As the children of their nephew Jimmy’s class sat listening to the Dooley Brothers Band (DBB) perform one night at St. Luke School a few years back, some may have registered the fact that the four talented men who played for them had once attended that very school decades before. Somebody probably mentioned it in introducing them. But what the youngsters may not have realized was that they were listening to the most successful group of musicians ever to grow up in River Forest.
When Joe Dooley, the founding older sibling, was forced by a stroke to retire from performance in 2007, the DBB had already given more than 4,000 performances – everywhere from the annual Taste of Chicago to concerts in Ireland. But Joe, Bill, Jim and Mike never lost touch with their roots in Oak Park (where all four of the brothers attended Fenwick High School) and River Forest, turning up again and again, by popular demand, at places like Scoville Park, Keystone Park, Healy’s and Goldyburgers in Forest Park.
“Joe was an incredible talent, a great musician and entertainer” said Goldyburgers’ Mike Sullivan, “and a great friend.”
And when Joe died last month at the age of 70, the story of his and his brothers’ growing up at the family home, 616 Clinton Place (Jim still lives there and the other two are in the area) was on many lips. Joe loved to perform the old Irish ballads like “Odd Fellows Hall” and “Dan O’Brien’s Raffle,” which they learned at the knee of their grandfather, T.W. McMullin, in whose house they lived. By then in his 80s, he had himself performed these same popular story songs in Strening’s Saloon on Blue Island Avenue in the 1890s before moving his family to the still sparsely settled village west of Oak Park.
As a boy, Joe rode the elm-lined streets of River Forest on his bicycle. On summer nights, he played baseball with his brothers all day and into the gloaming at Cummings Square Park. Back on Clinton Place, they would sit on the screened-in porch, watching the fireflies and singing songs ranging from “Down by the Old Mill Stream” to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” – the real start, he maintained, of the Dooley Brothers Band.
Joe’s broad musical tastes were formed early. From their mother, Avis, a self-taught piano player, he and his brothers learned to love the catchy melodies and playful lyrics of the 1920s and ’30s. Their oldest brother, Tom, home from college, led them in Weavers’ renditions of “Irene Goodnight” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Dennis, who sang in an amateur barbershop quartet, taught them four-part harmony.
The first time Joe ever saw a saxophone “in the flesh,” he liked to recall, was in a church basement on Harlem Avenue to which he and his brothers were lured one summer night in the early 1950s by the prospect of live music. He learned to play the sax himself as a member (1958–1962) of the Fenwick High School band, and taught himself guitar while guarding the bank across from the Lake Theatre as a night watchman, a job he had taken to help pay his way through Loyola University.
Joe’s exuberant sax can be heard on the band’s recording of “Yes It’s Me and I’m In Love Again!” the early R&B classic made famous by Antoine “Fats” Domino, on the Dooley Band’s Black Sunshine CD. And you can hear Joe playing guitar and singing a wistful song he himself wrote on a hill in Ireland, “I Guess We’ll Never Know,” on a YouTube tribute to the musician that features images from his long and successful career. One of Joe’s loveliest compositions, which he performs on the band’s vinyl LP, A Place in My Heart, is the tender “Song by the Sea.”
On their collection of Irish ballads, The Road to Lisdoonvarna (all of the brothers’ CDs are available at dooleybrothers.com or amazon.com), Joe and brothers perform tunes they heard as kids drifting from the basement of the house next door at 612 Clinton Place, where their other grandfather, Tommy Dooley of County Clare, sat alone playing his fiddle. (After his hands were injured in a dramatic rescue he made as a fireman shortly before WWI, Tommy never played in public again.)
Joe taught himself to play the 36-string autoharp and a host of exotic percussion instruments he fell in love with when the band stopped at several ports in the Caribbean while performing as the house band on a cruise. Check out “Jamaica Farewell” (and Joe’s solo vocal) on Glad Magic.
“He was a gentle soul,” Bill FitzGerald (owner of FitzGerald’s Nightclub in Berwyn, where the Dooley Brothers performed every St. Patrick’s Day for more than 30 years) told the Chicago Tribune when Joe Dooley died in November. “He was talented and charming [and] for years brought the sheer joy of music to audiences here and all around Chicago.”
Dennis Dooley spent his entire career as a journalist and editor. He notes that a full page is devoted to his brother Joe in the new issue of the Irish American News (which has an inset photo of him on its cover).