Backstage with Ron Onesti: Music Memories That Made Me
I began grammar school in Chicago at St. Callistus off of Taylor Street and Ogden Avenue and graduated from Our Lady of the Angels School in 1976 (yes, the one that had the tragic fire in 1958). Then, I went to Weber High School on Chicago’s North Side, graduating in 1980. I took some classes at Triton College in River Grove and attended DePaul University, College of Commerce in downtown Chicago after that.
One of the cool things about being in a “public” type of a business is the occasional reunion with grammar school, high school and college friends whom I haven’t seen in years. But one of the most frightful statements I hear regularly is, “Remember me? What’s my name?”. Many of these people I have not seen since then. I think to myself, “Who are these old people?” Then I realize, I am one of those “Old People”! Needless to say, we have ALL changed in the last thirty-five to forty-five years, some more than others!
What it does remind me of, however, are the musical influences I had growing up. As I look back, there were a few that I can truly say helped to form me and eventually set me down the path of life I am on now.
I grew up in a WWII household. My dad was a U.S Army war hero who was never short of dinner-table stories about foxholes, tragic loss and painful physical sacrifice.
But what it also exposed me to was the Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman era of Big Band Swing. “String Of Pearls” and “Moonlight Serenade” were regulars on the radio at his tailor shop on Sundays.
My folks’ favorite films were “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “It’s A Wonderful Life” and ‘Stage Door Canteen”. I show them regularly at The Arcada.
As a young kid in the Sixties, I was exposed to many things that stayed with me. The Beatles were the biggest thing on television. My music “education” came from “The Ed Sullivan Show”, “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train”.
We had a very close extended family. We lived together with many of my aunts, uncles and cousins in the same four-story apartment building we owned on Taylor Street. Most of my elder cousins were female, so Elvis, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdink were all the rage around our house.
And speaking of Taylor Street, Chicago’s “Little Italy”, let’s just say we had two “Trinities” down there: The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit, and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett!
My sister, Vickie, had “Tiger Beat Magazine” pictures all over her bedroom walls of Donny Osmond, Tony DeFranco, Bobby Sherman, Scott Baio and other teen idols of the time. So I knew the words to “Puppy Love” by Donny, whether I like it or not.
At Our Lady of the Angels, we had skating parties in the gymnasium every week. Between Tommy James’ “Mony, Mony” and “Hanky Panky”, I was unknowingly exposed to sixties’ classics I would refer to later as part of the menu at The Arcada Theatre. Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” and “I Write The Songs” were also common over the gravelly-sounding loud speakers in the gym as I skated past the girls at great speeds in an effort to impress them.
In high school, we had these things called “Pubs” at Weber. They were parties held in the gym basement after football and basketball home games. Local bands made up of our high school buddies would regularly play songs from STYX to Zeppelin to The Commodores. I would also sing occasionally down there! Ah, the days of great hair, big-collared shirts and leather pants!
School dances also influenced my music tastes. The first time I heard “Smoke on The Water” by Deep Purple was at my sixth-grade dance. Our local favorite at Weber was the band M&R Rush, and even STYX played our gym!
I was lucky, musically, because of another influence in my life. A great friend during my high school years was Joe who was quite big for his age. So at sixteen years of age, he was one of the top security guards for the Celebration Flipside concerts at The International Amphitheatre in Chicago’s old meat-packing district. I got to see Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, USH, Heart and so many others, BACKSTAGE! REO Speedwagon was an opening act! A HUGE influence!
I learned about the off beat of syncopation in my music appreciation class and sold Pink Floyd, RUSH, Chicago and Led Zeppelin t-shirts out of my locker. But I also went through a tumultuous high school time, musically. The extremely difficult inner-struggle I had came because as much as I loved bands like UFO and Black Sabbath, “Saturday Night Fever” came out and I found myself shaking my “groove thang” more than I would ever admit to. How could I “Head Bang” and also like Disco? I almost had to see a therapist.
Even throughout my college years, trips to the record store continued. I went from picking up the “Silver Dollar Survey” from WLS and buying 45s at “The Record Center” on Pulaski Road and North Avenue in Chicago to becoming a regular at “Rolling Stones Records” across from the Harlem-Irving Plaza in Norridge. 45s morphed into 8 Tracks that shifted to cassettes in the beater cars we all had after getting our license, so I had much to buy (Favorite 45s: “I Shot The Sherrif”, Eric Clapton and “Bennie and the Jets”, Elton John. Favorite 8-Tracks: Cream and Hot Tuna. Favorite Cassettes; “WINGS Over America” and “BAD COMPANY”).
I tell my daughter all the time that you never know what influences that happen today will stay with you for life. Growing up, I never realized just how much I was surrounded by music. Thank God I was! I may still be slicing corned beef at The Onion Roll, the Jewish deli in Oak Park I worked in during high school and college, rather than bringing legends and icons to stages for all of us to reminisce to. Hmmmm…a Rock ‘N Roll Deli…