Since 2005 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.
Chicagoland band the Jamestown Massacre provide the Secret History of Chicago Music an opportunity to discuss the “regional hit.” This phenomenon has survived the rise of streaming, which makes it seem like anyone can (at least in theory) find an audience anywhere. But the days when local radio play would drive equally local sales of an actual physical single are long gone—and that kind of regional hit could easily be totally obscure outside the artist’s hometown.
For instance, I used to think that Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” had been a global or at least national smash, and that everyone knew the words, But out-of-towners never recognized the tune or had any idea what I was talking about—until it appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in 2017. The Jamestown Massacre had one such local hit—though the song also made surprising and apparently random splashes in other local markets around the country and even abroad. The band also contributed a key member to a much more widely known group, who also rocked a film soundtrack or three.
The Jamestown Massacre, who share their name with a Native American attack on the English colony of Virginia in 1622, formed in 1967 in Windy City suburb Downers Grove. Glenn Messmer (drums), Mark Zapel (bass), and John Gilleran (guitar, vocals) agreed to play monthly shows at the Downers Grove Youth Center in exchange for a place to rehearse. V.J. Comforte (lead vocals) and Dennis Carlson (lead guitar, vocals) joined the group in 1968, along with Naperville native Dave Bickler (lead vocals, flute, harmonica, trumpet). At the beginning of 1969, Jeff Quinn (organ, trumpet, vocals) from nearby Glen Ellyn completed the Massacre’s seven-piece lineup.
They started off playing mostly covers, which was pretty typical at the time, but their repertoire was relatively diverse—they played tunes by the folky CSNY, the horn-heavy Ides of March, and the hard-rockin’ Led Zeppelin. The Massacre gigged at all the local teen clubs, youth centers, high schools, and colleges, sometimes with other bands who’d go on to release regional hits, such as the New Colony Six and the American Breed.
Once the Jamestown Massacre had sufficiently honed their chops (and especially their gooey vocal harmonies), they started recording. Beginning in 1970, they hooked up with a local jingle producer and worked on commercials for Schlitz Malt Liquor and Nestlé Crunch. That same year they cut a couple original tunes at Paragon Studios, founded in ’69 by producer and engineer Marty Feldman (after an impressive 46-year run, it shut down in 2015 when its Fulton Market building was sold out from under it). The group also booked several sessions at the legendary Chess Records studios, and in summer ’71 they made their recorded debut: producer Jim Golden released the single “Comin Home to You” b/w “The Next Round” on his Destination label.
That 45 went nowhere, but the band kept trying, heading to Detroit to record six more songs—including the pair on their next single, “Summer Sun” b/w “Words and Rhymes.” Released in spring ’72 on tiny Detroit label Luv, it didn’t initially make any waves, despite sparkling production by veteran engineer Milan Bogdan (who’d later work with artists as diverse as Emmylou Harris, Loleatta Holloway, and Bohannon). The breezy, horn-dappled “Summer Sun,” with vocals by Bickler and Comforte, sounds a bit like the Four Seasons covering Chicago—not a bad thing at all, to my pop-loving ears.
Luckily the big boys at Warner Brothers also heard something in the song, and in July they picked up the single for distribution. By late August, “Summer Sun” had hit number 20 on the charts at WCFL, founded by Chicago Federation of Labor in 1926 and at that point competing for dominance of Chicagoland’s AM rock market with ABC-owned WLS—where it didn’t chart at all. Nationally it peaked in September, reaching number 90 on the Billboard chart and number 78 on the Cashbox chart.
Oddly, the single moved units as far away as Mexico and Japan. In December “Summer Sun” hit number 18 on the charts maintained by the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and it got reissued with a classy black-and-white picture sleeve in Mexico. The 45 also did well locally in Honolulu, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Bismarck, North Dakota, among other towns.
By the time the Jamestown Massacre put out their second single through Warner Brothers, the 1974 release “Saturday Night” b/w “The Valley,” Bickler had quit to do jingle work—he’d left even before “Summer Sun” had charted. But because of that success, the rest of the band had high hopes—which were dashed when the new record completely flopped. It’s apparently so forgettable that nobody’s even bothered to upload it to YouTube (and you can find all sorts of forgotten crap on YouTube). After this failure and several more lineup changes, the band morphed into the harder-rockin’ Mariah. Mariah’s lone full-length, a self-titled 1975 LP with cover art worthy of the side of a custom van, includes only Comforte from the original Jamestown Massacre lineup.
Three songs on the Mariah album are written by Jim Peterik, a member of Chicago’s rock royalty who at that point was best known from the Ides of March. In 1978, when Peterik formed his next band, Survivor, he recruited a member of Mariah, Frankie Sullivan, who’d returned to Chicago after a spell on the west coast. Bickler, who’d met Peterik on the jingle circuit after leaving the Jamestown Massacre, joined Survivor too. He sang the megahit “Eye of the Tiger,” propelled to fame by its use in the 1982 film Rocky III, and stayed with the FM radio giants for four albums—he left in 1983, then returned for most of the 90s and again briefly in the 2010s. Bickler still performs with Peterik on occasion when not doing lucrative commercial work, and in 2019 he released the solo album Darklight.
I didn’t have much luck finding out what became of the other members of the Jamestown Massacre, though I did see one mention of a partial reunion in the 2000s or 2010s. Their legacy as a beloved 70s one-hit wonder endures, though, as an endearing YouTube video posted in 2013 demonstrates: California-based Asian American band Elemental Funk completely nails the song, with note-perfect harmonies. If any tune of mine were still being performed by anyone more than 40 years from now, I know I’d be as happy as “Summer Sun” makes me feel!
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.