By Robin Zimmerman
Photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
Cash Box Kings at FitzGerald’s: L to R -- Billy Flynn, Marc Edelstein, Joe Nosek, Oscar Wilson, Lee Kanehira and Kenny Smith (in back) on drums
There is a real sense of community that runs through every square foot of FitzGerald’s nightclub in Berwyn. It’s been that way since Bill FitzGerald opened it in 1980 and has continued with Will Duncan who purchased the place in 2020 and made a post-pandemic pivot to hosting more patio shows. He’s spruced the space up nicely with renovations that include a walkway paved with engraved bricks purchased by a long list of FitzGerald’s loyalists and musical artists who have performed there.
Yes, there is a definite sense of kinship between the FitzGerald’s faithful and this is especially true in the summer months when the patio beckons with the promise of spending a picture-perfect evening taking it all in with family and friends. This vibe kicks into overdrive when it comes to the ever-popular “Bluesday Tuesday”.
Hosted by WDCB disc jockey, Tom Marker, on the first Tuesday of each month, “Bluesday Tuesday” features the best and brightest from Chicago’s tight-knit blues community. In the summer, it’s held outside. So, on that star-kissed, full-moon night of August 1st the FitzGerald’s patio was the place to be.
Although “Bluesday Tuesday” has been going strong for eight years, August 1st was the first time that there was a sign displayed advertising the event and the fact that it is hosted by Tom Marker. Marker’s been a tireless booster of the blues for years, so attendees were happy to see him getting his due via the powers-that-be at WDCB. The first hour of the “Bluesday Tuesday” shows are broadcast live on the station, so that listeners can enjoy the show at home.
There was quite a buzz around the featured band, too. The Cash Box Kings are known for their devotion to classic Chicago blues and always entertaining live shows. Plus, with the recent release of Oscar’s Motel, fans were eager to see the band perform songs from the well-received disc, their 11th release and the third on the Alligator record label.
Marker introduced the Cash Box Kings as a “supergroup”, and he wasn’t lying. There’s “Mr. 43rd Street” Oscar Wilson who has an encyclopedic memory of music and vocal stylings that he learned from the best in the blues world. He’s joined by the Cash Box Kings’ founder, Joe Nosek, who plays a mean harp and turns a nice phrase. Other “Kings” include veteran guitar whiz Billy Flynn, ace drummer and Grammy winner Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, and keyboard virtuoso Lee Kanehira, who hails from Tokyo. Stand-up bass player Marc Edelstein was also on board to fill in for CBK’s John W Lauler.
Like clockwork, the Cash Box Kings came on at 7pm and ripped into “She Dropped the Axe on Me” and “Hot Little Mess” from Oscar’s Motel. Nosek also gave a shout out to being back “in the land of my people.” He noted that his dad, Roy, grew up in Berwyn and his grandmother was frequently at FitzGerald’s to see him play and “helped shut the place down” until she passed away a few years back at the age of 99.
Nosek also thanked Marker for turning him on to Howlin’ Wolf when Nosek was 15 and attending nearby Fenwick High School. Nosek later said that playing FitzGerald’s is always “a real thrill” since he was at the club’s American Music Festival every year and saw many legendary performers there.
Like his late grandmother, Nosek seems to have a knack for being where the action is. He attended college at the University of Wisconsin when Madison was a popular stop for blues legends like Lonnie Brooks, Junior Wells and James Cotton. Nosek took a Music Theory class with Jim Schwall, of Siegel-Schwall fame. While he respects Schwall, he wasn’t a fan of the overly structured class, but it helped clear the way for his blues path that led to founding the Cash Box Kings in 2001.
One of the noteworthy stops on the Cash Box Kings’ musical journey happened when the band was busking near Grant Park during the Chicago Blues Festival. This was shortly after the release of their first self-produced CD. Nosek said that they attracted a large group of people, but the jam session was cut short by Chicago’s police force. Nosek ended up having to pay up for playing without a permit.
