Ron Onesti: I caught 'Saturday Night Fever'
I have always loved music … all kinds of music. People today know me pretty much as a rocker, but there was a fleeting moment when I was almost forced to "pick a team" -- disco or rock.
It was a difficult time for me, as I was just a sophomore in high school when "Saturday Night Fever" came out in 1977. But that was December of '77. It wasn't until February of '78 that I witnessed Tony Manero (John Travolta) on the big screen as he parted the dance floor with his dance gyrations, with every girl wanting to be at his feet. That was 40 years ago this month!
Up 'til then, I rocked-out to my favorite albums including "Foghat Live," Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti" (Kashmir), "Leftoverture" by Kansas, "A New World Record" by The Electric Light Orchestra, "Songs From The Wood" from Jethro Tull and Peter Frampton's blockbuster "Frampton Comes Alive." Yeah, I'd say I was a young rock 'n' roller.
But allow me to start at the beginning.
Music started for me much like most of us who grew up in and around that era. As a fledgling Italian-American 5-year old, my musical exposure was basically a combination of watching Tom Jones on television singing "What's New, Pussycat" as my girl cousins and aunts baby-sat for me (screaming at the top of their lungs), and the sounds of Sinatra' "My Way" belted out by my dad in between innings as we listened to the Cubs games on the AM radio.
Dad always had that little transistor radio in the shirt pocket where pens should have been. It always intrigued me because we had the radio up and the TV volume down when watching Chicago Cubs and Bears games. He even had that large, white-plastic earpiece in when we went to the games at Wrigley Field, always sitting in the expensive $7 box seats.
In the fifth grade at Our Lady of the Angels school (the one that had the tragic fire in 1958 that took the lives of 92 students and three nuns), we had a jukebox in the "social room" of the gymnasium. A dollar would get us twelve plays. My 10-year-old friends and I just could not get enough of Tommy James & The Shondells' smash hits "Hanky-panky" and "Money Mony," as we acted cool and mouthed the words to six plays a day of each song.
In the sixth grade we began having school dances. My mom went out and bought me a new outfit for this major first dance/first foray into the "dating" scene. It consisted of maroon polyester pants with a red, big-collared shirt and a red and gray sleeveless sweater vest.
And don't forget those platform shoes! Being slight vertically challenged, I couldn't have been more excited to find 4-inch platform shoes!
Yep, I was the king of cool! Each time the school threw one of these dances, it always wound up being the same: girls on one side of the gym, boys on the other. That is, until the last two songs when we all worked up the nerve to get on the dance floor together, then clamored for it not to end.
Our weekly roller-skating parties every Saturday morning in the school gym was where the music bug really hit me. Grand Funk Railroad's version of the Little Eva classic "The Locomotion" was the song that gave me the confidence to ask my foot-taller-than-me female classmates to do the couples skate during a much slower "Mandy" by Barry Manilow. Ah, young romance!
After roller skating we would all walk the mile or so to a record store called The Record Center on Pulaski Road and North Avenue in Chicago. We simply had to get the weekly listings of the songs on WLS AM-89 radio. The square sheets of colored paper listed the top 40 songs each week played by DJs Larry Lujack (and his "Animals Stories" partner, "Little" Tommy Edwards), John "Records" Landecker and Brant Miller. For 99 cents, I would buy a 45 RPM record, complete with that swirly, yellow plastic thing that would go in the middle of the disc, allowing it to be played on a stereo. My first 45? "I Shot The Sheriff" by Eric Clapton. My next was "Clap For The Wolfman" by the Guess Who.
I knew I hit puberty when I received my first stereo for Christmas. And I knew it was a "real" one because the speakers were separate little black boxes of wood connected by multicolored wires, not the "Close-N-Play" my sister had. That is when I began buying albums, including the ones listed above. As much as I loved playing baseball and hanging with my friends, singing "Stairway To Heaven" into a hair brush in the mirror in my bedroom was my favorite pastime.
But then the girls in school and in the neighborhood all went crazy for Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever." I mean CRAZY! So I got a gold rope chain with an Italian medal from my cousin, some maroon polyester pants and another big-collared shirt. The best thing about it all, at least I thought so in the beginning, was that the shoe styles went from "Earth Shoes" to platforms. Platforms! I am not the tallest tree in the woods so the concept of adding 4 inches to my height was a dream come true.
The only problem was that EVERYBODY got platform shoes … the entire world was raised 4 inches … I was right back where I started from!
So we danced every chance we had. We put on our "Boogie Shoes" and "got down" every single day. How cool were we? My hair was one solid helmet of hair product. I wore pants I actually intended to be tight, as opposed to now when my pants are tight because my "Slimfast" didn't come this month. Pointed-toed shows, three gold chains, Sergio Valente jeans and a black "Members Only" jacket … I was stylin'!
But after a while, the excitement waned, and I was right back to my rock, albeit the soft rock of the bands Chicago, the Beach Boys and the Eagles.
That is why I am so excited about what we are doing at the Arcada! Now I work with the bands of my early years, my teen years, my college years. They don't look the same as they did back then, but then again, neither do I. But when bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan are up on one of my stages, I close my eyes and I am back in my room, singing into a hair brush, air guitar champion of the world.
My singing won't win any contests but when it comes to dreaming, I win the Grammy every time.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.