No-Brand Nudo

Recollections of the Champaign Music Scene from Gregg Philbin, Class of ’69

In 2012 Doug Peterson wrote an article for Illinois Alumni magazine titled “The School of Rock.” The piece was about the vibrant rock ‘n’ roll scene in Champaign-Urbana in the 1960s and into the 1970s. At the time, I worked in communications at the University of Illinois Alumni Association and was asked to reach out via email to Gregg Philbin, a 1969 alumnus of the university and the original bass guitarist of REO Speedwagon, a band that formed and got its start in Champaign. I asked Gregg if he would contribute his thoughts for the article on what the Champaign music scene was like during his time at the U of I. I’m not sure what I expected to receive back from him, but it wasn’t the generously detailed note that I’ve shared below. I’ve always been so appreciative of the time Gregg took to write the below words, and I respect his continued Illini pride.

This is in no way meant to be an autobiographical account of my life; rather, it is intended to be my view of the music scene during this period, first as an outsider, and later as an insider.

I arrived on campus in the fall of 1965, on the heels of the British Invasion, followed by an emerging new American revolution. Like so many musicians, from the first appearance of The Beatles, and then the Stones, I was hooked on music.

I spent a lot of my freshman year following local bands on campus. At the time, there were three main venues that dominated the scene in Champaign and would continue to do so for many years; namely, in ascending order, the Brown Jug, the Red Lion Inn, and Chances R. There were also numerous folk-type coffee houses, but I tended to follow the rock scene.

Some of the more notable bands at the time that I followed were the Regiment; the One-Eyed Jacks, featuring on vocals Budd Carr, who went on to become a musical director in Hollywood with credits that included most of Oliver Stone’s movies, as well as producing Rock Star, featuring Mark Wahlberg in the title role; and more recently, as musical director for a number of episodes of Californication.

Some other great bands were The Guild from St. Louis and a very good young band, also from St. Louis, called Blue, featuring Michael McDonald on piano and vocals. He amazingly sounded exactly like he does today at the age of fifteen.

Chances R also brought in an incredibly talented group from Chicago called The Exceptions, with most notably Peter Cetera on bass and vocals. He would go on to be one of the founding members of the band Chicago.

A couple of other memorable shows that were put on in Champaign were Jethro Tull at the Assembly Hall, and one of my favorites, Humble Pie at the Student Union, featuring Steve Marriot and Peter Frampton.

During my first year, I managed to get a job at the Red Lion Inn making pizzas, which game me more direct access to local musicians. It was during that time that I met Ralph Harris, the drummer and singer for a band whose name I’ve forgotten (forgive me, Ralph).

Ralph also was in a few classes with me and I kind of helped him get through his first year. It was at the end of the school year that he made me an offer that would change my life: He told me that their bass player was graduating and asked me if I was interested in replacing him. When I told him that the only instrument I ever played was saxophone, he told me that [bass] was the same thing and that David, the guitar player, could teach me over the summer and we’d be ready to go in time for the fall semester.

We learned a bunch of songs and we all went to a hip clothing store in Chicago’s Olde Town district and bought matching suits and were ready to go. Amazingly, when we came back, we got the house gig at the Red Lion Inn under the name L.C. Borden’s Condensed Orchestra.

In addition to the Red Lion, we also became regulars on the “Greek circuit,” as well as the occasional gig out of town at Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University. Things were going well for the entire year, when I was approached by Terry Luttrell, the lead singer of a band I liked very much called REO Speedwagon, who told me their bass player was graduating and would I be interested in joining REO.

It was a difficult decision, but I decided to make the switch and wound up staying in Champaign the summer between my sophomore and junior year, rehearsing and playing with REO. When the fall semester came along, we were getting enough gigs to get by and then made a move that would affect all of our lives when we agreed to let Blytham Ltd. represent us.

At that point in time Blytham, run by Irving Azoff, Bob Nutt, and John Baruck, was the main driving force in what was soon to include the entire Midwest. They were incredibly aggressive and used a “take no prisoners” approach to booking anyone on their roster. They changed the Champaign music scene forever by getting the “big three” clubs to get into bidding wars for whomever they wanted, thereby driving prices up and, in the process, the bands were happy and they began to make a lot of money.

At that point in time Blytham, run by Irving Azoff, Bob Nutt, and John Baruck, was the main driving force in what was soon to include the entire Midwest.

Besides being able to afford their own plane, Bob bought a Mercedes and Irving bough a Jaguar XKE. The way the system worked at all the clubs was that the entertainment week started on Wednesday and ran through the weekend. Everybody would start out on a Wednesday night and then scuffle to get a Thursday night [gig] and, finally, if you made it to the weekend gigs, which paid the best and gave you the most exposure, you made it.

Groups at that time, all of whom were managed by Blytham Ltd., who were in heavy rotation with a tremendous amount of competition included the One-Eyed Jacks, The Guild, REO, The Esquires, Backstreet Majority, Feather Train, Nickel Bag, Head East, and The Finchley Boys.

As time went on and the more polished all these bands became, Blytham branched out and started booking gigs from Madison to Paducah and all points in between.

Another artist who was doing very well at the time was Dan Fogelberg. Dan was from Peoria and was friends with our guitar player, Gary Richrath, also from Peoria. Dan and Gary played in competing bands in Peoria and it wasn’t long until REO started using Dan on occasion to open for us. Generally Dan would start with his solo set for five or six songs and then we would back him up for the remainder of his set.

One thing that helped us a great deal was the exposure we got by playing free concerts on Fridays, usually at noon behind the Student Union on the Quad, in support of the anti-war movement running rampant. This led to the band being asked to play for the Chicago Moratorium in Daley Plaza in front of fifty thousand people.

We were fortunate to get signed by Columbia/Epic Records, which gave us access to the national stage after the release of our first album. It was shortly after that when Irving moved to L.A. to be closer to the music industry heavyweights.

I’ll never forget a phone call I received from Irving a week after he started working with a mid-sized agency. He told me that the business was being run by idiots, and that he was going to take the town over. Today, he is arguably the most powerful individual in the music world.

It wasn’t long until REO would join Irving in L.A. We discovered very quickly that we were very small fish in a very big pond. Because of Irving, we were lucky to go on tour with a number of big acts, including Joe Walsh and Barnstorm, the Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith (old friends on the East Coast), Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles.

One very interesting night we had was attending a concert at the Assembly Hall featuring the Marshall Tucker Band with The Eagles as the opening act. At the time, The Eagles were not headlining, having only their first two albums released at that point. They were touring in support of the On the Border album.

Lonnie and the Lugnutz were playing the Red Lion that night and we had planned to play a set, so we talked The Eagles into playing a set at the Red Lion Inn. Their reception at the Assembly Hall was lukewarm at best. Nobody could believe that they were going to play [at the Red Lion Inn], but they absolutely killed it, as did we. That was the night The Eagles played the Red Lion Inn.

The thing that always amazed our whole band was how competitive and how good the music was in Champaign. Every time we came back it was the same: very talented, original people. I have been all over the country, and perhaps the only music scenes that were on a higher level were, of course, Nashville and Austin.

I have to say that Champaign has always produced incredible musicians and continues to do so with — although in a different genre than we were familiar with — artists like Allison Krauss and Union Station. I haven’t been back to Champaign in twenty-five years, so I can’t speak to what’s going on now. But I can say that, in my opinion, the late ’60s and the ’70s were the [city’s] halcyon days for music, and it is my sincere hope that somehow there are still musicians carrying the torch.


Photo by Pixabay


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