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Earl Pionke's Birthday Journey

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Earl and Ed Holstein at the Earl (Courtesy of Earl Pionke)

Chicago club owner Earl Pionke was on the way to his 80th birthday party Sunday afternoon at FitzGerald's nightclub in Berwyn. Fireworks went off just as he drove by U.S. Cellular Field from his home in far south Pullman. His beloved White Sox had won a 1-0 squeaker. Several hours later surprise guest John Prine was on stage after mixing backstage with a generation of Chicago folk singers.

"This is a model train of memories," Prine told the crowd with a cross- country smile. "Goin' around Earl Pionke, the big Christmas tree."

This is a helluva way to celebrate a birthday......


.....Prine had flown in after a show in Telluride, Colo. and said he "would rather be nowhere than here for you, Earl." Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka discovered Prine at Pionke's most famous club, the Earl of Old Town, which ran from 1962 until 1984 at 1615 N. Wells, across the street from Second City.

But who is this man who calls himself The Earl of Old Town?
That is what his long time girl friend Sharon Biggerstaff wondered when she first heard of him 30 years ago on the North Lincoln Avenue scene.

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Earl and Sharon

Pionke is a lifelong Chicagoan. He is a mentor, a raconteur, a jazz fan, former boxer, and an orphan.
He knows the meaning of family.
This is why so many people turned out for the concert which ran nearly six hours. FitzGerald's was sold out at nearly 800 tickets, which included 450 people who watched on a big screen outside the club under a tent. The line outside was a block long before doors opened.

There were more than 20 performers, including Bonnie Koloc, John Prine's rockabilly brother Billy, Claudia Schmidt, Chris Farrell, Michael Johnson (who had the 1978 hit "Bluer than Blue", but did not perform it), brilliant Nashville songwriter Buddy Mondlock who came up through the Earl, Jim Post and others.

It was a mighty, mighty, mighty wind.

Ed Holstein was magnificent, keenly reminiscing about his early days at the Earl of Old Town through a blues tinged version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice". Holstein looks like Harold Ramis and he is just as funny.
The Chicago native recalled of giving San Francisco a shot in 1968 but there were only three people that didn't do drugs: "me, Corky Siegel and some guy we heard about." On the night he debuted at the Earl horror actor Vincent Price was French kissing a woman in the front row as Holstein sang "Don't Think Twice." "I wonder if she saw 'House of Wax'," he sang in talking blues.

The birthday party was broadcast live on the web, a first for FitzGerald's. A CD and DVD of the event is on the way and the Sun-Times videographer Jon Sall was on hand to capture key moments.

This was the most heartfelt Chicago musical tribute I have seen since the Nov. 1997 tribute to the late Steve Goodman at the Medinah Temple.
Of course Steve's mom Minnitte was at Pionke's birthday party---for all six hours. She is in her mid-80s.

Pionke sat with his family in front of the stage. Soft golden light bathed his chilsled face. He is battling health issues and was too weak to come to the stage, but he made his closing remarks from his chair, calling it "the folk reunion of the century" and adding, "this has been so magnificent, from the bottom of my heart..." before breaking into tears.

Pionke made one request at the end of the evening, askng Prine to sing "Hello In There," his timeless ballad about loneliness. Prine also covered Goodman's "My Old Man," his tribute to his father and the set-closer "Paradise," which found Pionke singing along and his arms outstretched to the sky--like a White Sox fan doing the wave. Maybe.

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Koloc was one of the evening's most dignified performers, dueting with Prine on his hit "Angel From Montgomery" (her version is on her latest "Rediscovered" CD) and delivering a spot-on version of her ballad "Roll Me On The Water," which she wrote at the Earl of Old Town. She spoke of the song's inspiration:
"If you love someone always tell them. You can never tell them too much."

There weren't many clunker moments considering the length of the show. A couple of times I thought we'd all be around for Earl's 81st birthday. I wanted Bryan Bowers to play his autoharp, but instead he read 20 minutes of heartfelt memories from a piece of paper while wearing a head lamp.

Marty Pfeifer sang "Send In The Clowns"--note to self: don't let this happen at any of my birthday parties.

Early in the evening Byron Roche paid proper tribute to the late Mike Jordan (who was part of Prine's Famous Potatoes backing band) with a J.J. Caleish take of Jordan's "Long Time" and Mondlock may have been the night's best ringer singing the late Tom Dundee's "Cowboys Born Out Of Their Time" in a whisper while looking at Pionke. Mondlock also covered his composition "The Kid," covered by Peter, Paul and Mary and David Wilcox.

