Larry Ribs’s guitar is a work of art. The Fender Jazzmaster was new when he bought it in 1965, but after three years of abuse in south-side juke joints and Rush Street bars it was already beat to hell. A girlfriend took him to a theatrical-supply store on State Street, where he bought a bag of white rhinestones, and using seashell glue he pasted them all over the front of the guitar. Toward the bottom, where he’d run out of rhinestones, he later glued a chrome naked-chick silhouette that had fallen off a truck’s mud flap into the street outside his home. The last piece, added years later, was a hat pin of the word “Chicago” in art deco lettering, which he fastened to the headstock.
Since he was a teenager Larry has never wanted to do much more than play guitar in a rock ‘n’ roll band. For the last five years he’s been working at the Lakeview Lounge, a dank honky-tonk on Broadway just north of Argyle, playing three nights a week, six or seven hours a night, 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off. The Lakeview is the sort of drinking establishment even the most charitable person would have to call a dive: A sign on the inside door warns This is not a pawnshop! but more than once I’ve been approached there by someone trying to sell me a tuxedo or an overcoat. One Friday night an old man keeled over backward off his bar stool. The band quit playing and a few patrons gathered around, but after a few moments he pulled himself off the floor and dusted himself off. Larry ended the uncomfortable episode by launching into “Blue Moon,” and after a while the fellow staggered home.
Larry, bassist Raul Chabarria, and drummer Gilbert Canchola call themselves Nightwatch, but on the sign outside they’re just “live entertainment,” and to the regulars they’re simply “the band.” They play directly behind the bar, serving up songs like cans of Miller Genuine Draft. Because the drums and amplifiers stay set up all week, the stage looks well lived-in, like some kid’s messy bedroom. The fake wood paneling behind the drum kit is decorated year-round with silver tinsel and Christmas lights; a string of red cardboard letters declares Happy Valentine’s Day. A stuffed Benny the Bull perches on Gilbert’s bass drum like a gargoyle, and just behind Raul a purple sombrero adorns an unused cymbal stand. A small disco ball hangs from the ceiling between the bandstand and the bar, and a wall switch within arm’s reach of Larry turns on a colored light, sending pink champagne spiraling around the room.
“The Lakeview is a laid-back type of place from yesteryear,” says Larry. “We try to keep a comfortable atmosphere, not too much excitement. We’re not gonna go 90 miles an hour. Take a sip of whatever you’re drinking in between songs and just take your time.”
Six hours is a lot of time to kill, and when they’re playing to a near empty room–which is often–Larry, Raul, and Gilbert can sound as bored as they are, walking through tunes they’ve played literally hundreds of times. But they can play just about anything–blues, R & B, country and western, classic rock, big-band and jazz standards, Latin ballads, Italian crooners, on and on–and when they get an audience, the energy comes rushing back. Larry, a Polish man in his mid-50s who wears a Greek fisherman’s cap to cover his bald pate, is the main attraction; when he steps out for one of his delicate, jazzy solos, you might think you’re a couple blocks south, at the Green Mill. Raul, a squat Mexican with long graying hair, is the mike man, the band’s singer, comedian, philosopher, and all-around bullshit artist. Gilbert, whose lined face is topped by a startling Mohawk, is the wild card. At the beginning of the night his drumming can sound pretty rusty, but after a while he’ll fall into the groove–and when that happens Nightwatch is the best bar band on the planet.
The line between band and audience dissolves as soon as the three men step off the bandstand, but even when they’re up there it’s pretty faint. You play drums? Come on up–Gilbert would rather knock one back and hang out with his friends anyway. Want to take a turn at the microphone? Go ahead–if you can remember the lyrics, Larry and Raul probably know the song. If not, they can almost certainly fake it.
The clientele at the lounge is as strange and varied as the band’s repertoire. “One thing unique about the Lakeview is you have practically every nationality,” Larry says. “Guatemalans, Bosnians, Germans, Pakistinians, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Polish, Irish, a little bit of everything comes in here. You have Afro-Americans from Chicago and Africa, you’ve got Jamaicans, you’ve got Ethiopians, American Indians. And it’s a place where the most trouble you’ll run into is maybe some old-timers getting into an argument at the bar or something. No violence. Kathy [Battaglia, the proprietor] is well-known by everybody. And we get people come back in there who haven’t been there in four, five, six years.”
When Kathy took over the business in 1979, the neighborhood was thick with country people, folks from the southeast who’d moved to the city in search of work, and on weekends the lounge was so packed she had to turn people away. Raul played there with a different lineup in the late 80s, cranking out straight country and western four nights a week. But the urban hillbillies were displaced by Koreans and Vietnamese, and after a while Kathy cut the live music back to three nights a week. The winter months are especially tough, and if not for the bar’s late license, which permits it to serve until 5 AM on Saturdays, the lounge might have locked its doors long ago.
“This place is dying,” says Michael, a slight man with a mustache and glasses who’s lived in Uptown all his 40-some years. “People don’t want to come out and drink anymore. They’d rather sit at home and get drunk, or surf the Internet. Or they go to someplace like Goose Island.”
“If you leave it up to your wonderful mayor he’s gonna turn us into a desert,” says Larry. “This is one of the greatest cities in the world, but now, since the year 2000 is coming, he’s trying to wipe the slate clean. He don’t want none of this Al Capone shit, and all that.”
“What happened to history?” Raul asks. “That’s part of history–Capone and Dillinger.”
“He don’t care, he don’t like it. I truly believe he hates the history of Chicago.”
“But his old man wasn’t like that.”
“He was like that too. They’re all jealous of Al Capone because he was bigger than they are, he had more power. They don’t want to admit it.”
I started going to the Lakeview Lounge about four years ago. An old friend of mine had discovered the place during his drinking days, and every few months we’d drop in for a few beers. When I started working for the Reader my friend said, “Whatever you do, don’t write about the lounge. Every asshole hipster in town will be in there making the scene.” But the word’s already out: the last time we went there together, an entourage of handsome young people in black leather coats filed in until, about a dozen strong, they had taken the place over, soaking up the ambience and requesting their favorite oldies. “This place is over,” my friend declared. “I mean, I’m glad for these guys. They deserve it. But I’m never coming back here again.”
