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.
The Byzantine Empire made guitar pop with delicious vocal harmonies—a style that became hugely popular in the 1960s thanks to the likes of the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, and the Left Banke—but they never made it as far as releasing an album, much less attracting the audience they deserved.
The band’s story begins in August 1965 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Just a few days after school started, bassist Bruce Kerr and guitarist Chris Rose were harmonizing in their dorm’s piano lounge. When Rose recruited his roommate, Steve Hearn—a native of Glencoe, Illinois, who could sing lead and play rhythm guitar—the group’s three core songwriters were all assembled. They added drummer Jerry Daller from across the hall, who had his kit shipped from his home in Detroit, and Kerr had his family send him his amplifier from Waukesha, Wisconsin. As Kerr told fan site Garage Hangover in 2009, “These are calls parents do not want to receive three days into a frosh year, as you can imagine.”
The four of them placed an ad for a keyboard player and found Bauchman Tom, a Chinese American Farfisa player from Akron, Ohio. “He turned out to be very good, played rock, classical, and jazz,” Kerr said. Rose concurred: “He was, by far, the best musician in the group.”
Rose named the band the Five Bucks, and they made business cards mimicking (you guessed it) $5 bills. They started playing frat parties, mixing Beatles tunes and other hits of the day with their own early attempts at original songs. The whole band moved to Chicago at the end of the school year in spring 1966, intending to spend the summer playing around the city—Rose and Hearn’s families lived in Chicagoland, so it wasn’t the huge leap it might’ve been. Hearn’s girlfriend’s father was Windy City real estate tycoon Jerry Wexler (not the big Atlantic Records guy, but brother to famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler), and he helped the Five Bucks get an audition with the Afton label.
Afton released two original Five Bucks songs, both by Kerr, Hearn, and Rose, on the band’s debut 1966 single: the garage rocker “No Use in Trying” and the ballad “Now You’re Gone” (misprinted as “Now You’re Mine”—a very different sentiment—on the first pressing of the 45). The propulsive riff in “No Use in Trying” recalls the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” (or maybe the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”), and Tom shows off his skills with a killer organ solo. The label chose to push the ballad instead, though, and despite some airplay on WLS the single sunk.
Fortunately a friend of the Five Bucks named Harlan Goodman worked for the William Morris Agency, and he landed them plenty of high-profile shows—including two gigs opening for and then playing as the backing band for the legendary Del “Runaway” Shannon. Late in 1966 they recorded their second single, this time for Omnibus Records: “I’ll Walk Alone” b/w “So Wrong,” two more originals likewise by Kerr, Hearn, and Rose (though the center hub called them “the Five Bucs”).
The band continued to come back to Chicago from Ann Arbor every summer and most weekends, and they climbed steadily through the ranks. Soon the Five Bucks were opening not just for popular locals such as the Shadows of Knight, Baby Huey & the Babysitters, the New Colony Six, and the Buckinghams but also for national bands, in Chicago and on the road—among them the Animals, the Turtles, Iron Butterfly, and the Doors.
The show with the Doors was in fall ’67, when the Lizard King and company were booked for the University of Michigan homecoming dance. “Morrison got booed off the stage—he was drunk and the crowd wanted to dance,” Kerr told Garage Hangover. “The student in charge came begging to us, ‘Please go back up and quiet down this crowd.’ We took to the stage and opened with the Temps’ ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ and the place went crazy.”
At around that time, the band released their final single as the Five Bucks through a somewhat bigger label, USA Records. Now hard to find, it includes the jazzy, harmony-soaked “Breath of Time.” In fall 1968, the band’s managers secured them an “unplugged” audition for Bill Traut of famed Chicago rock label Dunwich Records, who liked what he saw—he figured the Five Bucks could be his own version of breezy, hit-making California pop band the Association (“Along Comes Mary,” “Cherish”). The Association also had an Asian member, Larry Ramos (a Filipino American born in Hawaii), so Tom made the questionable choice to adopt a Hawaiian stage persona—though thankfully it was short-lived.
Traut suggested a name change, and because Kerr was a history major, he came up with “the Byzantine Empire.” By that winter the band had graduated from the four-track studios where they’d made their early singles to a state-of-the-art 12-track facility at the famous Universal Recording in the Gold Coast. They did two sessions, cutting three songs at each, and the label brought in members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a jazz drummer who filled in for Daller. They recorded two originals, “Whenever I’m Lonely” and “Girl in the Courtyard,” and covers such as Carole King’s “Snow Queen” and the Association’s “Happiness Is.”
Unfortunately Traut “sold” the band to Bell Records subsidiary Amy, which broke the material up into three singles (all released in 1968) instead of building on it to finish an album. And rather than supervising the sessions himself, Traut gave the job to two producers who lacked his visionary touch. They shoehorned the material into a light “sunshine pop” sound, which the band resented—they felt they would’ve done better with something harder and fuzzier.
All three singles flopped, so after making it through four years of college without a lineup change, the band called it a day. They graduated, played one last gig in Chicago, and split up in summer 1969.
Tom moved to Los Angeles in 1973 and remained active in music—his first big gig was playing in Bobbie Gentry’s Las Vegas show, and in the 80s he befriended Joni Mitchell. Sadly, Tom and Rose—who’d also continued playing music—died within three months of each other in late 2013. Kerr is now an attorney for tech company Oracle in California, and since 1973 he’s had an on-and-off solo career as Loose Bruce Kerr. Lately he’s been making a lot of parody songs, and he’s appeared more than 100 times on The Dr. Demento Show—this spring he released a coronavirus-themed spoof of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.