Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Most folks probably don’t know, but the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was once a hotbed of strange and challenging music. When I was there in the early 90s (the school has always enrolled lots of Chicagoland students), that golden era was long gone–you could still find an active underground of grunge and punk bands, but folks mostly paid attention to cover acts and trendy rockers angling for major-label deals. Toxic frat culture and obsession with college football weren’t especially compatible with anything resembling exploratory music, I guess.
After I graduated, though, I found out that in the 1960s and ’70s the likes of John Cage (a visiting UIUC professor from ’67 till ’69) had worked with the school’s pioneering Experimental Music Studios, founded in 1958. Wildly innovative, electronics-augmented rock bands such as the Spoils of War hosted happenings in Urbana-Champaign, and a heady folk scene coalesced around the Red Herring coffeehouse (which is still there, though it’s now a vegetarian restaurant). The subject of this installment of the Secret History of Chicago Music embodies all these different threads: delightfully confounding, progressively minded musical enigma Peter Berkow.
Berkow was born in Chicago on August 17, 1950, but moved to Urbana at age eight. At 18, he made his first attempts as a songwriter, but a chance meeting a year later with a future-famous folkie changed his life. In 1969, Berkow was lugging around a guitar during class registration at the UIUC Armory (I remember this pre-Internet chore oh too well), and a fellow musician was doing the same–Dan Fogelberg, a year younger than Berkow. Fogelberg ended up teaching Berkow his first riffs, blues scales, and more (and gave him his first-ever joint).
At the time Berkow was living in a tiny room at the Red Herring, run by campus arts and activism organization the Channing-Murray Foundation, which is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist church. Berkow had convinced a draft board that as a conscientious objector he’d do his alternative service at the coffeehouse (his adoptive father was also a minister at the church). The Red Herring had church services on its upper floor, and he convinced the owners to sell the pews and start hosting music.
Berkow helped book jazzier acts upstairs (Weather Report, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock) and folkies downstairs (Steve Goodman, John Prine, Bob Gibson). Fogelberg and Berkow also jammed and performed at the space, which led to a series of folk LP anthologies. Both artists contributed mellow, spaced-out acoustic songs to the 1970 debut compilation, Folk Music From the Red Herring, and the lilting Berkow tracks “Spin the Globe” and “Entropy Blues” appeared on the two volumes of Folk and Music From the Red Herring compiled in fall 1971.
Berkow also began exploring stranger territory with a full band–inspired by UK psychedelic jazz-folk group Pentangle, in 1971 he had a short-lived and sadly unrecorded outfit called Quadrangle with Steve Reinwand of the Ship (later known as Billy Panda). Berkow would also help produce the Ship, and he pitched in to get them signed to Elektra Records. “My career as a producer all started in Urbana, Illinois,” he says. “I studied audio engineering at RoFran recording studios, and the owner gave me the key so I could experiment with multitrack recording late at night. Dan Fogelberg and I spent hours at RoFran studios, experimenting with overdubbed harmonies and guitar parts from midnight till dawn on many occasions. I also worked with the Ship and REO Speedwagon in that building.”
In 1972 and ’73, Berkow also apprenticed with producer Rick Jarrard, who was already well-known for his work with Harry Nilsson, Jose Feliciano, and the Jefferson Airplane and at the time was helping a young Michael McDonald get his career off the ground.
Berkow started work on his first “solo” LP in 1973. Credited to Peter Berkow & Friends, the often avant-garde album is called Thesis, and he did indeed compose it for his UIUC thesis. It features a huge cast of notable players: Fogelberg, guitarist Elliott Delman (of the Spoils of War and Mormos), harmonica masters Corky Siegel (of the Siegel-Schwall Band) and Peter Madcat Ruth (from Chris Brubeck’s New Heavenly Blue), percussionist Rocky Maffit (later of Mosaic and the band Champaign), and saxophonist Ron Dewar (leader of the Memphis Nighthawks and an ensemble player for experimental composer Salvatore Martirano). The music ranges from folky tunes to experimental, jazzy prog rock, but Berkow didn’t self-release it till 1975, shortly after he’d moved to California.
At California State University at Chico, Berkow began teaching a class in guitar performance, which became hugely popular despite initial resistance from the chair of the music department, who didn’t think guitar was a “real” instrument. He also recruited the rhythm section from the school’s jazz band (plus sax player Ylonda Nickell, who went on to have a solo career) to form the new Peter Berkow & Friends. “It was a dance band, blending jazz, funk, and satire,” Berkow says. “Influences ranged from Tower of Power to Frank Zappa, Tom Waits to James Brown.” PB&F self-released two challenging LPs, 1976’s Faculty Recital and 1977’s Live at Cabo’s, recorded at the Chico club where they were the house band from ’76 till ’80.
In 1979 Berkow recorded in San Francisco with producer Elliot Mazer, who’d worked with the likes of Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt. RSO Records, then home to the Bee Gees, paid for some of the sessions, but the company never followed through. Berkow eventually “liberated” the master tapes, as he puts it, and released some of the material via his independent Such a Deal label on the quirky 1979 LP Bootleg Demo.
Berkow also started an acoustic duo project called the Rhythm Rowdys with banjo player Gordy Ohliger, which in 1983 put out an album cheekily titled Greatest Hits. “We played New Year’s Eve 1982, just the two of us . . . to a roadhouse bar full of 200 drunken redneck farmers who lit strings of small firecrackers on the dance floor, hotfooting and dodging the explosions,” Berkow remembers. “We kept playing; they kept dancing. Everybody survived.” Later in ’82, when his daughter was born, Berkow began a hiatus from performing, working as a local news writer and music columnist for almost a decade.
Since then, Berkow has built an enviable offstage career, though he’s never quit gigging. He’s worked as a television and music producer since 1990, overseeing more than 200 shows for PBS (including around 40 concerts). That’s also around when he returned to the classroom, this time on a track that led to a job as a tenured professor–he started out teaching music and recording arts, but for decades now he’s taught journalism and writing instruction at Shasta College. He’s also created educational projects about writing, astronomy, and mass communications for PBS, McGraw-Hill, and others.
In 2003 Berkow began a long string of collaborations with Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, but his most consistent musical partner these days is his keyboardist wife, Tricia. The pair’s most recent gigs, before the pandemic, also involved mandolin and violin player Joe Craven, a longtime favorite collaborator who’s also worked with Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman.
When Berkow describes his duo with Tricia, he ends up simultaneously summarizing the musical diversity of his long career: “I’m not sure how to categorize what I do now?” he says. “Somewhere between Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks and Thelonious Monk (when Tricia is on piano). At my age, I prefer the acoustic stuff, though I do feel nostalgic for the experimental-rock days when I sounded closer to Zappa mixed with King Crimson.” v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.