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.
I was introduced to the music of Thom Bishop by an obscure 1971 compilation LP, part of a series recorded at the Red Herring coffeehouse in Urbana. The Red Herring hosted a lot of folk music back in the day, and it’s still open, though it’s now a vegetarian restaurant—I’ve even been, because I went to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The recordings on the Red Herring compilations are charmingly lo-fi and guileless, and I was further enchanted by the mystery surrounding the artists featured—though a 1969 volume does include a track from Dan Fogelberg, who was still in his teens when the LP came out but was already pretty darn good.
Bishop is one of my favorites across the multiple volumes of the series (he was a stylishly handsome devil too, judging from the few photos from that era I’ve seen), but he discounts his early-70s output as “embryonic” and deems it barely worth mentioning. When I contacted Bishop, I couldn’t help asking him about it, but at least we got the topic out of the way right at the start! And luckily, his career took plenty of interesting turns afterward, so there’s still quite a story to tell.
Born Thomas Burke Bishop Jr. in Litchfield, Illinois, Bishop grew up on Chuck Berry, West Side Story, Johnny Mercer, and Jacques Brel. He was an army brat, so his family moved all over the country during his youth, from Columbus, Georgia, to Santa Barbara, California—but he attended high school in Springfield, Illinois, where he played bass in bands such as the Brigs, Johnny & the Impalas (he wasn’t Johnny), and the Toffee Shoppe. The Brigs recorded one song at a local radio station, a cover of Richard & the Young Lions’ pounding but tuneful garage classic “Open Up Your Door.” It was never pressed or issued, but I haven’t given up bugging Bishop to get a listen.
In the early 70s, Bishop began gigging as a singer-songwriter (though he’s no fan of the term) in Urbana-Champaign, including at the folk festivals the Red Herring presented each fall and spring. The artists who participated could get their songs included on the aforementioned LPs, and Bishop contributed “White Lines and Road Signs” and “Kissed You Again” to the two volumes of Folk and Music From the Red Herring compiled in fall 1971. At publication time, a copy of the second LP was on sale through a local record shop for $225.
Bishop came to Chicago in 1974 and began playing steadily at famed venues such as Kingston Mines and the Earl of Old Town, usually accompanied by guitarist Louis Rosen—according to Rick Kogan, who wrote about Bishop for the Tribune in 1986, he won the Reader‘s “best new artist” honor that year. For a regular gig at Orphans, he put together a band with Billy Panda on electric guitar, Elliott Delman (formerly of Spoils of War and Mormos) on acoustic guitar, Jim Tullio on double bass, and Pennington McGee (who more famously played with SHoCM favorite Terry Callier) on percussion and backing vocals. Bishop also gigged with Callier himself, who worked a transcendent alchemy on folk, blues, and soul. “In my years in Chicago, while there were so many artists and musicians I admired, the one I was truly in awe of was Terry Callier,” he says. “And he was a beautiful person.”
Bishop got a formidable musical education sharing bills with blues royalty (Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker), acoustic guitar gods (John Fahey, Leo Kottke), and legendary local songwriters (John Prine, Bonnie Koloc). Other notable appearances included a show with comedian Jackie Mason, a packed 1978 anti-nuke rally in Seabrook, New Hampshire (where Bishop went on between Dick Gregory and Pete Seeger), and an opening slot for rowdy country outlaw David Allan Coe in downstate Illinois.
In the mid-70s, while getting into writing music for theater, Bishop began recording solo material in New York and Lake Geneva. He debuted in 1981 with the LP The Wireless Wonder, and since then he’s released three more albums and an EP billed to Thom Bishop: 1990’s Restless State of Grace, 1996’s Feed Me a Dream (recorded in Nashville), 2013’s A Little Physics and a Lot of Luck, and 2016’s The Amber Ages (cut in Boulder). But many folks who know him through these records aren’t aware that he has a parallel career under another name.
Confused? I sure was. “In 1980, I was cast in an Equity production at the St. Nicholas Theater,” Bishop says. “Equity has a rule that if a member has your name, you have to take a different one. Although I assumed I would never act again, I took ‘Junior Burke,’ the two parts of my name I wasn’t using.” Years later, the alias came in handy for a different purpose. “When I was focused more on writing prose fiction, my mentor, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, said, ‘If you want to be perceived as a writer, rather than a musician who writes, you should adopt a pen name,'” Bishop explains. “So I told her I already had Junior Burke, and she said, ‘Well, you can be sure no other writer has it.’ Immediately, everything I submitted under that name was getting published.”
Bishop moved to Los Angeles in 1982, because the Chicago club scene had slowed down and he had no management. He wrote a play called American Express that was staged in LA, directed by Second City cofounder Paul Sills and featuring Saturday Night Live veteran Laraine Newman. He cowrote the tune “Trials of the Heart” for the 1986 film About Last Night and began collaborating on screenplays. He sold several to Universal and Trimark, but in most cases the movies were never produced—and when they were, the scripts had often been rewritten so heavily that he barely cared anymore.
Bishop’s focus lately has been writing fiction and teaching, the latter mostly at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. “That’s been my primary creative life for the past couple of decades,” he says. He’s still making music, though, under both his names—since 2007 he’s released two albums and an EP as Junior Burke, including 2019’s America’s a Lonely Town, whose six songs he wrote with his old bandmate Billy Panda. “If most of the songs were written this century, it’s a Junior Burke recording,” he says.
Bishop (as Burke) also has a new novel out this month through Gibson House Press, titled The Cold Last Swim. Set in an alternate-timeline version of golden-age Hollywood, it kicks off with James Dean shooting Ronald Reagan during a live TV broadcast in 1954 and gets stranger from there. v