John Burns (another Famous Potato, son of Jethro Burns of Homer and Jethro fame) and Harry Waller served as co-hosts. Burns opened the second half of the show with a rockin' version of "Shop Talk," which he wrote in 1980 with John Prine and a new pop-a-billy tune "Mars Needs Women." ("the earth is in trouble and Mars is in heat....").
Waller, wearing a black fedora with a red feather got off the night's best line:
"It's great to see a lot of old faces here---I mean that literally."

The event was organized by a former Earl of Old Town publicist-manager who wishes to remain anonymous, although her name was mentioned a couple of times during the evening from the stage.
She also ordered three full size sheet cakes -- enough to feed 250 people. One yellow cake had fresh strawberry filling and whipped cream. The second was full size chocolate cake with raspberry filling and whipped cream. The third was half chocolate and half yellow cake.
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One of the cakes had the the art work from "The Gathering at the Earl of Old Town" album transferred to the center of the cake. It said "Happy 80th Birthday Earl." The cake was being cut and distributed as fans excited around 12:30 a.m. Monday and I'm not sure if Pionke blew out the candles to make a wish.

But then it was clear on Sunday night this is a man whose wishes have come true:
A life of summer fireworks, model trains and music that keeps on playing.

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15 Comments

I remember going to "Earl's Place" on Christmas Eve 1985 to hear Ronn Barany play a few sets. Earl gave a Christmas present to me.....he gave one to EVERYBODY that came through the door that night!!! What a wonderful human! HAPPY BIRTHDAY Earl!!!

Loved your article, Dave. I totally agree with your "short list" of honorable mentions and I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of "Send in the Clowns". Yikes--what a downer that was! All in all--an historical...and hysterical evening (thanks to Harry Waller and Ed Holstein) A goose-bump filled--fun-filled evening for sure!

Fantastic job summarizing the evening, Dave!

There were dozens of moments that will remain in my memory forever and other moments when I closed my eyes and swore I was back at the Earl of Old Town.

One moment that stands out for me was Mick Scott's performance of "Last One of the Night People", Aliotta, Haynes and Jerimiah's anthem for anyone who has ever worked or played in clubs and walked out after close to face the deep silence of the night that follows a long shift. Scott called out goodnight to many of the workers, singers and clubs that are no longer with us. Some of the names shocked us anew as it seemed impossible yet sadly true that Tom Dundee or Fred Holstein among others were not going to make a personal appearance this night.

Eddie Holstein's comments about Earl - You don't so much "meet" Earl as you "feel him coming" - exactly describes his larger than life heart and personality. Earl is 100% himself, take it or leave it, and the crowd made it plain from the minute he walked into the room when 240 folks spontaneously stood and burst into an impromptu Happy Birthday serenade that they took it and loved him for it.

Dave, while Send in the Clowns may have been slightly out of place, you can't deny the arrangement was stellar and that Al Day's guitar brought out every bit of poignancy that is hidden in the tune. Also, I've heard Marty do Maderia scores of times, and this one may have been the best, complete with the Yiddishe Mama.

There was pure joy on Bonnie Koloc's face as she extended her arms towards Earl and let us all see her soul. She is magificent as ever. Pure joy on Prine's face as he joked with Earl, sang w/Bonnie, played with Billy, Johnny Burns, Jim Tullio and participated in the finale with all the other musicians. Pure joy on Earl's face as the voice of Fred Holstein led those gathered in singing "All the Good People" as waves of love washed over the birthday gent from the crowd and the musicians.

Fitzgerald's was a wonderfully appropriate place to hold the do - everyone there was focused on making it a happy and successful event - they went above and beyond.

And to the unbelievably accomplished but anonymous (not to me!!) woman who had this germ of an idea which she turned into a once in a lifetime evening - Well Done!!! Every detail was meticulously thought out so that everyone could just sit back and enjoy hours of music and love because of your backbreaking work. What a powerful gift you gave Earl, the musicians and all of us happy witnesses. Thank you.

regarding Send in the Clowns...heard that was a song requested by others...still beautiful. Note to self, I'd be honored to be remembered by such a splendid song stylist. Hope someone remembers you so beatifully one day.

Peace

Any review of the evening should include at least a mention of Michael Johnson, whose mastery of entertaining has amazed me since I was a lad of 15. He did as good a set as anyone who hit the stage at Fitzgerald's, combining great vocals and classical-technique guitar with a delightful sense of humor. The overall level of the evening's performances was high, and I rank Michael's right at the top.

LARRY!
I loved your tea-party tune as well--only so much I could get in writing between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. but you contributed the comedic element that was also part of Earl's stage. Be well!