My friend may be heartbroken, but Larry, Raul, and Gilbert don’t give a damn about protecting “authentic” Chicago from marauding hipsters. They’re trying to earn a living, and while Kathy pays them a flat rate for an evening’s work, they rely on the tip jar as well. Customers who drop in every four, five, six years can’t keep a business open, and it’s no fun playing all night to half a dozen barflies.
Raul grew up in Bridgeport–the Irish enclave where Richie Daley was raised. Raul’s father emigrated from Mexico to Texas, then moved to California and finally Chicago, where he did grunt work in restaurants before landing a job at the Silver Cup Bread Bakery, on Federal near Garfield. Later he worked as a floor manager for Wonder Bread, and all told, Raul spent about 15 years as part of Bridgeport’s Mexican-American community. “I could count them on one and a half hands,” he recalls. “I had some trouble, but no big deal. I can’t really say it was a traumatic experience. Back then they didn’t have words like ‘spic’ and ‘wetback’ and all that. If they called you a bad name, they’d be calling you ‘Mexican.’ Which is what I am!”
His father loved music and played classical guitar, performing at parties, weddings, and funerals with his own band–three guitars and an accordion playing traditional songs from Spain and Mexico. “My dad had a lot of guitars. He played mandolin too, and electric bass. And he had a lot of friends who were musicians. Basses and trumpet players–I can’t even count the people he knew. Then my brother, he played, and one of my sisters, she sang, so we had our own little family gathering.” Raul listened to all kinds of music: his family owned a phonograph, and an uncle gave him a stack of big-band albums. At 15 he took up the guitar, learned a few chords and scales from his father, then dropped it. Two years later he came back to it in earnest. An Italian friend of his father’s taught him some music theory, struggling with English and scrawling out notes and chords on paper, but Raul learned more from his records, playing one over and over until he’d worked out an entire song.
One day he was hanging around a neighborhood restaurant when a friend dropped a coin in the jukebox and punched in a Little Richard single. “I didn’t know who this guy was, but when I heard it, it got to me. I didn’t know if the guy was black or white, or what the hell. About a week later I went to the record store, and I remembered the song–‘Long Tall Sally.’ Back then they used to have the picture on the sleeve, and there he was. But still I couldn’t figure it out, ’cause you know, Little Richard, he wore so much makeup!”
He bought a Silvertone electric guitar from the Sears catalog and formed a band with his brother, playing house parties and backyard barbecues. Then an uncle offered him a set of Ludwig drums that someone had abandoned at his house–a bass drum, snare drum, and tom. Raul got one of his cousins, a sheet-metal worker, to cut him a crude cymbal, and he draped a chain over it to kill the ringing. When he was 16, he was invited to join a rock ‘n’ roll band that sometimes played at the Mary McDowell Settlement House, a community center near 47th and Ashland built half a century earlier by reformers from the University of Chicago. The Polish-Catholic parishes had been suspicious of McDowell’s progressive and Protestant leanings, and during the 30s and 40s the settlement house had become a haven for the growing population of Mexicans in Back of the Yards, providing sports, after-school activities, and naturalization classes. Yet the band Raul joined was led by a Polish kid, Larry Rybakowski–Larry Ribs.
It’s 9:30 on a Thursday night, and though the band doesn’t go on until 10, Raul is already at the bar, having a bottle of Rolling Rock and a smoke with Caroline, a blond woman in torn blue jeans, a brown raincoat, and a backward baseball cap. Caroline used to tend bar at the Lakeview, but lately she’s been working at the Wooden Nickel, near Wilson and Racine. She has a toy, a tiny microphone that plays back whatever you say into it, and as she points it at me Raul’s voice hisses from the scratchy speaker: “I don’t see nothing, I don’t hear nothing, I don’t say nothing!” Caroline unleashes a raucous laugh and plays it again: “I don’t see nothing, I don’t hear nothing, I don’t say nothing!” A pair of handcuffs dangles from one of her belt loops.
On work nights Raul usually takes public transportation up to the north side. He lives in the same building as Larry, a cheap two-flat a block from where the settlement house once stood. Raul lives upstairs in the back; Larry lives downstairs with Sherry, his girlfriend of a dozen years. During the day Larry looks after their seven foster children, actually Sherry’s grandkids, but on the nights he has to work, Sherry takes over so he can nap for an hour or so before driving in. Tonight when he arrives he heads straight for the bandstand. He tunes up, plugs in, fusses with his amp, and finally comes out from behind the bar, sliding into a booth with a glass of Coke.
By the time Gilbert shows up it’s well after ten. He’s a soft-spoken man in his 60s, and with his Mohawk and flak jacket he’s a dead ringer for Travis Bickle, the psychotic Vietnam vet in Taxi Driver. Raul grins and says, “We call him Robert No Dinero.”
The place is nearly empty. “Time to rehearse,” says Larry. “Nights like this, we brush up on stuff that we haven’t played.” They open with a snaky walking blues, Larry peeling off a few clean, well-shaped licks before the tune crumbles to a halt. They run through an instrumental version of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a 1967 hit for north-siders the Buckinghams. “All right, Larry!” Caroline cheers. “The rest of you guys are fired.” She holds her toy microphone in the air: “I don’t see nothing, I don’t hear nothing, I don’t say nothing!”
“Hey, we have Caroline,” Raul says over the PA. “Hey, Larry, she brought her cuffs, but she forgot her whip. You’re gonna cuff us up and beat the hell out of all of us, and we’re gonna love it. We’re gonna scream in ecstasy.” They play B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Patricia” by Cuban mambo king Perez Prado. On the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin'” Larry abandons his usual clean sound for a screaming fuzz-toned solo. They sail into the first verse of “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Raul coaxes Caroline up to the bandstand; she delivers a passable Janis Joplin impersonation, a cigarette and a bottle of Bud dangling from one hand.
