN-AM. The station’s Allstate Showcase Studio was filled with an expressive joy I won’t soon forget.
We explored the seed sounds of house in soul Chicago churches, Disco Demolition and the legacy of hearing music on Chicago streets, especially in the anticipated endless nights of summer time. We paid tribute to house pioneer Frankie Knuckles who would have turned 60 years old on Jan. 18.
On Martin Luther King weekend, we played Carter’s Cratebug Edit of “Dreams,” an example of the technique that Knuckles used, where he mixed Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with house records and other sound effects. You hear part of Knuckles “The Whistle Song” that became part of a Lipton tea commercial and a portion of Knuckles final set at the Smart Bar, Thanksgiving 2014. Stamper is talent buyer and resident DJ at the Smart Bar.
I found out just a couple of weeks ago that in 1995 DJ Lady D moved in with three other DJs to a 3,000 square foot loft space at 120 N. Green at Randolph (now restaurant row). Carter and DJ Mark Farina were also living in the 120 N. Green building during the early 1990s.
At the same time I was in a post-divorce bachelor loft across the street at 131 N. Green. I lived above the S&S Restaurant where the greasy scrambled eggs danced off the rye toast. My neighbors were also house music DJs and I bet I drove them nuts with my Martin Denny records blaring across my tiki bar.
A second or third version of the Warehouse dance club was just a block away on West Randolph and there was a club called Alcatraz on North Green Street. House music roared late into the night and then a new morning.
Always a new morning.
When I come home from my radio program I reflect on the show we made to share with you.
I consider questions I might have asked, a button I shouldn’t have pushed to aggravate my fine producer Dan Long or maybe an anecdote I could have contributed to inject some of my personality. I had a hard time getting to sleep after the Jan. 3 Nocturnal Journal. I was thinking about the thread of purposefulness that connected my guests:
* At the end of December, Bruce Rickerd broke the record for most theatrical performances by a male musician in his role as guitarist in “Mystere” at Cirque du Soleil at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.
His mark of 9,958 shows got him in the Guinness Book of World Records and as he told us, he is bearing down on 10,000 shows since “Mystere” debuted in 1993. Rickerd, 62, has not missed one gig playing prog-rock electric and Eastern European acoustic guitar.
* Nick Russo, the long time swinging piano player at Jilly’s on Rush Street is back in the game. You can hear him between 7 and 10:30 p.m. every Thursday at Zeal’s restaurant in the shadow of the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg.
I had heard Nick had been ill, but it wasn’t until I was helping him take his gear down after the show that I learned he goes to Dr. Vincent Buffalino in Naperville, the same heart specialist that has taken care of my parents. Nick was a great guest with great stories. “A month ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this show,” Russo told me as we rode down the Tribune Tower elevator. Russo, only 61, has survived two quadruple bypasses and congestive heart failure. “Dr. Buffalino has saved my life three times,” Russo said on Monday afternoon.
* Jon Langford, Nan Warshaw, Rob Miller and Bloodshot Records have been delivering real country music and rock n’ roll with consistent quality and utmost daring for the past 20 years. A Bloodshot Records anniversary celebration kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at Metro in Chicago. Langford made the radio show despite the recent sudden loss of his mum Kit. He told me he is headed off to his native Wales on Thursday for the seventh time in something like the last 30 days.
Langford showed up on Saturday and even jammed with Russo on a velvet-drenched version of “Sweet Home Chicago.”
I sort of made them do that.
Facebook has become repository for whining and complaining about the weather, but Langford’s FB message about his Mom’s passing was a keeper: “Thanks so much for all the messages of sympathy love and support. Kit wanted to keep going forever. No quarter given to miseries and moaners. A life well lived and well worth celebrating at this festive time of year. “
You can smile in the face of adversity.
