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The School of Rock

Lead guitarist Gary Richrath rocks Assembly Hall at a 1971 REO Speedwagon concert. Illinois was a mecca for music in the late 1960s and '70s. Arnie White photo

From Chances R to REO, the Red Lion Inn to All-Star Frogs, Foellinger Auditorium to The Finchley Boys, Illinois roared with the rock ’n’ roll revolution

 

By Doug Peterson

Chances R was packed, with smoke hanging low over the raucous crowd, as the band Cheap Trick prepared to begin its set. It was the early 1970s, and looking down on the stage from one of the club’s multilevel balconies were Geoff Poor ’71 LAS, from the group Feather Train, and George Faber, the shaggy-haired lead singer of The Finchley Boys.

As Cheap Trick began to play the power chords of its first song, a member of the band glanced up, spotted Faber and motioned for him to join them on stage. Over 6 feet tall and thin as a rail (“rock weight,” they called it), Faber was also one of the most electrifying showmen in the area, so he didn’t walk down – he leaped from the balcony, harmonica in hand, just as Cheap Trick launched into “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” He landed on the stage like a bolt from the blue and hurled himself into the music as the crowd erupted.

“That was the most magical rock ’n’ roll thing I had ever seen,” says Poor.

That is saying a lot because the 1960s and ’70s were a magical time for rock ’n’ roll on the University of Illinois campus. It was a heady time across the nation, but for a community the size of Champaign-Urbana, the ’60s and ’70s were unique, producing an astounding variety of music and bands. Major acts, such as The Eagles, played the UI campus bar scene, but the heart and soul of C-U music were the local bands that toured throughout the Midwest – The Regiment, Head East, The One-Eyed Jacks, Duke Tumatoe and The All-Star Frogs, Starcastle, Ginger, Feather Train, The Ship, The Rave, The Finchley Boys and so many more. Out of this mix, some would go on to make their mark on a national stage, most notably rockers REO Speedwagon and the late folksinger Dan Fogelberg ’71.

“The thing that always amazed our whole band was how competitive and how good the music was in Champaign,” says Gregg Philbin ’69 MEDIA, who played bass guitar for REO Speedwagon from 1968 to 1977. “I have been all over the country, and perhaps the only music scenes that were on a level or higher were, of course, Nashville, and Austin, Texas.

“Champaign has always produced incredible musicians.”

Chances R was the first important club to get it rolling, says Larry Fredrickson ’73, a music education major with the group Ginger. Chances R opened in downtown Champaign in 1966; shortly thereafter, the area’s second iconic club – the Red Lion – arrived at Third and Green streets. With the Brown Jug on Sixth Street rounding out the Big Three, the community had a continuous stream of sound seven nights a week.

'Music was all we had'

The influence of this singular time in Champaign-Urbana continues today, for the man who sits atop Billboard magazine’s 2012 list of the most powerful people in music is Irving Azoff ’70, HON ’03, who emerged from the UI scene. He was the driving force at campus-based Blytham Ltd., the most important booking agency for bands in the Midwest in the ’60s and ’70s.

Blytham was “incredibly aggressive and used a ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach to [signing bands] on their roster,” Philbin recalls. “They changed the Champaign music scene forever by getting the Big Three clubs into bidding wars, driving prices up.

“The bands began to make a lot of money.”

In fact, the ’60s and ’70s acts had a much better shot at making a living from their music than today’s groups. The Regiment, for example, made $69,000 in its second year – almost a half million in today’s dollars, says Ralph Senn ’69 MEDIA, who played rhythm guitar for the band, the first one that Azoff represented.

After leaving the area, Azoff went on to represent a long list of top-tier performers, including The Eagles, Van Halen, REO Speedwagon, Steely Dan, Jewel, Journey and Christina Aguilera. He now serves as executive chairman of Live Nation Entertainment, which was created with the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation.

But the key to everything, honestly, was an Illinois graduate – Bob Nutt ’66,” says Poor. “Bob Nutt formed Blytham Ltd., and Irving [Azoff] was his second lieutenant. Bob Nutt created the rock ’n’ roll scene [on campus].”

“Bob was almost – not mystical, but he had that kind of aura,” adds Fredrickson. With his long hair and wild clothes, Nutt was the guru, while Azoff was the workaholic. Their super-agency was one of three converging influences that made Champaign-Urbana stand out among campus music scenes, Fredrickson observes. The other two were the booming local venues and the Chicago talent who came to attend Illinois and perform.

“Feather Train

Feather Train plays for a Quad crowd in 1970.

You can’t understand the music of the times, however, without understanding the context – the broader culture, says Lawrence Grossberg, PHD ’76 MEDIA, a cultural studies scholar known nationwide for his work on popular music. (He taught speech communication at Illinois until 1994, introducing the University’s first course on rock ’n’ roll.)

According to Grossberg’s “Rock Formation” concept, to fully comprehend the music, you have to grasp what was happening in the concurrent civil rights, antiwar and counterculture movements. You also have to realize that rock music was the one thing that youth culture could then claim as all its own.

Part of what defined the music through the ’70s was also that kids thought the music belonged to them and no other generations,” he says. “So it was important that your parents didn’t like rock ’n’ roll. It was important that kind of music pissed people off.”

Television and film at that time were not aimed at adolescents, says Grossberg, now a professor of communication and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We didn’t have the Internet. Music was all we had, and that’s why it mattered so much.”

