A party fit for an Earl
Chris Farrell as a young man, performing at The Earl of Old Town.
Birthday Party & Reunion
Concert for Earl Pionke,
The Earl of Old Town
FitzGerald’s Night Club, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn
6 p.m., doors at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 24
Tickets: $10, tent only, exclusive simulcast of concert in club
(708) 788-2118 or www.fitzgeraldsnightclub.com
Updated: June 20, 2012 10:55AM
“The Earl was everything. It was noisy. It was attentive. There were fans, and there were people who couldn’t care less. You would be up till 4 or 5 in the morning on Saturday, then on Sunday you would play the matinee.” Michael Johnson’s voice warmed up with excitement as he recalled playing for Earl Pionke at The Earl of Old Town in his early performing days.
Pionke’s folk club at 1615 N. Wells lasted from 1962 to 1984, and served as a starting point and a haven for just about all the great Chicago singers and musicians of the folk-revival of those years.
It was Pionke who gave Johnson the boost he needed as an aspiring musician, offering him some of his first gigs and exposure in Chicago. That’s help that Johnson and many other singers, songwriters and musicians are still grateful for after all these years.
“He was kind of gruff, the business guy back in the office, which was also the ‘dressing room’ where you could warm up a bit before you went on. But Earl was great,” Johnson continued.
Pionke is turning 80, and will be honored at a birthday party and reunion concert June 24 at FitzGerald’s Night Club in Berwyn. Performers on the schedule include Johnson, Bonnie Koloc, Johnny Burns, Eddie Holstein, Claudia Schmidt, Andrew Calhoun, Al Day, Mick Scott, Dean Milano, Larry Rand, Michael Smith, and Chris Farrell, among others.
“I first played for Earl in 1964, when I won a songwriting competition, and first prize was a two-week engagement in a Chicago coffee house,” said Johnson, speaking by phone from Nashville. “I was hired on for another 22 weeks. At the end of the 22 weeks, I thought: ‘I’m in show business.’ ”
The club was a good place to listen, too.
“I played at The Earl a lot, off and on for a year and a half [that time], with Fred (Holstein) and Ed (Holstein), John Prine and Bonnie Koloc,” said Johnson. “Lots of great people came through there. It was a wonderful time in Chicago and Earl was very helpful.”
Johnson rose to fame with his recording of “Bluer Than Blue,” and has, over the years, released 11 studio albums. He is presently recording his first album for Red House Records, and moves to Minneapolis this fall.
Among Chicago-based artists coming to celebrate Pionke is Dean Milano. He’ll be performing with a version of “The Casualaires,” a group that performed regularly in the ’70s at The Earl of Old Town, and all the other clubs along the Lincoln Avenue strip. He’ll be joined by original member, Julie Macarus on violin, and Jay Whitehouse on guitar.
“Earl would book us for a week at a time,” Milano recalled. “He was great. The neat thing about Earl was he was supportive of The Casualaires at a time when we were going against the grain of playing traditional folk, and playing crazy songs from the ’30s and ’40s. At night, the place was funky and romantic and cozy, a homey place.”
Singer/songwriter Larry Rand, another figure from the Earl of Old Town’s heyday, has vivid memories of food that came courtesy of Pionke.
“I (once) walked into
the Earl hoping for a free cheeseburger, and 20 minutes later he was treating six of us to ribs at Twin Anchors,” he said. “This only happened eight or nine times to me; some guys probably ate 40 slabs on Earl. He didn’t just hire us; he fed us, entertained us, promoted us and supported us — whether we did big business like Steve (Goodman), John (Prine) or Bonnie (Koloc) — or not.”
When the club closed in 1984, the city lost more than just a performing venue. The Earl of Old Town, as created by Earl Pionke, noted Andrew Calhoun, served as a crossroads for restless, musical souls.
“Earl’s was the last Chicago folk club where you were likely to meet anyone, from anywhere in the world,” he said. “Everyone felt at home there.”