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.
Historians, archaeologists, and treasure hunters tend to be obsessive people, but they don’t expend all those hours of sweat and energy for just anything—like anybody else, they’ve got their specific interests, and you’ve gotta dangle the right carrot to get them going. And the artist known formerly as “Fuzzy” checks at least three boxes on my list of requirements for a Secret History subject.
First, I found a cool photo of this hairy fellow on the sleeve of a beloved, obscure compilation record I already owned, with zero further information. (Always a tempting rabbit hole.) Second, he appears to have ties to Chicago and to the underground in Champaign-Urbana, where I went to school. Third—and let’s be honest, probably the most important—the guy was called “Fuzzy.” If there’s not a story there, then I don’t know where to sniff for one!
After some sleuthing, I was able to locate Fuzzy himself, and it turns out he has a great and largely untold tale. His proper name is Michael deLisle, and he was born in the boondocks of upstate New York in 1950, near Albany. Raised largely on his uncle Pete’s farm, he grew up hearing the music his parents loved, including big-band records and smooth pop crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.
The family moved to Long Island when deLisle was seven, and within a couple years he gave his first public musical performance, singing folky songs (“Tom Dooley,” “The Battle of New Orleans”) in front of his class at school. His dad’s job required the family to make several more moves, but when deLisle was ten his family settled in the far southern suburb of Park Forest (near Chicago Heights and Matteson). Rock ‘n’ roll was taking over the country, and while attending Rich East High School, deLisle tuned in to WLS and DJs such as Dick Biondi, who pumped up the British Invasion when it hit. Later in the 60s, he got into psychedelic rock (he loved the likes of Cream and Jefferson Airplane) and the blues artists who’d influenced his favorite rock ‘n’ rollers, among them Bukka White and Muddy Waters.
In high school, deLisle joined a series of colorfully named garage bands (the Trids, the Evening Tides), playing the usual school dances and church socials, but none of them amounted to much. But deLisle loved soaking up the scene and learning from the examples set by more accomplished young musicians. “One of the highlights was that I regularly got to see Berry Oakley in his high school band, the Shanes,” he recalls. At that point, the future Allman Brother had yet to switch to bass. “He played lead back then and tore it the flip up. Great band, and he was obviously the engine that made it go.”
DeLisle left for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in September 1967. The music community around the school was ludicrously fertile—he started a band called Street Corner Prophecy the day he arrived, and they played their first gig that night. “It was a heady mix of college bars like Brown Jug, Ruby Gulch, Chances R, the Alley Cat, and Midway Tavern,” he says. “We also played a lot of fraternity and sorority parties, as well as going on the road for numerous gigs booked by Champaign booking agents Blytham and Apple.”
In 1970 deLisle dropped out of UIUC, having run out of money and lost interest in his classes. Once he was no longer in college, he was drafted, but he never had to serve—he injured his knee badly enough in a motorcycle crash to receive a 4-F medical deferment.
DeLisle ultimately stayed in the C-U area for 15 years, playing in a plethora of bands—early in that period, they included rock groups Briarwood Thyme and Pythea’s Tribe and the folkier outfit We Free. Pythea’s Tribe “had a wonderful female singer named Dee Ann Ford, who could belt out Grace Slick tunes like there was no tomorrow,” according to deLisle, and in 1970 they opened for the Siegel-Schwall Band at the Aragon (“One of the nicest places I ever played”).
I learned about deLisle through his connections to happening Urbana coffeehouse the Red Herring, where Pythea’s Tribe and We Free played several shows. Beginning in 1970, the Red Herring released a string of compilation LPs documenting the local scene, and deLisle’s electric bass turns up on both fall 1971 volumes of Folk and Music From the Red Herring. On the back cover of the second, he’s pictured drinking a beer, identified only as “Fuzzy.”
When those LPs were being planned, We Free had already broken up. But local folkie Les Urban, who would eventually appear on both volumes, had played with deLisle in We Free, Pythea’s Tribe, and Briarwood Thyme. That was enough to get deLisle on wax too. “I was asked to play bass on a number of cuts supporting a talented folkie named Barrow Davidian,” he says. “It was my first studio session and I loved it.”
The nickname “Fuzzy” arose from deLisle’s impressive hairstyle at the time. “One of my college roommates or cohorts bestowed it on me, involuntarily,” he says. “It was apt enough, as I was already working on a good white-guy ‘fro, not from any sense of style, but because I didn’t like haircuts and figured a big head of hair fit in pretty well with the late 60s and early 70s. That name itself I thought might have been useful, as a few of our activities in those days were occasionally not quite legal and I figured maybe not having a real name could come in handy. Probably not, but who knows?”
