Archive for Chicago Pawn Shops circa 1970

A Guitarhead Is Born

Posted in History, Music with tags , , on September 10, 2011 by C54

Postcard © Chuckman's Collection Volume 10 on Blogspot

FORGOTTEN CHICAGO: STATE STREET PAWN SHOPS 1969-71

The SG in the window was hanging slightly askew. From my perspective, I could see there was something odd about this Gibson solid body. Something about the back of the guitar was a little off. It wasn’t reflecting the light from the window in the expected way. So I walked over to the guitar and asked the fellow at the counter if I could look at it. He eyeballed me for a few seconds and without a word, pulled it down and handed it over to me.

The back of that guitar still makes me smile over forty years later. It turned out, the guitar had strange reflective properties because there was a custom painting on its backside. A painting of a mushroom cloud with enough paint piled on to curtail any light reflection. It turned out, it was an SG formerly owned by a guitarist from Atomic Rooster.

And this was how I became a guitarhead. Sure I like lots of other gear. I am a recording engineer and cannot help myself. Microphones, preamps, tape recorders, instrument amps and other “stuff” appeals to my technical side. But guitar stuff is special. It speaks to me and reminds me of those times when, as a youngster, I hung with the big boys.

My neighbor across the alley from my Southwest-side Chicago house was a real renaissance man. Tommy was a chemist, photographer, lithographer, painter and played guitar and flute. Maybe 7 or 8 years older than me, Tom let me play his ’58 Fender Telecaster through his 2-12 Silvertone combo guitar amp, the same one you might see Jack White (White Stripes) play out of today, with no qualms or hesitations. After one of my many lessons, I routinely took that ’58 Tele home and practiced until my non-calloused fingers were ready to bleed. How cool is that? I’m in 7th grade hanging out with someone who drives and owns very cool guitar gear. And often drives into downtown Chicago to visit his buddy named Paul, who did custom guitar work in the back of a pawn shop on Chicago’s State Street.  A street at that time offering no glitz like the street of today’s downtown loop area which dazzles tourists, or even like a time when that “great street” was ol’ Blue Eyes’ kind of town. No, this was a rundown, shabby block, littered with pawn shops and peep show joints. And this particular pawn shop sported an incredible array of musical instruments, especially guitars.

Any guitar collector today would have a heart attack walking into that cluttered storefront. Gold top Les Pauls hung next to Flying Vees and Stratocasters. Most guitars in this shop were made in the 1950s before being pawned  for far less money than their real value. I still vividly remember the Les Paul Jr., owned by Steve Marriott, hanging on the wall waiting for Paul to overhaul it.

Paul was a guitar guru. An upper level black belt in karate that custom wound pickups and improved wiring for the axes of other professional guitar players. Guys like John Lennon and on this day, Jeff Beck. Yes, those guys. Paul called his pickup rewrapping a “screen job” as I remember it, and it must have been a beautiful sounding upgrade because if THE Jeff Beck sends his guits to Paul, Paul’s doing something special.

You have to consider that in the late sixties and early seventies, custom guitar accessorizing was not a mouse click away. Or even available mail order. No, you had to know someone. And because I knew Tommy, I now knew Paul. And that’s how I happened to find myself standing that day in 1970, in that dingy pawn shop, ogling a SG formerly owned by the guy from Atomic Rooster.

The “white top” Les Paul I was allowed to hold was apparently a BIG deal, not that I knew. I was thinking it was too heavy to ever enjoy playing. And it was not THAT SG with the mushroom cloud on it. Oh well, I wasn’t buying it and no one was feeling generous that day. But I don’t remember caring because I went to that pawn shop many times with my almost-adult buddies. And when you couple that with a room filled with guitars that I could ask to play without fear of the counter jockey thwacking my head, you had one very happy tweenager.

Nowadays that block on State Street is occupied by one building. A landmark building at that. The Harold Washington Library doesn’t leave the slightest hint or trace memory of the dwellings and buildings that once stood. Peeps shows and pawn shops replaced by a library and, on the next block north, a public space with a grass area to sit and enjoy the sculptures. Art installations– like the giant eyeball that is staring at me today as I walk along State Street reminiscing — are the new peep shows. Granted, this one exhibit stares back. State Street is probably a better place today for most folks. But if any of my fellow pedestrians are guitar enthusiasts, I bet they might disagree if they knew what stood before.

I don’t know where Tommy and Paul and Bob (the virtuoso of this “ax pack”) are today or even if they are alive. I lost track of my friend and his friends decades ago. But every once in a while, when I pick up my ’68 Telecaster to play, I think of those fellas and realize what a lucky little punk I was. I sure hope everyone’s ok. And, I hope I find that SG on eBay tonight. I may be old now, but I can still dream.

Sidebar: If the drumming sounds familiar, note that it’s Carl Palmer, who went on to play in an outfit calling themselves, Emerson Lake & Palmer.

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