When you're young, you're not aware of the impact a given event will have on your life. And you certainly don't think about one day looking back on any such event nearly four decades later. But this Sunday evening on the Marion Street mall, I'll be doing just thatâ€"watching the Cryan' Shames live for the first time in 39 years.
The Cryan' Shames, for me, represent the open-hearted earnestness and wide-open horizons of my youth. They are, I believe, the best band that ever came out of Chicago. And like a treasured keepsake, I keep the band's music in a special part of mind, which I'll open up fully this Sunday.
The Shames were the first band to open up for me the wonders of live music, and music opened me to the possibilities in the world. A month or so before I started at Oak Park and River Forest High School in September of 1966, I ventured over to the school's old auditorium for a 3-band concert, headlined by the Shames. They hadn't even put out their first album yet, though their first single, "Sugar and Spice," was near the top of the charts that August. I didn't even like "Sugar and Spice" all that muchâ€"at least it wasn't one of my favorites. But I decided to check out the Shames anyway.
As Buddy Holly would say, "Oh, Boy!" I didn't just witness live music. I experienced magic.
The Shames, who hailed from the Hinsdale area, consisted of Jimmy Fairs on guitar, Tom "Toad" Doody on lead vocals, Dennis Conroy on drums, Dave Purpleâ€"aka "Grape"â€"on bass, and Jerry Stoneâ€"or Stonehengeâ€"on rhythm guitar. Plus Jim Pilster, aka "Hook," on, well, on his feet, mostly, singing back-up. A consummate showman even then, he didn't play an instrument. But it was hard to look away from him, what with his trademark fake hook on his hand, and his unmistakable joy at just being up on the stage, a joy his bandmates obviously shared.
I bought the Sugar & Spice album when it came out that October. A year later, the Jim Fairs/Lenny Kerley hit, "Could Be We're in Love" would top WLS's Silver Dollar Survey, and I eagerly bought A Scratch In The Sky the day it was released later in December. Early in 1969, Synthesis came out, rounding out the remarkable musical development of a remarkable band.
The music on my radio during that period was amazing, with guys not much older than me getting major radio playâ€"local bands such as the Buckinghams, The Ides of March with Jim Peterik, The Shadows of Knight with Jimmy Sohns, the New Colony Six out of St. Patrick's High School featuring Ronnie Rice, as well as the Flock, and Four Days and a Night (four white guys and a black lead singer, get it?).
From 1966 to late '68 or early '69, there was a steady stream of local rock on the radio, starting with "Sugar and Spice," and the New Colony Six's "I Confess," and the Ide's "You Wouldn't Listen." It wasn't more than a few hours after a song was released by one of the top Chicago-area bands that you'd hear about it on the air.
But while all the other bands were good, they were gray scale compared to the Shames' 1024 color scale.
As for albums, there was no comparison. No other band's albums came close to holding together like theirs did. While the other Chicago bands put out some great individual hit records, their albums were hit and miss, with more duds than hits, while the Shames put out three solid albums.
Of course, the Shames' lineup is different today, with only Doody and Pilster remaining from the original unit that recorded the Sugar & Spice album in the summer of 1966. Gone are guitarist Jim Fairs, drummer Dennis Conroy, rhythm guitarist Jerry Stone, and bassist and organist Dave Purple. But change was a constant with the Shames.
Stone and Purple left and Isaac Guillory and Lenny Kerley joined the band for the second album. By the time the band entered the studio to record Synthesis, Fairs and Conroy had also departed, replaced by Al Dawson and Dave Carter.
One missing original member I'd particularly like the opportunity to see again is Jim Fairs. He wasn't just the Shames' original lead guitarist, but a great songwriter as well who wrote all five of the original songs on their first album. On the follow-up album, A Scratch in the Sky, he co-penned nine of 11 songs with new member Lenny Kerley, including such classics as "It Could Be We're in Love," "A Carol For Lorelei," and "Mr. Unreliable."
One of the two covers on that album, Carole King's "Up on the Roof," was recorded by a host of other artists, but the Shames' version, with Doody's amazing vocals, is still, in my opinion, the best version of that song ever recorded.
Fairs had one foot out of the band and in the Army by the time Synthesis was released in January, 1969. But two of his best numbers are on it. One, "Greenburg, Glickstein, Charles David Smith and Jones," co-written with new guitarist/bassist Isaac Guillory, is a flat-out, crunching rocker worthy of the Beatles. And "First Train to California," captured all of the romance and longing that tens of thousands of Chicago youth felt for a state that had become a mecca for restless youth just beginning to live their lives.
Guillory, meanwhile, brought both masterful musicianship and a master musician's sonic sensibility to the band, with such beautiful pieces as "A Master's Fool" and "Symphony of the Wind." That album also features one of the best love songs I've ever heard, "You're Love," written by Kerley.
Sadly, Guillory died in 2000 in England, and Purple in 2001 in Clearwater, Fla.
Nearly 40 years later, I'm reminded of John R. Power's book, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? Power's protagonist, Chicago South Side teenager Eddie Ryan, who, like me, came of age in the '60s, looks back at the end of the book at the period when he prepared to take his first steps into adulthood. Speaking of those adolescent romances, he notes that there would be other soft, magical summer nights, other women in his life.
"But I would never be 17 again," he noted with bittersweet longing.
There were other wondrous musical nights for me, spent absorbing the sonic bliss of some truly great bands. But, like Power's love-struck young man, I was never 14 again, never heard and saw live rock 'n' roll in quite the same way, with the unjaded ears and eyes of a young boy who allowed himself to be immersed in the musical pictures and melodic visions the Cryan' Shames created.
This Sunday the man that boy became will be standing with his wife on the mall, hoping for something of a reprise of that summer evening in 1966. He's still in love with music, and still in love with those wondrous sonic pictures the Cryan' Shames painted so long ago.