“Thursdays are always a little bit more bizarre than Friday or Saturday,” Larry says between sets. “You get all these crazy people coming in.” He and Raul talk shop, kicking around forgotten names from the 50s and 60s: Philly organist Bill Doggett, Elvis’s bassist Bill Black, assorted Chicago tenor men. Gilbert wanders over and Larry tries to get him to talk to me. “Come on, he’s doing a write-up on us, man. We don’t know nothing about you. We know you’re Puerto Rican.” Gilbert glares at him and stalks off. Larry cackles. “He’s Mexican. They hate that!”
“That’s like calling a Polish person Lithuanian,” Raul says.
“The most aggravating Mexican in the world,” says Larry, eyeing Raul. “Everybody hates the son of a bitch. They’ve hated him for 40 years. I’ve known people that still hate him. They like him and hate him at the same time.”
Larry and I get to talking about the current music scene. “I think rock ‘n’ roll is dying,” he says. “Where’s the stars now? There’s no stars. There’s just a flash of light, and they go down. Guns n’ Roses, any of them. Look at your TV commercials–buy a tape of the 50s, tape of the 60s, tape of the 70s. How about the tape of the 90s? Look at your videos–what do they start at, $250,000? So the first money you make on that record you gotta pay for that damn video before you get anything. You got everybody working against you, man.”
This brings him back to the mayor’s war on taverns, which is closing the bars and lounges where he learned his trade. “Where’s the tribute to the great musicians of Chicago? Where are they supposed to play? He’s killing an art. And Chicago has made a lot of great musicians, from the early 1900s to the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, they all got their start here. I seriously think this guy, with the year 2000, he wants space cadets. He’s throwing this city’s history away.” Larry gets up and heads back to the bandstand. “That’s it, man. These are the last days of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Larry grew up in Pilsen and Back of the Yards. Both his parents were children of Polish immigrants, and his father worked as a machinist all his life. His childhood memories are dominated by the stockyards and packing plants. “Big factories–Swift, Armour, all of them,” he recalls. “As a kid I’d go in there, hang around with a couple of my friends. You’d see a lot of cowboys riding around on horses, and cattle as far as the eye could see. The cowboys would run the cattle to the slaughterhouse, the sheep and pigs and all that.”
Most of his neighbors were Polish, Irish, and German. Mexicans generally lived north of 47th Street, north of Mary McDowell. But Larry fell in with the Mexican students at Saint Augustine, the German parochial school at 50th and Laflin, and they introduced him to the settlement house. Their parents might have glared at each other across 47th, but Larry and his friends shared one interest more powerful than ethnicity. “The Mexican music, these American-born Mexicans liked that stuff for the family,” he explains. “But outside the family they were into American rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard–one of my friends was a Little Richard nut. And this other Mexican guy, this older guy in the settlement house, was a big jazz freak. He knew every jazz record and star there was. Remarkable.”
Like Raul, Larry can pinpoint the day he discovered rock ‘n’ roll. In 1959, when he was 14, his family took a vacation to Ojibwa, Wisconsin. His uncle had opened a bar in the small town, and Larry was glued to the bandstand every night. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a three-piece rock ‘n’ roll band,” he says. “And it really lit a match. They had a fabulous lead guitar player, who was–ooh, he was just whaling the hell out of the guitar all night. It just blew my mind. So I’d hang around the stage all the time. Something just fascinated me, watching these guys play.” He’d been admiring a guitar that hung in the window of the Mort Herold School of Music at 51st and Ashland, and when he got back to Chicago he marched into the school and rented it for six dollars a month.
Herold, a world-class accordionist, gave Larry an after-school job cleaning up, and he used his earnings to pay for guitar lessons. Herold didn’t really play guitar himself, but he knew enough to get Larry started, and before long Larry began studying with Joe Richardson, a jazz guitarist in his 50s who taught at the school. “Very quiet–you had to strain your ears to hear him talk,” Larry recalls. “Very smooth guitar player. Till today my technique isn’t as smooth as his. His pick control was just beautiful.” He worked with Richardson all during high school, going through every guitar book in the shop. “At the end of four years he told me to move on and find another teacher. But I’d learned pretty much what I wanted to know for what I wanted to do. I just wanted to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
With his friend Bobby Villalobos, Larry formed the Dy Counts–a play on the name of the popular combo the Vy Counts. When their first drummer quit, Larry invited Raul to join. They played Little Richard, Elvis, the Ventures. Raul liked to throw in some jazz standards, and Larry’s all-time favorite was “Honky Tonk,” a 1956 boogie-woogie hit by Bill Doggett. A group leader at Mary McDowell booked the trio at Back of the Yards festivals, sock hops at the settlement house, dances at the YWCA. One time he sent them to UIC’s mental hospital to serenade the patients. “That was cool,” Larry recalls. “We didn’t get paid nothing. It was just for exposure.”
Playing at the settlement house, Larry caught the eye of Johnny Thunder, a 22-year-old singer whose band gigged every weekend at the Sky Blue Lounge at 47th and Laflin. Thunder’s real name was Jerry Costello, pronounced “Castillo”; part Bohemian and part Mexican, he’d grown up in Back of the Yards and spent his own not-so-distant teenage years hanging around the settlement house.
“He was a huge guy with a real low voice, rough voice,” says Larry. “He was like a comedian–his singing wasn’t very good but his stage presence made up for it. He was the best mike man I ever seen.” Thunder needed a lead guitarist. Larry was only 17, but Thunder promised to set him up with fake ID. “So I got some IDs. Used to carry two wallets. I always looked old–I had a high forehead and everything. And I acted old, I didn’t act silly like some kids. So I passed. And I learned how to behave in a lounge, and your mannerisms and things like that.” The Sky Blue was “just a little corner bar–fights galore every weekend, a real smoky dive type of a bar,” but compared to playing with the Dy Counts it was a big-time gig. Larry was a professional.
“All right, now we’re gonna get Skip up here,” says Raul. “The drummer’s got to go to the washroom. He can’t hold it no more. He’s blowing up.” Skip, a young guy who does lenses at the Pearle Vision Center in Lakeview, settles down behind the kit for Chicago’s “Colour My World,” the Wilson Pickett hit “Mustang Sally,” and the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out.” Gilbert returns, and the band closes the set with “My Way” and “Viva Las Vegas.”
