Ron Onesti: Our salute to African American Heritage Month
Music as a cultural medium has always interested me, even though in high school, music history wasn't as interesting as it has become to me over the years. And much of the reason for my accelerated hunger for the stories "Behind the Music" has come as a result of the relationships I have formed with show biz legends and icons over the past four decades.
In honor of the celebrated African American Heritage Month of February, I thought I would touch on some of the legends from that community I have been blessed to work with over the years.
Most people know me as the "rock guy" because of my affinity for all things 1960s, '70s and '80s rock 'n' roll. That is, of course, very true. However, I also have a deep love for the R&B/funk/soul that was prevalent at the same time. Pepper it with greats from Motown and the inspiration of Gospel and you now have a clearer semblance of my musical foundation.
When I think of true icons, several come to mind. I wanted to do a "King of Rock 'n' Roll" show. Now aside from Elvis, who definitely laid claim to that title, there were two guys I wanted to put together in a "show of shows," Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Who would open and who would close the show? Of those two, who was the "king" of rock 'n' roll? It depended on who you were speaking to!
Chuck was $5,000 more than Richard so he closed the show, much to the disappointment of a disgruntled "Lucille"-singing piano player. And did I pay for it! Instead of the 45-minute set Richard was supposed to do, he spitefully stayed on almost double the time! Chuck was furious and threatened to cut his set. In the end, both artists felt bad for putting me in the middle of their own personal feud, and the show wound up being an incredible experience for the audience.
Speaking of "kings," few can come close to the show the "King of Soul" put on. James Brown made a stop at Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero on his "Livin' in America" tour. We put on the show, and I tell ya, it took a lot to convince him to do it in the infield of a racetrack with horses working out around him! But when he ultimately did the show, he took me aside and said, "Women, liquor, horses, James Brown … You a genius!"
"Midnight Train to Georgia" has always been one of my faves. When I was able to bring Gladys Knight to The Arcada, I was front and center and in amazement. Her presence was one of sheer royalty, and her voice was one of sheer magic. That all-too-familiar drum-to-horn opening actually brought a tear to my eye as I sung along (a bit too loudly) and sat front and center.
I do love to funk! Of all the shows we have done, few have been as big a party as George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic! He is the undisputed king of that funk music that bleeds from your soul and makes you move in ways you never would think you are able to! Twenty-two people on stage in multicolored, stretch-polyester pants, sequined shirts with feathers and swimming goggles … well, you get the picture!
One of my favorite balladeering R&B bands is the Stylistics. Their smooth choreography is as entertaining as their "Betcha By Golly Wow." When I mentioned to my buddy and St. Charles resident Donnie Wahlberg from the '90s heartthrob boy band New Kids on the Block that the Stylistics were coming, he told me that the New Kids' style was based on that band. So when the Stylistics came to do their show, the entire New Kids on the Block band flew in from all over the country, surprised us all and joined them on stage! It was epic!
Bob Marley was another legend who has an ever-present presence in music. His band, the Wailers, visited us and it was truly an experience like none other! After their "Rockin' Reggae" jam on stage, we all hung out after the show with some of the original members of Marley's band. And let's just say the CBD market would have been much larger had it been in existence during the Bob Marley days!
It's crazy to think that the beginnings of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s was 70 YEARS ago! Little Anthony and the Imperials began in 1958 and the original singer, Jerome "Little Anthony" Gourdine, still performs "Tears on my Pillow" with the guys … and defies all logic with his high-pitched voice and timeless choreography.
I am definitely a huge fan of the Motown Sound. Shows with The Temptations, Mary Wilson of the Supremes and the Commodores have been some of the most electric nights we have had here at The Arcada. It is amazing once you start to identify the incredible amount of hits put out by the house that Barry Gordy built, Hitsville, U.S.A.
Then there are those very, very special nights when Buddy Guy comes to play. We drive to his home on the South Side of Chicago, pick him up and get him to The Arcada at 7:45 p.m. for an 8 p.m. show. He never has a set list, he just jams what he feels. Then he walks into the audience, through the aisles, up into the balcony seats, then comes down to the bar, and walks back onto the stage -- never once stopping his bluesy-riffs on his polka-dot guitar. Sometimes he will sit in an open seat right in the middle of the audience! In the middle of all of this, he ponies up to the bar and throws down a shot and still keeps playing!
Yes, we have many of those classic performers here at The Arcada. We pay tribute to these incredibly talented individuals who bring pride to their ethnicity, and legendary experiences to the fans. And I think the best thing about music is that it brings us all together in ways words and politics cannot. That's why we check the politics at the door, and use music as the glue by which brotherhood can flourish.
• 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.