Captain Rat, the Shirley Sisters and Led Zeppelin

This was especially true at U of I. Without lakes or mountains as diversions, “there wasn’t much else to do,” says Mark Rubel ’79 LAS, who has run Champaign’s Pogo recording studio since 1980. “Are you going to go out bowling if you’re a hippie?”

“Students were stuck here, stayed here and focused here,” Senn says. “It would be very hard to do today.

All-Star Frogs

Rhythm and blues band All-Star Frogs

In the 1960s and ’70s, Champaign-Urbana music was a “scene,” Rubel says. “And each bar had its own scene. There were the regulars and the weirdos and the beautiful girls and strange people and the shady characters and the out-and-out criminals. It was like a cartoon.”

 

 Among these “cartoon characters” was the very group that Rubel has played for since the ’70s – Captain Rat and the Blind Rivets. At the grand finale of a 1980 gig at the Intramural Physical Education Building, electric guitarist Tim Vear ’72 ENG, using a wireless system, skateboarded off the pool’s diving board and remained underwater for optimum effect. Uninformed of the stunt, the team of lifeguards leaped in to save him; the group was subsequently banned from performing at the complex.

Three other colorful characters in the University’s psychedelic scene were the Shirley sisters – Jane Shirley Hoch ’70, Mary Genevra Shirley ’76 FAA and Anne Shirley Faber ’77 ACES. The siblings started In Stitches, a Champaign-based business that made outfits for local and national rock musicians, including the Yardbirds’ capes, vests and fringed jackets.

Mary, who passed away in 2000, and Jimmy Page, the Yardbirds guitarist who co-founded Led Zeppelin, “had a thing for each other,” recalls Anne. In fact, she confirms the legend that Mary (called “Genevra” by people in the music biz), a top violinist who played with The Finchley Boys, helped Page as he struggled to write one of the most iconic rock songs of all time.

Page was trying to transpose a piece of classical music for the song’s beginning, “and he couldn’t get it right,” Anne says. “Mary showed him what the right chords were.” The melody became the intro for “Stairway to Heaven.”

In Stitches was just one of several dozen “alternative” businesses that sprouted up to complement the wild music scene. Included were the Metamorphosis restaurant, Good Vibes stereo shop and organic grocery stores such as Strawberry Fields, all enterprises that started with ’60s idealism and little concern about turning a profit.

At the center of this alternative universe was Record Service, founded in 1969 by Phil Strang ’72 MEDIA and his friends.

When regional and national bands hit town, they would inevitably hang out at the store. Record Service aimed to “serve people and not just make money,” Strang says, and it maintained its campus presence on Green Street until the “not just making money” philosophy transformed into a “losing money” one, due to the changing nature of the music biz. The iconic store closed its doors in 2004, leaving Strang to search for just the second job he had had in his adult life.

Boring? No way

In addition to the original Big Three clubs, Champaign-Urbana boasted many other musical landmarks, such as Panama Red’s, Ruby Gulch, Nature’s Table, The Alley Cat, Treno’s and The Red Herring coffeehouse at the Channing-Murray Foundation, where Fogelberg got his start before going national.

And then there was Mabel’s.

The Finchley Boys

Blues/rock/psychedelic band The Finchley Boys

“It was insane, and it was great,” Rubel says.

Politics also played a role in local music, particularly in the folk scene. Kristin Lems, MA ’75 LAS, MA ’83 LAS, regularly drove her orange pickup truck right onto the Quad, where she would launch into songs about the Vietnam War and the Equal Rights Amendment for women.

The war galvanized the campus, culminating in protests and riots in 1970, which drew the National Guard and shut down Green Street.

But the music of the ’60s and ’70s, at its root level, was not really about politics and ideology, says Grossberg. He says the music was a repudiation of what youth perceived to be conventional lives.

“Rock ’n’ roll was about how it made you feel,” he points out. “The music was a celebration of not being bored. It was a rejection of a lifestyle, of not wanting to spend your life in a boring, terrible job making money.”

Growing talent at home

Which brings us back to one of the least boring people on the Champaign-Urbana scene – George Faber of The Finchley Boys. In the late ’60s, Faber began performing with a live boa constrictor in his hands, long before the rock band Alice Cooper made the stunt famous. (Some even claim that they got the idea when they saw The Finchley Boys perform.)

Whether it was snakes on a stage or REO Speedwagon “blowing the doors off” of the Red Lion (for a 50-cent cover), as Carl Palczewski ’75 ENG put it, the U of I rocked, and it continued to do so in the 1980s and beyond.

In fact, the band named Champaign hit the national charts with its 1981 rhythm-and-blues smash, “How ’Bout Us.” The group was even bigger in Europe, says Rena Day, one of the band’s singers, who recalls being mobbed by screaming fans in Amsterdam.

The 1980s also introduced the music world to Champaign bluegrass-country sensation Alison Krauss, who went on to win 27 Grammys, the most of any living performer. But the ’60s and ’70s still stand out as a unique time for music on campus.

“It was thriving,” says folksinger Lems. “We were definitely a center, and we grew our own talent, and then we sent it out into the world to sing.”

“How good was the music scene?” asks Stephen Chicoine ’72 LAS. “Good enough to walk a mile in subzero weather to pick up a date, then walk another mile to the club, then dance and stay late, then repeat the long walk home. Worth it?

“Oh yeah.”

Peterson ’77 MEDIA has authored 59 books, including the historical novels The Disappearing Man and The Puzzle People.

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