BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Lou Whitney, a Missouri musician and studio owner who was an architect of Midwest rock ‘n’ roll since the 1980s, died Tuesday of kidney cancer. He was 72. Whitney played bass in the Skeletons and the Morells, two beloved garage bands, but he is also remembered as an influential spirit for many of the bands he recorded, mentored, and produced.
“He was the elder statesman of rock and roll in the Midwest. We had loads of respect for him,” says Mark Ortmann, drummer for the Bottle Rockets. “He had been there or done that before any of us had gotten there.”
“Lou was a killer, near-side-of-the-beat bassist, and, after the death of Jack Clement, was the last of the deeply funny recording engineer/philosophers of the Old World,” says Robbie Fulks.
Whitney operated The Studio in Springfield, Mo. for more than two decades. There, he produced, engineered, or performed on dozens of recordings by artists including the Bottle Rockets, Fulks, Wilco, Dave Alvin, the Del-Lords, Jonathan Richman, Eric Ambel, Jay Farrar, Syd Straw, Blue Mountain, Rex Hobart, Dallas Wayne, Exene Cervenka, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, among many others.
Following the model of Booker T and the MG’s at Stax in Memphis and The Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles, Whitney and the Skeletons often served as the backup band for many of the artists that passed through the doors. There was good reason: The band possessed a deep encyclopedic knowledge of musical styles and could indulge songs from any period, from major hit to minor obscurity.
“We started the band to play what we wanted to play. If one guy loved a song and brought it in, we all worked it up,” says Bobby Lloyd Hicks, the Skeletons drummer who now plays with NRBQ. “I went to the Spike Jones school of drumming, and that’s kind of the way we all looked at it. It just has to be fun.”
When his bands performed in Chicago, FitzGerald’s in Berwyn was home. “Whatever muscles are in your body that make you feel excited to see somebody because they make you happy and you enjoy talking with them, that was the way it was with Lou. He was just a great character — tall, bald, funny, and a really quick wit,” says owner Bill FitzGerald.
In 2004, the Skeletons were hired to back up rock pioneer Bo Diddley at FitzGerald’s, an evening packed with celebrities like John Cusack, with blues queen Koko Taylor sitting on the side of the stage. Diddley arrived only a few hours before the show and ran through a few songs with the band in a quick rehearsal. Proving their musical dexterity, the band ended up receiving as much raves as the legend himself. “I thought it would be perfect and it was,” says FitzGerald. “They just killed it.”
Younger musicians considered him a hero and he took pride in being able to talk with authority about current artists as well as those he grew up with decades earlier. “He was 72 and still knew every new pop band there was. He could tell you everything about Lady Gaga and everything about country music — he just knew it all,” says Eric Schuchmann, the Studio’s audio engineer.
Fulks says that, despite Whitney being older than those he recorded, he was “younger in spirit [which] gave him a sort of indomitability.”
“He walked and worked and thought like a man in his twenties, almost to the end … Nothing seemed to faze him, sickness or misfortune or possibly death itself,” he says.
Whitney mentored young bands and helped usher their careers along. Eric “Roscoe” Ambel of the Del-Lords remembers meeting Whitney in New York City in 1983. An invitation to Springfield led to demo sessions there, and then a record deal, and then Whitney back up to New York recording the band at A&R Recording Studios, the historic room where Bob Dylan recorded his earliest music.
“Last week I was able to get down to Springfield to see him and I thanked him for teaching me,” Ambel says. “Lou said, ‘Roscoe, what I teach ya?’ My answer to that was ‘everything’.”
Whitney survived bladder cancer ten years earlier and in February 2013 was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He continued to perform until last fall, although he continued to record bands until last month. Late last month he fell and broke his hip. After a brief hospital stay, he was transferred to hospice care in his home, where he died Tuesday morning.
In an interview with Tape Op magazine last year, Whitney explained why he never left Springfield and committed his life to local talent.
“Local bands are great. I’ve had a couple chances to move, as well as an offer to go up to New York and re-settle in the Brooklyn area with some people who did pretty well. But I passed and I stayed here. Most of the people who come in here realize that it’s very likely that this is the most important musical event they’ve ever done in their life. They’re going to record. If you take that cavalierly, you’re not doing anybody any justice. You can be confident in your skills, but my goal is to send everybody down the road, taking their first recording experience as the benchmark for the rest of the work they do,” he said.
“They’ll remember this bald-headed guy in Springfield.”
Whitney did not want a funeral or a memorial service. He directed to have his body donated to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He is survived by his wife Kay and an extended family, including seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The Skeletons and “Trans Am”:
The Morells and “Red”:
The Skeletons and “Waiting for My Gin to Hit Me”: