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.
Until recently, 1960s rockers the Jokers were a mystery to me. I’d heard this melodic Chicago-area garage band only on a couple retro compilation albums, which included little in the way of liner notes, and my Internet searches turned up close to nada. Luckily I got the full story from band member Tim Walkoe—one of my favorite ways to put together an installment of Secret History!
Born in Chicago on September 18, 1946, Walkoe was raised in the Edgebrook neighborhood on the northwest side. His bandmates were all from Valparaiso, where he’d eventually go to college. Walkoe began learning trumpet at age eight and started his first band, the Esquires, at 12. Influenced by the Motown sound, Elvis Presley, and pop stars such as Gene Pitney, he switched to guitar at 17, when he founded a group called the Electras.
In the mid-60s, Walkoe attended Valparaiso University, where the Jokers ruled the roost—they were one of the more popular rock bands in “the Region,” as northwest Indiana is sometimes called. The Jokers were into screamers like Little Richard and soul singers like Marvin Gaye, and in 1965, when they lost two members, they went looking for a bassist and a guitarist who could double on keys. Walkoe had already been jamming with his Theta Chi fraternity brother Frank Ball, who played guitar, harmonica, and piano, so when he got the call from Jokers guitarist Tom Allison, Walkoe switched to bass and joined the band with Ball.
Walkoe, Ball, Allison, and drummer Ron Januchowski (aka Ron Lee) could all sing, and they got inspired to do something about it when they saw proto-supergroup the Exceptions play at Club Laurel in Chicago, near Foster and Broadway. (At the time the Exceptions lineup included Peter Cetera, who’d later join Chicago Transit Authority, as well as future Buckinghams multi-instrumentalist Marty Grebb and future Aorta front man and lead guitarist Jim Donlinger.) The Jokers pursued a sound based in R&B, and they built it around their impressive vocal harmonies.
The Jokers worked colleges and clubs in the Region, especially the “El Rancho” near Michigan City, just across the border into Michigan. Walkoe remembers, “In those days, you could not sell alcohol on Sundays in Indiana, so being just over the state line, our weekends were full—but Sunday nights were standing room only.” The Jokers opened for an early Buckinghams lineup and even a young Jackson Five, but at most of their gigs they headlined.
Indiana-based songwriter Bernie Roth, who’d written “Forty Days & Forty Nights” for Muddy Waters (among tunes for many other blues artists), caught wind of the Jokers and thought they’d be perfect to record two of his tunes. In October 1965 the band booked a session at Sound Studios in Chicago, with Stu Black engineering (Walkoe says legendary bassist Willie Dixon, a friend of Roth’s, was in the studio when they recorded). Their lone single, “I’ll Never Let You Go” b/w “What’cha Gonna’ Do,” was released at the end of the year on Destination Records, founded by Chicago producer Jim Golden (he also ran U.S.A. Records, and both labels released loads of music by locals such as the Buckinghams and the Flock). WLS personalities Art Roberts and Clark Weber gave the record airplay, and “What’cha Gonna’ Do” reached number six on South Bend radio station WJVA. The Jokers were ready to gig like mad to support the 45 in summer ’66, but Allison left and the band broke up.
Walkoe couldn’t fill me in on the post-Jokers activities of all his bandmates, but he does remember that Ball became a successful businessman in Valparaiso, and that Allison went on to manage popular Indiana group the Basooties and open a club called the Stone Balloon. Both tunes from the Jokers’ single were eventually released on compilations: “What’cha Gonna’ Do” on 2006’s Trip in Tyme: Volume 4 (on German label Manic Mustang) and “I’ll Never Let You Go” on 2009’s 2131 South Michigan Avenue: 60’s Garage & Psychedelia From U.S.A. and Destination Records (on upstate New York label Sundazed).
In 1969, Walkoe formed a group called Crucible that included Tom Massari of the Apocryphals (Joe Mantegna’s high school band, covered in SHoCM a few weeks ago) and Tom Ferrone (who’d later work with Dr. John and Jerry Butler). Crucible moved to Los Angeles, where they secured management and landed a regular gig at the Whisky a Go Go, opening for the likes of the Kinks, Elvin Bishop, and Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames. Ferrone soon quit, and his spot was filled briefly by Donnie Dacus, who went on to replace Terry Kath in the band Chicago (for a year or so after Kath’s death in 1978) and star in the 1979 film version of Hair. Crucible recorded four songs for the club’s short-lived label, Whisky Records, with Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Paice from Deep Purple playing on a few, but nothing was ever released.
Walkoe returned to Chicago in the early 70s, where Rick Canoff of the Flock helped him put together the Eddie Boy Band, who signed to MCA Records for one disappointing 1975 album. In 1983, Walkoe left full-time music and went into comedy back in Los Angeles. Now based in Chicago again, the former Joker has headlined at more than 200 comedy clubs and appeared on HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, and WGN, among other networks. He continues to perform today. “Apparently I was such a great bass player,” he says, “I became a comic.” v
- The two sides of the Jokers’ lone single, originally released in 1965