Bill FitzGerald, whose namesake nightclub in west suburban Berwyn has been synonymous with eclectic live music for nearly 40 years, is having a hard time figuring out how to let it go.
He and his wife, Kate, have finally made a grueling decision, one they have talked about for a few years but never really got around to making: selling the club he turned into a musical destination.
Learning how to leave is a lot harder, he’s found, than the decision to buy it.
FitzGerald was a house painter when he made the bloody Mary-fueled decision on New Year’s Eve 1979 to purchase it.
“I had no experience running a club,” he recalled. “My family had no experience.”
With help from his brother and father, they stripped the wood on the bar, cleared out the junk, ran new electrical and plumbing, and re-opened the doors on Dec. 18, 1980. They started with jazz, later adding blues and country, zydeco and more.
Shows at FitzGerald’s Nightclub have become the stuff of legend, including two shows played by Stevie Ray Vaughan before many knew who he was.
“It was in May 1981, there were probably 50 or 60 people here — a great show,” FitzGerald said with a laugh. “But to hear it told now, it’s hundred and hundreds.”
The club would expand in the early 2000s after the purchase of buildings on both sides, effectively turning the venue into a musical complex complete with a restaurant, music venue and a tavern called the Side Bar that hosted piano players and jazz acts in a cocktail setting.
But the main venue was always more of a roadhouse.
“I used to go to FitzGerald’s when it was still the Deer Lodge, and I never saw more than four old coots in there,” recalled Val Camilletti, the equally legendary owner of Val’s Halla Records, 239 Harrison St. in Oak Park. “The transformation was just magical. There wan’t a bad spot to see a show, it was so intimate.”
Camilletti said it’s heartbreaking to think of FitzGerald’s without Bill at the helm, but she also understands.
“They’ve put every drop of sweat and blood into that place, and that’s not any easy thing to do,” Camilletti said. “I’m just grateful. I’ve seen some of the best shows I’ve seen in 60 years of seeing shows there.”
Camilletti recalled watching Mavis Staples and Otis Clay share the small stage for a 20-minute set “just growling at each other so that walls seemed to move,” and Bo Diddley playing nearly a full set to a room of six people as he warmed up for the sound check.
Camilletti and FitzGerald would also run into each other regularly at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival each year where FitzGerald would scout for talent after arriving by boat — “a ’59 cruiser I’d put in at Lake Michigan and take down the Mississippi River,” FitzGerald said. “What a way to arrive in New Orleans.”
FitzGerald, who will turn 65 later this year, is looking to spend more time on the Mississippi. He and his wife recently bought a 10-room house on the river in Ferryville, Wisconsin. It’s another “fixer-upper,” he said with a knowing laugh.
The house will be a place to host family and friends when he and Kate aren’t living in an old bank they own in Lynxville, Wisconsin, where they sleep in the old vault “big enough for a bed and two night tables.” He even admits seeing plenty of potential in various Wisconsin venues in the area that might allow him to stay involved in the music business — possibly putting together one-off shows featuring “one or two acts that can draw a real crowd.”
FitzGerald said he’ll most miss the constant social interaction that comes from owning a club — but slowing down a bit might be all right, too.
“Either you’re in or you’re out,” he said of running the club. “I don’t like to do half of anything, and it seems like it’s time to pass the torch, so to say.”
FitzGerald seems unsure — and conflicted — about how exactly to go about the process that will lead to the handing over of the keys. Will there be a single, blowout show to send him off? A month of favorite acts coming through?
“Let’s see what happens,” he said. “The fat lady hasn’t sung a last note.”