* Gregory Warmack, a.k.a. “Mr. Imagination” encountered an uncanny amount of misfortune in his life but it didn’t stop him from dreaming. Warmack died May 30, 2012 of an infection in an Atlanta, Ga. hospital. He was 64 years old. He is the subject of a major retrospective that opens Jan. 9 at INTUIT–The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.
In the summer of 1996 I visited Warmack in his crowded studio-apartment near Wrigley Field. He told me how he became “Mr. Imagination.” In 1978 he was a hair dresser and clothes designer, but he had never been an artist.
“I used to give this guy nickels and dimes for wine,” Warmack said. “One day he turned around and said, ‘I want all your money.’ I had like 40 cents. I heard what sounded like two huge cannons going off. I saw sparks. I saw fire. I realized this guy had shot me. It felt like someone opened up my stomach and poured in hot coals. I ran into a bar and told someone I had just gotten shot. My eyes went dim and I was in a coma for six weeks.” Warmack said that while in the coma, he traveled back into the past through a tunnel of light. He then pointed to rows of Aztec-influenced sandstone faces in his apartment.
He saw the faces while he was in the coma. He saw himself as “Mr. Imagination,” an African king.
He was liberated.
And he remained in the creative heavens despite the fact:
* His brother William broke his neck and died while trying to break into Warmack’s apartment. “It didn’t make Greg bitter or break his gentle spirit,” founding INTUIT member Cleo Wilson wrote in her notes to the exhibit. “In fact, he created an altar tribute to his brother at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.
* In 2000, Warmack became an artist in residence in Bethlehem, Pa. A January, 2008 fire gutted Warmack’s home while he was at an art show in Florida. He lost everything include his beloved dog and five cats.
Friends helped him rebuild and move to Atlanta in 2009 where he created an Angel Garden for children of the world to congregate.
Just like the fortitude I heard on Saturday night, there is no limit to imagination–especially when you nurture the kid inside of you.
“If there was a limit to using your imagination when they built the first buildings they would have all looked the same,” Warmack told me. “Architects had to use their imagination. Fashion is based on imagination. The whole world is built on imagination.”
Perseverance and imagination is what “Mystere” is built on.
“Being a musician, if you’re not a star, most of the times you’re not making a whole lot of money,” Rickerd said in a Monday evening conversation before his 90-minute show at Treasure Island. “And when you don’t play you don’t make an money. I was a band leader and lead singer back in the day. If somebody was out, nobody worked.”
What bands were those?
“I had a band called Equinox,” answered Rickerd, who grew up outside of Ottawa (On.) Canada. “And Hard Wood.”
Rickerd laughed and said, “I never thought of it like that. You just gave me a totally different perspective on it. But I was just being responsible with my work. Reputations get ruined real quick. If you’re a no show for a gig, they don’t call you any more. With Cirque du Soleil, it’s not the same thing. I could have taken a day off now and then, but it is a responsibility. If I can do the job I will.”
Over the years Eddie Van Halen, E-Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren and Michael Jackson have seen Rickerd perform at a Mystere. “Michael Jackson came here close to a dozen times,” said Rickerd, who also played behind John Lee Hooker as a 22-year-old in Canada. “Of course he was always incognito. We knew that because he was the only guy with a mask on followed by five seven-foot tall guys.
“Ronnie Foster (keyboardist George Benson, Roberta Flack and others) comes to the show. He’s a musical director at one of the shows here (“Smokey Robinson Presents: Human Nature”). Neil Merryweather is a bass player who produced Lita Ford records and played with Rick James. As a matter of fact I’ll be jamming with them after the gig tonight at a dive called Saddle n’ Spurs. After playing for 3,000 people I’ll go out and play for 30. It is way off the strip, a locals place.”
The work ethic never rests.
Radio might be the last place you would find me.
I’ve liked being an observer. I’m uncomfortable at center stage. I’m the guy at the end of the bar. I’m the fly on the wall– behind the curtain.
I’ve been a guest plenty of times on radio and television, but to host a show–even for a couple of hours–seems daunting. Good radio is truth. And that’s the truth.
But I am curious.
I like to hear other people’s stories. I’ve been in print journalism for more than 40 years, dating back to my idealistic stint as editor of the Naperville (Ill.) Central High School newspaper (I had a column called “Writing Wrongs,” and that’s the truth.) Unless it is the New York Times, the daily newspaper format for regular storytelling has gone the way of fountain pens and film canisters.
“The Nocturnal Journal” debuts at 10 p.m. Dec. 6 on WGN AM 720. The show can be streamed on demand at wgnradio.com or subscribe through iTunes.
We will discuss roots music, musical road trips, foodways, tiki culture, oddball sports, flea markets and truck stops. We will observe and discover. If we learn one new thing on a Saturday night then the journal is a success.
I’ll curate a diary on this website.
Our first guests are the gracious L.C. Cooke, brother of soul singer Sam Cooke; Rick Wojcik, owner of Dusty Groove America and a show sponsor; tequila drinking Chicago raconteur Sergio Mayora and Don Luttrell calling in from Springfield, Mo. to talk about his Luttrell Auction and Live Music Barn, the greatest live music experience I have had this year this side of Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams.
Sergio will play an in-studio song and we will be giving away a few copies of the fantastic “L.C. Cooke–The Complete SAR Recordings” (ABKCO), featuring 18 tracks and the session work of Earl Palmer, Billy Preston and Bobby and Cecil Womack.
In one way radio is a happy full circle for me.
I grew up on Chicago radio. In the risk of sounding jingoistic, I can’t think of a better sound experience. I doubt I would have appreciated the boundless diversity of rock n’ roll and soul if I hadn’t listened to late 1960s, early 1970s AM radio.
In early high school we would take the Burlington Northern train in from Naperville to watch Larry Lujack work at WLS-AM and the more edgy WCFL-AM personalties at Marina City. Lujack, Clark Weber, Wally Phillips, “Chicago” Eddie Schwartz, Yvonne Daniels, and to this day Dick Biondi, Herb Kent and Bob Sirott weren’t disc jockeys. They were personalities. They were part of the community. They walked among our stories.
Other 1960s’ early 1970s personalities like Ron Britain (and his Psychedelic Circus), the late Barney Pip (who played a trumpet while telling listeners to ‘Turn Into Peanut Butter’) and Captain Whammo (a.k.a. Jim Chanell, who became a Christian disc jockey in West Dundee, Ill.) were about theater.
And there was Studs.
Studs Terkel blended storytelling and theater with a voice that sounded like a Maxwell Street push broom. “In creating radio documentary you’re much freer,” Studs said in 2001. “Voices, sounds, music. The rest is you and the microphone. The storyteller doesn’t need special effects, they’re supplied by the listener.” After we get our feet on the ground in 2015 we will take “The Nocturnal Journal” on the road and into the community.
What could be more kinetic than the energy of the Saturday night chorus? Musicians, bagmen, lost poets, bartenders, short order cooks, tall strippers, waitresses, newspaper reporters, truck drivers and stadium beer vendors. Many of them are my friends.
There is noise from this group, of course, but drama is found in the space between the voices. We hope to create that ambiance.
I’m a story catcher. Alan Lomax was a sound catcher.
In the fine 2010 biography “Alan Lomax–The Man Who Recorded The World,” Sun Ra biographer John Szwed wrote, “To those who knew Alan’s work only from his songbooks he seemed to be…a kindly guide for a nostalgic return trip to simpler times. But he might have thought of himself as a spokesperson for the Other America, the common people, the forgotten and excluded, the ethinic, those who always come to life in troubled times….”
Contemporary radio is fragmented, but for a few moments in the mystery of darkness, the audience can be on a level playing field. There’s beauty of a billion stars on a clear night. Even if you can’t see them you can listen.
You will hear the nuance of a voice, the curl of a phrase, the pitch of laughter. Life finds perspective.
And that is what good radio can do.
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