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Hugos Frog Bar Cancels Live Music



The name “Rush Street,” which denotes more a state of mind than an actual place, used to mean all of the nightlife north of Chicago Avenue up to Division Street, and from La Salle all the way east to the lake. But it’s no longer a place where you can find much live music, and it’s going to get even quieter in 2016. Hugo’s Frog Bar, which shares a kitchen with Gibsons, has decided that squeezing in a few more tables is a better idea than keeping alive a 25-year tradition of having a singing pianist that you could see in the window as you walk down the street. “Shocking,” says Donny Nichilo, the former sideman for Buddy Guy and founding member of The Mighty Blue Kings. “I just played there the Sunday and Monday before Christmas to a full bar of very warm, appreciative patrons, singing along, applauding, requesting tunes and leaving generous tips. And that don’t lie, because people don’t part with their money easily! If people are tipping, it’s because they are enjoying the music and the experience.” It was back in 1990 that Hugo’s opened, and following “The Big Easy” trend at that time for New Orleans cuisine and music, snagged blues pianist/singer Peter Dames away from his late night gig at Dick’s Last Resort, downstairs from the Baja Beach Club at North Pier. I remember this well because the dueling pianists loved to go downstairs after work and hear Peter blast out the kind of authentic honkey-tonk music that we loved. Peter played out the rest of his career there into the late ‘90s, and was eventually replaced by the excellent “Professor” John Gussaroff. A hard-core roots player from Brooklyn, he became a blues nut while studying at the University of Chicago, and found a musical home for himself at Hugo’s. As the times changed, so did the music. While resisting the temptation go completely pop, or to mimic the more plush, traditional sounds coming from Gibsons’ excellent, classy piano bar, Gussaroff started hiring players who could handle requests for Elton John and Billy Joel. Eventually, it was no longer a question of if you could sprinkle a couple of those tunes over a set of blues, but if you could you manage to play that stuff all night and still keep a honkey-tonk feeling. John “JT” Talmadge did this brilliantly for 10 years (column on him is in a 2013 Chicago Jazz issue), the last five of which he spent as the entertainment director. “I started working for the Gibsons Restaurant Group in 2005,” Talmadge recalls. “I played my first Hugo’s shift at the Naperville location, then became supervisor for the Rush Street (location) in 2010. Since then, the work has been steady for me—five nights a week, often doing double shifts or on my day off to cover a shift. I was in charge of scheduling and payroll, hiring and firing. As a performer, I was popular; I made pretty good tips. Customers would often return and make a point of letting me know that I’m the reason they’re back. It was a very good run. Five years as supervisor, 10 years total. I enjoyed myself tremendously. I’m thankful to the Gibsons Restaurant Group and Hugo’s Frog Bar for the opportunity to sharpen my craft, and to develop as a performer. But still I’m sad. Though some haven’t been a very good fit (temperamentally) for such a tiny room—the servers routinely use the top of the piano as a bussing station and an out-of-tune console piano has been stuck right underneath a TV that has always been on—Gussaroff and Talmadge have always been generous with putting individuals on the schedule when they have been in town or between gigs. And, despite the lack of space for the performer, it was known to musicians as a “fun room” where they were “allowed to play bluesy-type roots material.” So yet again, Chicago’s once preeminent live entertainment district has shriveled to a point that you could probably take all the acts in the entire area and stick them with a tip bucket in miniscule Mariano Park, 1031 North State St., which sits just across Bellvue Street from Hugo’s. How ironic that this beggar’s hang-out shares a name with the current, biggest employer of live music in Chicago—Mariano’s Fresh Markets, which runs live piano music and some trios at all of their 35 locations every weekend. Nichilo and myself (Archer) are fortunate to work there, and I imagine I’ll be making a call to the agent who books the store on JT’s behalf soon. Donny—also in a Chicago Jazz Magazine online archive—gets the last word. “I just came back from living and playing for 12 years in Brazil, and was immediately welcomed back to Hugo’s,” Nichilo adds. “Often, I spoke of this cool place to people in South America, explaining that this joint is pure ‘Chicago,’ the piano town, the heart of the blues and much more great American music. “Once Paris Hilton came in. I wanted to give her party a taste of authentic, homegrown Chicago music. And she was dancing in her seat, smiling and seeming to really be enjoying the blues—Chicago style! She left me a very generous tip. Michael Sneed called me and there was an account of this in the Sun-Times the next day. So I’m just sad and in shock … and confused. Hugo’s was doing great. Everyone I’ve talked to, employees and public alike, can’t imagine why this great Chicago tradition has to come to an end.”

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