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.
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.
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.
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.