Landmarks: Library works to showcase Oak Lawn’s music legacy – Chicago Tribune

In Memphis, it’s possible to stand in the footprints of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, whose impromptu get-together at Sun Studio later was dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet.”

Appointments for tours of that historic studio in Tennessee are offered daily and include the space where the famous musicians were photographed around a piano, set up to look just as it did then. It’s a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon for anyone who’s a fan of music and of history.

Closer to Chicago, appointments are available that enable visits to another historic studio building where famous musicians cut bestselling albums. But it’s a good idea to first check if it’s in network with your health insurance.

Now a physical therapy office, the former Pumpkin Studios in Oak Lawn was where the rock band Styx recorded hit albums such as “Paradise Theater” and “Kilroy Was Here.”

Studio owner Gary Loizzo achieved initial fame in the 1960s with the hit song “Bend Me, Shake Me” with his band American Breed. He packed up his recording equipment in 1991 and moved the studio to his home in Orland Park. Loizzo died in 2016, but his work during Pumpkin’s 15-year run in Oak Lawn remains a source of civic pride.

The Pumpkin Studios building may have been repurposed, but it still has the same floor plan, “so people can have their physical therapy appointments in what used to be the recording rooms,” said Kaye Jansen, the Oak Lawn Public Library’s archivist and local history librarian.

Around that same time and in the same genre, Oak Lawn native Kevin Cronin was scoring chart toppers with the band REO Speedwagon. But that hasn’t stoped him from popping in occasionally at the library.

Jansen said colleagues who have worked at the library for years indicated Cronin’s parents were regular patrons, and sometimes Cronin himself would stop in to pick up items for his father.

“One of my co-workers told me this rock star came in, but he was just picking up books on hold,” Jansen said.

It’s those sort of associations Jansen said they want to highlight with an exhibit about Oak Lawn’s musical legacy.

Last month, Nick Malone, the library’s content coordinator, started a public search to uncover more of the village’s musical past.

“We’re beginning work on an ambitious new exhibit for our Local History wing,” he wrote. Called Music Legends of Oak Lawn and set to open next spring, “this exhibit will feature firsthand stories, interactive live and studio recordings, memorabilia and more from the unsung musical history of our neighborhood.”

While radio rock from the 1980s might constitute the village’s most notable connections, a former longtime institution likely gave people a more direct link to the art.

A photo of musicians from the Oak Lawn Jazz Festival in 1979 is among the archival material planners will draw from as they assemble an Oak Lawn Pubilc Library exhibit celebrating Oak Lawn's musical heritage.

For more than 20 years, jazz bands from throughout Illinois traveled to Oak Lawn Community High School for an annual jazz festival. The competitive event drew bands from Chicago suburbs such as Elk Grove Village, Itasca and Buffalo Grove, and from as far away as Rockford, Champaign and Decatur.

“It blossomed into something jazz bands from far and wide would want to come to,” he said. “They came to compete and to have their performances recorded and pressed to vinyl.”

Festival organizers hired mobile studios to come record the performances, creating audio snapshots of some of the best student musicians in the state, as judged by college professors and even, in 1972, the publisher and managing editor of Down Beat magazine.

Malone has been scouring the internet on sites such as searching out recordings from the festival.

“Getting our hands on these and digitizing them was pretty important,” he said. “People have been very eager to share things from their collections. We’ve found people have these records in their collections and have never lived in Oak Lawn. They don’t even know where Oak Lawn is. We reached out to them, and it turns out they picked them up at used record shops and the moved their way across the country over the years.

“I just got off a call with a guy who had a record from the 1979 performance — the 20th anniversary of the show. He got it at a garage sale in Wyoming and still has it there. It’s made it a pretty long way from Oak Lawn for sure.”

The library already has some of the tracks digitized and available online, but once the exhibit goes live next year, Jansen and Malone hope to include an in-person audio element, a listening station where visitors can experience that direct link to music created over the decades in Oak Lawn or by Oak Lawn residents.

Besides the music itself, the planners have connected with a photographer who worked with Styx and REO Speedwagon and plan to incorporate his images of the bands.

They’ve also put out a call for artifacts community members are willing to lend or donate to the library’s archives. Jansen would love to include a guitar from Rossi Music Center in Oak Lawn, where Cronin long ago gave guitar lessons.

“It would be a dream come true if Kevin Cronin loaned us his childhood guitar, if he held on to something like that,” Jansen said.

They also are hoping to acquire sheet music used over the years at the jazz festival, adding a direct visual analog to the sounds captured at the events.

“We’re looking for more artifacts to fill in the gaps in the story,” Jansen said. “We need more documentation of this aspect of Oak Lawn history.”

Musicians gather for a photo at the 1984 edition of the Oak Lawn Jazz Festival. Recordings of the festival from the 1970s will be part of an exhibit showcasing Oak Lawn's musical legacy.

So they put out the call early. The exhibit is planned to open by the end of May in hope of collecting items as well as stories about the village’s musical legacy.

“We want to hear from people,” Malone said. “Any footage or photos, firsthand accounts bring stuff so much more to life than if it’s just purely historical fact.”

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They hope also to explore some of the lesser known facets of Oak Lawn’s musical history, a heritage that includes connections to a diverse array of artists including Liza Minnelli, Kanye West and members of the metal band Disturbed. Gospel artists recorded at Pumpkin Studios along with pop singers.

There also could be opportunities to incorporate performances from current Oak Lawn musicians or ensembles from the village’s schools.

“It will be a lot of fun,” Jansen said. “There’s a lot of potential for with can be done with this exhibit.”

For Malone, it’s also a way to showcase Oak Lawn, a place sometimes overshadowed by its proximity to Chicago and confused by outsiders with similarly named towns such as Oak Forest or Oak Park.

“A big part of why this is such an exciting project for us is making sure Oak Lawn is recognized for the artistic contributions the town has made,” he said. “It doesn’t take long for cultural memories to be erased.

“Oak Lawn isn’t always remembered as an artistic hot spot. We’re trying to change that.”

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at

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