Jan Terri, True Believer

Sun-Times photo by John Kim

During the 1990s Chicago country-pop vocalist Jan Terri was working on the side as a limousine driver.

She was featured in the Feb. 12, 1994 issue of the wonderfully named “The Pick-Up Times” American Limousine newsletter with a blurb that begins, “Chauffer Number 240 released her second album ‘High Risk’.”

Terri is sitting in the lounge of her Harwood Heights high rise near O’Hare International Airport.

She looks at the clip, shakes her head and says, “Yeah, but they didn’t know me as my real name…..”

…….Terri, 53, has been discovered by a new and younger set of music fans who have embraced her strange but pure 1990s videos on YouTube. She will sing in front of the all-female punk band Summer Addition at 10:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at Reggie’s, 2105 S. State St. in Chicago. Her performance will be taped for the upcoming documentary “Jan Terri–Badder Than Ever” that director Darren Hacker hopes to have ready for SXSW 2013.

Terri—born as Janice Spagnolia–spent many years driving celebrities to the Oprah Winfrey show and wanna-be celebrities to the Jerry Springer show in Chicago.

But Terri’s gift is the completely uadulterated quality of her music. There is no veneer, just a vibrant muse that reflects her roots in the working class Franklin Park neighborhood outside of Chicago.

Can something so pure actually attain celebrity?

“I’m not geared for mainstream,” she says. “I’m an underground person. I don’t feel myself as a cult artist. And I don’t feel myself as an international star. I’m just me. But sure I’d like to get on David Letterman.”

And sure, Terri has compiled her on wacky Top Ten list on “Why You Want To Be an Entertainer”:

No. 3….”You get to have room service with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

No. 2….”You get to ride in the back of the limo instead of the front.”

When Jan Terri met Marilyn Manson (backstory in Aug. 10 Sun-Times)

One time in the early 1990s Terri lost rhythm and blues singer Ray Charles at O’Hare International Airport. “I had to gate meet him and he was with a friend because he is blind,” Terri says. “This was before 9/11 and you could gate meet people. It was early in the morning during the week. I was walking them to the underground parking lot to get my car and they asked if I could bring the car to them. I said, ‘Yes, don’t go away’.”

Of course, Charles hit the road—Jack.

Terri continues, “By the time I came back they were gone. We spent almost an our looking for them, up and down the concourses. I know it’s kind of funny losing Ray Charles. I’m talking to my dispatcher and we found out later they jumped into a taxi cab. My dispatcher was mad at me and told me I couldn’t do celebrities anymore. But I had friends at Polygram Records and they told me that they’d make sure I’d get their celebrities when they came in. Lots of them stayed at the Le Meridien. I picked up the lady from ‘Blossom,’ (Mayim Bialik of the televison series) for Oprah. It was early in the morning. But these are just people.”

Terri was a limo driver between 1988 and 2002.

The “High Risk” record features her self-penned “Chauffer Blues,” a call and response number set in a “Loco-Motion” tempo. Terri sings about the long limo lines at O’Hare and how “Midway is worse than than the desert/there’s no casinos.”

But “Losin’ You is her most popular song and the current YouTube sensation.

Terri has no details on how she wrote the “Losin’ You” track from her “Baby Blues” CD that also includes “Missing You.”

“I don’t know, I probably lost someone,” she says.

Hacker says, “She’s like Dylan that way. She didn’t know it until later.”

Terri thought “Fax My Love” would be the breakout hit from “Baby Blues.” “Actually I wrote ‘Fax My Love’ in the hospital,” she says. “I thought that would be the biggest seller but everybody likes ‘Losin’ You.’ I had surgery in ’92 and wrote that in the Elmhurst hospital. I do like hooks. Like the Beatles, ‘Love, Love me Do,’ Another great person for writing would be Barry Manilow, for his music.”

Well, my favorite Terri deep track is “My Little Brother” from “High Risk,” which combines the traditional “Frere Jacques” with surf guitar and Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise.” Terri even hired French coach Ginny Antonson (credited on the record) to make sure she nailed the French parts.

Terri’s eclectic roots date back to her early years in Melrose Park when she was a member of a “PTA Kitchen Band.”

“I was the youngest member, about 18,” she says. “My Mom was heavily into the PTA at Scott School in Melrose Park. My Mom’s instrument was the empty roll of a paper towel, she attached it to a funnel and the other end she taped a kazoo, then wrapped it aluminum foil. You put the caps from Coke bottles on top (as keys) and played it. Mind you it’s a kitchen band, so they have to have things from the kitchen. Another lady played the scrub board. One lady played a bass made out of a washbucket and pole with a string. When she died I replaced her as the drummer to keep the beat. Everybody in the band had kazoos we would wear aorund out necks. We would do old time songs like ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans’ and (she sings) ‘Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.”

Jan Terri, bottom row second from left (Courtesy of Jan Terri)

The PTA Kitchen Band appeared at church functions and American Legion halls in the Melrose Park-Franklin Park corridor. “We’d get paid and put all the money in a kitty,” she says “Sometimes we’d take the money and go to dinner and the floor show at Shanghi Lil’s on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.”

Terri is only 5’0″ but she has never shied away from big responsibilities.

She is currently on leave from her gig as an office building security officer, after suffering a tear in the rotary cuff of her left shoulder.

But Jan Terri is still pitching the hits.

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