Many suburban grandmas wouldn't consider driving into Chicago at 9:30 on a weeknight to hear a new performer play guitar and sing at a bar. But 79-year-old Marge Weber of Elk Grove Village had to go. She was the artist performing pieces from "The Circle Game," her debut CD, before a packed house last week at The Grafton Pub.
"I still can't wrap my head around it," says Weber, who spent most of her first 75 years focusing the spotlight on others during her life as a preacher's wife, mother of five and frequent foster mom to kids who needed a home.
Now others are shining the light on her.
"It's just fun to watch her get her mind blown by all the attention and a standing ovation," says Mark Dvorak, the veteran performer and teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music, who helped Weber realize this musical dream.
The second of four kids born to Salvation Army Majors Edward and Mary Jarvis, Weber watched her dad play all the wind instruments and her mom play guitar. A trumpeter in high school, Weber played on street corners with the Salvation Army band during the Christmas season. Her performance career seemed to end as she became an adult, but not her musical passion.
"Music was always important. I just wasn't playing it," says Weber, who would record The Midnight Special off WFMT radio on her old reel-to-reel tape machine and pass the time on family car trips by singing. She went to college to study psychology.
"I only went one year, met my husband, got married," she says. "I got pregnant and started having babies. That's what you did."
She happily followed Lloyd Weber, a pastor with the United Church of Christ, to churches in Wisconsin and Indiana before their family made a permanent home in Elk Grove Village. With "a passel of kids" that included theirs and foster children.
Weber admits she isn't sure how they all survived a summer with eight kids in a three-bedroom house. She sang in the church choir and inherited the old Gibson guitar that belonged to her mother, but she was too busy to spend much effort on music.
As her children were growing into adulthood, she returned to college, taking classes at Harper College in Palatine before earning her bachelor's degree in psychology at Elmhurst College. "My last year in Elmhurst, there were five of us in college at the same time," she says.
Her degree and ability to communicate in sign language helped her find a job as a counselor at Clearbrook, the suburban agency that provides myriad services for people with developmental disabilities. Later, with she and her husband retired and no children at home, she still had a craving for music.
"I had my mother's guitar, and for years, I would mess around on it," she says. "I could play three chords. But to play and sing at the same time, no."
For Mother's Day 2004, her son, David, gave her a gift certificate for the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, envisioning a nice mother-son experience taking a weekly guitar class together.
"I walked into it and people could play," remembers Marge, whose intimidation faded as she realized she could play, too.
"We both really did want to become better guitar players, but she had a performer's gene in her that I don't have," says David Weber, CEO and part-owner of CSM Fastener Products. "She took it to another level, which was wonderful. I'm used to it. She's my mom. She's been remarkable my whole life."
The Tuesday night classes are followed by jam sessions where experienced musicians just have fun.
"That's when Marge really took off, this older gal hanging out with 20-year-olds and thirtysomethings," says Dvorak.
She's been taking classes ever since. For her 75th birthday, Marge invited family, friends and her music buddies to a party in her yard, and ended up playing her guitar and singing. The crowd dubbed the event MargeFest and decided to celebrate it every year, including this June's "5th annual 75th birthday."
Last year, Dvorak floated an idea: "Marge, we should make a record." By October, the project was becoming a reality.
"By and by, we pared it down to nine songs that sort of told her story," Dvorak says. The CD includes Weber playing the guitar and singing classic songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Larry Penn, Tom Waits, Pete Seeger and others with Dvorak accompanying her. Holding recording sessions in her house in January and in March, Dvorak says Weber's songs didn't need much studio production.
"It's very honest. There's a richness in the life of Marge Weber," he says. "Art is good when it's good."
She's already working on a new CD for her kids, including the Leonard Cohen song, "If It Be Your Will" and other family requests. After years of serving others, "now it's all about me," she says with a laugh of astonishment, adding that her music has helped her connect with her 15 grandchildren. "Every one of them is so proud of me. I get emails all the time."
She's forged friendships that would have been impossible without her music.
"It doesn't matter how old you are. It doesn't matter your politics. The music brings you together," Weber says. "It's the glue that holds you all together. It totally changed my life."
She still sings with the senior center, goes to her quilting club on Mondays, and remains the loving wife, mother and grandmother. But she stays out past midnight for those late-night jam sessions with the Old Town musicians.
She remembers how she used to watch the hands of the skilled guitar players up front.
"And now I'm up in the front, and every once in a while, someone looks at my hands," Weber says. "I'm having the time of my life."
She's selling her CDs at markdvorak.com and is taking more classes now.
"I don't feel old," she says, noting that she's always willing to try new things. "I just got a fiddle for Christmas. I'm terrible. I've jumped in way over my head. You've got no frets, so you don't know where you are and the bow is killing me."
But no one would bet against her playing the fiddle at next year's 80th birthday party. Possessed with the soul of a musician, Weber just needed some time to bring it out, Dvorak says. Sometimes she does imagine what life might have been like if she had taken lessons in the decades before she turned 70.
"Man," Weber says, "I would have been really good by now."