In 1971, Richard J. Daley won the fifth of what would ultimately be six Chicago mayoral elections (he died of a heart attack during his sixth term, in 1976). A little musical called Grease started its very first run at a Lincoln Avenue theater called Kingston Mines. And that summer the Union Stockyards closed for business, leaving a trail of their own kind of grease in the rubble on south Racine Street.
A free weekly newspaper called the Chicago Reader—which just entered its 50th year—also started showing up around town that fall. The back page of the first issue, published on Friday, October 1, is filled with free classified ads. They include some memorable bargains (a 1965 VW bus with a rebuilt engine for $850, a “life-size nude male torso” for $65), a kitten up for adoption named Attica (the famous prison riot had happened just weeks before), and several charming personals (I hope “50-year-old widow, good figure, likes cats and cat lore,” and “gentle liberal male seeks company of mature lady” hooked up). At the bottom of the page, the Services section began with a short ad for an event hosted by another Chicago institution, which wasn’t quite so young at the time: “Bonnie Koloc will autograph her new record at a party from 4 to 7 on October 10 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 909 W. Armitage.”
The “new record” in question was After All This Time, Koloc’s debut album, released in 1971 by local label Ovation Records. At age 25, Koloc was already the doyenne of the north-side folk scene, having left behind her studies at the University of Northern Iowa in the late 60s and come to Chicago to pursue music. Her warm, clear voice and friendly stage presence helped her quickly line up performance time at venues such as the Earl of Old Town and the Fifth Peg. After All This Time includes a cover of “Jazzman,” by folk-scene comrade Ed Holstein, and her version got a lot of airplay on Chicago radio in the ensuing year.
“It was an exciting time,” Koloc tells me via her manager, David Koppel. “The record release for my first album was being held at the Old Town School of Folk Music with Studs Terkel as master of ceremonies, which was an honor in itself.” Terkel had been a fan of Koloc’s work from the beginning, and would later invite her onto his WFMT radio show several times.
- Bonnie Koloc performs “Angel From Montgomery,” by her friend John Prine, in 1972.
As for the ad, no one could tell me who exactly had placed it in the Reader. But it’s a safe guess that someone at the Old Town School, which bought advertising elsewhere in that first issue (and has advertised in basically every Reader since), doubled up by placing the free notice to support a musician who was bringing notoriety to the school’s developing community of folkies.
Koloc has released ten more full-length albums in the intervening decades, and still makes music in addition to visual art. She returned to college in the 80s to finish her art degree, and since then has shown her work in ceramics and painting, including a notable 2009 solo exhibition at the Elmhurst Art Museum. She’s also a fervent supporter of animal rescues, and brought her dog companions onstage for a 2015 show at Evanston’s SPACE to join her on “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?”
- Koloc and her dogs onstage at SPACE in November 2015
Koloc was scheduled to play a concert with Holstein in November at the Promontory, but like so many other things in 2020, it had to be postponed in order to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines. “After a safe, widely effective, prevalent vaccine that’s approved by Dr. Fauci is out,” Koppel says, “we hope to reschedule the Promontory date.” Fans can find out when that happens and check out Koloc’s recent releases at bonniekoloc.com.
The number of newspapers at newsstands has nose-dived since 1971, and across the media landscape, it’s tough to find consistent, in-depth coverage of local artists. Concert listings have become ubiquitous online (at least when there are concerts), but the number of live humans writing about local music has declined steeply. Even an artist as prominent in her scene as Koloc was in the early 70s might have trouble getting press.
Fifty years on, the Reader has survived the first two decades of the Internet era, which permanently destroyed the circumstances that had made the paper such a uniquely important resource. As late as the end of the 1990s, print was the only game in town, but even without that advantage, the Reader is still unsurpassed at digging deep into Chicago’s musical cultures and subcultures. In 1971 folk was booming, and hip-hop was still years away. In 2021, hyperpop might have its moment, or some genre not yet born could surprise everyone—but whatever happens, the Reader will be there for it. v