Lonnie Simmons, 76 and playing strong, rides high above his Yamaha organ at Biasetti’s Steak House. It’s a Thursday night at the neighborhood restaurant-bar on Irving Park Road near Ashland. The air is thick with the smell of char-grilled steaks, live cigarettes, and powerful perfume.
But one can contrive to ignore these scents when the air is filled with Lonnie’s organ music. His keyboard, denizens say, has the power to mend broken hearts and lend a hand to love in the making.
From the sidewalk there’s no indication that greatness is at work inside the burgundy-colored bar. There’s just a tattered sign announcing “Lonnie Simmons . . . ical treat.”
The walls in the entryway show photos of Lonnie with some of his legendary playmates. There’s Lonnie (who takes no nickname) with Nat “King” Cole, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis Jr. Then there’s Lonnie with Redd Foxx, Bill Veeck, Jesse Owens, Carmen Fanzone (the 60s-era Chicago Cubs third-sacker who was much better at trumpet playing than baseball), immortal WGN newscaster/gentleman Jack Taylor, and an exotic woman in belly-dancer garb known only as Zsi Zsi.
Most of the pictures are from Lonnie’s big-band days 40 years ago, when he was a regular on the east-coast club circuit. A few snapshots are from Chicago’s elegant old Club De Lisa and from his steady solo gig at the Edgewater Hotel. When the hotel met the wrecking ball in 1967, Lonnie had some time on his magic hands, so he agreed to do a two-week stint at Biasetti’s. Two weeks turned into 23 years.
“This should turn into a steady job sometime soon,” Lonnie jokes as he steps up to his perch at the bar and leans over his three-tiered organ. He wears a white tuxedo and a red bow tie. His hair, combed back, is turning white. He works beneath a backdrop of mounted replica NFL helmets from all 28 teams, plus the Chicago Blitz. The helmets appear used, but on further review it seems they are just dusty.
A mirror tilted behind Lonnie affords a view of his hands as they glide across the keyboards. He starts off with “Kansas City Here I Come,” spicing up the tune with improvised lyrics. The women in the song become “foxes,” the wine is Mogen David, and he doesn’t want just one woman–he wants four. He ends the song, though, by admitting he wouldn’t know what to do with that many foxes.
Then he breaks into a gravelly version of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” crooning softly as the middle-aged women a few feet away gaze up at Lonnie from their seats.
The sight of a little girl in her mother’s arms prompts him to take out a battery-operated cymbal-playing monkey. The monkey’s arms start flapping and Lonnie breaks into a classic rendition of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” to their beat. “Bring back Tomczak!” yells a female bar patron. Then fun-loving Lonnie segues into another old standard he’s put new words to: “There will never be another you . . . I just put rat poison in your stew . . .”
Lonnie concludes his high-spirited interlude and settles into “Satin Doll.” As his hands caress the organ, he holds the low notes long enough to leave a pleasant reverberation in listeners’ rib cages. He beats the hell out of church music.
Simmons responds kindly to a call to bring out his saxophone; the instrument has spent the better part of the winter in cold storage in the back of the bar.
“This sax is cold on my chops,” he says, borrowing a quarter from somebody in the crowd to fire up Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” on the jukebox. Tony and Lonnie, together again.
“You’re the best, Lonnie,” a few middle-aged groupies call out as they leave the place. Lonnie completes an hour-long set with the words, “I have to go park cars for a while. I’ll be back.”
He sits down to reminisce about some of his favorite performers–Ella Fitzgerald for her singing, Fats Waller for his playing, and fellow organist Nancy Faust of White Sox fame, a sister in arms.
“I love to play. It’s my hobby,” he says. “But I get most of my money from renting out my 14 organs and six electric pianos”–equipment he has been known to single-handedly deliver and install. “Give me a dolly and I can do the work of six union laborers,” he says with a chuckle.
His ever-expanding musical repertoire includes more than 1,000 “tavern tunes.” He takes requests gladly, but he won’t do Barry Manilow songs, and he can’t stand rap. “All you have is a drum and anything that rhymes. There’s no music there. The dancing part I like. But recitation is not music.”
Not that Lonnie has an aversion to the rhythms of the street. This is a showman who left his home in Charleston, South Carolina, at age 15 and moved to New York City so he could be closer to the action. He learned to play during World War II, when a Navy priest at Pearl Harbor gave him easy access to a church organ. He settled in Chicago after his service. As a young musician he survived by working as a crime photographer for the Chicago Defender. He shot enough murder scenes to develop a keen appreciation for life.
Lonnie rubs the back of his neck, still smarting from a recent three-car wreck that left his white Cadillac looking like a busted accordion. He admits he’s slowing down some, but his keyboard is never quiet for long. He recently played a gala United Auto Workers gathering at McCormick Place. He’s disappointed, though, that he has yet to receive a photo of himself with UAW president Owen Bieber. The snub almost rivals never receiving photos from appearances with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and radio meister Paul Harvey. But there’s no more room for any pictures on Biasetti’s closet-size hall of fame anyway.
“I live for July,” Lonnie confesses. “My true love is fishing. It helps you forget every damn thing.” Simmons likes his fish the way he likes his bands–big. A 40-pound trout he caught in Door County is mounted high above the bar, and behind the bar he keeps a file of fishing pictures, including one of a 600-pound amberjack he snared in the Gulf of Mexico.
After a leisurely break, Simmons climbs nimbly back to his performing perch. The crowd quiets.
He says: “Now whatchu want to hear?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.