Caroline, the woman with the handcuffs, is gone: Kathy Battaglia arrived shortly after 11 and asked her to leave. When she refused, Eddie, another patron, was dispatched to throw her out. Larry launched into a swinging 12-bar blues to drown out the ensuing argument. Eddie grabbed Caroline by the shoulders and they struggled. Kathy got on the telephone, and eventually Caroline stormed out. The band watched from the stage but kept playing.
For the midnight set, Raul croons a loving “Blue Moon,” Larry’s languid solo decorated with deft arpeggios and hammered notes. Then it’s on to a Johnny Cash medley, with Raul blowing over the top of his beer bottle to mimic a train whistle on “Folsom Prison Blues.” Larry cradles the whammy bar of his guitar, laying some gorgeous vibrato on Santo & Johnny’s 1959 instrumental “Sleep Walk.” He hits the disco ball switch, and Raul glides through a couple Italian ballads: “It’s Now or Never,” Dean Martin’s “Return to Me.”
“We try to cover the ethnic part of it,” says Larry. “Polkas, Italian music, Spanish music. We had a hard time with the Pakistinian stuff.”
After the set he and Raul get to talking about the racial strife of the 60s. Larry remembers driving right into the infamous 1966 southwest-side march where someone hurled a brick at Martin Luther King. “I seen a big crowd, thousands of them,” he says. “So I pulled over and it was a big black march. The American Nazi party was there, their headquarters was there, and they had a big sign on the door: NIGGERS GO HOME!”
Raul claims he once visited the Nazi headquarters in Marquette Park. “I was working there at Chez a Go-Go on Pulaski,” he says. “I said, ‘What’s this?’ So I walked in. The guy says, ‘What do you want?’ I says, ‘Hey, can I join the Nazi party?’ ‘What nationality?’ ‘Mexican.’ ‘Get out of here! Now! Is this a joke? Get out!’ ‘I just wanted to know!’ Then he says, ‘Here’s some of our literature–pass it around.'”
“Look at the Bible,” says Larry. “The Tower of Babel. Now if I remember the story correctly, everybody was getting along great. They’re all working together. And then God came along and screwed it all up. Zap! He made everybody a different nationality. So they couldn’t work with each other, couldn’t understand one another. Then they all took off to their own countries. He’s the one that started it all! Everybody was getting along great!”
The night winds on into morning. Sometime during the one o’clock set the crowd swells to eight–yet the band is hot, shifting easily from Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” to Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” to Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” to the Shadows’ “Apache” to Santana’s “Europa.” Two Hispanic guys wander in between sets, and the musicians are so grateful for the extra ears that they empty out their Latin song bag: “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va,” “La Bamba,” “Guantanamera.” A few of the regulars stagger around the bar dancing, and the band jumps into “El Rancho Grande.” Raul sings, “My name is Pancho Villa / I got the gonorrhea / I caught it from Maria / Beneath the apple tree-ah / And now I cannot pee-ah . . .”
By 3 AM almost everyone except the band is three sheets to the wind. Raul and Gilbert have downed a couple beers, and Larry drank a glass of red wine around 11, but they’re still pretty straight. According to Kathy, Larry once packed up his gear and walked out on a busy Saturday night because Gilbert and Raul were too plastered to keep it together. “When he did that I told those other two guys, ‘Without him, you’re out of here. You’re fired.’ But they wouldn’t leave,” she says. Larry was lured back, and now they all pace themselves. “You gotta keep your smarts about you, you gotta stay under control,” Larry says. “You don’t get bombed while you’re doing a gig.”
They circle back around to the beginning of the night, giving “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” another workout. They take a request for the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” then play one of my favorites, “Theme From ‘A Summer Place.'” Percy Faith’s 1960 single is an exercise in schmaltz, but shorn of its syrupy strings it cuts clean to the heart. Finally they relax into a medley of Ventures hits as if it were an old jacket: “Ram-Bunk-Shush,” “Walk, Don’t Run,” “Perfidia.” Kathy shakes a tambourine. Larry and Raul switch instruments, and as Raul tears into “Long Tall Sally,” he could almost pass for a teenager again: “We’re gonna have some fun tonight / Have some fun tonight / Everything’s all right / Have some fun tonight / Have some fun, some fun tonight. . .”
Larry played with Johnny Thunder for three years, on Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes weeknights as well. He earned $15 or $20 a night plus free drinks, though a good gig might earn him as much as $25. The Sky Blue Lounge catered to Poles, Irish, and some Mexicans; Thunder and his band–Larry, a rhythm guitarist, and a drummer–performed on a stage in the back corner. “But a lot of the places we played at didn’t have a stage,” he says. “We’d either stand on the floor or play on a pool table–they would put a sheet of plywood on the pool table. One time they made a stage out of beer cases.” They played the Tropic Lounge at 63rd and Winchester, a late-license place with an oval bar; they played J.W. Hummel’s Lounge on 63rd near Maplewood; they played Casa Madrid near 25th and Lake and just about every other bar in Melrose Park.
Casa Madrid was known for its Sunday-morning jam sessions. “We would play till five o’clock, close down till like seven, and lock the doors–no one else could come in. The jam session would start at seven o’clock in the morning. Bands from all over Chicago were coming into the place all night long, waiting for the jam session, and it would go on till maybe two o’clock in the afternoon. Nat Adderly came in one time. The Everly Brothers came in; they were playing at the Manor Lounge. One of them played my guitar–it was brand-new at the time, candy apple red. He was wearing a vest with metal buttons on it. He looked at the expression on my face and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take my vest off.’ I thought that was really nice of him.”
Johnny Thunder was an unreliable bandleader, often showing up late and insulting patrons from the stage, so Larry ditched him for Buddy DeVito & the Fabulous Storms. For about six years he bounced back and forth between the two bands, but the set list was always the same: rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, country and western, 12-bar blues. As a guitarist, he could write his own ticket. “If you had a badass guitar player, you had a good band,” he says. “Phil Orsi always had a decent band. He had a real good guitar player named Clark Dufay. He was well-known while I was just starting out. I had a lot to do to catch up to him. There was other bands like Stop, Robby and the Troubadours, the Gems–they played the Cherry Lounge at 25th and Pulaski. Another band called Poobah, they were very good. The Mob–they would dress in pinstripe suits, like the mob, with the white ties and all. They were excellent musicians.”