On the plus side, Nosek sold some CDs including one to fellow harp player and blues promoter extraordinaire Bob Corritore as well as an influential European music critic who went on to sing the CD’s praises. Nosek said Corritore “has been a champion of the band and a real fan of ours since then.” He added that, “there was something fateful that the two people who saw us had some pull in the business so whatever I paid for the ticket was well worth it!”
Wilson came on board with the band in 2007 and the disparate pair of Nosek/Wilson quickly developed an easy rapport that began with their allegiance as Chicago White Sox fans. But Nosek said that the pair’s bond has gained strength over the years starting with Wilson serving as a surrogate Godfather for Nosek’s oldest son.
So, when Nosek brought on “Big O” for the FitzGerald’s show, it was easy to see the camaraderie between Nosek, Wilson and other members of this super-solid band of Kings and “Queen Lee” Kanehira who performed a rollicking boogie with stellar backing from Billy Flynn on guitar and Smith on skins. Edelstein also turned in some fine bass lines during his time on stage.
Nosek credits drummer Smith with bringing Billy Flynn on board and now Nosek says that the Wisconsin-based guitar ace is “like a family member” to him. Smith urged Nosek to take on Kanehira saying she was someone the band should be playing with. He also recommended Edelstein for fill-in gigs. Nosek likened Smith to “talent scout and quality control for us.”
After the talented Kanehira’s turn, Nosek launched into a Little Walter tune with a shout out to his dad who had just gotten to the gig. He thanked the “old man” for introducing him to Little Walter but then joked that his dad thought “Little Walter” was a snack cake!
Following a “blues-a-billy” medley that included snippets of “Folsom Prison Blues,” “That’s All-Right Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” all sung by Nosek in his best Johnny Cash and Elvis voices, a nattily dressed Wilson checked in with a lively interpretation of “Oscar’s Motel” followed by “Down on the South Side.”
Wilson went on to call out vocalist Deitra Farr who appears on Oscar’s Motel as Wilson’s adversary on “I Can’t Stand You.” Farr was in the audience to celebrate her birthday and added that she also was there to “aggravate Oscar.”
In a follow-up phone interview, Nosek said that “I Can’t Stand You” came about from the “faux feud” that Farr and Wilson have going. He added that, “people really got into it, and I thought that there’s a song here.” After developing the tune structure and refrain, Nosek told the frenemies that “you two have to come up with your own lines.” He said that after contacting Farr through Zoom “the pair went at it, and it was hilarious.”
Zoom technology played a huge role in the making of Oscar’s Motel as Nosek and Wilson collaborated on new material during the pandemic. Nosek said that “it was a very new thing for us, but we were fortunate that the technology existed to help us keep productive and sane” during those trying times. And while the duo has “never shied away from tackling challenging songwriting topics or addressing social issues,” they made the decision to keep it light and make Oscar’s Motel “a celebration of music and life that would make people forget their worries.”
This remark certainly rang true during the Cash Box Kings FitzGerald’s run. They were all just flat-out having fun and sweeping everyone right along with them. When he wasn’t stepping down to work the crowd, Wilson demonstrated his versatility and vocal chops on everything from “The Thrill is Gone” to a fine version of Jim Croce’s “Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” Meanwhile, Nosek was showing no ill effects from his 2021 knee surgery as he hopped on tables while blowing harp.
With high points like these, the night went by much too quickly as the one downside of the outdoor patio is shorter show times to keep the peace with nearby neighbors. But the “Kings” closed out the evening in fine fashion with an excellent version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Bring it On Home.”
As everyone packed up and prepared to return to their respective residences, it was wonderful to have spent a night at our “summer home” with a splendid soundtrack provided by the Cash Box Kings on FitzGerald’s warm and welcoming patio.
About the Author: Blues enthusiast Robin Zimmerman, a.k.a. Rockin' Robin, writes a Blues Blog and is a regular contributor to Chicago Blues Guide