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.
One of the things I love most about Chicago’s music scene is its diversity. Sure, the city is famed for its blues, soul, jazz, and house music—but over the years, genres as wide-ranging as punk, postrock, country and western, and even reggae and ska have all been well-represented here. One case in point is reggae band Skanking Lizard. They were originally active from 1978 till 1996, and now is a great time to tell their story: they’ve just released an archival LP that thoroughly documents their musical legacy for the first time.
I was lucky enough to speak to founding vocalist Alan “Blood” Lery, one of Skanking Lizard’s handful of constant members, to get the details. “The band came about in the early 70s, when myself and other friends visited Negril, Jamaica, while we were students at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale,” Lery says. “We fell in love with reggae and would try and get our hands on any records we could. Moving back to Chicago, we then started to jam reggae for fun. One guy said, ‘I play guitar.’ Another said, ‘I play bass.’ Another, drums. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll be the singer.'”
The original members were all north-siders who attended Mather and Amundsen High Schools: Ken Sutchar (keyboards), Tom Sarelas (drums), Dennis Sarelas (percussion), Dan Gordon (bass), Rick Miller (rhythm guitar), Jerry Smolinsky (lead guitar), and of course Lery. During those early years, Tom Sarelas was briefly replaced by Jamaican drummer Noel Forbes. By the late 70s, the group had developed a distinctive sound that flavored reggae with American roots rock, and in 1978 they played their first proper gig—at the Cubby Bear, which had just been bought by their friend George Loukas.
“We didn’t even have a name at the time,” Lery says. The club promoted the show in the Reader with an ad that simply said “Reggae band playing.” Lery claims they were the first band to ever play at the Cubby Bear, and that hundreds of people showed up.
“After that success, we made a demo at Soto Sound Studio in Evanston and named ourselves Skanking Lizard,” Lery says. “We presented our tape to Otis Taylor (of Flying Fish Records), who was spinning reggae records at the Roadhouse (at Broadway and Belmont) on Tuesday nights in 1978. Otis was in shock a little, as he wasn’t expecting much from white guys wearing softball uniforms—most of the band played softball on Tuesday nights, and we would go drink and hear Otis spin after our games. He liked the demo and then got us hired to do our first gig as Skanking Lizard at the Roadhouse.”
Skanking Lizard were widely acknowledged as Chicago’s first live reggae band, and sometimes they worried about how they’d be received because they were mostly white. It never created a serious problem, though.
“I remember one of our first gigs, for a Jamaican promoter—backing up famous reggae artist Joe Higgs, who was Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff’s tutor,” Lery recalls. “It was at the Masonic Temple in Evanston. The crowd was mostly Jamaicans, and it was dark in the hall and it was packed. I was very nervous, but we started to play, and all of a sudden the place erupted in screaming approval of a Mighty Diamonds song we were playing. After that, we had many good experiences playing with Jamaican toasters who would come up and sing onstage with us. We were always on good terms with everybody.”
Skanking Lizard gigged for two years with this lineup, but then the members’ conflicting goals forced them to take a break for several months. Tom Sarelas came back aboard on drums, and the band found a new guitarist and a new bassist. George Kolmar and John Scaccia, respectively, filled those roles in 1981, and along with Sutchar and Lery they were consistently part of the group for the rest of its history.
In the 1980s, Skanking Lizard became one of Chicago’s most beloved festival bands and played tour dates with reggae legends such as Toots & the Maytals, the Mighty Diamonds, and Steel Pulse. Their appeal wasn’t limited to reggae fans either: they also opened for the likes of Koko Taylor, the Neville Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron, and the B-52s. Lery fondly recalls playing at the Riviera with the B-52s: “I remember the singer-guitarist saying, ‘I like you guys, and so must our fans. You’re the first band they haven’t thrown stuff on the stage at, and they let you play your whole set.’ They were young—it was the ‘Rock Lobster’ days—and the girls wore beehives.”
That said, Skanking Lizard drew their biggest crowds at reggae-focused gigs. “One time we opened for Toots & the Maytals at the Cubby Bear. It was so crowded the fire marshal came,” Lery says. “After our set you couldn’t move through the crowd—it took over a hour to find our wives and girlfriends. The manager told me it was the biggest crowd ever at Cubby Bear and they took in over $15,000 at the door—that was a lot back then!”
Skanking Lizard released only one recording in their lifetime: the 1983 seven-inch “Jesse James” b/w “Mushroom” on their own Lizard Records. Infused with synthesizer and distorted guitar, it charted in the top 40 in Jamaica. Under the name Alan Blood, Lery put out a 12-inch called Kingston Meets Chicago the following year, also via the Lizard label—and until now, those were the only formal releases from the band or its front man.
The story behind Lery’s 12-inch is complex. The record’s coproducer, Jimmy Becker (who’d been a studio harmonica player in Kingston in the late 70s), was in Jamaica in 1982 to play the Reggae Sunsplash festival with Missouri-based group the Blue Riddim Band. While there, he got the idea to make a dubby version of the Yardbirds hit “Heart Full of Soul” (written by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman). To accomplish that, he hired drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis (from session group Soul Syndicate), organist Ansel Collins (of 1970 reggae hit “Double Barrel”), bassist Bertrand “Ranchie” McLean (from Jimmy Cliff’s band), and pioneering reggae percussionist Noel “Scully” Simms for a session at the beyond-legendary Channel One Studios in Kingston.
The core tracks (which also included Blue Riddim guitarist Howard Yukon) were recorded with famed engineer Crucial Bunny, and then the tapes were brought to Chicago for overdubs. At PS Studios on the south side, Lery laid down lead vocals and Shay Jones recorded backup vocals. At Studiomedia in Evanston, with Benj Cantor engineering, the rest of Skanking Lizard added instrumental overdubs. The 12-inch, which also includes the Lery original “It Happened,” charted in Canada and reached number eight on a list maintained by Canadian reggae trade publication Crooked Beat Sheet. (The release is fairly valuable too, typically selling for $50 to $75.)
In the late 80s, drummer Harris Edelson replaced Tom Sarelas, and Skanking Lizard kept gigging—albeit at a slower pace as members started families—till Lery moved to the Phoenix area for a new job in 1996. “The night before I left, Skanking Lizard played their last gig—just like their first gig, at the Cubby Bear,” Lery says. “Many hundreds bid us farewell.” As satisfying as that full-circle ending is, it’s of course not the end of the Skanking Lizard tale.
Material from the Skanking Lizard seven-inch and Lery’s 12-inch appears on the band’s first-ever anthology, the brand-new Original Chicago Reggae: 1978-1996. Its 11 tracks also include several studio recordings that have never seen the light of day before. The archival LP is the project of local ska and reggae label Jump Up (founded by DJ Chuck Wren in 1993), and by coincidence it came out just in time for this summer’s first Record Store Day drop this past weekend. The initial pressing is limited to 250 copies (on lizard-green-and-yellow vinyl, of course), so don’t wait around if you want one of these future collectibles—and cross your fingers for a Skanking Lizard reunion! 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.