By this time Raul had gone pro as well, playing guitar with a group called the Fabulous Three. He and Larry saw each other at Casa Madrid jam sessions, or if one had an early gig he might get off work and go watch the other’s last set.
But the 50s were over. Buddy Holly was dead, Little Richard had become a man of the cloth, Presley had returned from Germany to make dopey movies. In February 1964 the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and almost overnight acts like Johnny Thunder became yesterday’s news.
“I was playing Joe Hummel’s when the Beatles hit,” says Larry. “I didn’t even know who the Beatles were. I wasn’t paying attention to the radio. I was playing more of the black style–‘Willie and the Hand Jive,’ ‘My Girl,’ and all that stuff. And I didn’t like the Beatles. To me they sounded like a garage band, like I used to sound when I was 14. They did good songs, but I knew a lot of musicians that quit the business because they didn’t want to play this stuff. The owners of the bars wanted them to play Beatle music, and they refused, so they lost their jobs. ‘Hey, I spent all my life trying to polish my playing, and here I gotta sound like I’m 15 years old again in order to sell? This is bullshit.’ So a lot of them just quit.”
“The Beatles!” someone calls out. “Nineteen-sixty-four! The Beatles!” Larry leads the band into Freddy King’s “Hideaway,” a rolling blues instrumental Eric Clapton recorded with John Mayall in 1966. It’s just after ten on Friday night, and again the lounge is nearly deserted. A young couple settles down into a booth with bottles of Budweiser, looking a little uncomfortable among the half dozen regulars seated at the bar.
“It’s Michael’s birthday, a very good friend of ours,” Raul announces after the song. “So we’re all gonna get together and, uh, beat the hell out of him.” The band plays “Happy Birthday to You,” segues into a chorus of “The Old Gray Mare,” then returns to “Happy Birthday,” Raul turning the last line into a coda: “Get plastered you–”
“Bastard!” the patrons shout.
“–good guy, happy birthday to yoooou. . .”
Cheers and applause.
“All right, here’s a Beatles song for Mikey. He wasn’t born when the Beatles were playing but–”
“Yeah I was,” protests Michael. “But I was still in diapers.”
“He’s in diapers again,” cracks George, an aging country boy in a green windbreaker. They’re perched on a pair of bar stools, Michael savoring a shot of Jägermeister while George drains a can of MGD. Raul sings “And I Love Her,” and Gilbert plays his toms with his hands to simulate the bongos on the Beatles’ recording. The song is way out of Raul’s range, but they have better luck with “Ticket to Ride.” I ask Michael how old he is.
“Forty-four,” he says. “Forty-four, born in ’55.”
“That’s right, that adds up.”
“It’s the wonder of mathematics.”
“It’s the wonder of time. If you live long enough, you die.”
“That adds up too, doesn’t it? But you can’t think about that on your birthday.”
The musicians set down their instruments, and before long Larry and Raul are deep into a discussion of the merits of classical guitar. “If you want to be a serious concert classical guitarist–like Segovia, Goya–you gotta sleep, eat, and shit that stuff,” says Raul. “All your life. Don’t watch TV, read the paper–no no no no! And then maybe you might make it.”
“That’s a different world,” says Larry.
“But look at the money they make! If they start when they’re 12 years old, by the time they’re 40, that’s it, man. They can retire.”
“The trouble with that is, the better you get at it, and the deeper you get, the more boring you get. Your audience gets less and less and less. Look at Segovia–you ever listen to Segovia?”
“Yeah, his stuff is boring.”
“Come on! You’re lucky if you can sit through one song. You know what I think it is, though? You got two kinds of people: intelligent people and personality people. You get a guy who’s really intelligent, he’ll tell you the reason for everything all night long, and he could be the most boring person in the world. That, to me, is a well-learned classical guitar player. But then you get some asshole with personality up there and there’s people coming out of the woodwork! Do you want to be intelligent, or do you want to turn people on?”
At 11 sharp Larry’s back on the bandstand, checking his tuning, and his solo on Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” positively smokes.
By the summer of 1965 Larry had a wife to support, and he wanted to move up in the business. He was backing Johnny Thunder at the Crystal Pistol in Old Town, and Thunder was on a rampage. Larry and the drummer, C.J. Young, started hanging out with Joel Santiago, a black organist whose band was playing at the bar next door. Santiago told them he had a contract with one of the city’s biggest agents for a cross-country tour and maybe even a trip to Japan. The three of them started rehearsing on the side. Larry and Young quit Johnny Thunder, and their band, the Versatiles, set out for Fort Dodge, Iowa, with Larry’s wife, Joan, and a female vocalist in tow.
“But things didn’t work out at all,” says Larry. “We got as far as the first gig, and around that time the riots started and all of that. We got a bad rap from the first place we played because the owner didn’t like the idea of a white girl singing with a black organ player. So then the agent dropped our contract, and of course the girl went back to Chicago.”
They decided to keep moving west anyway. Santiago knew the midwestern bar circuit and assured the other two that he could land them gigs as they traveled. From Fort Dodge they drove to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “We would pull into town and he would take us to the place. We’d sit in and cut the band out of a gig,” says Larry. “In the black world, if the people like you, you’re onstage and you’re tearing the place up, [the owner] will fire the band he’s got and hire you. That’s how it was, so that’s how we got our gigs.” But then Young decided to head back to Chicago. “He took off in the middle of the night and left me, and he had the trailer that pulled the damn organ and everything.” Larry and Santiago picked up Buddy Miles, a 19-year-old drummer from Omaha who’d later back Wilson Pickett, Jimi Hendrix, and Carlos Santana. They moved on to Denver, where they played regularly for a few months, but then Miles left too. The tour was over.
