The central Illinois music scene (the ostensible subject of my magazine piece this week) was amazingly fecund in the 1970s, and worthy of a self-indulgent blog post all its own. The alpha and omega of this time and place was REO Speedwagon, and Gary Richrath enjoyed an intensely loyal following around town even before he joined REO. Here's a clip of a live performance of 157 Riverside Avenue, which may enjoy renewed popularity in places like Colorado with the advent of legalized marijuana.
Cheap Trick is not a Peoria band, strictly speaking—the 100 miles that separate Rockford and Peoria represent a chasm to any central Illinoisan—but the band toured relentlessly in Peoria, Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana and their success there laid the groundwork for their breakout stardom. Here's their iconic song Surrender, performed on the Midnight Special in the mid 1970s.
Head East didn't quite enjoy the success of REO or Cheap Trick, but they did achieve a measure of popularity with There's Never Been Any Reason, and a follow up hit (at least in Illinois) called Since You’ve Been Gone. (Not to be confused with the Kelly Clarkson opus.) The band still tours every summer.
Two other Peoria acts that came a bit later never managed to break it into the big time but got signed by a major label. The first was Mackinaw—their song Surf’s Up On The Illinois went viral across central Illinois, naturally, and it holds up today as a nice bit of song craftsmanship. It also demonstrates what was the band’s fundamental problem: A rock band simply couldn’t veer that much into country music in the early 1980s and get anywhere with it.
Coming on the tail end of the Central Illinois music epoch was the Elvis Brothers, who were a cross between the Romantics and the Stray Cats, but a step better than either one, with a stage presence that no one has anymore. Here’s Fire In the City, which was briefly on rotation on MTV, and has a flavor of their showmanship. I Wonder Why was a hit from their second major label release.
Dan Fogelberg came from Peoria and went to the University of Illinois so he played these markets too, but he went to make it big in L.A as soon as he finished college. (That’s now the only viable path for a small town musician to make it.) Here’s a non-ballad from his first album called Illinois. Shortly after his death, the woman whom he encountered in the grocery store on Christmas Eve and wrote about in the Same Old Lang Syne came forward to admit that she was the one in the song, and that he didn’t release it for several years after he wrote it to save her any potential familial issues.
John Doe may be the epitome of California cool, but he’s from the central Illinois burg of Decatur. He achieved fame and fortune with X but he’s had a very underrated solo career, and the song Golden State might be the best thing he’s ever done.
Jason and the Scorchers have a central Illinois connection as well (Jason is from Sheffield, 40 miles north of Peoria) but they were never a big part of the central Illinois Scene. Absolutely Sweet Marie isn’t my favorite song of theirs but it seems to be almost everyone else’s favorite song.
Ike Brannon is the president of Capital Policy Analytics.