Send I The Clowns. In my opinion one of the most difficult songs in the world to do well. Keep it simple, and from the heart. For me, Marty Pfeifer nailed it.

The concert was, quite simply, a triumph.

I rest my case.

Belated happy birthday, Earl! So glad I had the pleasure of knowing (and for a time, living with) you and Sharon. So many good times spent hanging with Val at The Earl II for open mic and otherwise. I will never forget your friendship and kindness. You're one of a kind! Love you guys!! xoxo

I'll be damned. How cool is this! My thoughts return to another of the many unheralded souls Earl helped out along the way. I am remembering my friend and Old Town regular, the budding folk singer Jerry Eubanks. No one loved the scene more or was more fun to be around. A kind and gentle soul, he was liked by all. For a short time, he wrote, sang, promoted his work tirelessly. Yet all his energy and positive attributes were overshadowed by a single tragic flaw. He couldn't sing a lick. A tall, lean lad, he often dressed colorfully, for awhile he even sported mutton chops and an Abe Lincoln stovepipe. Amazingly his schtick and even his lousy singing somehow managed to attract several of the finest local lovelies. To this day I know not how. But what the hell, it was the late 60's.

Earl would on rare occasion give in to Jerry's pleas and let him do a set, mostly for the nocturnal blood shot eyes crowd. I must admit to rarely attending any of these performances. Yet I always appreciative when "the Earl" would relent and let my old pal have a shot in the limelight, no matter how dim the glow. Maybe that is what true nobility is all about. Of course for Jerry these gigs meant everything.

What a moment. Ultimately, like many, we drifted. I saw little of Jerry in the subsequent years. Sadly I was to learn of his passing just ten years later. The memories however long endure.

Just wanted to say thanks to the folks at Fitzgerald's or whomever was responsible for the internet streaming. I was unable to get tix and thoroughly enjoyed watching at home, although nothing could have topped being there. Thanks to all of the performers for their magic. Looking forward to the DVD!

Last night was a special experience! To see all the love that Chicago's folk community showed for the Royalty of Wells Street was overwhelming, not only for the 800 folks in attendance, but, obviously, for Earl, as well. The performers, many of whom were in between gigs, like Bryan Bowers, Michael Johnson and the "special, unannounced guest", (that everyone guessed!) John Prine, who remarked that he'd rather be here than anywhere else, as well as resident locals Mick Scott, Dean Milano, Harry Waller, Ed Holstein and Andrew Calhoun, those who traveled in for the night, Bonnie Koloc with dogs in tow, Ron Buffington, Mike Dunbar, and Johnny "Bones" Burns to share emcee duties. Conspicuous by their absences were the 3 heartbeats of the folks community, Stevie Goodman, Fred Holstein and Tom Dundee, who left us all here to continue on with their legacies. Tom's legacy was represented by Buddy Mondlock and Andrew Calhoun. John Prine reminded us all of his buddy Steve Goodman. But the only one who could remind of us of Fred, was Fred, present at the end of the night with the playing of "All The Good People". It was obvious that Earl was moved when he was given a microphone to address those in attendance.

The community will never see another night like this, honoring a special citizen for his special contribution to the life of the city and the lives of countless musicians and artists. There will never be another like Earl J. J. Pionke!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, EARL!

I think that Alliota, Haynes, and Jeremiah did a great job on their RECORDING of Mick Scott's Last One of the Night People as did Marty Pfeifer, but those of us who know Mick know it was written from his heart and his experiences. Sunday night's performaqnce of his song was sung with love for Earl and all the other Night People in Mick's life.

Thinks very much for covering all these real people like the Earl all these years.

Also, for bringing back many meaningful memories for me. about his b-day bash.

Existentially,
Bob Lichtenbert

I remember fondly playing at "Troubles' and all the great musicianship and song-smithing.
Although, in Alaska these many years and having lost touch with many of these younger names who were then "up and coming" performers back in the 70's as I was, it is good to know that this gathering happened. And as for Steve G. I'll never forget being his opening act at a college, and then talking for hours afterward in his green Volvo wagon. I still love playing and always will. I hope

Sorry i missed the bday celebration....thanks for all you have done for musicians, songwriters,singers. I miss seeing and talking with you. Hi to sharon..

I'm glad I didn't see the problem with Marty singing Send in the Clowns. I played bass on tune and I had chills throughout the song that night.
And yes, Night People is one of Mick's own tunes. He and I have been playing that song together since the late '70s and the performance at Earl's party was very emotional for all of us. I had tears running down my eyes as I was playing and I'll be curious to see if the cameras picked that up. Hopefully, they stayed focused on Mick through the song. ;^)

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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