By Corky Siegel
Sometime around 1965 Jim Schwall and I met in an elevator while attending Roosevelt University's Chicago Musical College. I was learning blues harp, Jim was already proficient on guitar, but he was interested in learning the Chicago blues style. It seems that we stepped out of the elevator on the 5th floor, right on to a street in Hyde Park with harmonica, guitar and a few tunes in hand -- looking for a place to try our stuff. We slid into this little beatnik coffee house off the Harper street strip. This was to be our first public performance that would plant the seeds for a flashy career in music making with the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band.
The "public" at this very first performance was largely made up of two figures that turned out to be James Rado and Gerome Ragni. They were performing in a hit show called "The Knack" at the Harper Theatre across the way and had just strolled into this coffee shop. After Jim Schwall and I fulfilled our two or three tunes, Rado and Ragni introduced themselves. They explained that they were writing a musical and were immediately inspired with the possibility of our particular involvement in the project. They invited us to "The Knack" the next evening to facilitate a meeting after their performance.
Rado and Ragni were working on a musical about Capital Punishment. I still remember at least one of the lyrics. It was to be accompanied by a fast blue grass style of minstrelsy:An innocent man is never hanged, mistakes are never made, so if you didn't commit the crime, you need not be afraid."Rado and Ragni wanted Schwall and me to collaborate on the music with them and be part of this four man presentation on stage
The four of us would ride around on the south side of Chicago (where I still lived with my parents). Rado and Ragni quite often would be making up songs. The words just poured out. There was no hesitation. The songs could be either coherent stories or nonsense songs from an infinite flow of subject matter inspired by the signs and people that flew by us -- from windshield to rear view mirror -- along Stoney Island Avenue.
No matter what the songs were, they were always amazing. "Amazing" is my superlative and I don't know how else to explain. The songs were always uplifting and always heart-felt. Where were they coming from? Even my mom, who was very picky about my friends, loved these guys. She was very impressed with their energy. When they walked into the room, they filled it up with creative energy. And of course the songs they wrote for the musical about capital punishment were amazing. The message was amazing. There was no question of their genius.
We began working together on the capital punishment musical project for only a couple of weeks when Rado and Ragni rented the Harper Theater for the presentation. Very shortly after, "The Knack" was called to New York and Rado and Ragni had to give the capital punishment project the death sentence.
At this point Schwall and I got a steady gig at Pepper's Show Lounge. We were the house band for all the blues masters who would come by and jam on Thursday nights. Here we were, two young guys learning about the blues from the ones who created it! What fortune. What seems like the very next day, Siegel-Schwall got a record deal on Vanguard Records and that set the beginning of our music industry career in vinyl and stone.
Steve Paul's Scene in New York City was an outrageous night club. Our opening acts were a fire eater and Tiny (Tip-Toe-Through-The-Tulips) Tim. People would actually dance on the tables and Tiny Tim would make them laugh and cry. It was surreal to say the least. Actually, in this place, Rado and Ragni would have a somewhat better chance of blending than most anywhere else. But, this was just before young Americans began to grow their hair in the eastern seven eighths of our country. When Rado and Ragni popped into this place of places, their hair was matched only by Tiny Tim's waist long strands. Rado's blond hair was well on its way, and Ragni had a dark "natural" spreading-style doo that needed extra special room. Since I knew these guys they were always extremely noticeable personalities even without any trimmings, and the fact that Ragni did not have a shirt, only added a little shock value to the event.
They told me they were writing a musical about the Hippie movement in San Francisco and about the War in Vietnam. They asked if we would be interested in working on the music with them. Jim Schwall and I were focused on our personal career on the one hand, and on the other hand, they did seem a little crazy.
One day they stopped by my place in Chicago to play a few songs from this musical they were working on called HAIR with a guy named Galt. As usual their intense creative energy filled the room. They banged out some wonderful tunes on the piano.
The next trip to New York took Siegel-Schwall back to Steve Paul's Scene. Rado and Ragni shot in. By this time the rest of the country had started to let their hair grow a little. Rado and Ragni blended even better than their last visit to the Scene. I myself may have even begun wearing something other than black dress pants and a white shirt. Rado and Ragni were very excited. They got their play to "off Broadway." I showed up to one performance and was completely blown away. The genius of this offering had a personality. It was all Rado and Ragni and that was great. It was a small and intimate setting. The musical arrangements were simple and compelling and beautiful. The story was especially powerful because it was current affairs -- completely current -- intensely current.
Many years later in Chicago, maybe 1972, I was invited to a performance of Hair produced by another great. The invitation was from an organization of psychologists who arranged a special showing. In attendance were some world-renowned psychologists and psychiatrists. Meninger himself was there. This performance was a wonderful production. It was exciting and uplifting and the genius and personality of Rado and Ragni still pervaded the experience. It was them. They were there. After the performance the psychologists were to ask questions of the producers and performers about this phenomenon. I don't remember what happened. Perhaps my x wife (who lives right next store to my wife and I) can fill us in on an update. (coming soon!)
A couple days ago, Michael Jered Kopp, a very great mental landscaper in his own right, who lives across the alley, invited me to a Chicago performance of HAIR. The nostalgia was unbearable for me. It covered many levels. All these memories converging at one time. Through the late sixties and early seventies the Siegel-Schwall band spent 1/4 of the year living in San Francisco. We played all the rock palaces and hung out on hippie hill in Golden Gate Park almost every day. We hung with Janis and worked with Jimi. I loved it! On another level there was the Vietnam War and my own unique experience with the draft. On another level there was my memories of and my love and respect for Rado and Ragni. Their energy was there, their genius was there, they were there. The nostalgia was unbearable for me. The last time I saw either one of them was in 1967. I will miss Ragni and I look forward to meeting with Rado some day soon.
The meeting of Rado and Ragni was an important moment in my life. Not because of an opportunity to be involved in a musical, not because I would be associating with people who would become famous, but because of the particular flavor of good fortune it was to be around them. This flavor of good fortune has to do with the people and what they had to offer as an example to a new born performer/composer. They were an example of sincerity in creativity, creativity in action, love in action, and artistic inhibition. These people were geniuses and masters. Their aura and energy pervaded the sky. It was certainly good fortune for a young artist like myself to have first hand experience of this energy. And they were there at the very beginning of my career and their influence is there today in everything I do.
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