Larry wanted to see Hollywood and decided to push on, convinced he could find a gig as soon as he rolled into LA. But no one on the Sunset Strip was interested in Little Richard or the Ventures. “They were playing a different kind of rock ‘n’ roll music. Bob Dylan, the Byrds. See, I never joined the hippie thing, with the long hair, the mod clothes, and all that. I was kind of an oddball. I still had the greaser look. So it was hard.” He hung around music stores, jamming away in hopes that someone might notice him, and while he did manage to scare up a few gigs, the pay was terrible. Finally he landed a job as a session guitarist for a studio owned by Johnny Otis–the guy who’d written “Willie and the Hand Jive.”
“I’d sit there all day with earphones on,” Larry says. “He would send scouts at night to hear local bands and ask them if they had any original material. If they did, come on down and record for nothing, and then he would push the song through people he knew in New York and different states. I was paid $20 a day just for hanging around the studio. Bands would come in every hour and I would overdub, or play solos, or whatever they wanted.”
That September Joan got pregnant, and Larry took her back to Chicago. They had two sons together, Larry Jr. and Mike (who shows up at the Lakeview every few weeks to watch his old man), and Larry returned to Johnny Thunder and Buddy DeVito. But after two and a half years his marriage ended, and with bills piling up, Larry quit the music business. In May 1959, when he’d first walked into the Mort Herold School of Music, the number one single was Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City.” That winter, in January 1968, it was the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye.” Larry got a job as a toll collector.
“Larry!” Raul calls out. “I want to be a star on Broadway, man.”
“You are on Broadway.”
It’s an old gag but everyone laughs. “I promised Larry I’d make a star out of the man,” Raul tells me. “He was in rust! We had to get Rust-Oleum and beef him up again. Broadway! And from here we’re gonna go to Hollywood–Hollywood and Sheridan Road, right down the street.”
“You know who’s getting into baseball?” asks Larry. “Garth Brooks!”
“Puke!” says Raul. “He won’t do it. Come on!”
“Can he afford it?” asks Michael.
“He can buy the team, man!” says Raul. “Larry, what’s his famous saying? ‘I’ve made more money than my kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids’ kids will ever make’?”
“Yeah, but those guys are owned. They can’t take a shit without it being on paper.”
“Can you imagine him coming in here and sitting in with us, if his agent found out? ‘No! Don’t get up–you can’t do that. You can’t get up and sing for nothing.’ ‘But I wanna go up!'”
“Give him five bucks,” Michael suggests.
“Yeah, there we go! Unless we pay him five dollars.”
“Then you’d get sued,” says Larry. “It’s all on contracts.”
Kathy arrives a little later and throws her arms around Michael, wishing him a happy birthday. “I’m 44, born in ’55,” he tells her, though as the evening drags on he’s beginning to look more like 55, born in ’44. The band swings into “Honky Tonk,” Larry’s old favorite, and on one verse the guitarist and singer do a call and response, Raul urging the audience to help him out: “Nah-nah-nuh-nah–nah-nah-nuh-nah!” When the song is over a patron in tan tights, white go-go boots, and a knee-length vinyl coat climbs onstage and commandeers the microphone for a high-camp rendition of Elvis’s Vegas showstopper “An American Trilogy.” Then, swinging his hips, he’s Tom Jones, singing “It’s Not Unusual.”
The next set opens with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” which is coming together nicely. The band plays it as an instrumental, but Larry jazzes it up with more colorful chording, and it sounds rich. “It’s harder to do a song as a trio,” he admits. “You gotta fill in all the holes. It could be done better if we did some background singing. But I’m not a singer, I don’t have no range, and neither does Gilbert, although Gilbert could carry a tune if he had to. So we do it instrumentally. Where normally a background singer would be doing it, I’ll do it with the guitar. That’s the name of the game: fill in all the holes.” After years of covering pop songs he knows how to put one across. “What helps people remember songs is certain licks, dominant licks that stick out. So you make sure you get those dominant licks down. Like the solo on ‘Hotel California’–make sure you get that solo down, ’cause that’s the kicker of the whole song. Or the opening chord of ‘Hard Day’s Night’–make sure you got that chord. Those are your p’s and q’s; if you watch those, the song should go over pretty good.”
More people trickle in after 2 AM, and eventually every seat at the bar is filled. There’s a mix of regulars, working-class Latino guys, and goateed yuppies; a pair of black women sit front and center. The band plays the Miracles’ “Ooh Baby Baby,” and Larry’s solo is a study in dynamics, lightly strummed chords flowering into an ardent lead. The crowd whoops and applauds. Then it’s the Drifters’ “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Al Martino’s “Spanish Eyes,” and just as the crowd is beginning to mellow, the rhythm of “Viva Las Vegas” snaps everyone awake–everyone but Michael and George, who are both passed out on the bar, sleeping on their arms.
Raul has worked his share of day jobs: during the late 60s he made bridges at a south-side dental lab, and in the 70s he spent a couple years in the shipping and receiving department of a steel distributor. But the only career he’s ever had is music. After high school he played guitar with the Fabulous Three and gigged steadily on the weekends, playing Club Laurel at Broadway and Bryn Mawr. He enrolled in the college of music at Roosevelt University but spent so much time on the road that he never finished his degree. By the time Larry was making his ill-fated trip to the west coast, the Fabulous Three were playing at Sgt. Pepper’s and Barnaby’s, both near State and Chestnut. They still wore suits and greased their hair, but when they landed a job as the house band at the Webster Hotel in Lincoln Park their agent convinced them to get hip. “So we started wearing jeans,” says Raul. “The drummer grew a beard, the bass player grew a beard. I grew a mustache and had my hair long.” They worked there Tuesday through Saturday, still filling in at Sgt. Pepper’s on Sunday and Monday. “On Sundays you had to play Beach Boys music, ’cause they had these ‘beach-bum specials.’ ‘Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, 409.’ And we had to dress like the Beach Boys, with the stupid colors and white pants, all this shit.”
