Meeting A Personal Hero
I began my professional music career as a folk singer. I played and sang with bands during and after high school. I was a horn player and vocalist. We never made money, we just played for the fun of playing . Just loud, brassy, swaggering teen aged rock and roll.
But what I really wanted was to sing harmony and play the acoustic guitar. I didn’t know anything about the so-called “folk revival” in 1969, but I had an uncle who did and introduced me to albums by the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, the Kingston Trio and the Chad Mitchell Trio, and I soon found Bob Dylan on my own.
I learned that one of the premier places to hear the kind of music these men played was the Earl of Old Town, and that the Chicago guy to see was the great Bob Gibson.
My first year after high school, I was trying to transition from Byrds-like rock to more authentic folk, when I finally had the chance to see Gibson play at the Earl. I had met a friend from high school downtown over Thanksgiving break, and after touring the Art Institute, I asked her if she wanted to grab a burger at a folk club. She said, “sure”, and not having any real sense of distance in the city, we set off walking. Straight up Wells Street, the 40-or-so blocks from the loop to Old Town, Chicago’s answer to the Haight. Did I mention it was November?
When we got to the Earl, we realized that it was well worth the walk. There, on that tiny little stage with the Shure Vocalmaster P.A., was the man himself – Bob Gibson, American folk legend. He was exactly as I had imagined: a man of the people, reminding us to keep our “skillets good and greasy”, and having a heck of a good time.
In addition to a great set by the master, we also got to see and hear for the very first time at the Earl ; “a great new singer-songwriter on the scene, who’s going play a few songs for you”. I had never heard of Steve Goodman, but after that afternoon I wasn’t likely to forget him. Truly, a day tucked away in the back of my mind, pushing me further toward my calling; I was going to be singing my own songs, there, on that stage, someday.
It took some work, but by 1973 I was playing the North side folk clubs in Chicago in an act known locally as “Bartholomew and Douglas with C J Holton”. I played guitar and sang, Teddy Douglas played guitar and banjo and sang, while our friend C J tried his best to keep up with our frantic take on folk and bluegrass on the bass. We were young and brash; we played every open mic and showcase we could find, scored big with the crowd at the Saddle Club, and even did a guest set of our own at the Earl. Eventually, Dan Johnson, who owned a club, Orphans, up on Lincoln Avenue, took a shine to us and we began playing his club regularly, and for real money too.
Orphans was a place where a lot of players would go to hang, have a drink, and catch the show in the back room, and one night, sitting in the back with a couple of friends was Bob Gibson, himself. And he seemed to be enjoying himself.
At the end of the set, I was packing up my Martin when Gibson himself walked up and introduced himself. He said he’d seen us a couple times and liked our harmonies and energy. He said he thought we had a future and introduced one of his buddies, Pete, who was a Record Producer, to us. I was stunned. He said Pete was an independent producer and engineer. Pete had just come to town from Champaign/Urbana, and was looking for some people to work with. “Would you like to record a demo?” Well, hell yes we would, and thank you very much Mister Gibson for the benediction. With that, Bob Gibson walked away and Ted and I sat down and laid our plans with young Pete from Champaign.
Some things simply are not what they seem. Pete had done a solo album down at the U of I, called “Thesis”, which should have been a large tip off to more experienced players. All we knew was that this guy had mics and a reel-to-reel recorder and he would be at Ted’s place on Monday to begin our demo sessions. It would be a location recording, because that would give it a “more natural vibe”, and the location was our place.
Pete was the type who wanted everybody to get comfortable before recording, which required as many beers, as much food, and as much weed as anyone else could provide. We recorded the vocals in the bathroom (“Man, the reverb in there is outrageous”) and managed to crank out five songs before the supplies ran out along with our energy and enthusiasm for the project. At one point, Pete hit the wrong button and erased the three-part vocals on the outro for one of the songs. Ouch! We gave Pete some money and said thanks and that was that. We had a tape. For what it was worth.
It took a few years for me to understand exactly what had gone down between Bob Gibson, Pete the producer, and Bartholomew and Douglas. I think I know now, how it all came about, but I can’t be sure; and with Bob passed on to through those Golden Doors, I’ll never really know.
I can see Pete hitching to Chicago, after finishing his college “Thesis”, looking for a way to get into “the Biz”, and meeting Bob Gibson. He was a big name and a nice man, and probably didn’t have the heart to just say “buzz off” to this enthusiastic young admirer. So he passed Pete on to us. I’m sure he believed he was doing us both a favor. I never got a chance to tell him how the recording turned out. I never saw him at Orphan’s again, as a matter of fact. Funny how that worked out. But I know in my heart that when I saw him listening to our set that night before this goofy business was transacted, he was having a good time. Keep that skillet good and greasy.
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