Rock ’n’ Roll museum celebrates Illinois’ contributions to great music

By Bill Dwyer for Chronicle Media

Billy Prine performs at the 2023 Illinois Rock ’n’ Roll Museum on Route 66’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony honoring his brother, songwriter John Prine, on Sunday, Sept. 17. (Photo by Jim Summaria)

An impressive array of musical styles from Illinois artists were celebrated on Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Illinois Rock ’n’ Roll Museum on Route 66’s third annual induction ceremony at the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet.

The museum’s three-hour program honored the eloquent vocals of Chicago’s Nat King Cole, the unparalleled jazz genius of Alton, Illinois native Miles Davis and the soaring R&B of Earth Wind and Fire. Folk legend John Prine was inducted in the songwriter category, and two legendary Chicago bands, The Shadows of Knight and The Cryan’ Shames were enshrined. Bob Sirott entered in the DJ category.

Records brought music to the masses, and with the exception of the Chess brothers, no one has done more to bring blues music to the public than Bruce Iglauer. Since he started Alligator Records in 1971, he’s released 350 albums.

The latest Alligator recording artist, Toronzo Cannon, ripped into a torrid version of his “Walk It Off,” that all but left a haze of smoke over the stage.

Jim Pilster, aka JC Hooke, of the Cryan Shames performs as part of that band’s induction into the Illinois Rock ’n’ Roll Museum on Route 66’s Hall of Fame on Sunday, Sept. 17. (Photo by Jim Summaria)

Recorded music was usually first heard by the general public on radio. John “Records” Landecker introduced disc jockey inductee Bob Sirott. Sirott, who works mornings on WGN-AM, also worked at WBBM-FM and was the top DJ at WLS from 1973-79.

Introducing inductee radio station WLUP, Mitch Michaels brought up Bob Stroud and a number of other Loop veterans. And no, sorry, Loreli was not present.

Radio legend Dick Biondi, who was already an inductee, died in June, and was memorialized.

R&B superstars Earth Wind and Fire, formed by the late, great Maurice White, a Chicago native, were out touring, but tribute band Shining Star did rousing versions of “Shining Star” and “September.”

Anyone who was a teen in the Chicago area in the ’60s remembers the massive hit “Gloria” dominating the AM airwaves. The Shadows of Knight from north suburban Mount Prospect — lead guitarist Joe Kelley, rhythm guitarist Gerald McGeorge, Warren Rogers on bass, drummer Tom Schiffour and swaggering lead singer Jimmy Sohns out front — were often referred to as Chicago’s version of the Rolling Stones. “Gloria,” released in February 1966, was one of four of their songs on Chicago airwaves that year.

Hinsdale’s Cryan’ Shames had their first hit with “Sugar and Spice,” months after the Shadows of Knight in the summer of 1966. It would be the first of several hits by the group, which put out three albums over two years.

Not too bad for a group of guys that, as Jim Pilster, aka J.C. Hooke, said, “were just f****** around and having fun … .”

Pilster, who was the only original band member present for the ceremonies, didn’t play an instrument. He had a tambourine in his right hand and a hook on his congenitally deformed left hand. But he had undeniable star presence and an unmistakable joy in performing.

The Shames had a total of 10 people over their three albums. Original members were Pilster, lead singer Tom Doody, lead guitarist Jim Fairs, drummer Dennis Conroy, rhythm guitarist Gerry Stone and bassist and keyboardist Dave Purple.

Fairs, a stellar guitarist and prolific songwriter, was arguably most responsible for the band’s sound; he wrote four songs on the first album and nine of 11 on the second album, “A Scratch in the Sky.”

John Prine, who died from COVID-19 in 2020, is being recognized as one of the all-time great song writers anywhere. He entered the Nashville Song writers Hall of Fame in 2019 and was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in Texas this past June.

Prine’s younger brother Billy Prine joined with old friends Bonnie Koloc and John Bednarcik to perform “Angel from Montgomery.” Noting that his oldest brothers Dave and John studied at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Billy said, “I was just a tuba player,” acknowledging that that was “as square as it goes.”

Of course, nobody plays air tuba, and like so many kids growing up in the ’60s, Billy had an epiphany when he heard the Beatles.

“When I saw John Lennon and the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I said, ‘John, teach me how to play guitar. And he did’”

Billy Prine said it was a bit hard for him to fully grasp just how respected a figure the person he grew up with had become in the music world.

“I always looked at him as a brother first, because he was the greatest,” Prine said. “But all these guys that I was idolizing, like Bob Weir and Roger Waters, you know, Tom Waits, all these cats loved my brother.”

Nobel laureate Bob Dylan called Prine’s work “pure Proustian existentialism” and “Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.” Robert Plant said Prine’s lyrics were “… a beacon of clear white light cutting through the dark days.”

“If God had a favorite songwriter, it’s John Prine,” said Kris Kristofferson.

“I’m blessed just that I had him as a brother,” said Billy. “He could just take, like, the most simple things in life, but he could find a lot of meaning in them and express them in words that nobody else ever did.”

The evening was an opportunity to celebrate love of music and appreciation for the people who bring it to us. Rick Agnew, 60, traveled to Joliet from Oak Park to watch the festivities from a third-row seat. He called the evening “a throwback to my youth and the stuff that I always loved.

“We’re all getting older,” Agnew said. “But it’s nice to have this touchstone, like a moment in time where I can pause and look back at the stuff I grew up with.”