Back in the day (the ’50s through 90’s), Rush Street used to be a vibrant entertainment scene. Gradually, it turned into a “state of mind,” rather than an actual location. It extended all over the general nightlife district, from the Gold Coast and west to Old Town and then south farther into the Loop. Except for two short blocks of Division Street (between State and Clark), it wasn’t where the college crowd went. That was more Lincoln Avenue and Old Town and what used to be called “New Town,” which has now turned into “Boystown.”
This trivia is of no significance to anyone under 50 because the whole concept of a “nightlife district” has become obsolete. Instead, there are trendy neighborhoods with shelf lives of about 10 years before they pack up move on to the next one. But if you’re a Chicago-area Baby Boomer who liked to party, you know what I’m talking about. And if you are a musician from that era, Rush Street is likely where you worked at least part of your career.
The crooked path that is my career led me from the rock and blues bands of my youth to the disco bands of post-college, and to piano gigs up and down the Rush, State and Division streets.
In 1979, I went to a cattle-call audition for pianists at Sage’s, across the street from The Ambassador East. Joy Dickens, an omnipresent personality and booking agent of the era, hired me to back up several of her singers. I believe I made the cut because of, rather than my limitations at that time. Having only the most basic jazz chops, I played the way Joy liked—staying within or underneath the melody, rather than showing off my then non-existent jazz chops.
This led to a 20-year on-and-off residency of sorts as a backing pianist at Sage’s, Blondie’s, Billy’s, Toulouse, Y’vettes and other places. Bust most notable was a four-year stint with legendary singer/comedian Bill Acosta, now retired, who went on to Las Vegas fame and fortune.
Bill knew everybody on the street. Going with him to The Acorn on Oak after work to hear genius Buddy Charles was better than going to college. Buddy’s gone, but another legendary piano entertainer from that scene who was one of my mentors is still with us. Myles Greene is a hilarious person as well as a terrific pianist. Greene is scheduled to appear, along with many others, at the Third Annual Rush Street Reunion on Sunday, August 13.
I asked Myles to share some reminiscences with us:
Like many Chicago pianists of my generation, I (Myles) studied with Allen Swain since I was 8 years old. He gave me the confidence I needed to pursue my career. There have been so many twists and turns along the way. I will try to just give some of the more outstanding highlights that I can recall.
My first experience onstage was entering “The Coke-a-Cola Talented Teens contest at age 17. I won, and never could forget the pride and elation I had. Practicing at Mundelein College on their grand pianos, I met a girl who persuaded me to audition for a job opening at The Beldon Stratford Hotel. I got it—my very first paying gig. Wow: $175 a week. Hey, that was a lot of money in the early ’70s!
In those days, good paying piano gigs were plentiful. I went into a place called The Colony East Restaurant. I told the manager that I was a pianist looking for a position. He introduced me to the owner, Joe Bornstein, who took a liking to me and gave me the job. I didn’t realize at that time he also was the owner of the Mill Run Theater. This was the start of my Rush Street history.
I played every spot in the area, from the Pump Room with my orchestra to opening the fabulous lounge at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. When I use play at the Back Room with my trio, I met Sam Distefano and Joe Iaco. They were my reason for getting a long-house band gig with the Playboy Clubs. I was there for 12 years.
I met Arnie Morton, who also was with Playboy at the time. He asked me to play at his restaurant, Arnies’s, on State Parkway right across from what was the legendary Mister Kelly’s, now Gibsons. I was there for 15 years and also at Zorine’s, his private club. From there I was at Tuscany Restaurant Group for 17 years.
As you can see, my career has been one of a chain reaction of events. I’ve played for so many wonderful people and have been blessed to be playing and knowing some of the best musicians in the world, including Buddy Charles. Everybody knew and loved him.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been eight years since we lost Buddy. I remember very clearly the last time I saw him: I was on my way out to a two-year residency in West Palm Beach, and I knew this would my last chance to see the master. He was quite ill, but still performing killer weekly sets at Chamber’s in Morton Grove. His annual benefit memorial party is on July 16 at 3 p.m. at St Isaac Jogues Church at 8149 W. Golf Road in Niles. Expected participants are Joel Barry, Anne and Mark Burnell, Steve Heliotes, Ernie Lane, Paul Marinaro, Gina Masland, Bob Moreen, Bob Solone, Scott Urban and Pat Gries (Mrs. Buddy Charles). Donation is $20 (tax deductible). Inexpensive beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks will be available. Scott Urban is running it, and can be reached on Facebook.
Speaking of nostalgia, David Floodstrand’s Rush Street Reunion, which was a one-time thing he put together in 2015, is now an annual event and in its third year. He created it as an outgrowth of his book project Rush Street, Chicago’s Street of Dreams. The event was so successful we decided to do it every year, and every year it has grown. People fly in from all around the country for this thing,” said Mr. Floodstrand, a well known DJ and singer with a long history in the Chicago entertainment business.
This year’s Rush Street Reunion will take place on Sunday, August 13, at Palette at 1206 North State Parkway, the site of the former Yvette Restaurant. The entertainment begins with a matinee performance by “Chicago’s Queen of Cabaret,” Denise Tomasello, on the Yvette Stage at 2 p.m. “The Tony Ocean Show” goes on from 3 until 4 p.m. I’ll be upstairs next door at The Black Kat Club, at 1204 N. State on the 2nd floor from 5-10 p.m. running a piano bar retrospective dedicated to not only Buddy Charles, but another great veteran player, now-deceased Nick Russo. It scares me that Nick—who was my age—is no longer available to blow away all the competition as Chicago’s best jazz-oriented singing pianist of his generation.
There will be framed pictures of both of these masters on top of the piano as I host this event. After expenses, proceeds of this event go to The Lupus Foundation of America. For more information, go to rushstreetreunion.com.
About Mick Archer
Singers and pianists of all styles are welcome to join the class Piano Bar 101, taught by Mick Archer on Fridays 8 p.m.-9:20 p.m., at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Call for availability (773) 728-6000 or visit OldTownSchool.org