Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
These days Skip Griparis lives in Bolingbrook and is best known as a musical comedian—his highest-profile gig has probably been playing opposite Bob Uecker as a color commentator in the 1989 baseball comedy Major League and its 1994 sequel. But in 1970 he put out an album with a great band called Trilogy, and it deserves more ears.
Griparis was born in Joliet in 1948, and he grew up hearing his mother play classical music on an upright piano in their home. She was giving him lessons by the time he was five, and soon he started getting into early rock ‘n’ roll like Del Shannon, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley—the first single he bought was “Hound Dog”—as well as surf rock like the Ventures and R&B like Sam Cooke.
Griparis started on saxophone at age 13, and in 1963 he bought his first electric guitar—a “peppermint twist” Gretsch Corvette—from his uncle’s shop in Villa Park. Within the year he’d started his first band, the Aristocats, and he went on to play in the Telstars, State Prism, and the Boyz (though not the one that featured a young Rick Nielsen or the one that became well-loved local biker band the Boyzz).
The Boyz had evolved from the Jaguars, and included guitarist and singer Bob Wilson from that group; Griparis also knew guitarist and keyboardist Kevin “Mack” McCann from another local band called the Knights. Griparis met with Wilson and McCann in his basement to discuss forming a Joliet “supergroup,” and they named themselves the Crystal Tower. The band became a five-piece, though Bernie Pershey (drums, tabla) and Jim Branshaw (bass) functioned more like sidemen. The Crystal Tower played originals alongside covers by heroes such as Buffalo Springfield, Cream, and the Association, and they gigged all over the midwest—they opened for the Byrds at Chicago’s International Amphitheatre, for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Indiana, and for Buddy Rich at the Young Adults Club in Frankfort, Illinois.
Not all their shows were so glamorous, though. “The Crystal Tower played a frat party in the basement of a Chicago Greek church,” Griparis remembers. “In the middle of a set, the house lights turn off, and there’s pandemonium while an old Greek lady yells, ‘Open dee light, open dee light!’ When the lights come back on, we can see that the pie-eating contest in front of us had become a pie-throwing melee, with pie covering all of us, our guitars, and our amps. This had obviously been planned by the frat boys. Disgusted, we packed up and left.”
The Crystal Tower secured management in the form of famed Mercury Records exec Robin McBride, who got them a weeklong gig at the Bitter End in New York City, supporting the legendary Dion DiMucci. But it didn’t turn out to be much of a stepping stone. “Dion was awesome, but we were paid $300 total, out of which we had to pay our hotel (we all stayed in one room) and travel,” Griparis says. “Plus some of our equipment got stolen from the basement of the club. Woo-hoo! We’re big-time now!”
In 1968, McBride also arranged for the Crystal Tower to record six songs in the Chicago studio of jingle producer Dick Marx (father of late-80s pop star Richard Marx). Nothing ever became of those tapes, but Griparis suspects other people managed to hear them somehow. “Two years later, Chicago releases ‘Make Me Smile,’ which seems to borrow heavily from my ‘Lost Ellen’ from the Crystal Tower sessions,” he says. “Coincidence?”
In late 1969 (or possibly early 1970) the Crystal Tower dissolved and regrouped as Trilogy, with Thom Richards replacing Branshaw on bass. They promptly recorded an album at RCA Studios in Chicago, adding acoustic tracks laid down at Ter-Mar Studios. Engineer Brian Christian and producer Pat McBride (from the New Colony Six) mixed it at RCA late at night, and Griparis was the only member who stuck around for that step. “Bob and Mack had taken off with two pretty girls,” he says. “I’m amazed that the mix was decent, given how exhausted we were.”
The sole Trilogy album, I’m Beginning to Feel It, came out in 1970, and it’s an excellent mix of harmonious and heady folk rock (“Three Blind Minds,” “The Royal Shut”) and heavy countrified rock (“I’m Beginning to Feel It,” “Thought #2 / Removing Myself”). It sounds a little like west-coast bands such as Moby Grape and CSNY, which made it stand out in Chicago. Mercury chose the title track and “Red Wine” as the first two singles, but the latter was promptly pulled from radio thanks to a national crackdown on songs referencing drugs or alcohol. The LP and the singles sank without a trace.
“Mercury Records hardly bothered to promote us,” Griparis says. “They were more interested in breaking Buddy Miles and Rod Stewart. Years later, Robin McBride told me, ‘We really blew it with you guys!'”
The band soon fell apart. Pershey had left right after the sessions, before the album even came out, moving to Minneapolis to join heavy psych act Lightning (formerly White Lightning, with members of the Litter). He was replaced for the remaining Trilogy gigs by Rick Barr, who now drums with the reconstituted version of the New Colony Six. Pershey would later move to Los Angeles and play in Olivia Newton-John’s band.
Wilson joined a string of groups in Nashville, and in 1999 he wrote lyrics for a few songs on Griparis’s first solo record, Love in Lincoln Park. He retired in 2012 from his job as principal at the Nashville School of the Arts, but he continues to gig in the cover band Timeline. McCann has worked for decades in hotel catering in Orange County, California.
Griparis joined Stronghold immediately after Trilogy split, then moved on to the New Colony Six, adding guitar and lead vocals to the original band’s final two singles between 1972 and ’74. In 1975 he also joined the Olivia Newton-John band, sticking with that gig till ’78, and the following year he backed Demis Roussos, formerly of Aphrodite’s Child.
In 1983 Griparis went solo, developing a musical comedy act that includes tons of impressions. He has a successful career to this day, and in one of his most popular shows he recounts the early history of rock by impersonating dozens of musicians from the 1940s through the ’60s—coming full circle back to the music he fell in love with as a kid. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.