The Fabulous Three split up around 1968, and Raul joined a band called the Bossmen–not to be confused with Toronto’s Bossmen, whose vocalist David Clayton-Thomas would join Blood, Sweat & Tears, or Detroit’s Bossmen, whose guitarist Dick Wagner would write songs with Alice Cooper. Chicago’s Bossmen were south-side Mexican rockers, two of them Texans who’d moved north like Raul’s father. According to Larry they were a popular and well-respected combo, but after about three years that fell apart.Then Raul spent most of his time with Four Deep, a slick outfit with its own lights and PA that toured the midwest hotel-lounge circuit.
“When you’re on the road you gotta play six days a week,” he explains. “Sunday was your only day off. Course it was early license: you’re talking about from 8:30 to 12, and then Saturday was the long one, from 9 o’clock till about 1:30, 2 o’clock. We would contract for a month, and then while we were playing there the guy would book us somewhere else. We were always booked maybe two months in advance.”
During the 70s Raul also pulled down good money sitting in with wedding bands in the north and northwest suburbs. “Play here Friday and here Saturday, and sometimes they’d have what they called double-headers–one wedding during the day and then in the evening you’d play with another band. But you didn’t know nobody. ‘So-and-so agency sent me, you need a guitar player?’ Because when you book a wedding for a four-piece, they expect four pieces.” The wedding circuit enlarged his already formidable repertoire. “I knew it all, man. There wasn’t too much that I didn’t know. I was like a sponge. And the stuff that I couldn’t grasp, I didn’t worry about. ‘Yeah, we’ll try that some other time.’ Some of them had their own notebooks. They would say, here’s a book, just flip the page, and they had the chord changes written out and everything. I’d just sit there and strum away, and at the end of the night: ‘Here’s your money, you did real good, and we’ll see you some other time.'”
After the Fabulous Three and the Bossmen, the wedding circuit seemed like hack work, but it was better than punching a clock. “I would just roll around with my amp and guitar in my car, and I’d get these jobs. Then I started getting hooked in, because I did that for almost a year, this guy had me working. And good money. I said, This is better than getting with a group and traveling on the road–all the aggravation, cars breaking down, equipment being stolen–and it’s a little easier. But these groups I went with, you gotta do what they’re doing.”
The bandleaders could be rigid; one even made the band play with a click track to regulate the tempo. Raul wanted to sing but seldom got the opportunity, and he began to tire of playing from fakebooks or bumbling along while the other players called out chord changes. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard this song but I’ve never played it: ‘Well, you know it now.'” It’s a line he’s carried with him ever since: whenever the band at the lounge has brazened its way through an obscure request, he’ll laugh and tell Gilbert, “Well, you know it now.”
Around 1986 Raul landed a steady gig at the Lakeview, playing bass for guitarist Pat Kelly’s band. Kelly was an “all-around guy,” but the band played country and western to keep the patrons happy. Finally Raul had a chance to do some vocalizing. Kelly “didn’t like singing sometimes because he didn’t have that accent,” Raul remembers. “City guys trying to do country. But we’d pull it off. A lot of people were from the south, and once in a while Indians. But it changed. We started noticing, ‘Well, they don’t want to hear country, now they want to hear old rock ‘n’ roll and what’s happening now.’ So I said, ‘Come on, man. We gotta change with the people. Drop the Johnny Cash and drop the Hank Williams.'”
In the 70s the Lakeview Lounge had been a piano bar. The pianist who performed there owned 40 percent of the business, which he sold to Kathy Battaglia in 1977. Two years later the other partner decided he wanted to unload his share. “I wanted to sell out,” Kathy recalls, “but I got talked into buying the rest of it. That’s how I got stuck here.” She had lived nearby all her life; she grew up over her father’s grocery store, the Quality Market on Broadway, when Edgewater was still mostly Irish and Sheridan Road was lined with mansions. By all accounts she’s a tough customer, holding her own in a mean part of town and trying to maintain a good reputation in a business that often brings out the worst in people. There’s never the slightest doubt whose bar it is. One patron keeps nagging her to buy a CD jukebox, but she’d rather hear the country-and-western 45s that have been here forever, and often she stocks the old jukebox from her own collection.
In the last 20 years she’s seen numerous musicians come and go. She went through a string of piano players, and then her southern clientele prompted her to audition country bands. She landed drummer Al Miracle and pianist Phil Fields, who were followed by guitarist Jimmy Johnson and later Pat Kelly.
Gilbert joined Kelly and Raul on New Year’s Eve in 1988, shortly after his 50th birthday. His father, a railroad worker, died when he was four, leaving behind seven kids. Gilbert grew up in Little Italy, near Morgan and Harrison. He fell in love with the big bands–Glenn Miller, Harry James–but in 1955 he saw Blackboard Jungle and got turned on to Bill Haley and Little Richard. At 20 he took up the drums, and by 1963 he was gigging around town in various country and soul bands, playing Club Laurel (where Raul gigged with the Fabulous Three) and the F&Z Lounge, a hillbilly bar at Sacramento and Milwaukee. In 1975 he moved to San Diego and gigged full-time, playing six nights a week. After returning to Chicago in 1980 he got a job delivering paint for Sherwin-Williams, then spent more than a decade working at Cook County Hospital. Since 1996, playing drums at the lounge has been his only job, but he also takes care of his ten-year-old daughter, and few are the nights when he doesn’t arrive late. Larry claims that Gilbert’s wristwatch is actually an Aztec sundial.
In 1993 or so, Pat Kelly decided to move to the west coast, and Raul went through an endless succession of guitarists before Larry joined. The years hadn’t been kind to Larry. In the mid-70s he remarried and got a job driving a forklift for a publishing company, then bought a trailer and a few acres in Quincy, Michigan, where many of his relatives had relocated. His new wife, also named Joan, had a child of her own, and she and Larry had another son, Jeffrey, but the marriage ended in 1984. Larry moved back to Chicago and lived with his mother for a while, collecting welfare, then built himself a hot-dog cart and started selling red hots around Back of the Yards.
Raul was scratching around for work and used to kill time with Larry; a few years after Raul got his gig at the Lakeview, he asked Larry to sit in with him and Gilbert. Larry’s band at the time, a country outfit called Guitars and Cadillacs, was falling apart, so he hauled his gear up to the north side, and before he knew it, he and Raul and Gilbert were putting together a set. He gave up the hot-dog cart. After 25 years he was a professional musician again, playing in a neighborhood juke joint not too different from the Sky Blue Lounge.