From 1973 till ’74 deLisle played in country-rock band Appaloosa, who would eventually enjoy significant local success, but they didn’t release their first album till after he left. He and Appaloosa guitarist Michael Fitzgerald quit that band to form the Smokin’ Grays, named after rolling papers. They occasionally borrowed a reel-to-reel or cassette recorder, which allowed them to capture an informal 1974 show in deLisle’s living room in the Illinois countryside: “Fledgling superstar Dan Fogelberg joined me and fellow Smokin’ Grays guitarist Michael Fitzgerald for a lengthy instrumental jam,” deLisle recalls, “that to this day those who were fortunate enough to sit in residence insist included some of the best music they’ve ever heard.”
DeLisle also kept busy as a solo act, which he describes a bit self-deprecatingly: “Just me, my Martin D-35, and a really nice PA built by the super sound gurus at August Systems. But at the time, just me and my guitar weren’t terribly exciting, so I started looking around for a solid backup band.”
DeLisle’s solo career might’ve peaked in 1980. “I’ve always been a sports fan, and especially rooted hard for the University of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team,” he says. “In 1980, mostly for fun, I recorded on my four track reel-to-reel a jingle-like tune praising that particular team. The next morning I dropped off a few cassettes I’d dubbed of the song at local radio stations, and driving from the first to the second I turned on the car radio and my song was playing! The next thing I knew, I was being interviewed by the newspaper and had been invited to sing the song live that night in front of 16,000 people at the U. of I. Assembly Hall.”
He jumped at the chance. “I got through the three-minute-long performance with no difficulty other than shaky hands and knees,” deLisle says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but the performance was broadcast live on TV, and when I walked into my local bar afterward I was greeted as a hero. I couldn’t buy my own beer for weeks thereafter. The following spring, I penned a sequel and was again asked to sing it at halftime, again on live TV. Once more I accepted and once more received the hero treatment.”
DeLisle’s first halftime hit prompted him to finally release some music in physical form, and he cut a 45 as Fuzzy deLisle in 1980. “I released a whopping total of one record,” he says. “Side A was ‘She Got the Dog, I Got the Sony,’ a wry, hard-core country look back at a disruptive breakup with a long-term lover. The other side was a topical tune called ‘Outa Work,’ which resonated with the times and the high unemployment rates of the 1980s.”
The record didn’t seem to gain any momentum from deLisle’s local fame, though. “It fell far short of my hopes, selling fewer than 100 copies and only getting significant airtime at one east central Illinois radio station, at which I did do a live interview to promote the record, but to little avail,” he says. “I still have a couple hundred copies of the 45 if you know anyone needing a paperweight.”
Solo gigs in Champaign followed the record release, but deLisle quickly realized he’d get a better crowd response with a full band, so he put together the Sangamon River Bandits—a five-piece with guitars, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bass, and drums, which later slimmed down to a trio. “We hit the chitlin’ circuit and biker-bar circuit and managed to survive it all, even an eye-opening knife fight between two drunken but deadly females at a club in Streator,” deLisle recalls. “Another whew.”
DeLisle left Illinois in 1982 for east Tennessee, where he still lives. “When I got here, I started out solo, as I was penning a tremendous volume of original material,” he says. “After that momentum slowed, I put together the Michael Brothers Band and enjoyed a successful run with them for several years.” He played bass and sang lead in that group, whose dual lead guitars attracted lots of Allman Brothers comparisons, and to this day he considers it the best lineup of his career.
None of deLisle’s bands ever toured, but he managed to play lots of great shows at home. The Michael Brothers Band opened for Leon Russell and Edgar Winter at the Tennessee Theatre in 1989, and a subsequent outfit, Mojo, warmed up for Bo Diddley (also serving as his backing band) and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
DeLisle went into semi-retirement in the mid-90s upon the birth of his son, Jesse, and then spent many years exploring the art of long-form fiction (he says he’s written seven unpublished novels). In the mid-2010s, though, he returned to live music.
“I’d been enjoying a renaissance the last couple years until the pandemic hit, playing solo two, three nights a week, blending a lot of original material with some choice covers,” he says. “Once the world shut down, that avenue was closed off, and I retreated to my home studio. I’d always wanted to document my original music, and I’ve made pretty good headway recording the bulk of it and posting the best on social media. Also teaching myself a few licks on electric, jamming along with a myriad of backing tracks on YouTube.”
Clearly, there’s no stopping Fuzzy—even though he doesn’t much love that name anymore, especially since getting sober in 1990. I’m sorry—I couldn’t resist just one! May he get the recognition he’s long deserved. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.
- Michael deLisle wrote “I’m Still Walkin’ Down the Same Old Road” as a much younger man, then dusted it off during quarantine in June 2020.