Friday, February 10, 2023

The Rooks (Chicago)

The Rooks formed in the western suburbs of Chicago sometime in late 1964 or early 1965.  The original lineup consisted of:  

Tony Pietrini - vocals, harmonica
Jeff Pranno - lead guitar
Steve McGreer - rhythm guitar
Billy Haack - bass
Loren Charles (Pranno)* aka Loren Raphael - drums

Like so many other bands of the era, the group got their start by playing suburban teen clubs and dances with their biggest influences being the British R&B / rock groups of the day (The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Yardbirds, The Pretty Things and Them).  

In early 1966 another Chicago-area band with similar influences, The Shadows of Knight, had turned a cover of Them's "Gloria" into a regional smash hit for Dunwich Records.  By the summer of 1966, The Rooks had landed a recording contract of their own with Chicago-based Mercury Records.

The band recorded two songs for Mercury in 1966: "A Girl Like You" written by Pranno and Raphael as well as a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Empty Heart."  White label promotional copies of their 45 were produced later that year.
Mercury # 72644, YW1-38898 / YW1-38899
Pietrini & Haack in studio
The group's drummer Loren Charles remembers the early recording session(s) being done at Sound Studios in the Carbide & Carbon Building in downtown Chicago (230 N. Michigan Ave).  Incredibly, a photo of two of the band members in the studio ran in the Sunday magazine of the Chicago Sun-Times on July 24, 1966 as part of an article about the "Chicago Sound."  

One of the group's biggest live performances came a week later when they opened for Herman's Hermits and The Animals at Chicago's International Amphitheatre on July 31, 1966.  Earlier in the month the group was one of several bands to open for The Dave Clark Five in Madison, Wisconsin.

Things seemed to be on the way up for the group.  They even had an official fan club (c/o Miss Carol Kedzior).  A photo of the band (below) ambitiously refers to them as "Mercury Recording Stars."

Unfortunately Mercury failed to promote the group.  The result was the record received little to no radio airplay at the time.   It likely didn't help that the English group The Troggs had released a similarly-titled track ("With A Girl Like You") that same summer.

Whatever the reason, Mercury decided against officially releasing the single and instead dropped them from the label.   For several decades afterward the few surviving promo copies of the 45 would serve as the only document of The Rooks' original lineup.  That is until Sundazed Music gave it a proper release in 2006 (more below).

Sometime after the Mercury recordings, guitarist Steve McGreer decided to leave the group.   He was replaced by John Brian Szmagalski who had been playing in another Chicago-area band called The House Of Blue Light.
New lineup: Haack, Pranno, Szmagalski, Raphael, Pietrini

Despite the Mercury debacle, the group continued to perform around Chicago and its suburbs.  For the Sundazed reissue, guitarist Jeff Pranno recalled, "we used to play the Hut, the Wild Goose, the Cellar, Surf's Up, Gospel Zone (!!!)... there were so many."

Another big performance for the group was at the World Teenage Show held at Navy Pier in June- July 1967.  Headlining the ten day event was Neil Diamond, The Crying Shames, The Electric Prunes and The Yellow Balloon.  The Rooks were scheduled to play two days (June 24th & 25th) which included opening for Dino, Desi & Billy.

Sometime in 1967 lead singer and harmonica player Tony Pietrini decided to leave the group as well.  

The group found a replacement in Tom Engel, a friend of bassist Bill Haack.  Prior to joining the group, Engel had been singing in another Chicago-area group called The Henchmen.  

A rehearsal / demo tape from August 9, 1967 captures Engel and the Rooks working on a few covers together:  The Left Banke's "She May Call You Up Tonight", Them's rendition of "Turn On Your Lovelight" and The Who's "Substitute."  (More details including audio)

In September of 1967 the group's manager, Jerry Young, opened a short-lived teen club in the Edison Park neighborhood called the Spectrum (formerly the Batcave, 6684 N. Oliphant Ave).  The Rooks were one of the first bands on the bill.
Photo of the band taken at The Spectrum:  Haack, Pranno, Engel, Raphael, Szmagalski
Not long after their performance at the Spectrum however, the band decided to change management.  The Chicago Tribune reported on October 6th that Michael de Gaetano, manager of the group The Faded Blue, had taken on two more Chicago-area bands, The Sons Of Adam and The Rooks.

With a new singer, the band's sound had evolved since the Mercury days and new management likely wanted to get them back into a recording studio.  Before the end of 1967 the group had signed with the Jo-Way Recording Company and recorded two new original songs written by Engel and Szmagalski (listed as John Brian):  "Turquoise" and "Ice And Fire."  Two versions of the single exist though it is not clear if they are the same recordings or not.  

Jo-Way Demo Record, S-5236 / S-5237
Jo-Way #5000, TM 2771 / TM 2772

The gold "demo record" version was produced near the end of 1967 whereas the blue label version came out in the spring of 1968.  Loren Charles remembers the band playing on Rush Street a lot during this period including week-long runs at Mother's.  

Twinight #115, TM 3204 / TM 3205
In early 1969 the band recorded two more songs for Jo-Way: "Hoping To Be Gone Soon" and "Free Sunday Paper."  Again, both songs were written by Tom Engel and John B. Szmagalski.  

Curiously, this single was released on Twinight Records which was primarily a Chicago soul label.  DJ copies exist but it not clear if there was ever an official version.

Around the time of this final single, the band went through more lineup changes.  Drummer Loren Raphael (i.e. Charles) decided to quit the group.  Bassist Bill Haack left as well.   Two new members soon joined, Russ Neiman (drums) and Willie Forst (bass).   Both had been in The House of Blue Light with Szmagalski.  This however seemed to mark the beginning of the end for the group.   Neither the Jo-Way or Twinight single made much of an impression and the band appears to have called it quits by 1970.

It would not be until 1985 that The Rooks would be recognized again when both sides of the Mercury single were included on Pebbles Vol. 17, a compilation of  garage-punk rarities from the psychedelic 60's.  

Over the next two decades the legend of this mysterious band with an obscure 45 on a major label continued to grow, culminating with the 2006 reissue by Sundazed Music which was remastered from the original tapes.  In their press material, Sundazed refers to the original 45 as one of the RAREST of all '66 garage singles.  

While perhaps not as desirable as the Mercury single, both the Jo-Way and Twinight singles have proven to be equally rare. 

Three of the four songs however were included on a 1997 CD compilation, The Quill Records Story (The Best of Chicago Garage Bands), despite the fact that none of The Rooks records were released on Quill.   Curiously, "Hoping To Be Gone Soon" was excluded and has gone mostly unheard for more than 50 years... until now (see video below).

In 2018, Loren Charles was kind enough to provide me with a detailed account of his time in The Rooks.  It is filled with memories and stories about the Chicago music scene in the 1960s and beyond.  For anyone interested, you can read his full story here: The Story of the Rooks

* Loren Charles no longer uses his given surname of Pranno.  While in The Rooks he often used the stage name Loren Raphael.  In the Sundazed reissue he was erroneously listed as "Charles Pranno," a name he has never used.  Loren Charles and guitarist Jeff Pranno are cousins.

THE MUSIC  (All the audio comes directly from the original 45s.)

Author's note: While this blog is typically reserved for bands and records from downstate Illinois, I've included this detailed post on The Rooks because of a personal connection and deep appreciation for their music and story.

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