On Saturday the lounge stays open until five and the band plays seven sets. Before they start, Raul introduces me to a regular, a towering Bosnian man with miserable eyes. He sits down across from me in a booth and begins an interminable monologue in what might graciously be thought of as broken English. He’s wearing a battered tweed hat, a plaid shirt buttoned to the neck, and a striped V-neck sweater. Raul sits with Larry at the bar, laughing.
The band begins its first set, and the guy talks loudly over the music. “Hey Bosnia, can you yodel?” Raul calls from the stage. Eventually I hear the words “Bill Clinton,” and the guy grunts and thrusts his pelvis forward. I try to shush him and point to Raul, who’s singing “Girl From Ipanema.”
“I’m sick of singing!” Raul screams. The band is pacing itself, starting off with a string of languid jazz standards: Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and “Begin the Beguine,” “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Francine, a Native American regular, comes up to say hello, and the Bosnian puts an arm around her shoulders, muttering something in her ear. She doesn’t know what he’s saying any better than I do, but she understands him perfectly. “Not me,” she says, smiling. “I have a boyfriend.” He grabs her rear and she grimly removes his hand. “OK,” she says. “Just because I’m Indian doesn’t mean I’m a pushover.” She heads into the ladies’ room, and he turns his attention back to me.
Michael is here again, sipping a glass of tequila and chatting with Gilbert and Louarine, the bartender. “Hey,” he offers helpfully, “I let him do me last week. I was just trying to be a nice guy.” Shortly after the Bosnian leaves, two couples walk in, clad in black from head to toe. The band puts out mightily for them, darting from one song to the next: Duane Eddy’s “Ramrod,” the Ventures medley, Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull,” the Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” Perry Como’s “It’s Impossible.” Michael and Francine head out onto the floor for the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run.” “Hey, Michael, don’t hurt her,” Raul calls out.
This is the sharpest set of the weekend, hands down. The band always lights up when the younger crowd comes in. They mix with the regulars like oil with water, but they’re always there to listen, and they tip well. “There’s about three different groups of them,” Larry says. “All of a sudden they’ll walk in the door and there’ll be 15 of them. Seems like some of their friends are from out of town, and when they come to town they take ’em over by us. So we’re starting to get to know them. We call them yuppies, but they’re all fine people. They just got good careers and everything.”
There’s no point in catering to them, either–they don’t come to hear Beck. “A lot of times that doesn’t make it,” says Raul. “You can play the number one top song, and they’re looking at you like you’re crazy. Then you pull out something a little older: ‘Oh now, there we go, there we go.’ And they’re clapping and they’re dancing. It seems like they hear a certain song, they drink more, and everyone wants to dance and sing. Human beings are very unpredictable. ‘Oh, what’s the name of that song? That was beautiful.’ That song’s older than anybody in the place, man. You never know.”
Once, many years ago, while Raul was playing Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” a woman rushed up to him crying, stuffed some money into his palm, and begged him to play something else. “I’ll never forget one thing my dad used to tell me when I was younger,” he says. “One song to a certain person–I don’t care if they’re younger than you or your age or older than you–one song might mean something to that person. And you’ll see the response: ‘Oh, thank you very much.’ So you discipline yourself. Every chance I got, I would learn a song that I could sing in the job, thinking, ‘Hey, one of these days that might come in handy.'”
Some songs he’s played until they’re worn-out, devoid of any charm or meaning for him, but when you’re angling for tips, you sing what people want to hear. “They won’t let go of certain songs,” he marvels. “I hate ‘Black Magic Woman.’ I used to like it. And ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Wipe Out.’ And ‘Guitars, Cadillacs,’ by Dwight Yoakam? I used to love that song. Now I’ll play it if I have to. After a while, anything gets to you. I don’t care if you’re making top money, or you’re not making top money, or somewhere in between. Even Larry: walk out, pack up, the hell with this shit! You ask yourself, ‘What am I doing it for?’ But then it comes to you: ‘Oh yeah–’cause I like it!'”
The band cranks on into the dawn, swaggering and funky on a clean, loose-limbed workout of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” dark and menacing on their millionth rendition of “Black Magic Woman,” quiet and melancholy on Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away.”
Michael sits down with me. He tells me he used to own a house in the neighborhood, but then he got divorced and moved into an apartment a little farther north. He also used to drink at a pizzeria up the street, but it shut down for a while and he started coming to the Lakeview. He remembers the days before Larry and Gilbert arrived, when Raul and Pat Kelly played country-and-western tunes all night. “I’ve been coming here for years and I’ve never seen a fight,” he says. “These are good people.” I ask him if he had a happy birthday. “Oh sure,” he says ironically. “In a way, I’m still celebrating my 21st birthday.”
“Make the world go away,” croons Raul. “Get it off of my shoulders . . .”
Just after 4 AM the band takes the stage for its seventh and final set. The young folks are long gone, and no one is going to help them out by sitting in at this hour. The musicians trudge through “Oye Como Va,” “Lady,” “La Bamba.” “How ’bout ‘Night Train’?” asks one woman. “You guys know ‘Night Train’?” Larry’s shoulders are sore, he told me before the set, but the band rolls out the James Brown instrumental before relaxing into a leisurely doo-wop progression. “I’d like to thank everybody for coming out here to the Lakeview Lounge,” says Raul. “Like to hear it for Louarine the bartender; she’s been here all night. We got Mr. Larry Ribs on guitar, Gilbert on drums, and myself, Raul. And let’s hear it for the boss, Kathy, for putting up with all this petty shit.”
The tune trails off, and the workweek is over. “Sweet Home Alabama” comes on the jukebox. Louarine hasn’t even announced last call yet, but as soon as the band quits the place clears out. Gilbert climbs up on his drum stool to kill the light over his head, and Raul chats with some patrons at the far end of the bar. He and Larry might go out for breakfast, passing houses where other people are getting up to go to church, or they might just drive home. Larry lays his gaudy Jazzmaster gently in its case and snaps the lid shut.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.